Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth

The Guardian reports that Exxon learned a useful trick from the tobacco business:

Read all of these documents and make up your own mind.

That was the challenge ExxonMobil issued when investigative journalism by Inside Climate News revealed that while it was at the forefront of climate science research in the 1970s and 1980s, Exxon engaged in a campaign to misinform the public.

Harvard scientists Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes decided to take up Exxon’s challenge, and have just published their results in the journal Environmental Research Letters. They used a method known as content analysis to analyze 187 public and internal Exxon documents. The results are striking:

  • In Exxon’s peer-reviewed papers and internal communications, about 80% of the documents acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused.
  • In Exxon’s paid, editorial-style advertisements (“advertorials”) published in the New York Times, about 80% expressed doubt that climate change is real and human-caused.

Which get more read and have more influence over the voting public?

As Oreskes documented with Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt, tobacco companies and several other industries that profited from harmful products engaged in decades-long campaigns to sow doubt about the scientific evidence of their hazards. As one R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company 1969 internal memo read:

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public

The results of this new paper show that Exxon followed this same playbook. While the company’s internal communications and peer-reviewed research were clear about human-caused global warming, its public communications focused heavily on sowing doubt about those scientific conclusions.

It’s that bogus form of “skepticism” that is so useful to corporations and Trump fans. “Do we really know that Obama was not born in Kenya? Can we really be sure?

In its defense, Exxon spokespeople have asserted that the company didn’t suppress or try to hide its climate science research. While that’s generally true, it’s also true that Exxon’s public statements painted a very different picture about our understanding of human-caused global warming than the company’s scientific research and internal communications. The vast majority of those paid statements were aimed at manufacturing doubt, and often included the same misleading myths and charts that can be found on any run-of-the-mill climate denial blog.

Exxon’s scientists published some valuable climate research. Company officials discussed those findings internally. But in its public communications, Exxon officials decided to follow the tobacco industry playbook – claim that the science remains unsettled in order to undermine regulations and prevent a decline in public consumption of their dangerous products.

The tobacco industry was eventually found guilty of racketeering. Considering the findings of this new study, ExxonMobil may face a similar fate.

Who was the CEO of Exxon until a few months ago? Oh yes, the current US Secretary of State. I don’t see anything worrying or distasteful about that, do you?

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