Environment & the World

Friday, January 5, 2007

ExxonMobil’s approach to climate science

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil — Cathy @ 7:56 pm

Amir has previously written a couple of posts highlighting Exxon Mobil’s sky-high profits, so I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about where some of that money is going.  According to a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon has spent $16 million between 1998-2005 to basically spread confusion and disinformation on climate change, and has earned itself the honor of being the world’s most active corporation in undermining climate science.  Specifically, Exxon funds a network of organizations that publish and advocate for non-peer-reviewed scientific articles debunking climate change.  In many cases, donations from Exxon accounted for more than 10% of the annual budgets of these organizations.  Granted, the amount of money spent by Exxon on this issue pales in comparison to its $36 billion annual profits for 2005.  But on the other hand, perhaps Exxon’s huge profits make its actions against climate change all the more indefensible since the company is not exactly hurting. 

The fact that Exxon is one of the leading debunkers of climate science, is not exactly news.  However, I was rather impressed by the audacity of some of the organizations mentioned in the report.  To give an example of the quality of these organizations, many of them are still touting a petition that was allegedly signed by 17,000 scientists contradicting global warming and asking Congress to reject the Kyoto Protocol.  It turned out that the petition signatories included “numerous fictional characters” and Scientific American “estimated that approximately one percent of the petition signatories might actually have a PhD in a field related to climate science.”

The biggest lesson for environmentalists from Exxon Mobil’s work is the importance of framing.  By repeatedly emphasizing the uncertainty of the science, Exxon has forced environmentalists and scientists to keep debating with them in the media about the science.  With the debate still stuck on the science, there was no room to argue that perhaps the solutions to climate change would be desirable for non-environmental reasons, by bringing new manufacturing jobs or encouraging urban revitalization.

The UCS report also touches on how Exxon Mobil’s disinformation campaign might be brought down.  One of the most promising strategies is shareholder activism – promising because it has already started.  In 2006, institutional investors with $6.75 billion in ExxonMobil stock accused the company of “making a massive bet – with shareholder’s money – that the world’s addiction to oil will not abate for decades.”  Unlike the other major oil companies – including BP and Shell – Exxon has refused to start investing in renewable technologies and even divested in most of its alternative energy holdings under its previous CEO.  Although ExxonMobil’s recent profits suggest that their short-term strategy is good, it seems that everyone else – including shareholders and fellow oil companies – is starting to see the writing on the wall.

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