Sometimes it's best not to dare the public to do the research, especially if you're trying to persuade them of something that isn't true.
Almost two years ago, Inside Climate News published a significant expose that confirmed Exxon's own scientists had agreed that human carbon emissions contributed to global warming as early as July 1977.
But as the company's scientists grew steadily more convinced of that fact over more than three decades, Exxon's ads to the public increasingly cast doubt on the same science.
That revelation, also covered by the Los Angeles Times, focused huge public attention on the discrepancy between Exxon's internal understanding of climate science and its efforts to convince the public that scientists remained unsure.
The company now faces lawsuits from a variety of sources, including employees and shareholders over those 40 years of discrepancies.
Several of the suits allege that the company's deceptive public statements illegally affected the value of its shares by understating the financial risk to the company if policies to reduce carbon emissions required fossil-fuel reserves to be left in the ground.
Responding to the continuing controversy, Exxon has claimed reporters had "cherry-picked statements" from the company's ads.
It suggested that instead of trusting published reports (fake news, anyone?), members of the public should “read all of these documents and make up your own mind.”
Two Harvard University researchers, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, decided to do exactly that.
They compared the company's internal files and research on climate science to statements in 36 "advertorials" (paid ads that look like editorial content) published from 1989 to 2004 in The New York Times.
Each document was coded to indicate whether it suggested (a) climate change was real; (b) it was caused by human behavior; (c) it posed a serious problem for humanity; and (d) it could be solved.
Other research suggests that members of the public will support a strong response to combat climate change if they accept all four of those statements.
Then the pair had their methods and results peer-reviewed to ensure they were accurate and scientifically valid.
As the pair writes:
Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public.
While roughly 80 percent of the company's internal documents acknowledged that climate change is real, and caused by humans, after "accounting for reasonable doubt given the state of the science" when each document was created.
Its scientists published scientific reports and papers noting that climate change could be "addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, meaning that fossil-fuel reserves might one day become stranded assets."
But 81 percent of their advertorials expressed doubts about climate change in various ways, many suggesting that the science was still in debate. (One in March 2000 was titled, "Unsettled Science.")
The various lawsuits against ExxonMobil will be heard in the coming months; we suspect the research by Oreskes and Supran may be submitted as evidence.
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