ExxonMobil's counteroffensive against allegations it deceived shareholders and the general public about climate change risks has a messaging problem. Company PR flacks just can't get their story straight.
In September, when asked if the company is funding climate science denier groups, ExxonMobil senior media relations adviser Richard Keil said unequivocally no. When asked virtually the same question in early November, ExxonMobil Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Kenneth Cohen said yes -- despite the fact that, back in 2007, he said the company had stopped funding the groups. And now, yet another company spokesman qualified Cohen's response, telling the Washington Post last week that the company "rejects the premise" that it has been funding climate science denial.
Wait a minute. How could that be? ExxonMobil is funding denier groups, but it's not funding climate science denial?
"We were engaged with funding public policy groups on policy issues, not on science," Alan Jeffers, an ExxonMobil media relations manager, explained to the Post. "We made our position known on some climate policies that made us unpopular with environmental activists, and they tried to position that as us funding climate denial. And that's just not accurate."
Wow. Company lawyers may have told Jeffers to say that to distance ExxonMobil from its denier grantees, but he should know better. He surely must be aware that the dozens of think tanks and advocacy groups his company has been financing constantly disparage and distort mainstream climate science. After all, if enough people think climate science is a fraud -- or at least "far from settled" -- why bother with climate policies?
OK. Let's give Kenneth Cohen and his staff the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they haven't been paying attention to what ExxonMobil grantees have been saying about climate science. They're busy people, right? So, as a public service, here's a sampling of typical statements from some the company's denier groups to illustrate the absurdity of ExxonMobil's latest line of defense.
CEI: Carbon Pollution? "We Call it Life."
A prime example of an ExxonMobil denier group is the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which -- like a number of other fossil fuel industry-funded groups -- cut its teeth fronting for the tobacco industry in the 1990s to stave off tighter government regulation. CEI is the very same think tank that reassured Americans back in 2006 that global warming is nothing to worry about in a TV commercial praising the benefits of carbon dioxide. The spot's unforgettable tag line: "They call it pollution. We call it life."
Myron Ebell, director of CEI's Center for Energy and the Environment, is the organization's chief spokesman on climate. He is not a scientist. No one in his center is a scientist. Neither Ebell nor CEI conduct any scientific research. But that hasn't stopped Ebell from posing as a climate expert.
Between 1998 and 2005, when ExxonMobil gave CEI more than $2 million, Ebell became one of the most prominent denier talking heads, providing reporters with the "other side" of the climate science story. For example, when the Washington Post reported in January 2003 that the U.N. World Meteorological Organization determined that nine of the 10 hottest years on record had occurred since 1990, Ebell was happy to dismiss the finding out of hand. "The climate is always changing," he said. "There's always weird weather somewhere in the world. There are just way too many uncertainties to start attributing these things to greenhouse gases."
Ebell also ridicules computer modeling to try to undermine public confidence in basic climate science methodology. "Modeling is not science," what he told the Washington Post in December 2004, is his usual refrain. Eight years later, he was singing the same song. In March 2012, the New York Times asked him for his take on two peer-reviewed studies that estimated 3.7 million Americans are at risk from coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. "As a society," he said, "we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability."
In fact, contrary to Ebell's claims, climate models have proven to be quite accurate. A March 2013 peer-reviewed paper in the journal Nature Geoscience, for example, found that the models accurately predicted the rise in global temperatures over the previous 15 years to within a few hundredths of a degree.
Heritage Foundation: Climate Science is "Far From Settled"
Like many ExxonMobil grantees, the Heritage Foundation -- which received $830,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2013 -- often repeats the "far from settled" mantra.
"The science is far from settled on the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate sensitivity, the role carbon plays or doesn't, if global warming is even problematic, or how data fits into broader climate history," a June 2013 article on Heritage's website states. "... It is not denial or cowardice to question interpretation of climate data, studies and methodology. That is how the scientific method is supposed to work. So until scientists better understand how and why the climate is changing, politicians should have no business boldly regulating carbon dioxide emissions."
Heritage spokespeople have been telling reporters essentially the same thing for years. For example, Diane Katz, a senior research fellow, told the Washington Post in March 2011: "There's no strong consensus on whether carbon dioxide causes global warming or climate change."
In fact, there has been an overwhelming consensus among scientific institutions worldwide for quite some time.
AEI: Climate Scientists "Feel Justified in Lying"
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) -- which has received $3.77 million from ExxonMobil since 1998 -- has hosted some well-publicized forums on the pros and cons of a carbon tax, which ExxonMobil claims to support. Regardless, some key staff members are still spreading climate disinformation, mainly by impugning climate scientists.
For example, in a February 2010 op-ed in the Washington Examiner, AEI Resident Scholar Michael Barone said climate scientists are quickly becoming one of the most distrusted professions -- even worse than used car dealers -- and likened them to a religious cult. "People in the grip of such a religious frenzy," he wrote, "evidently feel justified in lying, concealing good evidence and plucking bad evidence from whatever flimsy source may be at hand."
AEI Fellow Jonah Goldberg, meanwhile, has suggested on more than one occasion that climate scientists are only in it for the grant money -- and are corrupted by it. During an appearance on Fox News Channel's Your World with Neil Cavuto in November 2014, for example, he denounced them as profiteers who are "financially incentivized to go one way."
ALEC: "The Debate Will Continue"
Since 1998, ExxonMobil has donated $1.73 million to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive lobby group that drafts sample corporate-friendly legislation for state lawmakers. And there is no doubt that ALEC is focused on policy. Over the years, ALEC's corporate and legislator members have collaborated on sample bills and resolutions that would, among other things, impede government oversight on hydraulic fracturing, undermine regional cap-and-trade climate pacts, and thwart implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) new standard for existing power plant carbon emissions.
To convince state lawmakers to sign off on such corporate-written climate bills, however, ALEC feeds them a steady diet of scientific disinformation via tutorials by fossil fuel industry-funded mouthpieces.
ALEC's annual conference in Dallas in the summer of 2014 was typical. One of the workshops, "How to Think and Talk about Climate and Energy Issues," was hosted by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a former ExxonMobil grantee that sponsors the denier Climate Depot website. CFACT handed out a document to lawmakers and industry lobbyists dismissing the idea that increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could be harmful. "Carbon dioxide fertilizes algae, trees and crops to provide food for humans and animals," it read. "We inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. Slightly higher CO2 levels cannot possibly supplant the numerous complex and interconnected forces that have always determined Earth's climate."
Another session featured Joe Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, another former ExxonMobil grantee. Bast's slide show flatly claimed: "There is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change" and "The [U.N.] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ... is not a credible source of science or economics." Immediately following Bast's workshop, ALEC held a meeting for legislators and fossil fuel industry lobbyists to draft a sample state resolution against the EPA's pending power plant carbon emission standard.
ALEC justifies featuring climate science deniers at its conferences by insisting that the role human activity plays in global warming is unresolved. "Climate change is a historical phenomenon," its website states, "and the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions." For ALEC, inviting deniers to address state lawmakers merely continues that debate.
Soon: Solar Activity Main Cause of Climate Change
Not only has ExxonMobil been funding denier groups to attack climate science, it also has funded at least one institution to underwrite sketchy research. Earlier this year, internal documents made public for the first time revealed that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests have been secretly funding the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to support the work of Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, an aerospace engineer.
The latest documents provide telling details that were not available before, partly because a number of Soon's contracts with the astrophysics lab dictated that his benefactors remain anonymous. It turns out that Soon received more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel companies over the last decade and failed to disclose that conflict of interest. About a third of that money came from ExxonMobil, which funded the center between 2005 and 2009.
In return, Soon's papers and congressional testimony--which he called "deliverables" in his correspondence with funders--concluded that solar activity is the main cause of global warming and carbon emissions have had little or no impact.
Credible or not, Soon's dubious findings have given members of Congress cover to dispute mainstream climate science. One of Soon's biggest fans on Capitol Hill is Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who famously insists climate change is a hoax.
ExxonMobil's "Plausible Deniability" Gambit
As referenced above, during a February 2007 interview with Greenwire, ExxonMobil VP Kenneth Cohen falsely claimed that the company had stopped funding denier groups altogether. The funding question came up because the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) had revealed a few weeks earlier that ExxonMobil had spent at least $16 million on more than 40 denier groups between 1998 and 2005.
Greenwire also asked Cohen about the recently released IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which determined that it was extremely likely that human activity -- mainly burning fossil fuels -- is responsible for global warming. Surprisingly enough, Cohen did not challenge the IPCC's conclusion. "There is no question that human activity is the source of carbon dioxide emissions," he said. "The appropriate debate isn't on whether climate is changing, but rather should be on what we should be doing about it."
Regardless, ExxonMobil continued to spend millions of dollars on groups that dispute the fact that human activity is driving climate change -- and that it poses a significant threat. From 2007 through 2014, the company paid 44 denier groups more than $10 million. Last year, the company gave $1.9 million to 15 groups, and 10 of them -- including AEI and ALEC -- were among those cited in UCS's 2007 report.
So why did Alan Jeffers make a spurious distinction between funding denier groups to take policy positions, not make judgments about science? Likely for the same reason Cohen, after admitting on PBS NewsHour in early November that ExxonMobil has been funding denier groups, quickly added: "And I will let those organizations respond for themselves" -- to dissociate the company from its grantees. ExxonMobil may have paid denier groups, their argument goes, but those groups are ultimately responsible for what they say and do.
But Jeffers is apparently trying to take that "plausible deniability" argument one step further. He's essentially claiming that ExxonMobil paid those groups to critique climate policy -- not climate science -- to refute the charge that the company has been actively engaged in a climate science disinformation campaign.
No matter how you slice it, it's still baloney.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Jayne Piepenburg contributed research for this article. Data on ExxonMobil expenditures on denier groups came from the company's publicly available financial records.