ExxonMobil shows the perils of corporate science

The writer is a science commentator

In 1962, Humble Oil ran an advertisement boasting that “each day it supplies enough energy to melt 7mn tons of glacier”. Within two decades, Humble, by then subsumed into Exxon, was becoming far more reticent about what its products could do to the environment.

Memos unearthed in 2015 suggest the conglomerate long knew of the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming — despite downplaying it. Now researchers have put hard numbers on that apparent duplicity. A new analysis shows that ExxonMobil’s internal projections broadly matched, and occasionally outperformed, the worrying forecasts made by outside academics and government scientists over the same period.

In short, the researchers conclude in the journal Science, ExxonMobil predicted global warming “correctly and skilfully”. This fresh comparison not only reveals the gulf between what the company was discovering privately and saying publicly but also offers a benchmark for what companies knew, and when, about the harm their activities cause. That conceivably strengthens the hand of those suing ExxonMobil for alleged deception.

The analysis was carried out by Geoffrey Supran, now environmental policy researcher at the University of Miami, climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf and Harvard university historian of science Naomi Oreskes. They gathered all known company material concerning anthropogenic global warming: 32 internal documents by ExxonMobil scientists and managers between 1977 and 2002, plus 72 peer-reviewed publications written or co-written by company scientists between 1982 and 2014.

From these, the researchers pulled out 16 temperature projections, calculated between 1977 and 2003 using climate models either built or run in-house (sometimes with academic collaborators), and rated their accuracy. Overall, the company’s global warming projections closely tracked subsequent observed temperature increases: between 63 and 83 per cent were judged to be accurate. The material also showed company scientists forecasting a warming of 0.2C per decade, in line with models elsewhere.

The oil company, then, may have had a far better grasp of climate science than most people assumed — including predicting, correctly, that the warming would become detectable between 1995 and 2005. ExxonMobil’s projections were judged closer to reality than even those used by Nasa scientist James Hansen, who first told Congress of global warming in 1988. Despite this, the authors say, the company chose the route of “overemphasising uncertainties, denigrating climate models . . . feigning ignorance about the discernibility of human-caused warming”.

ExxonMobil rejected the allegations about its climate research as “inaccurate and deliberately misleading”. Company spokesperson Todd Spitler told the FT: “This issue has come up several times in recent years and, in each case, our answer is the same: those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions.” Both Supran and Oreskes have testified against the company. Spitler noted that, in 2019, the company was cleared in New York of misleading shareholders over climate science.

Still, the Science paper adds quantitative heft to what is often perceived as a subjective sense of corporate wrongdoing. It also shines a light on the corporate scientist, whose research can be misrepresented to the outside world, if presented at all. Exxon scientists themselves, the documents show, seemed confident in their research: they did not regard their projections as particularly uncertain.

Can an academic ever reconcile taking the corporate shilling with doing the right thing? “The best general advice is to work for an organisation that shares your ethical values — and avoid those with a poor record in social and environmental justice,” says Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility. “The fossil fuel industry in general does not have a good record here.”

Neither, according to a 2021 Bath university study, do many other sectors, including alcohol, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food and drink and gambling, accused of employing similar questionable strategies to oil and tobacco companies. Watch out for corporate harm reframed as individual weakness, in the guise of the “problem gambler” or the “problem drinker”; beware think-tanks, front groups and pro-industry academics, relaying company-friendly messages but one step removed.

Most of all, beware corporate science that seems truer to the profit motive than to science itself.

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