Exxon Says a Harvard-Backed, Peer-Reviewed Study of Its Own Internal Communications About Climate Change Is “Preposterous”

The current debate is getting downright silly.

In 2015, ExxonMobil published a blog post urging people to “read the documents” regarding what the company knew and when it knew it about climate change. The post came as a response to reporting from InsideClimateNews.com that claimed that “Exxon’s own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming decades ago,” even as the company was publicly skeptical of its existence.

Exxon disputed the reports, strongly urging readers to seek out more information which, the company insisted, would prove fully exculpatory. The tone of the post is confident and dismissive, suggesting that anyone who believes that the environmentalist website didn’t take statements out of context would quickly have their eyes opened to the deception being practiced. Here’s how the post starts:

Read the documents.

Go ahead, you really should. Read the documents InsideClimate News cites that purportedly prove some conspiracy on ExxonMobil’s part to hide our climate science findings.

In case you need help finding them, the link to the documents in question is right here.

Why do we want you to read them?

Because you will see that they completely undercut the allegations made by InsideClimate News in its series about ExxonMobil[…]

The post goes on, personally calling out the reporters who worked on the series by name and insisting that anyone who read all of the documents would find that “these allegations are based on deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various ExxonMobil employees.”

A team of researchers from Harvard took them up on that challenge. If the series from InsideClimateNews was cherry-picked, the researchers—who published their findings this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters—would look at every cherry in the basket. They reviewed 187 documents regarding climate change from ExxonMobil between 1979 and 2014, and published what they found. Explaining their methodology and findings in an op-ed for the New York Times, they wrote:

In total, we analyzed 187 documents generated between 1977 and 2014. We coded each document to characterize its positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious and solvable. (Research has shown that these four factors are key predictors of public support for climate policies. Not coincidentally, they also underpin most narratives of climate skepticism and denial.) We found that, from as early as the 1970s, Exxon Mobil (and its predecessors Exxon and Mobil) not only knew about emerging climate science, but also contributed research to it. Scientific reports and articles written or cowritten by Exxon Mobil employees acknowledged that global warming was a real and serious threat. They also noted it could be addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, meaning that fossil fuel reserves might one day become stranded assets.

In total, the research finds that 83% of the peer-reviewed scientific papers sponsored by Exxon in that time frame, and 80% of its internal communications, acknowledge that climate change is real and caused by humans, 81% of the advertorials the company published argued against the science.

Here’s an example, from the Times, of what those advertorials looked like circa 2001.

That was what Exxon was publishing in the New York Times in 2001. “Geological evidence indicates that climate and greenhouse gas levels experience significant natural variability for reasons having nothing to do with human activity.” This is what Exxon engineer and scientific adviser Haroon Kheshgi wrote in the peer-reviewed U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that same year: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”

The assertion that ExxonMobil published materials for the public to read that argued against its own findings isn’t a new one. Indeed, defending itself against those claims—and insisting that examples like the one in the above paragraph constitute “cherry-picking”—is what led Exxon to challenge people to “go ahead” and “read the documents.” But doing so, reading the documents, gives one an impression that the pattern is consistent over 25 years, through nearly 200 documents.

For its part, Exxon continues to insist that the company didn’t do what the research indicates that it did. In a statement released following the publication of the journal, the company said, “The study was paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against the company. It is inaccurate and preposterous. Rather than pursuing solutions to address the risk of climate change, these activists, along with trial lawyers, have acknowledged a goal of extracting money from our shareholders and attacking the company’s reputation.”

The exact ways in which the peer-reviewed research is “inaccurate and preposterous” are as yet unaddressed by Exxon. In the meantime, there are decades worth of misleading statements available for the consideration of anyone who thinks that perhaps the company should be taken at its word.