The Exxon Mobil gas station in Denver
The Exxon Mobil gas station in Denver
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
CAPE TOWN - Fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil “misled the public” about the risks posed by climate change, an analysis of its public and private announcements on the subject by two Harvard University academics has concluded.

While the company’s scientists and senior executives largely accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is real and poses significant risks, it spent thousands of dollars on regular advertorials in The New York Times (NYT) and other newspapers, in which it sought to cast doubt on the science.

In some cases the firm, led by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from 2006 to 2016, even contradicted itself.

While at the company, Tillerson used an e-mail account with a fake name, “Wayne Tracker”, to discuss climate change and, since becoming a member of the Trump administration, has advised US diplomats to dodge questions about the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The researchers pointed out that, as long ago as 1979, an internal ExxonMobil document discussed the “most widely held theory” that burning fossil fuels would cause “a warming of the Earth’s surface” with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050”.

As late as 2008, the firm insisted industry guidelines on reducing emissions should not “imply a direct connection between greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and natural gas industry and the phenomenon commonly referred to as climate change”.

If it is proved that ExxonMobil deliberately misled investors about the risks posed to its business by the need to stop using fossil fuels, the company could face prosecution. Attorney generals in 17 US states and territories are looking into whether it and other fossil fuel companies breached consumer protection, investor protection or even anti-racketeering laws in relation to climate change.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, Professor Naomi Oreskes and Dr Geoffrey Supran said: “Available documents show a discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles and what it presented to the general public. The company’s peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal communications consistently tracked evolving climate science: broadly acknowledging that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable, while identifying reasonable uncertainties that most climate scientists readily acknowledged.

“In contrast, ExxonMobil’s advertorials in the NYT overwhelmingly emphasised only the uncertainties, promoting a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil’s own. In light of these findings, we judge that ExxonMobil’s AGW communications were misleading; we are not in a position to judge whether they violated any laws.”

Sow doubt

The risk of “stranded assets” - reserves of oil and gas that will have to stay in the ground if emission targets are to be met - was acknowledged in documents, but not in the advertorials, the researchers noted. The advertorials’ attempts to sow doubt in the public’s mind was characteristic of a tactic known as the Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method, or “Scam”.

The analysis found 81%of the advertorials expressed doubt that climate change was real, with only 12% accepting this was true. In contrast, 83% of papers in peer-reviewed journals and 80% of internal documents acknowledged the scientists were correct.

Astonishingly, ExxonMobil took out an advertorial in The NYT every Thursday between 1972 and 2001 at a cost of about $31 000 (R403 080) each, reaching a readership in the millions. These articles contained “several instances of explicit factual misrepresentation”, the researchers said.

The company’s scientists’ academic papers, described as “highly technical and of little interest to the general public or policymakers”, were estimated to have had a readership in the hundreds at most. “Internal documents show that by the early 1980s, ExxonMobil was sufficiently informed about climate science to identify AGW as a potential threat to its business interests,” Oreskes and Supran wrote.

“We conclude ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science - by its scientists’ academic publications - but promoted doubt in advertorials. ExxonMobil misled the public.”


A spokesperson for ExxonMobil referred us to its website, which contains the company’s position on climate change, its “climate science history” and its side of the “#ExxonKnew controversy". The risk of climate change is, according to one of the world’s leading fossil fuel producers, “clear and the risk warrants action”.

“Increasing carbon emissions are having a warming effect. There is a broad scientific and policy consensus that action must be taken to further quantify and assess the risks,” it says. On its track record in relation to the science, ExxonMobil says: “We unequivocally reject allegations that ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate research. We understand climate risks are real.”