ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign since tobacco companies sought to downplay the health effects of smoking in order to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, a group of scientists said in a new report.
The Union of Concerned Scientists said last week that ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded company spent $16 million between 1998 and 2005 on a network of advocacy organizations to manufacture doubts about the science connecting global warming to air pollution.
“ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer,” Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Strategy & Policy, said in a press release. “A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years.”
The scientists said ExxonMobil in fact borrowed tactics used successfully by tobacco companies, underwriting a wide array of front organizations to publicize the work of a nearly identical group of scientists who dissent from the scientific consensus on global warming. By doing so, the report said, the company was able to create an illusion of serious disagreement in the scientific community.
The strategy is not to prove the company’s position that global warming isn’t happening, according to the report, but only to create doubt in the general public about complicated science. “Victory will be achieved when average citizens understand uncertainties in climate science,” as one memo put it, and when “recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.'”
In addition to “laundering” information about global warming, the report said, ExxonMobil may have even surpassed the tobacco industry in exerting influence over government policy.
Between 2000 and 2006, ExxonMobil gave more than $4 million to federal candidates and parties. One of the most vocal opponents to climate action in the Senate, James Inhofe, R-Okla., has received more than $847,000 from the oil and gas industry over the course of his career. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee 2004-2006 and lead author of the 2005 energy bill, has received more than $1 million.
Groups funded by ExxonMobil were credited with successfully urging the Bush administration to renege on commitments to the Kyoto Protocol made by previous administrations, with the ouster of Christine Todd Whitman as head of the EPA and with attempting to get rid of a chair of the Panel on Climate Change that a memo complained had been “hand-picked by Al Gore.”
One Bush administration staffer, Philip Cooney of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the report said, spent significant time censoring and distorting government reports to exaggerate scientific uncertainty about global warming.
The scientists urged congressional oversight, shareholder engagement, media engagement and consumer action to put the brakes on ExxonMobil’s “disinformation campaign.”
ExxonMobil said its financial support of advocacy groups doesn’t mean it controls their message.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.