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Slick maneuvers

from David Ruccio

Corporate duplicity, it seems, knows no bounds.

First, ExxonMobil misled the public about climate change for years, even as its research echoed the growing scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by human activity. Then, while various states attorneys-general launched investigations of whether Exxon deceived shareholders and the public to protect its profits, the Wall Street Journal published 21 opinion pieces about current or potential Exxon investigations, all of which were critical of government entities investigating Exxon.

We now know, thanks to a study by two Harvard University researchers, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, that Exxon acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused in 83 percent of peer-reviewed papers and 80 percent of internal documents. Yet, 81 percent of editorial-style advertisements it placed in the New York Times from 1989 to 2004 expressed considerable doubt.

Their conclusion?  

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 AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable, while identifying reasonable uncertainties that most climate scientists readily acknowledged at that time. In contrast, ExxonMobil’s advertorials in the NYT overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties, promoting a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil’s own. This is characteristic of what Freudenberg et al term the Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method (SCAM)—a tactic for undermining public understanding of scientific knowledge. Likewise, the company’s peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal documents acknowledge the risks of stranded assets, whereas their advertorials do not. In light of these findings, we judge that ExxonMobil’s AGW communications were misleading. (references omitted)


And according to Media Matters (in a study of opinion pieces published between October 2015 and August 2016), the Wall Street Journal

has yet to publish a single editorial, column, or op-ed in support of investigating Exxon’s behavior, and many of its pro-Exxon opinion pieces contain blatant falsehoods about the nature and scope of the ongoing investigations being conducted by state attorneys general.

By comparison, the Washington Post published six opinion pieces about government investigations (4 in favor of Exxon, 2 against), USA Today published three (1 for, 2 against), and the New York Times published one (against)

Clearly, in the case of climate change, both ExxonMobil and the Wall Street Journal have been engaged in pretty slick maneuvers in order to protect their profits.

  1. August 29, 2017 at 5:02 pm


    Good piece. Some observations for someone who served thirteen years as a policy director for a state conservation group in NJ and wokred on many issues in DC. One, “greenwash” is not always easy to uncover; it takes patient research and documentation. Two, a public busy with trying to keep their economic heads above rising waters is at a disadvantage against such slick and often “buried” policy truths. Three, the broader agenda of the Republican Right, aligning pretty closely with Neoliberalism, is bound to hurt conservation efforts, being staunchly anti-government, anti-public spending, anti-tax, and anti-regulatory. At this point in the climate struggle, and the rate of disappearing species, and habit fragmentation (along with outright destruction as in the tropical rain forests), little green gestures don’t cut it. But a grand proposal like a carbon tax…well…

    Let’s ask then, what’s behind the current rumbling among certain large corporations, like the one in the spotlight here, certain Senators, including ostensible progressive ones, and the push now under Trump, with or without him personally, for a Carbon Tax? It’s sounds and seems very unlikely, except for a pretty cynical angle, which is what I think is going on. If there is to be a grand tax debate, as Trump and the Republicans who dominate both houses of Congress seem to want but can’t quite get to, then a carbon-tax would be part of a great cover-story, trade-off, to lower other corporate taxes and high end earner ones as well, because it would generate large amounts of revenue (and we can argue about its progressivity and who it hurts the most…). It would also split the Dems and progressives, peeling off the greens from the economic egalitarians.

    When Senator Ben Cardin in Maryland is part of this movement, I sit up and pay attention and worry about what is going on. Hope I am wrong but indeed, it is a strange time for this to surface (and it is being pushed by corporate leaders and some R’s behind the scenes.)

  2. Risk Analyst
    August 30, 2017 at 8:23 pm

    I looked at the Media Matters website listed as the reference for your article and almost fell off my chair laughing. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in global warming and you wrote a very nice piece and I do believe the numbers on the op-eds. However, while Media Matters is (rightly) outraged by the media bias about Exxon, they have another whole section, actually a whole tab devoted to, Trump’s “war on the press” in which he has shown contempt for various media, excluded them and condemned them for bias. So, in one tab Media Matters is trying to expose media bias, and in another it condemns Trump for being upset with media bias. That was a fun bit of hypocrisy.

  3. September 1, 2017 at 10:49 am

    First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Corporations have always lied to and misled the public, their customers, and regulators. That “golden” time in America, the 1950’s was awash with corporate lying and misinformation. From commercials and advertising, to charity work, to support for wars, to support for foundations opposing civil rights and voting. That continues even after the multiple times corporations were publicly shown to be lying or fostering doubt about the truth of how well products performed or the negative side effects the products created. Also, Exxon is not the only “energy” company that has mislead about climate change. Marathon and Phillips certainly did. Even BP engages in such activities to some extent.

    Second, American corporations have shown repeatedly they will take just about any action, up to and including murder to protect their bottom lines. Just one example that I know well, the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. This plant made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. I worked with regulators and journalists for almost three years on a study of that plant. Some of the conclusions are frightening. Kerr-McGee is an old-line oil company. When it opened the plant, it had no experience manufacturing plutonium fuel pellets. Consequently, its security protocols at the plant were a joke. We estimated as much as 25 pounds of plutonium was stolen from the plant, mostly by employees, security guards, and maintenance crews. No one knows the location of that plutonium even today. A fission bomb can be made with as little as 5 kg (11 pounds) of plutonium. So, someone could make two bombs with what was stolen from the plant. Also, since the plant was never really scrubbed of plutonium, we estimated the layers of paint on the walls held another 10-12 pounds of plutonium. Another bomb. Finally, Kerr-McGee had no screening process for employees. So, all kinds of interesting people worked with plutonium there. Not just one of the most powerful explosives ever, but also the single most toxic to organic life substance in existence. And then there’s the Karen Silkwood story. Did Kerr-McGee have her murdered? We concluded based on Kerr-McGee’s history it was a possibility we could not dismiss. But, she could have also died from radiation sickness, since the plant was filled with plutonium particles.

    Finally, the main issue with carbon taxes is who gets the revenue from the tax. It could go to the middle-class and workers who pay much of the tax. That would turn the carbon tax into a revenue redistribution tax, since wealthier tax payers would not have any of what they pay returned to them. It could be placed into the general revenue of either the federal or state governments. If the former, then how it’s used would be based on the makeup of Congress. So, with the current Congress how would it be used? Tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans? For infrastructure? Bump up the defense budget? If the latter, what would state governments do with the revenue? Expand renewable energy, energy efficiency, or, tax cuts for the wealthy?

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