ExxonMobil and the Distortion of Climate Science

Oil storage tanks sit at the Esso oil refinery, operated by Exxon Mobil Corp. in Fawley, U.K., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. A 50
Oil storage tanks sit at the Esso oil refinery, operated by Exxon Mobil Corp. in Fawley, U.K., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. A 50 percent drop in crude prices in the past year has hit earnings for oil and gas producers, forcing them to slash capital spending and scale back unprofitable operations. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, Mike Tokars of the Christian Science Monitor reported that:

New York state's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and US Rep. Ted Lieu (D) of California are both looking into whether the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company intentionally misled the public and company shareholders about its own knowledge of climate change and the inherent risks it posed to the oil industry. The outcry started in September, when InsideClimate News published an investigation asserting that, since the 1970s, ExxonMobil, has known of fossil fuels' contribution to climate change. The company's own scientists are said to have raised concerns that were contradicted by executives.

The details are slowly emerging, and sadly no one is particularly surprised that such an outrageous conspiracy might have actually taken place. What is perhaps most interesting about InsideClimate's account of Exxon's history in climate science was the company's initial role in funding the basic research of climate science and its eventual role in funding climate science denial. Exxon's corporate culture in the 1970s was future-oriented and saw science as an aid to accurate decision-making. The defensive anti-science stand came later as it became clearer that climate change threatened the fossil fuel industry's long-term future.

The role of science continues to grow in our technologically-based and complex global economy. Effective governance requires scientific literacy and effective checks and balances on the wanton disregard of the facts that science presents. When scientific paradigms shift or when new scientific discoveries are made, there may be a period of uncertainty before a scientific consensus emerges and facts become accepted. Once consensus is achieved, scientific facts become part of the reality that helps explain how the world works. If economic power is projected to distort that reality, our system of governance is placed in jeopardy. The complexity of modern life makes public voice and representation difficult enough; if scientific fact is distorted for economic or partisan gain, the public's voice is rendered meaningless. How can we render judgment and select representatives if the facts we are presented to base our vote on are distorted?

When the United States was formed we created three branches of government and a system of shared sovereignty called federalism to avoid the concentration of power in a single part of the government. It was a system designed to avoid abuse of power and ensure that governmental action required a broad consensus. We were trying to ensure that no king could impose taxation without representation. We were trying to build a representative democracy and avoid tyranny.

Today's threats to representative democracy are different, more complex, and much more difficult to counter. What protection can we fall back on when a giant, powerful, multinational corporation leads an effort to change the nature of reality itself and redefine scientific fact? The answer is of course, is the protection of other powerful institutions: research universities like the one I work for, the Congress, and, in this case, the New York State attorney general. The actions that Schneiderman is investigating began over forty years ago and the basis of his investigation is security fraud. As a publicly owned company, ExxonMobil has a responsibility to report the truth to shareholders about its operations and potential risks. A cover-up of potential risks such as climate change could well be fraud.

Here at Columbia, our climate scientists continue to work to advance our understanding of the dynamics of climate change and interact with colleagues around the world to build a consensus about what we know and what we still need to learn. In addition to research that creates new knowledge and teaching that disseminates that knowledge, we also have the obligation to speak truth to power. I worry about the power that ExxonMobil wielded in this disinformation campaign, but believe that reality has a way of manifesting itself--even if it takes decades for the truth to triumph.

We live in an information age where data, facts, theory and propaganda come at us so quickly and from so many sources that sometimes it is hard to distinguish reality from fantasy. We are desperate at times for sources of information that are worthy of our trust. That is the high ground that we need to build, seek, and protect. Peer-reviewed, global science is one of the places that we need to defend. That is why this case is so important and the deception so troubling and profound.

It also provides further evidence of government's critical role in funding science and in stimulating scientific debate and discussion. It is helpful when corporations conduct research and then provide accurate information to the public, but that is not the function of private corporations. Companies are organized to generate profit, market share and return on equity. They should not be expected to self-regulate or to invest in long-term projects with uncertain payouts. Government and mission-driven non-profits are designed for those less lucrative tasks. Corporate responsibility is a great goal, but the best way to ensure it is intelligent government regulation and effective enforcement. This is not to excuse what Exxon did to distort climate science, but the company's approach to climate science was consistent with their short-term financial interests and should not come as a surprise. Of course, they could have just shut down their research and certainly did not have to fund climate denial.

In order to prove that ExxonMobil misled its shareholders, Schneiderman will need to argue that it was fraudulent to deliberately cast doubt on the research that the company knew was quite legitimate. Publicly traded companies have a responsibility to report corporate performance and performance-related issues to shareholders. While a case such as this will be difficult to prove, if it succeeds it might have an impact on corporate disclosure of long-term risks like climate change.

Our economy and our way of life depend on complex technologies that include toxic substances which, when used without care, can damage sometimes-fragile ecosystems. We value our way of life and I see few signs of people willingly giving up their lifestyle to protect the environment. We will need to rely on human ingenuity to keep the economy growing while reducing our impact on the planet's life support systems. That will take scientific research and education, and a clear role for our institutions. The relentless ideological attack on government over the past half century has resulted in the public's expectation that nonprofits and corporations should take over governmental functions and act on the public's behalf. These other forms of organization have a critical role to play in delivering the public interest via a sophisticated public-private partnership. But such a partnership requires a strong and vibrant government.

Government represents the public and must set the rules that protect our environment and must fund and disseminate the science that helps us understand the way the world works. We've seen what happens when we rely on corporations to perform this task. We've recently seen what Volkswagen did with their knowledge of software capable of defeating air-monitoring systems. Science is not neutral, value-free, or without controversy. The role of the scientific community is to encourage debate and discussion, further inquiry, and slowly move toward a consensus. That is precisely what we've seen over the past four decades of climate research. Universities played a key role in that debate, as did international organizations and other forms of non-governmental organizations. But it was the U.S. federal government--NASA, NOAA and the NSF--that provided the funding for much of the research and model-building that was required to build that consensus. ExxonMobil and right wing ideologues have worked to destroy that consensus, but despite their determined efforts, they have failed.