Dear EarthTalk: Did Exxon/Mobil really pay scientists and economists to write articles trying to debunk global warming?
—Rosemary R., via e-mail
A February 2007 report in the British newspaper, The Guardian, fell like a ton of bricks on efforts by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most profitable oil company, to repair its damaged environmental reputation. According to the report, the Exxon-financed American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington, D.C. “think tank,” offered scientists and economists $10,000 each, plus expenses, to write articles undercutting the dire findings of the United Nations” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the extent and impacts of human-caused global warming.
The ties between ExxonMobil, AEI and the highest levels of government go way back. AEI has received more than $1.6 million from ExxonMobil over the years, and more than 20 of its staffers have worked as consultants for the Bush administration. Former Exxon head Lee Raymond is still an AEI board member.
A month before the Guardian report, the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its own report documenting ExxonMobil’s $16 million in donations since 1998 to 43 organizations working to discredit the science of human-induced climate change. UCS joins a growing chorus of voices asking the company to turn the corner on global warming and start embracing a transition away from fossil fuels.
“ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer,” says Alden Meyer, UCS’s Director of Strategy & Policy. “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.”
In September 2006, Britain’s leading scientific academy, the Royal Society, asked the company to stop supporting groups that “misrepresented the science of climate change.” In response, ExxonMobil said that it funded groups that research “significant policy issues and promote informed discussion on issues of direct relevance to the company” but that such groups do not speak for the company.
No doubt feeling some heat, ExxonMobil issued a statement recently in response to an IPCC update: “There is increasing evidence that the Earth’s climate has warmed on average about 0.6 C in the last century. Many global ecosystems, especially the polar areas, are showing signs of warming. CO2 emissions have increased during this same time period—and emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions.” The statement also acknowledged that “the risks to society and ecosystems could prove to be significant it is prudent now to develop and implement strategies that address the risks.”
Whether the company is really ready to aggressively develop alternative energy sources—like its competitors Shell and BP—is yet to be seen. But environmental leaders share a guarded optimism that the tide is turning in their favor and that ExxonMobil will back up its words with action—eventually.