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Education By ExxonMobil: Global Warming And The Dissemination Of Misinformation

January 9, 2007

I try to avoid trendy political issues here, but this recent Boston Globe story (via AP) was, if not surprising, nevertheless appalling: “Group: ExxonMobil paid to mislead public.” Here are some excerpts:

– “ExxonMobil Corp. gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in an effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming, the Union of Concerned Scientists asserted Wednesday.”
– “The report by the advocacy group mirrors similar claims by Britain’s leading scientific academy. Last September, The Royal Society wrote the oil company asking it to halt support for groups that ‘misrepresented the science of climate change.'”
– “ExxonMobil lists on its Web site nearly $133 million in 2005 contributions globally, including $6.8 million for ‘public information and policy research’ distributed to more than 140 think tanks, universities, foundations, associations and other groups. Some of those have publicly disputed any link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.”
– “Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ strategy and policy director, said in a teleconference that ExxonMobil based its tactics on those of tobacco companies, spreading uncertainty by misrepresenting peer-reviewed scientific studies or emphasizing only selected facts. Dr. James McCarthy, a professor at Harvard University, said the company has sought to ‘create the illusion of a vigorous debate’ about global warming.”

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I wonder how long until there’s a Thank You For Smoking-like movie about ExxonMobil? Who’ll be the Aaron Eckhardt/Nick Naylor-type bete noire?

What if ExxonMobil had instead used that 16 million for real educational purposes, such as funding university researchers seeking the increased efficiency of internal combustion engines? What if they had used it for scrubber or end-pipe research?

In terms of business, what of the potential profits that could’ve been gained if that money had been used to attempt to become the ‘greenest’ oil company in history? Does idea of a ‘green oil company’ necessarily have to be an oxymoron?

Instead, ExxonMobil spent 16 million on the dissemination of misinformation. And people wonder, here in the U.S., about the pervasiveness of corporate influences in other areas of education, such as who owns textbook companies and publishing houses?

I must admit that I too doubted the science of global warming in the 1990s. Much of that doubt arose because of the public play given to contrarian studies. There’s little doubt that these studies were effective because, if I considered myself a global warming skeptic – even as an environmentalist holding a B.S. in chemistry, certainly other reasonable folks have been slow to feel the urgency of the issue.

In my defense, as a moderate – not liberal or conservative – environmentalist in the 1990s, I shared with many the sense that science will not always save us, that ‘progress’ is often an illusion. In this way I sympathize a great deal with postmodern thinking. The other edge of this sword was my aforementioned skepticism about global warming. I lacked the savvy to sense the shrillness of global warming opponents.

Not to sound melodramatic, but I hope that we’ve caught the problem in time to limit human-induced environmental change. As educators, the least we can do is disseminate the best sources of information: ExxonMobil is clearly not interested in that endeavor. – TL

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2 Comments
  1. TL: Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you. Or something like that.

    What I mean to say is this: It's clear that Oil companies (and others) have engaged in campaigns designed to influence public opinion regarding the relationship between internal combustion engines and global environmental change. But that fact alone doesn't mean that they're not at least partially right, even if it might be for the wrong reasons. One issue that I'm very interested in is the question of if global warming is even a bad thing.

    One thing that is often missed in the portrayals of global warming is that whatever change happens is a gradual alteration–not catastrophic. The polar ice cap won't melt overnight. there won't be massive flooding that submerges entire cities in a movie-like seen of destruction. Rather, like most change, what we would see is incremental alterations. What's more important to me is how we deal with the change that is inevitable whether we forsook oil altogether tomorrow, or doubled our consumption. For now, we could take simple steps, like cutting back on new construction in coastal flood plains, engaging in an energy policy that encouraged the development and use of other energy sources, etc.

    What little I know of environmental science tells me that change is inevitable, and it is part of the systems that are in operation throughout the earth. It makes sense to control what we can control, but we should not fear change–we should plan for it.

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  2. CM: Environmental change is certainly inevitable and not to be feared, but the problem with human-induced change is that no one knows how it will affect the change rate. I agree that slow change is not necessarily a catastrophic problem, but I wonder about the doubling and tripling of carbon dioxide emissions due to China and India's growing industrial capacity and car use. Some studies, likely alarmist, predict high rates of change in those places over the next 5-10 years. I do wonder – if not fear – a great deal about those numbers.

    I should've mentioned that the shrillness of 1990s Mathusian global warming advocates (is 'global warming advocate' an oxymoron) also affected my sympathy for contrarian studies. Still, I didn't need ExxonMobil adding to my problems of perception. – TL

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