The Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, Calif. In a 1997 ad the company said, “We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.” Credit Reed Saxon/Associated Press
Scrutiny is mounting on the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company. On multiple legal fronts the question is being asked: Did Exxon Mobil’s communications about climate change break the law?
That’s what some of Exxon Mobil’s current and former employees think. In February, they filed a lawsuit arguing that the company deceived them by making false and misleading statements about the financial risks of climate change, which they argue affected the value of shares they bought as part of a company-sponsored savings plan. Other Exxon Mobil shareholders are bringing similar charges against the company in a separate class-action securities fraud case.
Exxon misled the public about climate change, Harvard study shows
Cambridge, MA — In the first comprehensive, academically peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40 year history of climate change communications, researchers at Harvard University have concluded that the company has misled the public about climate change.
A review of 187 public and internal Exxon documents found that, accounting for reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers authored by Exxon scientists and 80% of the company’s internal communications acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused. In contrast, only 12% of Exxon’s advertorials directed at the public do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt.
“On the question of whether ExxonMobil misled non-scientific audiences about climate science, our analysis supports the conclusion that it did,” says the academic study published today by Dr. Geoffrey Supran and Dr. Naomi Oreskes in the journal Environmental Research Letters. [Link to
paper: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa815f or bit.ly/ExxonPaper. Paper published
online at this
address at 02:00 AM ET August 23, 2017].
These findings come as the Attorneys General of New York and Massachusetts and the Securities and Exchange Commission continue to investigate the oil and gas company for potentially misleading investors and the public about the risks of climate change. Exxon employees and shareholders have already filed lawsuits against the company on these grounds.
The year-long study is an expansive, quantitative, independent corroboration of the findings of investigative journalists, who ExxonMobil have accused of using “deliberately cherry-picked statements.” This latest work goes further, showing both that ExxonMobil knew about the basic realities of climate change decades ago, and that the company simultaneously communicated positions that were at odds with this knowledge to the general public.
The authors explain that their research was prompted by ExxonMobil’s challenge to the public: “Read all of these documents and make up your own mind.”
“This paper takes up that challenge,” the Harvard authors write.
This paper assesses whether ExxonMobil Corporation has in the past misled the general public about climate change. We present an empirical document-by-document textual content analysis and comparison of 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and paid, editorial-style advertisements (‘advertorials’) in The New York Times.
We examine whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications—specifically, we compare their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt. This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents.
For example, accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.
Our content analysis also examines ExxonMobil’s discussion of the risks of stranded fossil fuel assets. We find the topic discussed and sometimes quantified in 24 documents of various types, but absent from advertorials. Finally, based on the available documents, we outline ExxonMobil’s strategic approach to climate change research and communication, which helps to contextualize our findings.
Researchers have been attempting to artificially replicate photosynthesis for many years.
Solar panel bugs
In nature, the green pigment chlorophyll is key to this process, helping plants to convert carbon dioxide and water, using sunlight, into oxygen and glucose.
But despite the fact that it works, scientists say the process is relatively inefficient. This has also been a big problem with most of the artificial systems developed to date.
This new approach seeks to improve that efficiency by essentially aiming to equip bacteria with solar panels.
After combing through old microbiology literature, researchers realised that some bugs have a natural defence to cadmium, mercury or lead that lets them turn the heavy metal into a sulphide which the bacteria express as a tiny, crystal semiconductor on their surfaces.
Brent Deppe is taking me on a tour of the farm supply business, called Key Cooperative, that he helps to manage in Grinnell, Iowa. We step though the back door of one warehouse, and our view of the sky is blocked by a gigantic round storage tank, painted white.
“This is the liquid nitrogen tank,” Deppe explains. “It’s a million-and-a-half gallon tank.”
Nitrogen is the essential ingredient for growing corn and most other crops. Farmers around here spread it on their fields by the truckload.
“How much nitrogen goes out of here in a year?” I ask.
Deppe pauses, reluctant to share trade secrets. “Not enough,” he eventually says with a smile. “Because I’m in sales.”
For the environment, though, the answer is: Way too much.
The problems with nitrogen fertilizer start at its creation, which involves burning lots of fossil fuels. Then, when farmers spread it on their fields, it tends not to stay where it belongs. Rainfall washes some of it into streams and lakes, and bacteria in the soil feed on what’s left, releasing a powerful greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide.
There have been lots of attempts to control renegade nitrogen. Most have focused on threats to water and wildlife. Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, for instance, have spent billions of dollars keeping nitrogen (and other forms of fertilizer runoff) out of the Chesapeake Bay.
Reducing nitrogen’s contribution to global warming, though, is even more difficult. Philip Robertson, a researcher at Michigan State University who’s studied those greenhouse emissions, says that “ultimately, the best predictor of the amount of nitrous oxide emitted to the atmosphere is the rate at which we apply nitrogen.” Essentially, the only proven way to cut heat-trapping emissions from nitrogen fertilizer is to use less of it. Most farmers haven’t been willing to do this, because it could cut into their profits.
Kelp plants grow on a 30-foot-long, white PVC pole suspended in the water. If this is successful, instead of just one row, there would be a whole platform, hundreds of meters across and hundreds of meters deep, full of kelp plants.
Courtesy of Maurice Roper/Wrigley Institute
The push for renewable energy in the U.S. often focuses on well-established sources of electricity: solar, wind and hydropower. Off the coast of California, a team of researchers is working on what they hope will become an energy source of the future — macroalgae, otherwise known as kelp.
Diane Kim is the associate director of special projects and the director of undergraduate programs at The Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. She is one of the researchers who runs the kelp elevator project.
The Pacific Coast is known for its vast kelp forests. It’s one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, and farming it requires no fertilizer, fresh water, pesticides, or arable land. “It can grow 2 to 3 feet per day,” says Diane Kim, one of the scientists running the kelp research project at the University of Southern California.
Kelp is transformed into biofuel by a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it’s turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process.
Some small companies are growing kelp as a substitute for kale in the U.S., but that’s exactly the problem – very, very few are doing it. Thus, the infrastructure and investment isn’t in place to make other products from kelp, like biofuel.
“We’re testing out a concept that would enable large-scale, open-ocean farming,” she says. “And what that would essentially do is grow enough kelp to make it economically feasible to make it cost competitive and maybe one day, provide a source of clean, sustainable, non-polluting source of energy to compete with fossil fuels.”
Welcome to Transition Studies. To prosper for very much longer on the changing Earth humankind will need to move beyond its current fossil-fueled civilization toward one that is sustained on recycled materials and renewable energy. This is not a trivial shift. It will require a major transition in all aspects of our lives.
This weblog explores the transition to a sustainable future on our finite planet. It provides links to current news, key documents from government sources and non-governmental organizations, as well as video documentaries about climate change, environmental ethics and environmental justice concerns.
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