In response, ExxonMobil said that the journalists had "deliberately cherry-picked statements" and challenged the public to "Read all of these documents and make up your own mind," saying that the documents in question "completely undercut the allegations made by InsideClimate News".

Now researchers from Harvard University have taken up the gauntlet, publishing their findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) .

"This paper takes up that challenge by analysing the materials highlighted by the company, and comparing them with other publicly available ExxonMobil communications on AGW [anthropogenic global warming]," write Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes in ERL.

Supran and Oreskes studied 187 of the company’s internal and external communications on climate from 1977 to 2014. They found that there appears to be a disconnect between ExxonMobil’s research on climate science and the company’s advertorials (paid-for editorial-style adverts) on climate change.

"Our study is the first ever peer-reviewed, academic analysis of Exxon’s 40 year history of climate change communications," Geoffrey Supran told environmentalresearchweb. (Disclaimer: environmentalresearchweb is the sister news website to ERL, where the study was published.) "Using an established, empirical social science method, the evidence supports the study's conclusion that there are…discrepancies between what the company said about climate change privately and in academic circles, and what it said to the general public in the form of paid ‘advertorials’ in The New York Times."

Together with Naomi Oreskes, who wrote the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Supran found that 80% of ExxonMobil’s internal documents and 83% of the company’s peer-reviewed papers on climate acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. For advertorials, however, this figure was 12%, with 81% of this type of article expressing doubt.

Supran and Oreskes analysed four types of documents – internal company documents, peer-reviewed publications, non-peer-reviewed publications, and advertorials in The New York Times. Mobil/ExxonMobil took out an advertorial in The New York Times every Thursday between 1972 and 2001, paying roughly $31,000 (2016 US dollars) for each one, the Harvard team says. ExxonMobil also published advertorials elsewhere but these were not included in the analysis. The academic publications were likely to have had an average readership of tens to hundreds, whereas millions of people could have seen the advertorials, according to the researchers.

"In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt," write the researchers in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) . "This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents…We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science – by way of its scientists’ academic publications – but promoted doubt about it in advertorials."

Legal action

ExxonMobil is currently under investigation by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, and the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding its accounting and disclosure of climate risk. The company’s shareholders have also filed a class-action lawsuit against the company on similar grounds. "Exxon says the allegations are false and that anyone who looks into the evidence will see that," Supran explained.

If fossil fuel assets become "stranded" by climate policy they are at risk of losing their value. According to Supran and Oreskes, the topic of stranded assets was "discussed and sometimes quantified in 24 documents of various types, but absent from advertorials". According to Supran, "this may be relevant to ongoing investigations into whether Exxon has properly disclosed the risks of their assets becoming stranded by climate policy".

Content analysis

To come up with their results, the researchers used the social science technique of content analysis, evaluating the viewpoints expressed in each document on climate change being "real and human-caused", "serious" and "solvable".

The researchers acknowledge that textual analysis is inherently subjective. "Words have meaning in context," they write. "…While one might disagree about the interpretation of specific words, the overall trends between document categories are clear."

Supran and Oreskes provided 121 pages of supplementary information detailing their analysis of the documents.

Exxon responds

In a statement emailed to environmentalresearchweb, ExxonMobil said that it acknowledges the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action. "The study was paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against the company," the statement continues. "It is inaccurate and preposterous. Our statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science. Rather than pursuing solutions to address the risk of climate change, these activists, along with trial lawyers, have acknowledged a goal of extracting money from our shareholders and attacking the company’s reputation."

Questioned by news website The Verge on whether he or Oreskes were making any money from this study or could be accused of profiteering, Supran pointed to a statement at the end of his ERL paper that the authors declare no conflicts of interest. "I received two months of summer stipend from the Rockefeller Family Fund last July and August, and after that, for a year, have been conducting this research on my own dime," he said. "I just finished my PhD, I'm 29, and I live in a shitty student apartment. So if this is what profiteering from my work looks like, I’m not very good at it."

ExxonMobil’s statement to environmentalresearchweb added that it is "focused on providing the energy the world needs and developing solutions to address the risk of climate change by reducing our emissions, helping consumers reduce their emissions and conducting research into new low-emissions technologies". The company said it supports the Paris climate agreement and is a member of the Climate Leadership Council, "which advocates for a revenue-neutral carbon tax".

The statement also says that claims that ExxonMobil advertorials in The New York Times cast doubt on climate science are not supported by fact. It cites two examples of advertorials from the year 2000. "One op-ed titled, Do No Harm, contained the following statement: ‘Enough is known about climate change to recognize it may pose a legitimate long-term risk and that more needs to be learned about it.’ Another, The Promise of Technology, said: ‘Climate change may pose legitimate long-term risks. As one of the world’s leading science and technology organizations, ExxonMobil is confident that technology will reduce the potential risks posed by climate change.’"

Attracting attention

Supran and Oreskes’ paper has received much attention in the media, including coverage in the Los Angeles Times (which in 2015 published an investigation of ExxonMobil along similar lines to that of InsideClimateNews), Bloomberg, Agence France Presse, Reuters, and the Guardian. Supran and Oreskes also wrote an op-ed in The New York Times.

Most coverage was relatively straight reporting of the paper in ERL, including additional comments from Supran and Oreskes on their work, as well as, in many cases, comment from ExxonMobil. Some outlets took the opportunity to bring in broader issues such as more background on ExxonMobil’s ongoing legal cases, the history of its climate change research programme, the company’s wider communications tactics, and the fact that current US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was chief executive of ExxonMobil from 2006–2016.

A Vox reporter had some advice for ExxonMobil and other companies: "Here’s a good lesson for #brands everywhere: Don’t issue reading-based challenges to a community full of nerds."

And what’s next for the team? "There is good news in the climate story: we now have most of the technologies needed to start tackling this crisis," said Supran. "And that transition is already underway. So we’re shifting gears, taking a break …to focus on climate solutions. Specifically, we’re working on a science-based fiction book for the general public about a fossil fuel-free future: what that may look like, and how we can get there." 

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• This article was updated on 31st August 2017 – a photo of the researchers was added.