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Fossil fuel companies were supposed to be excluded from any official involvement in the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow this week. Yet dozens of oil industry representatives and hundreds of their trade group lobbyists showed up anyway; in part, new documents suggest, to convince the United Kingdom government — the host of this year’s talks — to integrate unproven carbon capture technologies into its net-zero emissions plans. At COP26 and elsewhere, fossil fuel companies present themselves as trustworthy partners who should have a seat at the table. But this is an industry with a documented record of dishonesty, which was on full display in Congress last week.

In hearings convened by the House Oversight Committee as part of an investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s role in “spreading climate disinformation,” the CEOs of six of the world’s largest oil and gas companies and trade groups testified under oath. Much of what they said was demonstrably false.

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods repeatedly affirmed that the company’s public statements about climate change have always “been consistent with the general consensus in the scientific community.” However, in 2017 and 2020, we published the first peer-reviewed analyses of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. We found that between 1996 and 2017, Mobil and ExxonMobil issued at least 45 advertisements and other public statements that contradicted mainstream science.

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In 2000, for example, ExxonMobil ran an ad entitled “Unsettled Science.” Against a “backdrop of large, poorly understood natural variability,” they wrote, “it is impossible for scientists to attribute the recent small surface temperature increase to human causes.” That was untrue. Five years earlier, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded a “discernible human influence on global climate.” ExxonMobil went so far as to claim that the IPCC’s conclusion was “not peer-reviewed.” It was. In fact, the company’s chief climate scientist was a contributing author to the report.

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Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies via video conference during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform, on Oct. 28, with Representative Ralph Norman in the foreground, on Capitol Hill, in Washington.
Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies via video conference during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform, on Oct. 28, with Representative Ralph Norman in the foreground, on Capitol Hill, in Washington.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

ExxonMobil’s misrepresentations of mainstream science continued for more than a decade. In 2001, the company issued a press release that claimed “there is no consensus about long-term climate trends and what causes them” and presented global cooling as a legitimate alternative to warming, even though scientists had debunked that idea 23 years earlier. In 2015, the company’s then-CEO Rex Tillerson stated: “We do not really know what the climate effects of 600 ppm [parts per million of greenhouse gases] versus 450 ppm will be because the models simply are not that good.” This had been refuted by the climate models developed by the company’s own scientists, decades earlier.

When asked at last week’s hearing if ExxonMobil now accepts that climate change is real and human-caused, current CEO Woods beat around the bush, saying, “Increased greenhouse gases can contribute to the effects of climate change.” “Can” suggests uncertainty; “contribute” implies additional significant causes. In contrast, the IPCC says that “human influence on the climate system is now an established fact” and that increased greenhouse gases have caused 98 percent of global warming. Woods’s peers from Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and the US Chamber of Commerce all stuck to the same script.

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Republican Representative James Comer of Kentucky asked the CEOs if they themselves have “ever approved a climate disinformation campaign.” All six executives said they have not. This was disingenuous at best.

This summer, we published a computational analysis of the language ExxonMobil has used to publicly talk about climate change as recently as 2019. Our study quantitatively showed that the company’s rhetoric has gradually evolved from outright climate denial to more subtle, insidious forms of propaganda. These “discourses of delay” include greenwashing, individualization of responsibility (which shifts blame away from companies and onto consumers; away from supply and onto demand), fossil fuel solutionism (which presents fossil fuels and their industry as essential and inevitable for the foreseeable future), and technological shell games (which play fast and loose with the technological and economic realities of energy technologies). These misleading narratives dominate contemporary marketing by fossil fuel companies.

Over the past 15 months, for instance, Chevron has run television advertisements 29,591 times, 80 percent of which focused on the company’s sustainability efforts. In contrast, 99.8 percent of Chevron’s 2010-18 budget was invested in fossil fuels. Likewise, across more than 3,000 social media posts by six European fossil fuel companies over the past two years, 63 percent of content positioned the companies as environmentally concerned, even as, on average, 80 percent of the companies’ operations remain in fossil fuels. This is greenwashing 101: talk clean, act dirty. Just as the fossil fuel industry misled the public about climate science, it is now misleading us about its commitment to doing something about it. This is why numerous attorneys general have sued oil and gas companies, not just for their climate denial but also for deceptive marketing and greenwashing.

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Each discourse of delay serves to misinform the public about the climate crisis and its solutions. Intentional misinformation is, by definition, disinformation, which is precisely what the six executives told Congress they have never authorized. Perhaps they personally did not approve such efforts, but someone at their companies did.

As scholars of disinformation, we do not use the word “lie” lightly. But no other word adequately describes the oil industry’s brazen efforts to mislead the public about its history of misleading the public. Big Oil’s bosses have left the door of accountability ajar with their dishonesty, and lawmakers should push it wide open.

Geoffrey Supran is a research fellow in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and director of climate accountability communication for the Climate Social Science Network. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the author of, most recently, “Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean.”