Schlock, horreur: Exxon funds science. Yes, we knew that already. More schlock and awww: ExxonMobil deliberately attempts to sow doubt on the reality and urgency of climate change. Yes, we knew that too. This is all kicked off by Oreskes astonishing ability to re-tread the same story again and again; but clearly there’s a big constituency out there that wants to hear it; so if she can make a fine living out of telling the same old fairy story I suppose as a good free marketeer I can’t complain too much.

Before we go on, notice the image I inline. It is part of the evidence against Exxon. It’s a misleading advert, that appeared in the NY Times in 2000. Obviously, Exxon produced the advert, and are therefore responsible for it. But the NYT published it. Are they not at least a teensy bit responsible? Are they not guilty of misleading the public? They certainly don’t seem to feel at all responsible. Their “discussion” of that problem consists only of The Times’s policy on accepting such advertising can be found here. But, oh dear, if you read the policy you find a section on “In general, advertisements in the following categories are unacceptable” whose very first item is “Ads that are misleading inaccurate or fraudulent”. So what happened? The advertorial can certainly be considered misleading; that’s Oreskes point. Perhaps, in 2000, it wasn’t obviously so? But if that were the case Oreskes case collapses. In fact the answer is all too obvious: Exxon paid good money for it, the NYT likes money just like everyone else, there’s a free-speech case, and anyway by 2000 standards it isn’t too terrible1.

Meanwhile, poor Katharine Hayhoe is slightly embarrassed that she did (partly) Exxon funded science in 1995-1997. The science stuff there is all fine; she did something sane and Exxon didn’t try to push her politically and her Exxon full-time colleagues were all great; no surprises there. But what is surprising is Did I know what else they were up to at the time? I couldn’t even imagine it which I do not consider believable. I can find myself being not terribly happy about Exxon in 1997 (What I said about Exxon) and I’m pretty sure I could go back further if required. True, I had the advantage of parents in law (to be, at that point) who worked for Exxon (technically Esso I think, but y’know) who would show me Exxon shareholder reports with similar doubtiness in it. But could you be a scientist, working on climate science, for Exxon and not even notice their reputation? No, you couldn’t. So there’s some air-brushing of history going on there, just as the NYT is rather lightly glossing over their breaking their own advertising policy.

And this, I think, is the problem, as I’ve said so often before. It would be terribly nice if all the evil in the world were done by evil corporations, and all we needed to do to get everyone a pony was to make the evil corporations good, or to just abolish evil corporations. But the world is not like that. The people burning fossil fuels and emitting CO2 are not Exxon: they are you, me, Oreskes and Heyhoe; and similar others.

Meanwhile, to return to the original schlock, as even Oreskes accepts Exxon was producing fine public research on GW, even though she does her best to obscure this point. And although that public reasearch was not easily accessed by the general public, happily we had any number of public-spirited individuals and organisations keen to tell the world about GW, and even an intergovernmental organisation – the IPCC, you may have heard of it – tasked with collating and publishing suchlike.


* Pilloried again (2009).
* Exxon speaks and Oreskes whinges.


1. Or is this their policy? I find it impossible to tell. Because after the “general” stuff there’s a “Advertising Acceptability Policy for Selected Categories” and in “Advocacy Advertising / Opinion Advertising” in which they say We believe that the broad principles of freedom of the press confer on us an obligation to keep our advertising columns open to all points of view. Therefore, The New York Times accepts advertisements in which groups or individuals comment on public or controversial issues. We make no judgments on an advertiser’s arguments, factual assertions or conclusions which gives them a free pass: if they make no judgements then their advertisers can lie themselves blue in the face and the NYT doesn’t give a toss. Fine; but then that rather destroys their high-minded insistence on truth.


  1. #1 SteveP
    Watcher Point

    Corporations are useful entities that consist of a collection of things and individuals . Exxon has been very useful in that it has provided huge amounts of relatively easy to use hydrocarbons that release stored energy when oxidized. An entire modern civilization has been built on the ability to exchange goods and services for this easy to use energy storage stuff. In fact, this modern civilization will quickly crumble without access to energy storing hydrocarbons expertly provided by petrochemical corporations.

    Because corporations compete against one another in what amounts to regulated warfare, it is necessary for corporations to hire capable and aggressive individuals to manage them. The more successful corporations tend to attract and nurture the more successful members of society, those most useful to the corporation. Among these individuals will be bright and brilliant scientists , engineers, and managers, and capable and aggressive sociopaths and sadists as well.

    While outright fraud is largely discouraged by the regulations of the regulated war, clever members of the management team can outmaneuver the regulators, commit various kinds of fraud, and not be punished by the rules of business war. These members of the corporate team can be graded as sociopaths , sadists, soul-less, adolescent minded, or just true believing ideologues. It doesn’t matter much. The results are the same. They keep the gears of industry lubricated, investors paid, and when they are uncovered, they will cause outrage among many members of the non-corporate community.

    You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You currently cannot have easy access to high quality protein without breeding, enslaving and eating farm animals. You cannot have a modern civilization this week without access to polluting hydrocarbons. You cannot have a modern civilization sustaining corporation without having a number of self serving sociopaths within the corporation who will willingly mislead the public to keep the whole enterprise going. This type tends to hate all regulation. And yet, without the regulations that make up the rules of business warfare, modern civilization will devolve into something much less savory and far more toxic. You also cannot have a modern civilization without capable and aggressive people outside the corporation who are willing to shape public opinion and butt heads with the successful corporations ; people willing to forge the regulations that contain the beast within.

    Those of us who would like a simpler, more transparent, more consistently truthful, more efficient, and sustainable system of maintaining a modern civilization have yet to build one. We are chipping away at the problem, but we have a long way to go.

    Meanwhile, the Texas coast is being smashed and flooded by a tropical storm aided and abetted by the the main waste product of hydrocarbon oxidation.

    What we chose to value has a lot to do with where we will end up. Gold? Black gold? Easy sustenance? Easy warmth? Nature’s beauty? Living oceans? Long term viability of our species? Long term viability of corporations? Helping others? Hurting others? Me? We?

  2. #2 Phil Hays

    Blaming the NY Times? Classic.

    [Exxon, as I said, are responsible for their words. But absolving the NYT of all blame seems unreasonable to me. Do you give them a free pass for everything, or is it only publishing Exxon’s words for which they are axiomatically blameless? -W]

  3. #3 Russell the Stout
    Under smokestack lightning

    Freedom of speech, after all. And assaulted constantly by the repulsive snake oil salesmen from all the other corporations and their constant lies, Exxon’s contribution barely raises a nostril. And I understand the sentiment that we have met the enemy and he is us.
    But I will note the industry releases a lot of CO2 even before the first unit of hydrocarbons is sold and burned.

    [I didn’t mean to suggest that oil production itself produces no emissions. In fact I don’t even know what fraction of the oil is, effectively, burnt to produce usable oil; I imagine it varies with basin -W]

  4. #4 Marco

    Well…Exxon quite literally challenged Oreskes, so that Oreskes once again comes with her story should not make anyone wonder

    [Errrm, you need to be careful with words. That link is not, “literally”, let alone “quite literally”, a challenge to Oreskes. It is an invitation for people to read the documents. And Like Ken Cohen, I’d advise people to do just that. This is What Exxon Knew and When, round three? territory, isn’t it? -W]

    This time she even put her evidence into a peer reviewed paper:
    Let’s see if Exxon will respond in the scientific literature.

    [Why would they bother respond? There’s nothing surprising there -W]

  5. #5 MieScatter

    Exxon knew, it had its own scientific experts to tell it so. Did the N.Y. Times?

    [Exxon knew, and it published in the open scientific literature. Do try to keep up. The open scientific literature is available to the NYT, and was available at the time. Moreover, the IPCC reports were most certainly available to the NYT, even if they’re mostly a bunch of arts-side people not terribly comfortable with science -W]

    And knowing that humans are changing the climate and choosing to trick the public is on a completely different scale. The well funded anti-science campaign might have done its work on the N.Y. Times people involved as well, we don’t know. I think putting the blame on them is a distraction. Exxon knew, and tried to trick the public, that should be a huge story.

    [It is as I said: you want a few villains; everyone else are saints and blameless -W]

  6. #6 Tom Fuller
    United States

    Should Exxon have warned its shareholders that their liquid assets might not be so liquid?

    The US Department of Energy shows global energy consumption of 527 quadrillion BTUs for 2010 (they have adjusted it upwards from their first projection of 512 quads). They project 2030 global consumption to be 719 quads, a rise of 26%.

    If renewable energies (solar, wind and biofuels) double their output, which I consider distinctly possible, they will provide an additional 4 quads. If hydroelectricity doubles (again, very possible just in Asia alone) it will furnish 56 more quads. Nuclear power may increase to an additional 16 quads by 2030. That’s a pretty heroic assumption, but… it’s less than 100 quads, leaving more than 100 quads to be furnished by fossil fuels.

    So, put another way, should Exxon have warned its shareholders that over the 50 year period from 1980 to 2030 demand for their product would increase by the amount equivalent to America’s entire energy consumption and that shareholders should immediately flee to safer investments, such as Amway?

  7. #7 John J

    SteveP, that was a nice essay! Would you mind if I quote from it, giving proper credit of course? I’ve copied it as a reference. I really like the line about wanting “a simpler…more sustainable” civilization but having yet to build one. That’s really the crux of our predicament, isn’t it? We’ve tried to force civilization’s rules on nature’s laws. She’s not having it.

  8. #8 David Appell

    IIRC, Exxon ran such ads on the NY Times op-ed pages regularly back then. Once a week(?), on the most prime advertisement space? So you’re right, surely the NYT didn’t want to rock the boat there. It’s a crappy world sometimes.

    PS: Enjoying your mountain pictures.

    [Thanks. There will be more -W]

  9. #9 wereatheist

    The whore, who wants to feed herself( or is forced to feed, in addition, her pimp) is always comtemptible, whereas the patron is a perfect gentleman. In victorian ethics.

  10. #10 Phil Hays

    “But absolving the NYT of all blame …”


    [Still too facile, I think. You can’t just defend people by saying “but other people have done worse things” -W]

    Difference of degree.

    Exxon knew better and wanted to mislead.

    The New York Times didn’t pass judgment, as a matter of policy.

    [Yes, but that’s merely a statement of fact, not a moral judgement. The question is, was their behaviour acceptable, as measured by their standards? They claim – at least I think it’s their claim; it is Oreskes claim and I think we can assume that but publishing it the NYT agrees – the Exxon’s behaviour in publishing that advert was unacceptable. And yet they – and you – give them a free pass for their part in the process. Why? If the right to free speech is so overwhelming (is that your defence of them? I don’t think you’ve said) then why isn’t Exxon’s right to free speech also overwhelming -W]

    What about the paperboy, doesn’t he have some responsibility?

    [You’re wriggling, but this won’t work. The paperboy cannot be expected to have read the paper before deciding to deliver it, nor does he have the resources to consider the truth of each piece of text. The NYT does have the resources. If the paperboy is consistently delivering something disagreeable – “The Stormer” for example – then he does have responsibility, too -W]

  11. #11 SteveP

    John J, Thanks for the kind words and of course you can attribute the quote to the anonymous SteveP . No problem.

    Tom Fuller- Good point and it reveals another layer of the problem. When society tumbles to the stupidity of its addiction to fossil fuels and decides to assess blame for the damages they have caused, the sociopaths and sadists who helped to hide the fatal flaw of their product with lies and propaganda, along with all those who helped stoke un-needed demand for the cursed stuff, might be apt to hope that the proverbial peasants marching in the street with their torches and pitchforks either don’t ever recognize them or chose to not act like sadistic Republicans.

    The connection between protecting demand for massively wasteful fossil fuel powered status toys and habits, and an extra foot of rain along the Gulf coast, is one that Exxon scientists essentially predicted, but that Exxon sociopaths decided to hide. Efficiently applied propaganda dollars helped keep demand high, and have rendered the application of remedial action nearly impossible in the USA at this time. I’m guesstimating that losses from the flooding of Houston will be in the tens of billions of dollars. How much of the extra water that contributes to the final damage total came from the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels? How much of that fuel was wasted on stupid activities instead of on necessities? No one can yet nail down the exact amount, so the sociopaths and sadists get to skate again.

    “Free” markets actually need quite a bit of regulation and oversight, IMO, or they do stupid things like cause modern civilization to collapse and/or cause life to become hellish. If you doubt that think of any gang infested city where there is an essentially unregulated marketplace for all manner of goods and services. Or go back in time to the days when petrochemical companies were free to discharge pretty much any crap that they wanted to discharge anywhere they wanted to.

  12. #12 Dan Pangburn

    The people who believe in AGW caused by CO2 are the people who are denying science. The science of thermalization and the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of molecule energy explain why CO2 does not now, has never had and will never have a significant effect on climate.

    Failing to recognize that CO2 has no significant effect on climate is a distressing mistake but is dwarfed by the potential disasters of ignoring what is happening that actually does.

    The still-rising water vapor (WV) is rising more than twice as fast as expected from water temperature increase alone (feedback).

    [{{cn}} -W]

    The rising WV coincides with rising irrigation, especially spray irrigation on fields and lawns. The warming (WV is a ghg) is welcome (countering the average global cooling which would otherwise be occurring as a result of declining net effect of ocean surface temperature cycles and a declining proxy which is the time-integral of SSN anomalies) but the added WV increases the risk of precipitation related flooding. How much of recent flooding (with incidences reported world wide) is simply bad luck in the randomness of weather and how much is because of the ‘thumb on the scale’ of added water vapor?

  13. #13 Joseph O'Sullivan

    The whole Exxon controversy is mostly political theater. There are many companies, individuals, and groups that are engaged in efforts to cast doubt on climate science and regulations in the public and political arenas.

    Exxon has become a symbol for this whole enterprise. It’s easier to fight against a movement when you can put a face on it. The tactic is similar to how contrarians made the hockey stick an object of scorn.

    Is Exxon a bad actor? I knew an attorney who worked at Exxon, so I know some of the things they did, and they absolutely are. They are definitely not the only one, and I’m not sure if they are the worst. After the Exxon Valdez spill they became an easy target.

    Exxon might not be getting treated fairly, but they are sophisticated and have vast resources they can use to defend themselves. I won’t shed a tear for Exxon, but I’m not sure if going after them is the best way to advance climate science and efforts to do something about climate change pollution.

  14. #14 Phil Hays

    > [Yes, but that’s merely a statement of fact, not a moral judgement.]

    Is the UK government somehow morally responsible for all the content of all the speeches at Hyde park?

    [Not quite; but as ultimately responsible for enforcing the law they are of course responsible, in a negative rather than a positive way, for ensuring that the content of what is said is not law-breaking. However, I think you’re still straining to hard for analogies. The UK govt doesn’t *publish* what is said at Hyde Park -W]

    Exxon’s ads were not illegal or profane. Why should have the NYT banned them, again?

    [That Exxon’s ad’s were not illegal is *my* point. It is Oreskes and the NYT that now think they should be prosecuted for producing them (inter alia). If you’re prepared to agree with me that they shouldn’t be, then we’re in agreement -W]

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    essential reference material

    Gavin mentioned, many years ago at RC, that the petroleum companies provided job opportunities for climatologists because they rely on models of Earth’s past to figure out where large sedimentary basins were formed, and how far and where continental drift has displaced those oil-producing structures. It’s all about knowing where to drill.

  16. #16 Russell

    I wish Naomi would by less shy about the primary sources for primary sources Whiles he relegates much credit to the scores of ibids following ‘ Tobacco Papers ” proper citation is deserved by her Nation Institute confrere Mark Hertsgaard, for his scholarly articles in the noted history of science journal Vanity Fair, and to the assorted Ecosyn web pages collated from the BushHitler website by famed Sandinista poet and San Francisco cab driver Lion Cohen, Science Cop. Doubtful too is her and , as far as I tell Conway’s failure to actually delve for themselves into the copious and well indexed archives of Rockefeller University

    [Dupe suppressed -W]