Like the tobacco industry that for decades denied a link between smoking and lung cancer, ExxonMobil has waged a "sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign" to mislead the public about global warming, according to a major new report by the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The report, which echoes similar charges made by Britain's Royal Society in September, found that the world's largest publicly traded corporation contributed nearly 16 million dollars between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy groups that questioned the increasingly solid consensus that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming.
Among the most prominent recipients were the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), to which Exxon-Mobil has contributed more than 1.6 million dollars; the George C. Marshall Institute (630,000 dollars); and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which has received more than two million dollars, more than any other beneficiary.
With often overlapping directors, advisors, and staff, the 43 groups, according to the report, have acted as an "echo chambre" that, with the help of right-wing media, such as the Wall Street Journal, and columnists, deliberately spread disinformation about climate change.
The 63-page report, "Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air", called on the new Democrat-led Congress to hold hearings on the company's alleged disinformation campaign, just as its predecessors exposed the tobacco industry's storied efforts to block government regulation of its products.
"ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer," said Alden Meyer, UCS's director of strategy and policy.
"A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years," he added.
Indeed, according to the report, even some of same individuals involved in the tobacco industry's efforts contributed to ExxonMobil's campaign.
Steven Milloy, for example, whose Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (ASSC) was created by tobacco giant Philip Morris in 1993 to raise questions about the link between second-hand smoke and cancer, has served as a member of the Global Climate Science Team (GCST), which ExxonMobil helped create in 1998, and run the Free Enterprise Action Institute to which the company has contributed 130,000 dollars -- or almost two-thirds of the group's total expenses.
The new report comes amid indications that both the U.S. public and the mainstream media have become increasingly concerned about global warming and that the Democratic sweep in November's mid-term elections has shifted the balance of power in the new Congress in favour of those lawmakers who support legislation to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As the world's largest energy company, ExxonMobil has long been a target of environmental activists, particularly since 1998 when, in the wake of the ratification by most of the world's industrial nations of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse emissions, its major rivals, notably Shell and BP, began dropping out of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry group that campaigned against the treaty.
Unlike his counterparts in the other oil giants, the company's CEO until last year, Lee Raymond, was openly disdainful of the theory that the combustion of fossil fuels was a major contributor to global warming and rejected shareholder pressure to invest more in alternative fuels.
That same year, Exxon participated in a meeting at the American Petroleum Institute that, according to a subsequently leaked memo of the proceedings, called for companies to provide "logistical and moral support" to dissenters from the growing scientific consensus regarding the human causes of global warming, "thereby raising questions about and undercutting the 'prevailing scientific wisdom'."
As the new study details, that is precisely what ExxonMobil did over the subsequent seven years through its sponsorship of the 43 groups which not only have overlapping boards and advisers, but that also quote from each other's work in order to achieve an "echo chambre" effect.
One example cited by the report is that of Sallie Baliunas, an astrophysicist based primarily at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, which has itself received nearly 300,000 dollars from ExxonMobil since 1998. A specialist on sunspots who also is affiliated with at least eight other ExxonMobil-funded groups, she is best known for co-authoring a 2003 paper alleging that temperatures have not changed significantly over the past millennia.
That article, according to report author Seth Shulman, "was rebutted by no fewer than 13 of the scientists whose research she reviewed. They all claimed that she had misrepresented their work," according to Shulman, who noted that the paper's findings still show up regularly in the materials published by other ExxonMobil beneficiaries.
"These groups promote spokespeople who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-pick facts in an attempt to mislead the media and public into thinking there is vigorous debate in the mainstream scientific community about global warming, when in fact there is none." added Meyer.
Like Mulloy's Free Enterprise institute, some of the groups, such as the Hearland Institute, the Annapolis Centre for Science-Based Public Policy, and the Centre for the Defence of Free Enterprise, are small organisations for which ExxonMobil provides a substantial -- from 20 percent to 60 percent -- proportion of their total budget.
In a letter to the company in September, the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific group, called on ExxonMobil both to stop financing such groups and disseminating its own "inaccurate and misleading" materials about climate change. A Society spokesman claimed that the company had pledged to stop financing the groups at a meeting in July.
Nor are UCS and the Royal Society, as well as environmental groups, alone in calling for the company to end its financial support.
In an October letter that explicitly compared ExxonMobil's tactics to those of the tobacco industry, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe urged the company's new CEO, Rex Tillerson, to "end its dangerous support of the [global warming] deniers" and "repudiate its climate change denial campaign and make public its funding history."
The letter was strongly denounced on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, which is closely allied to AEI, as an effort to stifle scientific debate.
In a statement issued Wednesday, company spokesman David Gardner charged that UCS report was "yet another attempt to smear our name and... to connect unrelated facts, draw inaccurate conclusions and mislead the audience with a fiction about ExxonMobil's true position."
"What is clear today is that greenhouse gas emissions are one of the factors that contribute to climate change, and that the use of fossil fuels is a major source of these emissions," he said in a lengthy statement that also stressed that most of the organisations funded by ExxonMobil "are independent of their corporate sponsors" and that "our financial support does not connote any substantive control over or responsibility for the policy recommendations or analyses they produce."
At the same time, CEI, the company's main beneficiary for climate-related issues, denounced the report as "mostly rubbish" and accused the UCS, as well as other environmental groups, of "trying to silence anyone who disagrees with them."
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