Climate

Scientific Proof That Exxon And The Kochs Distorted The Public’s Understanding Of Climate Change

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When it comes to climate deniers in the halls of Congress, some have suggested that their rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change stems from their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.

But it turns out that it’s not just members of Congress whose climate doubt may be traced back to corporate influence — a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that over the last 20 years, private funding has had an important influence on the overall polarization of climate change as a topic in the United States.

“The main thesis that corporate funding influences climate change issues is definitely something people have been writing about for a long time, but just not with the type of data to fully support these conclusions,” Justin Farrell, author of the study and a sociologist at Yale University, told ThinkProgress. “It confirms what we thought using comprehensive data and computational analyses.”

To understand how corporate funding has contributed to the polarization of climate change in the United States, Farrell looked at 20 years’ worth of data, analyzing articles, texts, and policy papers produced by 164 organizations and more than 4,500 individuals who do not accept the science of climate change (that climate change is either not happening or not a product of human activity). The study also looked at funding from two key contrarian entities: the Koch Family Foundations and ExxonMobil.

By analyzing both the networks of individuals and organizations that have participated in climate misinformation campaigns and the climate-related texts that those organizations produced between 1993 and 2013, Farrell found what he described to the Washington Post as an “ecosystem of influence” within groups that received corporate funding. Groups that received funding from Koch or Exxon were not only more likely to have written texts aimed at polarizing climate change, but were more likely to change the emphasis of their content over time. Beginning in 2008, groups that received funding were more likely than unfunded groups to produce texts stressing things like the idea that climate change is a long term cycle or that carbon dioxide is in fact good for the planet, key tenets of the climate misinformation campaign aimed at casting doubt on the scientific consensus. Groups that received funding consistently touted these themes, while groups with no funding didn’t show the same level of coordination.

“This funding has an impact on the nature and amount of what is going out in the climate misinformation effort,” Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University who was not involved in the study, told ThinkProgress. “It’s stronger, and there’s more of it, and these organizations are at the core of the effort.”

The study comes out at a time when ExxonMobil is facing increasing public scrutiny for its role in misleading the public about climate change. Several prominent politicians have called for a Department of Justice investigation into whether or not Exxon purposefully mislead the public about climate change, based on information published in a recent Inside Climate News investigation which found that Exxon’s internal research confirmed in 1977 that climate change is caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Earlier this month, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena to Exxon, demanding records relating to its climate research.

“[The study] gives credence and empirical strength to the argument that ExxonMobil made a concerted effort to promulgate climate misinformation, which they knew from their internal research was false,” Brulle said.

But beyond Exxon, Brulle praised the paper for proving with data something that climate activists have long suspected: When it comes to climate misinformation, corporate funding plays a crucial role.

“We sort of always suspected that this was the case, that the funders were building and creating this effort, but this really demonstrates it empirically,” he said. “This is a very, very robust and interesting paper.”