ExxonMobil allegedly misled the public on climate change for 40 years

A new study has found that the company's public and private stances on the issue were wildly at odds with one another.

Internal documents show ExxonMobil believed that climate change could be a major problem as early as 1977 (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan. File)
Internal documents show ExxonMobil believed that climate change could be a major problem as early as 1977 (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan. File)

ExxonMobil officials reportedly knew about the dangers of climate change as early as 1977 but continued to publicly raise doubts about the science behind it for more than 40 years, a new study by Harvard University has found.

Researchers examined 187 public and private communications from the company between 1977 and 2014 and found that there was a massive discrepancy between the way the oil and gas giant talked about climate change publicly and privately. In internal documents, around 80 percent allegedly acknowledged that climate change was “real and human caused,” but only 12 percent of “advertorials” – editorial-style advertisements in the New York Times – said it was cause for concern.

“We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science – by way of its scientists’ academic publications – but promoted doubt about it in advertorials,” the study read. “Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.”

For example, a 1979 internal Exxon document on “Controlling Atmospheric CO2” stated that the increase in carbon dioxide “is due to fossil fuel combustion” and warned that “the present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the years 2050.”


But in a New York Times “advertorial” nearly 30 years later, the company claimed the opposite, stating that, “Climate change is complex, the science is not conclusive, the economics could be devastating.”

“ExxonMobil…overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties,” the Harvard study concluded. “[It [promoted] a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil’s own.”

When presented with the study’s findings, ExxonMobil spokespersons slammed the research, dismissing it as “inaccurate and preposterous” and claiming that it was “paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against [them].”

“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,” the company said in a statement. “ExxonMobil acknowledges the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action.”

Exxon is currently being investigated by two state attorneys general, as well as the Securities Exchange Commission, to find out whether the company defrauded the public by engaging in a campaign to discredit climate change science.


“Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be held accountable,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. It is possible that Exxon withheld liability risks from its shareholders, which is illegal.

It’s also known that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s former CEO, used an alias email account from 2008 to 2015 to discuss climate change, under the pseudonym “Wayne Tracker”. Exxon claimed the alias account was created because Tillerson’s general inbox was overloaded, but New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the company had failed to disclose who the email account had belonged to and that Exxon had failed to produce thousands of documents for the state’s subpoena.