A new paper, Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications (1977–2014) by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, published 23 August 2017,
“..assesses whether ExxonMobil Corporation has in the past misled the general public about climate change, [presents] an empirical document-by-document textual content analysis and comparison of 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil … [examines] whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications—specifically, we compare their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. …we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt… We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public…”
It’s published in Environmental Research Letters and it begins:
In 2016, Attorneys General of 17 US states and territories announced that they ‘are exploring working together on key climate change-related initiatives, such as ongoing and potential investigations’ into whether ExxonMobil Corporation and other fossil fuel companies may have violated, variously, racketeering, consumer protection, or investor protection statutes through their communications regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW) … As part of a probe that began in 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has issued multiple subpoenas to ExxonMobil under the state’s Martin Act and alleged that the company’s accounting of climate risk ‘may be a sham’. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is simultaneously investigating ExxonMobil, stating, ‘Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be held accountable’. US Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker has said that he is investigating ExxonMobil for potentially violating the territory’s anti-racketeering law Also in 2016, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began a federal investigation into whether ExxonMobil appropriately discloses the business risks of AGW, and how it values its assets and reserves.
We offer no view on the legal issues raised by ongoing investigations.
Like fuck we don’t. We just choose to open our peer-reviewed scientific article with a full description of the accusations of criminal behaviour currently aimed at the subject of our objective scientific investigation. Environmental Research demands no less.
‘Read all of these documents and make up your own mind,’ ExxonMobil has challenged. This paper takes up that challenge by analyzing the materials highlighted by the company, and comparing them with other publicly available ExxonMobil communications on AGW. The issue at stake is whether the corporation misled consumers, shareholders and/or the general public by making public statements that cast doubt on climate science and its implications, and which were at odds with available scientific information and with what the company knew. We stress that the question is not whether ExxonMobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ but rather how they communicated about it.
In other words, Supran and Oreskes are not going to risk libel actions by making unsubstantiated claims about scientific malpractice, but are going to limit themselves to pointing out that ExxonMobil didn’t say the same thing to the New York Times as they said to their investors or to customers at the pump. I mean, revealing the horrifying fact that a major oil company has not said everything it knew about global warming to the bloke filling his tank is worth a scientific article, isn’t it?
Not if the article is full of shit it isn’t.
Let’s skip to 2. Method:
We adapt and combine the methodologies used to quantify the consensus on AGW by Oreskes and Cook et al with the content analysis methodologies used to characterize media communications of AGW by Feldman et al and Elsasser and Dunlap.
2.1 Document position
Research has shown that four key points of understanding about AGW—that it is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable—are important predictors of the public’s perceived issue seriousness, affective issue involvement, support for climate policies, and political activism. These four elements have also been found to underpin most narratives of AGW skepticism and denial (namely ‘it’s not happening’, ‘it’s not us’, ‘it’s not serious’, and ‘it’s too hard’). We therefore use, a priori, these recognized elements as axes along which to characterize ExxonMobil’s positions on AGW in its communications; positions on each of these elements form the primary codes in our content analysis.
And here is their Table 2, providing “definitions of the … points used to code levels of acknowledgment of AGW as (1) real and human-caused, (2) serious, and (3) solvable, respectively.”
I’ve inserted my own numeration in brackets to aid understanding. Documents were coded with respect to each of the above three statements about AGW numbered above as either “acknowledge,” “no position” or “doubt.” Here are their definitions. My own opinion, as a typical climate sceptic, is added in square brackets:
Definitions of the Endorsement, Impact, and Solvable Points used to code levels of acknowledgment of AGW as real and human-caused, serious, and solvable, respectively.
(1) AGW as Real and Human-Caused
Explicitly supports position that humans are the primary cause of global warming (with quantification) [No]
Explicitly supports position that humans are the primary cause of global warming (without quantification) or refers to anthropogenic global warming as a known fact [No to first part, Yes to second]
Implicitly supports position that humans are the primary cause of global warming. e.g. research assumes greenhouse gas emissions cause warming without explicitly stating humans are the cause [No]
Implicitly supports position that humans are the primary cause of global warming by referring to a consensus of the scientific community [No]
(1.2) ‘No position’
Does not address the cause of global warming [No]
Expresses position that the reality of recent global warming is uncertain/undefined, namely ‘it’s not happening ‘[Yes to first part, No to second]
Expresses position that the human contribution to recent global warming is uncertain/undefined, namely ‘it’s not us’ [Yes to first part, No to second]
(2) AGW as Serious
Acknowledges and/or articulates known or predicted negative impacts of global warming e.g. geophysical, economic, socio-political [Yes]
(2.2) ‘No position’
Does not address the negative impacts of global warming (beyond generic references to climate change as a ‘risk’) [No]
Expresses position that the reality of negative impacts of global warming is uncertain/undefined/exaggerated, namely ‘it’s not bad’ [Yes/No/Don’t Know]
(3) AGW as Solvable
(no 3.1or 3.2)
Expresses position that the difficulties of mitigating global warming are potentially insurmountable and/or exceed the benefits, namely ‘it’s too hard’ [Yes and/or Yes]
Note that I sometimes agree, and sometimes disagree with Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes on their definitions of climate negationism, and sometimes I both agree and disagree, but that I am never neutral.
e.g. I both “acknowledge and/or articulate known or predicted negative impacts of global warming e.g. geophysical, economic, socio-political” while at the same time I don’t agree that I “don’t address the negative impacts of global warming (beyond generic references to climate change as a ‘risk.’)”
Two explanations offer themselves: either I am insane, or Oreskes and her epigone are a couple of incompetent numbskulls who wouldn’t recognise a logical argument or a Venn diagram if it hit them in the oracular orifice.
Their categories are incomplete, inconsistent and incoherent. They are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. It is perfectly possible to answer yes and no to the same point, so it is perfectly possible for the authors to put their papers in any old bin they like.
Note that we haven’t yet examined whether the article establishes that ExxonMobil did or didn’t fake its communications. All we’ve established is that the basic tools (Cook et al) used are not up to the job. But the fact that Cook et al are basic tools and not up to the job is hardly news.
Throughout the article the authors refer to AGW. The A means anthropogenic, i.e. human-caused, yet the authors talk of: “…doubts the scientific evidence that AGW is real and human-caused..” say: “..in documents published on or before 1995, we exempt expressions of doubt that AGW is human-caused.” and “…when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first concluded that AGW is real and human-caused…” and “Positions on AGW as real and human-caused vary significantly across document categories (p < 3.7 × 10−133, Fisher's exact test, FET; see table S3, supplementary information, for details and all probability values)..”
Forget Fisher’s exact test. The authors are talking bollocks. If there’s an A before the GW then the GW is real and human-caused, by all the rules of rational discourse accepted since Aristotle, whether or not p < 3.7 × 10−133. This is about the meaning of words for Gaia's sake.
Have I read the whole article with the care required of a scientific paper? Of course I haven’t. But I did read this:
To characterize each document, we read its abstract, introduction, and conclusion, and either skim or read thoroughly the rest as necessary.
Did you get that? Naomi and her coauthor haven’t actually read the articles they’re discussing. They skimmed them. And they say so. A PhD student who admitted she hadn’t read the the articles she was writing about would be in trouble. But hey, this is only the Professor of History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Who gives a toss about academic standards when the planet is in danger, not to mention the Chair of Planetary Sciences?