By Karen Savage
Exxon’s history of publicly sowing doubt about climate science despite internally acknowledging the impacts of its products on climate change was the subject of a public hearing on climate denial held Thursday in the European Parliament in Brussels.
Thought to be the first-ever hearing by a major government body into Exxon’s climate deception, a panel of experts was convened to explore climate denial communication used by Exxon and other fossil fuel companies. Experts also examined how that deception has influenced European climate policy.
The group could ban Exxon from lobbying European lawmakers on climate and energy issues, especially because the company declined to attend the hearing, which was dominated by evidence that Exxon has worked for decades to deceive the public.
“The more public ExxonMobil’s climate change communications are, the more they communicate doubt,” said panelist Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard University researcher who has published a study comparing Exxon’s internal corporate memos with the company’s public communication.
“They contributed quietly to the science, yet loudly to raising doubts about it,” said Supran, who was invited to testify by committee members.
The hearing was convened by the parliament’s committees on the environment, public health and food safety and petitions. Exxon was invited to attend but declined, sending a letter to the committee chairs that said it was “constrained from participating because of ongoing climate litigation in the United States.”
The effort to hold Exxon accountable for its allegedly deceptive communication was organized after a petition was brought in 2016 by Frida Kieninger and the non-profit Food and Water Europe. Brought in the wake of investigative reporting in the U.S., the petition was signed by hundreds of E.U. citizens who say Exxon’s campaign of climate denial has harmed the environment, public health, agriculture, water sources, tourism, energy and transportation.
The petition calls for parliament to revoke Exxon’s lobbying access badge, as was done with Monsanto when it refused to appear before a parliamentary hearing on the herbicide glyphosate. Other companies, including McDonald’s, Amazon and Fiat have been threatened with similar action, but later appeared before the lawmakers.
“Exxon pays millions and millions to consultancies and lobbyists to influence EU decision-makers, a sum amounted to over 35 million Euros during the last 9 years alone, to water down climate laws and spread false solutions,” Kieninger said, adding that Exxon still funds groups that spread doubt about climate change despite claiming it no longer does.
Nikolaas Baeckelmans, Exxon’s vice president for European Union affairs who authored the letter to the committee chairs, said public commentary could prejudice pending legal proceedings in the U.S..
Baeckelman went on to write that the allegations are “distortions of ExxonMobil’s nearly 40-year history of climate research.” He highlighted the company’s participation in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its support for the 2015 Paris Agreement and questioned the accuracy of anticipated testimony by Supran.
Baeckelman also said Exxon would contact the committee heads for further discussion.
The petitioners want to curb Exxon’s easy access to European lawmakers, the extent of which is detailed in a new report by Corporate Europe Observatory.
According to the report, Exxon has had 27 direct meetings with the European Commission’s top officials since November 2014. When Exxon’s extensive network of trade associations is included, the number of meetings balloons to 484.
The report’s researchers found Exxon spent more than 3.5 million Euro on lobbying in 2018 and has utilized a web of lobbyists, trade associations and think tanks in efforts to delay and weaken EU climate policy.
“The sheer scale of access that Exxon enjoys via its vast network of lobby group, it’s like a Hydra, you cut off one head and five more appear,” said Pascoe Sabido, a Corporate Europe Observatory researcher and campaigner.
The report found Exxon’s lobbying is slowing the EU’s fight against climate change and is not compatible with the EU’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Six of Exxon’s 12 lobbyists have badges allowing them direct access to the European Parliament.
Petitioners are also calling on lawmakers to bar the oil giant from participating in events on Parliament or Commission premises, to exclude its lobbyists from the Commission’s expert groups, place a moratorium on lawmakers from appearing alongside Exxon at events and close the “revolving door” between Exxon and EU institutions. They want to restrict interaction between Exxon and members of parliament, their staff and Commission officials involved in climate and energy policy-making.
“Such determined action would also serve to send a strong signal to other fossil fuel companies, and would represent a significant first step to free EU climate policy from the decades-long stranglehold of the fossil fuels industry,” said the report.
Supran, along with Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, studied Exxon’s internal memos and public climate change communication and found that for years Exxon deceived both policymakers and the public by undermining the understanding of climate science.
In his testimony, Supran said Exxon has directly communicated denial, funded contrarian scientists like Harvard’s Willie Soon, funded climate-denying politicians like Sen. James Inhofe and funded third-party organizations.
One example, said Supran, was Exxon’s membership in the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition, which although documents show Exxon’s own scientists knew otherwise, publicly insisted that “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well-understood.”
“The GCC spent $30 million campaigning against the Kyoto protocol and was so successful that the White House told them that President Bush ‘rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you,’” Supran said, adding that the company also misled its investors about climate risks to the company’s bottom line.
“None of this was an accident. Internal documents reveal that at that critical moment 40 years ago, Exxon devised two parallel approaches—climate science research and a PR campaign,” said Supran, who said the company continued to make internal business decisions based on the findings of a handful of internal scientists who conducted legitimate climate research while at the same time publicly denying and casting doubt on that science.
Supran said his presentation was just the tip of a much-larger network of climate denial in the U.S. and internationally.
He said one of the most destructive impacts of climate denial is that when fossil fuel interests and conservative billionaires fund denial, it furthers public distrust in science, media and government, therefore reinforcing populist anti-regulatory ideologies.
In anticipation of Supran’s testimony, Exxon included with its letter a copy of an article by Dr. Kimberly Neuendorf, whom the company funded to critique his research.
Supran, whose work is peer-reviewed, said that is precisely the type of doubt-mongering documented by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt, which describes how a handful of scientists cast doubt on tobacco and climate science.
“Exxon pays an intellectual hit-person to engage in attacks that have never undergone peer review that have never been subject to independent scrutiny,” he said, calling the effort Doubt Mongering 101.
Other experts were quick to point out that while there is growing evidence of Exxon’s climate deception, it is not alone.
“Keeping Exxon out of politics means tackling the whole well-oiled lobbying machine, not just Exxon itself. That means their trade associations, their think tanks, their lobby consultancies and various other lobbying vehicles they’ve got on their payroll,” said Sabido.
Kieninger called Exxon’s refusal to attend the hearing and defend itself a “scandal.”.
“It is unacceptable that Exxon literally—and this is not an exaggeration—sits at the negotiation table and helps draft EU energy and climate policies,” said Kieninger.
“It is unacceptable that they are right inside the process of drafting and prewriting climate laws while the young people outside demand nothing more existential than laws to keep the planet within livable conditions.”