I used to be a climate scientist funded by Exxon
A peer-reviewed study published on August 23 has confirmed what Exxon said internally about climate change was quantitatively different from their statements. Researchers Geoffrey. Supran and Naomi Oreskes found that 80 percent of internal documents and peer-reviewed publications that they examined between 1977 and 2014. They acknowledged that climate change was real and caused primarily by humans. The study found that over 80 percent of Exxon paid editorial advertisements during the same period focused specifically on doubt and uncertainty.
Many people are shocked by the stark contrast between internal discussions of cutting-edge climate science and external campaigns to discredit climate change. What was happening at Exxon?
I can only speak from my own experience.
Exxon funded my master’s dissertation, which was a study of methane emissions and chemistry, from 1995 to 1997. I worked as an intern in their Annandale Research Lab in New Jersey for several weeks in 1996. Years later, I was involved in collaborative research, which led to three of the studies cited in Supran’s and Oreskes’ new analysis.
Exxon conducts climate research.
No matter where you work, a scientist is still a scientist. My Exxon colleagues are no different. Any scientist would be proud of these qualities: thoughtful, cautious, and fully in agreement with the consensus scientific view on climate.
Exxon had a plan for our research. It’s not charity. In my case, their research and development were targeted to something that wouldn’t raise any red flags within climate policy circles, namely quantifying the benefits from methane reduction.
Exxon’s former CEO, Lee Raymond, was in charge from 1993 until 2005. During this time, the company funded scientists and writers who emphasized uncertainty about climate science. Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Methane can be released from a variety of sources, including coal mining, natural gas leaks, wastewater treatment plants, farting cows, sheep and goats, and other animals that belch or fart, as well as decaying organic waste in landfills, giant termite mounds found in Africa, and, in very small quantities, even by our own lactose intolerant family members.
Methane absorbs 35 times more heat from the Earth on a mass-basis than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a gas that has a longer lifetime, but we produce much less methane. If we are concerned about the speed of global warming, then we should cut methane emissions immediately, and continue to wean ourselves from carbon-based fuels over time.
Reduced methane emissions are a way to save energy for the oil and gas industry. It’s not surprising that I did not experience any interference or heavy-handed advice during my research. No one ever asked me to review my code, or offered suggestions on how to “adjust”, my findings. It was only required that an article co-authored by an Exxon employee pass a review internally before it could be sent out for peer review. This is a similar policy to many federal agencies.
Was I aware of what they were doing at the time? I could not imagine it.
After moving to Canada, I had no idea that people did not accept climate science. I didn’t even realize that I had married a climate skeptic until nearly a half-year later. I also was unaware that Exxon funded a disinformation program at the same time that it supported my research into the best ways to reduce human impact on climate.
Exxon has contributed to the current situation, which in many ways is unreal. China is leading the U.S. when it comes to wind power, solar energy, economic investments in clean energy, and the cap-and-trade policy that’s similar to the Waxman-Markey Bill of 2009.
This study shows why so many people are demanding that Exxon be held accountable for misleading the public about such an important issue. Scientists and academics can use it as a catalyst for a different but similar moral debate.
Do we accept financial assistance that is given to appease the public conscience?
It is not a new concept to pay for sins in a literal way. We humans, from the indulgences in the Middle Ages up to the criticisms leveled against carbon offsets now, have always tried to ease our conscience by doing good deeds. Many industry groups today follow a familiar pattern: they support science denial on the left and give to cutting-edge science research on the right.