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ExxonMobil misled the public about the climate crisis. Now they’re trying to silence critics | Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes | Opinion

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In 2017, we published the first peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. We found that the company and its parents, Exxon and Mobil, misled the public about climate change and its severity. Central to this conclusion was the contrast between what Exxon and ExxonMobil scientists said in internal reports and scientific articles versus what Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil told the public in non-peer-reviewed publications and in “advertorials” – paid advertisements dressed up to look like opinion pieces – in The New York Times.

Newly leaked documents, reported recently by Bloomberg News, show that ExxonMobil’s climate dishonesty is even worse than we thought. While the company privately has an internal “plan for surging carbon emissions…by as much as the output of the entire nation of Greece,” according to Bloomberg, ExxonMobil executives “shield their carbon forecasts from investors.” In other words, ExxonMobil drew up plans to expand fossil fuel production, internally calculated how much this would increase their carbon dioxide emissions, then failed to disclose those estimates to investors. Indeed, the company has never publicly disclosed its emissions forecasts. In response to the Bloomberg report, ExxonMobil claimed that the leaked documents were not up-to-date, but declined to provide “any details on the new projections,” according to Bloomberg.

ExxonMobil has launched a new attack on our research, penned by ExxonMobil Vice President Vijay Swarup in the academic journal where we published our original study. In fact, ExxonMobil, in trying to dismiss our findings, has inadvertently made them stronger. They have done so in three ways, which we summarize today in a peer-reviewed rebuttal.

First, ExxonMobil has not challenged any of our findings about the 187 documents analyzed in our original study. They do not deny that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil all had early knowledge that their products have the potential to cause dangerous global warming. Nor do they deny that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil all promoted doubt about climate science and its implications in order to delay action.

Second, ExxonMobil accused us of analyzing “less than 3%” of their advertorials. This is misleading: less than 4% of their advertorials concerned climate change; most were irrelevant. Nevertheless, we have expanded our research program to include advertorials of which we were originally unaware, and found that – spoiler alert – “the results strengthen our original finding.”

Third, ExxonMobil claims that our original publication “obscur[ed] the separateness” of Exxon and Mobil prior to their 1999 merger. This is incorrect and misleading: when Exxon and Mobil merged, ExxonMobil inherited legal and moral responsibility for both. Moreover, as we summarize in today’s rebuttal, additional work we have done in response to ExxonMobil’s complaints “further demonstrates that both Exxon and Mobil separately misled the public, and continued to do so once they merged to become ExxonMobil Corp.”

All told, “we can now conclude with even greater confidence that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil Corp have all, variously, misled the public.”

Unable to disprove our findings, ExxonMobil’s critique has resorted to quoting a non-peer-reviewed report commissioned and paid for by the company. Instead of subjecting their positions to the independent scrutiny of academic peer-review, as we (and all scientists) do, ExxonMobil found a backdoor, so that they could then claim that our work has been refuted.

These Big Tobacco-style tactics – doubt-mongering, character assassination, intellectual hitjobs, and undisclosed conflicts of interest – are precisely the sort of product-defense maneuvers that ExxonMobil perfected while attacking climate science and climate scientists. The only difference now is that they are coming after the social sciences, too.

But it’s hardly the first time. When we published our study, ExxonMobil immediately responded with a straw man, a falsehood, cherry picking, and ad hominem attacks. Last year, they sent a now-leaked memo to Members of European Parliament in an attempt to discredit one of us (Geoffrey Supran) who had been invited to testify to that parliament as an expert witness about the company’s history of climate denial. And for the past three years, ExxonMobil has run a social media campaign accusing us of publishing “manufactured” science at the behest of “a political campaign.” It has been viewed millions of times.

With ExxonMobil so evidently offering its critiques in bad faith, we hesitated whether to engage at all. They don’t need to win this debate, they just need to make it seem like there is one. Personally, we don’t care what ExxonMobil says about us. But their attempts to smear our research do matter, because – in the face of mounting lawsuits, surging public protests and crumbling market value – ExxonMobil is swinging for a way to discredit the work that demonstrates what they have done.

Alas, it is a swing and a miss. ExxonMobil’s reaction to our work is nothing more than a case in point of the deceptive behavior we described in our original study. ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public. Indeed, as Bloomberg’s new report reveals, the company is hiding climate information, too.

  • Geoffrey Supran is a Research Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and co-Director of the Climate Social Science Network at Brown University

  • Naomi Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, the author of Why Trust Science? and the co-author, with Erik M Conway, of Merchants of Doubt


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Why it might not work

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes her face protection mask off as she arrives for the National Integration Summit at the Chancellery in Berlin, on October 19, 2020.

FABRIZIO BENSCH | AFP | Getty Images

Germany’s coronavirus epidemic, and strategy to deal with the virus, has not been the same as its European counterparts.

This might be a good thing, given that Germany has recorded 397,922 cases of the virus, far lower than Spain, which now has over one million cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, along with France.

It has also recorded far fewer deaths related to the coronavirus, with the tally at 9,905 and rising very slowly despite a second wave of infections as seen in the rest of the continent.

Germany has put its relatively milder experience of the pandemic down to its modern healthcare system and robust testing and contact tracing regime. The country has also differed from its European peers at a political level in that it has taken largely a decentralized approach to managing the virus response.

That approach could prove to be a double-edged sword when it comes to clear public guidance and messaging on the virus, however, according to Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence.

“The question is whether Germany’s strength since the beginning of the pandemic – the not just local imposition but in fact locally-driven design of restrictive as well as support measures – will turn into an obstacle,” Nickel said. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel “emphatically called for compliance over the weekend, but only clear-cut nationwide messaging might still prevent the need for more stringent lockdowns in winter,” he warned.

As other national governments around Europe imposed restrictions, varying from national lockdowns to localized measures (albeit with the agreement, and sometimes reluctant acceptance of local leaders) Germany has devolved the management of the virus and restrictions to regional leaders within its 16 states.

This has meant that, as well as national messaging such as Merkel last weekend imploring all Germans to avoid non-essential travel and gatherings and general rules on social distancing and mask-wearing, there are also restrictions that differ from state to state.

The move is based on the respective infection rates seen in different German states, some of which have large populations; North Rhine-Westphalia has 17.9 million inhabitants, for example, and has seen the largest number of recorded cases per state, with 97,507 cases.

On Tuesday, Germany recorded a 7-day incidence of 48.6 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Robert Koch Institute, whereas the 7-day incidence in Berlin, Bremen, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland is “considerably” higher than the national mean 7-day incidence, the public health body said, and “slightly higher” in Bavaria.

“Politically, Germany has so far fared well with its traditionally decentralized approach, with local and regional authorities agreeing on joint pandemic management rather than Berlin imposing rules for lower-level authorities to follow through on,” Teneo Intelligence’s Nickel said.

“But the question now is how citizens across the country can be brought to comply with an ideally simple and transparent set of rules while, at the same time, enough room is left for differentiation between more and less affected regions,” he said.

Negotiations on regional rules between regional leaders and the national government can be a fractious process too. Nickel cited drawn-out talks last week between Merkel and regional leaders to agree on new restrictions, such as thresholds for private gatherings and restrictions on leisure travel from areas with higher infection rates.


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Boston Dynamics Spot robot can recharge on its own now

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Boston Dynamics, the robotics firm once owned by Alphabet’s Google and now part of Japan’s tech heavyweight investor Softbank, just gave its dog-like robot Spot an upgrade.

Spot now features a recharging station that the robot can use to power up on its own, which Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Wednesday allows the robot to cover a much broader range, and be located in more remote locations. 

Spot also now has access to an arm that allows the robot to perform tasks such as opening doors or drawers, adjusting valves and flipping a power switch.

At a base price for the Spot Explorer of $74,500, the new enterprise version with these features will go higher, but Playter says the company has not yet set pricing for the upgraded robot, which will be available in early 2021. 

The robot — which can carry a maximum weight of 14 kilograms, or 30.9 pounds — was launched roughly a year ago in September 2019 and found one of its most high-profile uses in the coronavirus outbreak. It was put into use in Singapore to encourage social distancing in public spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the time, the company stressed that Spot was encouraging, not enforcing, social distancing.

“The robot isn’t really enforcing in Singapore,” Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last May. “It’s just giving people information and encouraging them,” he said. “There’s a human nearby who can do whatever enforcement they decide is appropriate.” 

Spot also was used at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to take some vitals as part of screening patients for Covid-19. 

In all, there are nearly 300 Spots out in the world today. 

This week, Boston Dynamics announced a deal with Trimble, a major construction industry player.

As construction sites are trying to better control how densely workers are concentrated, Boston Dynamics’ CEO Playter said that Spot can be used for surveying and data collection, while helping reduce the number of workers on site. Spot will be integrated with Trimble’s data collection sensors and field control software to automate repetitive tasks such as site scans, surveying and progress monitoring in potentially unsafe environments.

Use of robots to collect data and perform hazardous task have been among the primary instances of robots in the field to date, and some companies that have already used Spot include BP, Ford, and Merck.


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JPMorgan Asset Management on economic recovery, U.S. stimulus talks

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Events and entertainment workers protest unemployment on Aug. 19 in Las Vegas.

BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images)

While it appears that the economy has sharply bounced back from the pandemic’s blow, this is actually a “steroid kind of recovery,” JPMorgan Asset Management’s David Kelly told CNBC.

“We have seen what looks like a V-shaped recovery, but it’s really V-interrupted — it’s half of V,” the chief global strategist said. A V-shaped recovery is one in which an economy sharply rises after a recession.

He explained that when the shot in the arm of fiscal stimulus wears off, growth will slow down again.

“It looks like an economic recovery, but it’s really sort of a steroid kind of recovery. As the steroid of fiscal stimulus is removed, the economy is going to grow more slowly … it’s going to grow much more slowly in the fourth quarter than it did in the third,” Kelly told CNBC on Thursday.

While half of jobs lost in the U.S. have been recovered, he said it’s “still going to be a crawl” until industries shut down by the pandemic can be reopened again.

The U.S. economy has recaptured about 11.4 million jobs — or around half of all positions lost. The unemployment rate has come down to 7.9%, but is still more than double its pre-pandemic level. New claims in the week ended Oct. 10, however, surged to the highest number since Aug. 22, as cases rise in a a renewed wave.

“You need to deal with the pandemic to have a healthy recovery, it’s as simple as that,” Kelly said.

There’ll be ‘too much’ stimulus

Millions of Americans are waiting for more federal aid to meet their food and housing needs during this crisis, as Washington remains locked in a stalemate over further coronavirus stimulus.

But Kelly says the country will get a stimulus package after the November presidential elections are over.

“I think we’re going to get stimulus anyway. I think people are obsessed with the issue of, do we get stimulus in the next two weeks,” he said. “What’s been going on between the White House and the House Democrats are all to do with politics. After the elections, I think there will be a stimulus package.”

“And in fact, I think if anything there’ll be too much stimulus,” Kelly said.


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