In September of 2015, Inside Climate News and the LA Times published a report revealing that top executives at ExxonMobil had been aware of the role that fossil fuels play in climate change since 1977.
The article revealed that upon being informed about human-caused climate change, Exxon immediately launched its own rigorous climate science research. But by the end of the 1980s, Exxon halted its CO2 research without explanation. For decades after, the company was at the forefront of climate denial.
The ground-breaking article immediately erupted in a wave of criticism against Exxon. In November 2015, the New York state attorney general announced an investigation into Exxon's cover-up, and more than 350,000 Americans signed a petition calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the accusations.
Exxon has rejected these allegations and accused the reporters of cherry-picking data. They then made public some of their company documents in a show of transparency, and challenged anyone who still remained skeptical to "Read all of these documents and make up your own mind."
Which is exactly what historian Naomi Oreskes and Harvard researcher Geoffrey Supran did.
Their study has now confirmed that in the past Exxon has purposefully misled the general public about climate change.
"ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science — by way of its scientists' academic publications — but promoted doubt about it in advertorials," the authors conclude.
The study is an empirical, in-depth, document-by-document analysis that compares 187 climate change communications from Exxon, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and editorial style advertisements in the New York Times.
The authors explain that they chose to focus on editorial style advertisements because they are second only to lobbying in their ability to mobilize group members.
"We focus on advertorials because they come directly from ExxonMobil and are an unequivocally public form of communication 'designed to affect public opinion or official opinion'," the authors write.
ExxonMobil editorial style advertisement in the NYT
So what did the study find?
In a nutshell: huge discrepancies between what Exxon knew about climate change and what they told the public. For example, the study found that 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and caused by humans, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt.
"The issue of taking things out of context or cherry-picking data is an important one, and one all historians and journalists deal with," Oreskes tells Mother Jones. "When Exxon Mobil accuses journalists of cherry-picking, there is a way we can address that; there are analyses we can do to avoid these issues. Well, if you think the LA Times is cherry-picking [examples], we'll look at all of them. Nobody can say we are selecting things out of context."
We await Exxon's response with baited breath.