Opinion: Naomi Oreskes on Climate Concealment

From the New York Times

October 8, 2015-  MILLIONS of Americans once wanted to smoke. Then they came to understand how deadly tobacco products were. Tragically, that understanding was long delayed because the tobacco industry worked for decades to hide the truth, promoting a message of scientific uncertainty instead.

The same thing has happened with climate change, as Inside Climate News, a nonprofit news organization, has been reporting in a series of articles based on internal documents from Exxon Mobil dating from the 1970s and interviews with former company scientists and employees.

Dr. Naomi Oreskes

Dr. Naomi Oreskes

Had Exxon been upfront at the time about the dangers of the greenhouse gases we were spewing into the atmosphere, we might have begun decades ago to develop a less carbon-intensive energy path to avert the worst impacts of a changing climate. Amazingly, politicians are still debating the reality of this threat, thanks in no small part to industry disinformation.

Government and academic scientists alerted policy makers to the potential threat of human-driven climate change in the 1960s and ’70s, but at that time climate change was still a prediction. By the late 1980s it had become an observed fact.

But Exxon was sending a different message, even though its own evidence contradicted its public claim that the science was highly uncertain and no one really knew whether the climate was changing or, if it was changing, what was causing it.

Exxon (which became Exxon Mobil in 1999) was a leader in these campaigns of confusion. In 1989, the company helped to create the Global Climate Coalition to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change and prevent the United States from signing on to the international Kyoto Protocol to control greenhouse gas emissions. The coalition disbanded in 2002, but the disinformation continued. Journalists and scientists have identified more than 30 different organizations funded by the company that have worked to undermine the scientific message and prevent policy action to control greenhouse gas emissions.

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Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University.

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