8 July 2008--ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded company, recently said it would stop funding a number of groups that are skeptical of climate change. But this is not the first time ExxonMobil has made such a commitment, prompting questions about its sincerity. The company's critics have long accused it of sponsoring a disinformation campaign that portrayed climate scientists as much more divided about global warming than they really are.
According to a 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, between 1998 and 2005, Exxon gave US $16 million to organizations skeptical of climate change. Exxon also headed a task force whose goal was to manufacture doubt about global warming.
Seth Shulman, lead author of the UCS report, is among those taking a jaded look at Exxon's changes of course. In the report, he compared Exxon to the tobacco industry, which funded research questioning the harmful effects of smoking. Now, with consensus that climate change is real, Shulman says Exxon may just be moving on. ”In some sense you could make the argument that this campaign served its purpose already,” he says.
The groups Exxon will stop funding this year include the Frontiers of Freedom, the George C. Marshall Institute, the Capital Research Center, the Institute for Energy Research, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, the Independent Institute, and the Property and Environment Research Center. Exxon contributed a total of $435 000 to those seven groups in 2007.
According to Exxon spokesman Gantt Walton, the groups' positions were a distraction from the challenges of climate change and energy security. ”We give to organizations to promote debate on significant policy issues,” Walton says. Those groups became a distraction to the debate, he adds.
Exxon first started to withdraw funds from groups promoting climate skepticism in 2006, when it dropped the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the organization that ran ads saying, ”Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution, we call it life.” Then, in 2007, Exxon stopped funding a handful of other organizations, including the Heartland Institute, which has led climate change skepticism and hosted a global warming conference this March in New York City.
Heartland's executive vice president, Dan Miller, confirmed that Exxon did in fact stop donating but said that neither the funding nor its subsequent cut had a significant effect on their operations.
”We're always delighted to receive contributions, but [Exxon's funding cut] didn't cause us to cease any of our programs,” Miller says. ”On global warming, we've been leading the skeptic side for years.”
Aaron Huertas, assistant press secretary at the UCS, says that despite the number of organizations Exxon has stopped funding, there are still several active skeptics receiving Exxon money. Those include the Media Research Center, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute--for which former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond is the vice chair of the board of trustees. Those organizations received $55 000, $40 000, and $204 000, respectively, in 2007.
Exxon's Walton confirmed that currently the company does not have plans to discontinue funding to those groups in 2008, but he also says that not all funding decisions have been made for the year. The company annually publishes its contributions on its Web site. Walton also says that Exxon contributes to a wide variety of organizations, not just conservative groups. For example, Exxon donated $230 000 to the Brookings Institution and $125 000 to Stanford University in 2007.
Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, an environmental group, which tracks Exxon's funding, says that while he was thrilled to hear about the cuts, there was still work to do. ”We're not yet saying congratulations,” he says.
To the extent ExxonMobil shifts its position on climate change, there will be a discernible effect on the tone of public discussion, given its status and power as the world's largest corporation. But how much has it shifted its position, really? At the company's recent shareholder meeting, resolutions encouraging Exxon to reduce its emissions and invest in research on renewable energy sources failed.
”There was a real effort to deceive,” says Shulman, reflecting on the company's record in the climate debate. ”The intent over those years was really a disinformation campaign, and a very successful one,” he says.