Supran and Oreskes on ExxonMobils Communication of Climate Change

Over at Cliscep, Geoff Chambers gave a rather bitter review (with foul language) about a new paper, Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications (1977–2014) by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes.
One point that I would like to explore is part of a quote Geoff uses:-

The issue at stake is whether the corporation misled consumers, shareholders and/or the general public by making public statements that cast doubt on climate science and its implications, and which were at odds with available scientific information and with what the company knew. We stress that the question is not whether ExxonMobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ but rather how they communicated about it.

It is the communication of climate science by a very powerful oil company, that the paper concentrates upon. The approach reveals a lot about the Climate Change movement as well. In particular, this statement in the introduction:-

Research has shown that four key points of understanding about AGW—that it is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable—are important predictors of the public’s perceived issue seriousness, affective issue involvement, support for climate policies, and political activism [62–66].

The references are as follows

[62] Krosnick J A, Holbrook A L, Lowe L and Visser P S 2006 The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agendas: a study of popular concern about global warming Clim. Change 77 7–43
[63] Ding D, Maibach E W, Zhao X, Roser-Renouf C and Leiserowitz A 2011 Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement Nat. Clim. Change 1 462–6
[64] Roser-Renouf C, Maibach E W, Leiserowitz A and Zhao X 2014 The genesis of climate change activism: from key beliefs to political action Clim. Change 125 163–78
[65] Roser-Renouf C, Atkinson L, Maibach E and Leiserowitz A 2016 The consumer as climate activist Int. J. Commun. 10 4759–83
[66] van der Linden S L, Leiserowitz A A, Feinberg G D and Maibach E W 2015 The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: experimental evidence PLoS One 10 e0118489

For the purposes of Supran and Oreskes study, the understanding that people have of any issue does not require any substance at all beyond their beliefs. For instance, the Jehovah Witness Sect developing an “understanding” that Armageddon would occur in 1975. This certainly affected their activities in the lead up to the momentous history-ending event. Non-believers or members of the Christian Church may have been a little worried, shrugged their shoulders, or even thought the whole idea ridiculous. If similar studies to those on climate activism had been conducted on the prophecy of Armageddon 1975, similar results could have been found to those quoted for AGW beliefs in references 62-66. That is, the stronger the belief in the cause, whether religious evangelism in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses or ideological environmentalism in the case of AGW, is a predictor of activism in support of the cause. They cannot go further because of an issue with scholarly articles. Claims made must be substantiated, something that cannot be done with respect to the prophecies of climate catastrophism, except in a highly nuanced form.
But the statement that AGW is “real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” – repeated five times in the article – indicates something about the activists understanding of complex issues.
AGW is real” is not a proper scientific statement, as it is not quantified. Given that the impacts on surface temperatures can muffled and delayed nearly indefinitely by natural factors, or swallowed by the oceans, the belief can be independent of any contrary evidence for decades to come.
AGW is human-caused”, is saying “Human-caused global warming is human-caused”. It is a tautology that tells us nothing about the real world.
AGW is serious” is an opinion. It may be a very widely-held opinion, with many articles written with confirming evidence, and many concerned people attending massive conferences where it is discussed. But without clear evidence for emerging net adverse consequences, the opinion is largely unsubstantiated.
AGW is solvable” could be whether it is theoretically solvable, given the technology and policies being implemented. But the statement also includes whether it is politically solvable, getting actual policies to reduce emissions fully implemented. If the “solution” is the reduction of global emissions to a level commensurate with 2C of warming (hence a partial solution), then COP21 in Paris shows that AGW is a long way from being solvable, with no actual solution in sight. Whereas the 2C limit requires global emissions to be lower in 2030 than in 2015, and falling rapidly, fully implemented policies would still see emissions higher in 2030 than in 2015 and still increasing.

The statement AGW is “real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” is, therefore, nothing more than a mantra held by people who fail to distinguish between empirical and verifiable statements, tautologies, opinions and public policy that requires some fanciful global political implementation. 

Kevin Marshall


  1. Hi Kevin,

    Perhaps Oreskes and Supran would have done better to simply limit themselves to the IPCC’s very own three “Key Messages” as revealed by their latest and greatest communication gimmick. No less than 19 slides of which No. 6 illuminates these Key Messages:

    Human influence on the climate system is clear

    The more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk sever, pervasive and irreversible impacts

    We have the means to limit climate change, and build a more prosperous sustainable future


    One would think that so many years after Climategate 1.0 these “great communicators” could come up with something new and different to explain why their oh-so-frequently recycled mantra is so very far from fulfilling its … uh…potential. 😉

    • manicbeancounter

       /  12/09/2017

      Hi Hilary,
      It seems that since Climategate – or IPCC AR4 – the “great communicators” have taken center stage. It is their way of avoiding confronting the failure of the real world to conform to the theories. The result is ever more banal phrases but with greater elements of belief as illustrated in the last of the key messages, you quote.

      We have the means to limit climate change, and build a more prosperous sustainable future

      To build a more prosperous sustainable future requires central and detailed planning along with measures of performance. In relation to Supran and Oreskes, in analysing individual papers, they demonstrate why they have not a case for mitigation, like Exxon puts together a business case for its strategic investments. That would require weighing up the potential harms & risks of climate change against the potential harms & risks of policy. This might be the subject of another piece.

  2. Kevin, in today’s post-truth world, I don’t think it matters to the likes of Supran and Oreskes whether the statement “AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable” is true or not, or even whether it has any meaning.

    All that matters to them is whether the statement can be used to manipulate public opinion to support their political agenda – to get people to ‘support climate policies’ and engage in ‘political activism’.

    • manicbeancounter

       /  12/09/2017

      I agree that in a Post-Truth world it is only ideologically-based opinion that matters. But those with any concern for truth, justice, honesty, common decency or the poor, should call them out. One of the elements is to shut down successful Western businesses, whilst doing nothing to combat that State-backed OPEC cartel that caused so much misery in the 1970s and destroyed a number of smaller fledgling and highly competitive oil businesses a couple of years ago.

  3. hunter

     /  08/11/2017

    Excellent deconstruction if the Oreskes-style hype.

  1. The Inferior Methods in Supran and Oreskes 2017 | ManicBeancounter
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