Saturday, February 03, 2007

Climate Change Conversations with ExxonMobil, Part 3: The Court of Public Opinion

The Allegations

Amidst all of the headlines yesterday about the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4th Assessment Report, released Friday (see previous posts here and here), another set of climate change-related headlines may have caught your eye: "Exxon linked to climate change payoff," read one headline at CNN online:
A think tank partly funded by Exxon Mobil sent letters to scientists offering them up to $10,000 to critique findings in a major global warming study released Friday which found that global warming was real and likely caused by burning fossil fuels.

The American Enterprise Institute sent the letters to scientists offering them $10,000, plus travel and other expenses, to highlight the shortcomings in a report from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group widely considered to be the authority on climate change science.
Environmental groups and media outlikes alike jumped on this story which spread like wildfire through cyberspace and print media.

When considered in the context of the many front-page articles on the IPCC report and it's "unequivocal" statements about the occurance of climate change and humans' role in causing it, a story about ExxonMobil, still widely viewed as one of the remaining detractors of climate science, being linked to a right-of-center think tank offering cash to scientists willing to impune the credibility of the climate report was simply to good an angle not to publish, it seems.

As those of you who read my previous "Cimate Change Conversations with ExxonMobil" know (Part 1 and Part 2), I have been lucky enough to have opened a line of dialogue with Ken Cohen, Vice President for Public Relations with ExxonMobil. After being made aware of these new headlines concerning ExxonMobil's reported involvement with AEI and their alleged attempts to fund scientists willing to criticize the IPCC consensus report, I decided to take advantage of this line of communication and give Mr. Cohen and ExxonMobil a chance to respond to the story before jumping on the all-to-popular Exxon-bashing bandwagon. Read on for Exxon's reponse...

Exxon's Position on Climate Change Science and the IPCC Report

The allegations of Exxon's continued involvement with organizations seeking to prolong the debate on the science of climate change and impune the credibility of the remarkable scientific consensus that has emerged on the subject in recent years directly contradicted the position on cimate change that Mr. Cohen had articulated in our previous conversation last week.

"We believe climate change is a serious issue and that action must be taken,” Cohen said during last Friday's conference call.

Mr. Cohen made it very clear in that conversation and in the follow-up conversation that occured yesterday that ExxonMobil's position is that the scientific debate was the wrong debate to be having at this point.

"The debate is not about whether the climate is warming," Mr. Cohen said yesterday. "You could say that debate is over," he said. "The debate is now about what the best policy response is. What are policies that put us on a path to produce the energy the world needs but do it in a way that has a lower emissions impact. That's what we're focusing on [at ExxonMobil]."

In the first conference call, Mr. Cohen also maintained that ExxonMobil had decided to stop funding at least some of the organizations that had been accused by the British Royal Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists of 'misrepresenting the science of climate change' sometime in 2005, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute (responsible for the rediculous "Some call it carbon dioxide, we call it life" ads - video here [it's good for a laugh!]).

The American Enterprise Institute was on the BRS and UCS lists of organizations engaged in 'tobacco-industry style disinformation campaigns' to confuse the science of climate change, and I had assumed in our previous conversation that AEI was among those that ExxonMobil had stopped funding.

How was I to reconcile these new headlines with what Mr. Cohen had told me just last friday? Were the headlines wrong, had Mr. Cohen misled me, or did I simply misundestand his comments? I decided to go straight to the source and find out.

Within 20 minutes of contacting the PR firm, APCO Worldwide", that had setup the previous conference call, I had gotten a personal email response from Mr. Cohen, and in 45 minutes, myself and three of the other bloggers who had participated in the previous conference call were on another call with Mr. Cohen.

[Other conference call participants included Susan Smith of Environmental Law Prof Blog, Stuart Staniford of The Oil Drum, and Maria Surma Manka of Green Options].

We had also been provided with two statements, a longer one responding to the IPCC report, and a shorter one on the AEI story, originally broke by the Guardian (UK).

The Exxon statement on the IPCC report had some pretty reasonable stuff to say [full statement here]:
"The release of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of Climate Science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an important contribution to informed debate on the issue of climate change. The IPCC report process is valuable in that it facilitates the sharing of global scientific knowledge and encourages further inquiry on the important issue of climate change.

"The Fourth Assessment Report of Climate Science provides an extensive update of scientific understanding regarding Earth's climate. It describes the scientific basis for concern regarding the risk of climate change and attempts for the first time to characterize the probabilities for change.


"There is increasing evidence that the earth's climate has warmed on average about 0.6 C in the last century. Many global ecosystems, especially the polar areas, are showing signs of warming. CO2 emissions have increased during this same time period - and emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions.

"Because the risks to society and ecosystems could prove to be significant, it is prudent now to develop and implement strategies that address the risks, keeping in mind the central importance of energy to the economies of the world. This includes putting policies in place that start us on a path to reduce emissions, while understanding the context of managing carbon emissions among other important world priorities, such as economic development, poverty eradication and public health."
In our conversation later, Mr. Cohen made it clear that ExxonMobil respected the findings of the IPCC report and considered it to be "the best compilation of thinking on the subject at this point." He said that Exxon's position is that the climate is indeed warming, that CO2 emissions are at their highest levels "probably in 400,000 years," that those levels are the cause of the warming and that "Man's use of fossil fuels, land use decisions and other activities contribute to those levels."

"The question is not the science," Mr Cohen said several times. "The question should now be what are serious policy options to deal with it."

Furthermore, when asked how long this position had been held by ExxonMobil, Mr. Cohen pointed to their "Tomorrow's Energy" report, released in early 2006 (Mr. Cohen had said 2005, but the report I found was dated February 2006) in which they say:
"[W]e recognize that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere poses risks that may prove significant for society and ecosystems. We believe that these risks justify actions now, but that the selection of actions must consider the uncertainties that remain. Notwithstanding those uncertainties, ExxonMobil is taking action to address these risks."
The report also stated the ExxonMobil agreed that concentrations of greenhouse gases were up, that "human activities have contributed to these increased concentrations" and that the earth had indeed warmed by "about 0.6 C since the mid-1800s."

Mr. Cohen said that that report had been in preperation for several years before it's release and that it was thus fair to say that Exxon had held this position on climate change science "since 2001 or 2002."

[ I should also point out that the "Tomorrow's Energy" report makes a big deal out of the remaining levels of uncertainty in the IPCC Third Assessment Report, released in 2001. At that time, the IPCC had concluded that the earth was indeed warming (with >90% certainty), but that they could only say with >66% certainty that human activities were the cause of the majority of that warming.

The latest report released yesterday raises that level of certainty to "very likely" or >90% certainty and now says "unequivocally" (>99% certainty) that the earth has been warming and will continue to warm due to increased greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Presumably, given this increase in the level of certainty on climate change, ExxonMobil will have to back off of such discussions of remaining uncertainties.

To be fair, I should also say that despite bringing up the uncertainties in the 2001 IPCC report, the Exxon report did say that "even with many scientific uncertainties, the risk that greenhouse gas emissions may have serious impacts justifies taking action." (Well that was a long-winded digression... I apologize...) ]

Exxon and AEI - Reconciling Inconsistencies

So, if it is indeed ExxonMobil's position that the scientific debate on climate change "is over," that the scientific question "is the wrong question," and that it is now time to move on to discussing in ernest the appropriate policy response, and furthermore, that ExxonMobil has held that position for several years now, how do we reconcile this with the alleged attemps by AEI, long a recipient of ExxonMobil funding, to fund scientists trying to continue the debate on the science of global warming?

Is this a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is up to? Or, as the cynic in me might conclude, is this a case of Exxon saying one thing while funding "independent groups" that are up to another thing, while maintaining a convenient level of deniability?

Or has this simply been a failure by ExxonMobil's PR department to adequately disseminate their true position on climate change, as articulated in the "Tomorrow's Energy" report, the statements on the IPCC report and in our conversations with Mr Cohen, in order to counteract widely held and deeply entrenched public opinion that Exxon's position was in fact just the opposite?

First off, I asked Mr. Cohen what ExxonMobil's relationship is with the American Enterprise Institute including their history and level of funding and the purpose of that funding.

Mr Cohen replied that they have been longtime funders of AEI and that they continued to fund them today, but not at the level alleged in the Guardian story (i.e. $1.6 million). He pointed out that Exxon funds a variety of independent think tanks including what Mr Cohen descibed as "right-of-center" groups like AEI, as well as more liberal organizations like the Brookings Institute.

According to Mr. Cohen, ExxonMobil currently funds AEI at the level of about $250,000 per year, and that as per AEI's policy, no single organization funds more than 1% of AEI's operating budget. The funds go into AEI's general operating budget. The $1.6 million reported by the Guardian is a composite figure totalling all of the funding recieved by AEI over the many years Exxon has funded the think tank.

As to the purpose of Exxon's funding for AEI, Mr Cohen said that they had no particular outcome in mind. He said: "What we want is good analysis. [AEI] is a think tank. They bring in smart people and give them a stipend and an office and let them to do what they do best: think, research, publish. We think that as long as that is done in a appropriate way with credible scholarship, that's something we think we have a place in funding. We're looking for good discussions and good ideas."

He pointed out that AEI is an independent organization and that Exxon does not control what they say or do. Mr Cohen said that while they are a "right-of-center" organization, they publish a variety of ideas, not all of which Exxon agrees with.

Exxon often flatly disagrees with their positions on energy security and international energy policy, Mr Cohen said. He also pointed out that "one of AEI's scholars recently published a paper in favor of a carbon tax to combat global warming." [I'm not sure what specific report Mr Cohen was referring to, and he couldn't recall the title at the time, but a quick search turned up this short AEI article criticizing President Bush's latest 'energy independence' proposals and promoting a carbon tax as a better alternative.]

When I pointed out that in our previous discussion, Mr Cohen had implied that Exxon had decided in 2005 to de-fund organizations involved in the kind of activities alleged by the Guardian story in their 2006 budget. Mr Cohen responded that he had said that they had stopped funding "many" such organizations, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but that he had not specifically said anything about AEI.

Looking back over my notes, I suppose that is indeed true, although Mr Cohen certainly seemed to imply at the time that Exxon was no longer involved with organizations engaged in these kinds of activities.

Mr Cohen pointed out that a full list of organizations recieving funding from ExxonMobil in 2005 could be found online here and that a report on 2006 funding levels was due out soon (sometime this quarter).

The 2005 spending report shows that AEI recieved $235,000 in "general operating support" funding. Exxon also provided $95,000 in "general operating support" and $75,000 in "project support" to the Brookings Institute (for a total of $170,000), as well as $270,000 in funding for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2005.

When asked to specify which specific organizations Exxon had decided to de-fund after 2005, Mr Cohen declined, saying that the 2006 spending report was coming out soon and that he "would rather do it that way."

I asked Mr Cohen specifically if AEI was indeed funding efforts to impeach the credibility of the IPCC report and prolong the debate on science of climate change, would Exxon continue to fund AEI in the future?

Mr. Cohen declined to provide a 'yes or no' answer, but responded that they were not aware of the activities alleged in the Guardian article. "We were not aware of this, and it is not something we condone," he said. "Our decision now is whether or not we want to continue to contribute to their general operations."

Mr Cohen went on to say:
"The way we approach science is that it is what it is. It's a process that reaches a conclusion. We do not believe in fostering scientific research with a preordained outcome. The question [when it comes to AEI] is are they preordaining the outcome. We [Exxon] are not shopping for science.

When it come to policy, we think it's fair to look at how it affects us as a company, as long as we are transparent, and say 'this is our position on this policy because it will affect us in this way.' We have a responsibility to be open and honest in our positions on policies."
Stuart Staniford, of The Oil Drum asked Mr Cohen what kind of discussions they had had internally with their PR folks about how they would respond to the IPCC report, and what kinds of independent organizations they might seek out to respond to the report.

Mr. Cohen responded:
"No we did not consider managing the public discussion on the IPCC report in any way shape or form. The report is what it is. The IPCC process brings together some of the best scientific minds on climate science. We participated in that process and we are a company that goes by the science.

The debate is not about whether the climate is warming. You could say that debate is over. The debate is about what the best policy response is. What are policies that put us on a path to produce the energy the world needs but do it in a way that has a lower emissions impact. That's what we're focusing on."

A Question of Public Relations

At this point in our conversation, it was clear that ExxonMobil's position on climate change, as Mr. Cohen was articulating it, was not supportive of any activities designed to continue the debate on the science of climate change or impune the credibility of the IPCC report.

It was clear, then, that this was truly a question of public relations. If Exxon's position was one thing, yet public perception of their position was entirely the opposite, we were looking at a very clear failure on Exxon's behalf to make the public aware of their true position on climate change and to convince them that they were serious about talking about policy solutions.

The cynic in me still considered it likely that Exxon had been trying to get away with saying one thing publicly while funding organizations like AEI and CEI with the aim of simultaneously continuing to prolong the weary debate on climate science. [If that is the case, hopefully this latest PR 'shitstorm' will convince Exxon that they can't get away with that kind of activity in this day and age!]

Still, I'm willing to give ExxonMobil a chance to convince me that this isn't the case, and the conversation soon turned to what ExxonMobil should do from a PR perspective to convince the public that they are not trying to prolong the scientific debate and are serious about discussing policy solutions.

At one point, Mr. Cohen said, "There are groups out there that want to put us is in a bucket that we are denying what the best scientific minds are saying. We're not in denial about that. The question is about what the policy response should be."

"Perhaps Greenpeace and others need a bad guy out there for their fund raising," Mr. Cohen said. "I refuse to be that bad person, we're not that bad person."

OK, Mr. Cohen. But now you've got to prove it to us.

Susan Smith, of the Environmental Law Professor Blog, got to the heart of the matter and asked, "given the desire to get out of 'the bucket,' don't you have to take a proactive approach and publicly say 'we don't want to be in anyway associated with efforts to continue the debate on the wrong question [the climate science]'?"

Mr Cohen responded:
"I believe in the rule of holes. The first rule is to stop digging, and the second rule is to figure out how to get out of the hole.

As for the first rule, any group that is getting funding from us and active in this area, a representative from Exxon has made it clear to them what our position is. We're not over here in this bucket of resisting the science. You can do whatever you want think tank, but Exxon is over here thinking and talking about what policies makes sense economically and environmentally. We've met some resistance from some groups, and then we have to go back and consider closing the door on those groups."
As for how to 'get out of the hole' Exxon is clearly sitting in today, Mr. Cohen initially rejected the idea of "a grandiose PR campaign."

"It would be hard for me to visualize doing that," he said, "but we are trying to be constructive in the policy discussion and not be associated with groups that are marginalizing themselves on the scientific discussion."

I pressed Mr. Cohen on this point though, asking him, "If this has been your position for quite some time, since 2001 or 2002 even, then why have you not made a larger public effort to make your position on climate change clear?"

Mr. Cohen responded quite frankly, saying, "That's a fair criticism. Clearly I need to do a better job on that front."

And this is what it all comes down to: the court of public opinion.

ExxonMobil has clearly not been winning this battle, and frankly, it doesn't look like they've been trying particularly hard to do so.

It all comes down to effective PR and Exxon's image in the public eye.

It's going to be up to ExxonMobil to convince a very skeptical public that Exxon wants to be a constructive participant in the ongoing discussions on policy solutions to climate change, that they consider the scientific debate to be over, and that they are no longer involved with any organizations seeking to prolong this debate.

It's not going to an easy task, and it's going to take a very proactive and public effort. A press conference on the scale of the US Climate Action Partnership announcement two weeks ago and a consistent and concerted effort to distance Exxon from any organizations that could even be percieved as linking them to efforts to impune the credibilty of the scientific consensus on climate change will probably be necessary - after all, this is all about perceptions.

But ExxonMobil clearly has access to the best PR money can buy, and if they truly want to prove to the public that they are a constructive member of the dialogue on climate change solutions, they can do it; they're just going to have to work at it.

Frankly, it's up to Mr Cohen and his PR department. I'll be waiting to see how much they care about this.

If they want to change public perceptions, they'll have to redouble their efforts. If they don't mind continuing to be viewed as one of the last major climate change detractors, then all they have to do is sit back and wait for the next eager 'investigative reporter' to dig up something - anything - linking Exxon to efforts prolonging the climate science debate. Unless Exxon is very careful about avoiding any 'sticky situations,' it's only a matter of time before the next big Exxon-bashing headline.

As Mr Cohen must be keenly aware at this point, there are plenty of folks out there waiting to pick on Exxon. After all, the largest corporation in the world, currently enjoying record profits, is a very easy target, especially when they continue to get caught up with folks like AEI or CEI who insist on marginalizing themselves on climate change and are taking Exxon along with them...

At this point, the conference call wrapped up, but I followed up with a frank email suggesting what Exxon would have to do to 'get out of the hole' and start shifting the public's awareness of Exxon's position on climate change. The text of that email will be published in a 'Part Four' to follow shortly...

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