Geoffrey Supran is a Research Associate at Harvard University and co-author of Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications (1977–2014). We discuss what ExxonMobil knew about climate change, its relentless campaign to deny the reality of climate science, and the importance of speaking truth to power.
Beginning in 1959, ExxonMobil became scientifically aware of the dangers of human-caused climate change. By the 1970s-80s, they had a detailed, precise understanding of climate change. Their peer-reviewed and well-respected internal research gave them access to government meetings and academic conferences. In turn, knowledge about the status of the science and policies helped guide and inform business decisions. Internal memos show that in response to the scientific evidence, executives chose to publicly spread uncertainty and denial.
ExxonMobil invented the advertorial, a paid advertisement that is written and presented like an editorial. This content ran every Thursday on the New York Times Opinion page beginning in 1972. Its longevity and proliferation make it one of the largest propaganda campaigns in history. Approximately 80% of the company’s advertorials denied, obfuscated, or encouraged skepticism about climate science. During the same time that these public climate denial ads ran, the company’s peer-reviewed academic literature accepted and acknowledged that global warming is real, human-caused, and solvable.
Supran is a scientist and an activist, calling for MIT to divest from fossil fuels and organizing the first major scientist protest against the Trump administration. He believes that speaking truth to power about climate change is his civic duty, especially because he is a scientist. He quotes Einstein, who would agree: “Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act.” Due to a long history of interest groups pushing academics and scholars to be impartial, many scientists are reluctant to be activists. The stakes are too high for silence.
Trustworthy climate news sources:
The Guardian – Environment
The New York Times – Climate and Environment
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Geoffrey Supran is a Research Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Working alongside Professor Naomi Oreskes, he investigates the history of global warming politics; particularly the climate communications, denial, and delay tactics of fossil fuel interests. He is also a Postdoctoral Affiliate with Professor Jessika Trancik at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Supran’s academic publications include the first ever peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications, which demonstrated that the company has misled the public. It was the seventh most talked-about climate change article of 2017, with global news coverage reaching a potential audience of half a billion people, and it was cited by Anderson Cooper during CNN’s 2019 U.S. Democratic presidential Climate Town Hall.
Supran has briefed U.S. Senators and Governors, testified as an expert witness to European (EU) Parliament and the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, and co-authored several amicus briefs in support of climate litigation.
You can follow him on Twitter @GeoffreySupran.