It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Change at Exxon

I think many bloggers still believe that Exxon is an ongoing supporter of denialists. I wonder if this is true.

An interesting report in the NYTimes documents the Rockefeller family's efforts to nucleate a shareholder push toward a broader energy portfolio at Exxon. I found the following of interest:
Kenneth P. Cohen, vice president for public affairs at Exxon, said the shareholders pushing the resolutions were “starting from a false premise.” He added that the company was already concerned about “how to provide the world the energy it needs while at the same time reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

...

Since taking over the company two years ago, Mr. Tillerson has gradually shifted the company’s positions away from those of his predecessor, Lee R. Raymond, who was considered a skeptic on the science of global warming.
Now, while this is (ahem) consistent with a rather lukewarm acceptance of the global climate problem, it is not very consistent with outright denialism. This would mean that even with a failure of the shareholder resolution, the last of the major oil companies has already turned toward a more realistic position.

How did we reach a point where a huge slice of the public is still buying the bogus arguments of the denialists when they no longer hold any influence even at the most resistant of the major oil companies?

Update: In the comments, John Mashey points to a relevant story on DeSmog. Thanks, John!

Update: The financial press is reporting it thus.

20 comments:

zencarver said...

Michael,

You wrote:

Now, while this is (ahem) consistent with a rather lukewarm acceptance of the global climate problem, it is not very consistent with outright denialism.

Whether anyone at ExxonMobil is now, or was in the past, an outright denier of the problem is of less import than the years of funding those who did deny the reality of climate change. The ideologues were provided with all the fodder they would need to fight any and all action on solving the problem, and ExxonMobil was able to flourish spectacularly while the status quo was maintained.

Gracias,
Moi

Michael Tobis said...

Z., I agree that there is a moral debt to be paid by those who have promoted the dire confusion. On the other hand, the first step is to stop making matters worse. It must be recognized that this is a positive move.

My question stands. If even Exxon/Mobil recognizes the problem, why is the confusion movement still so vigorous?

From all I can see the public discourse keeps getting worse, even though there is no component of the energy industry that doesn't recognize that the future of energy will be dramatically different from the past.

Anonymous said...

Well, the CFC-ozone denial movement kept going long after the CFC manufacturers gave up - DuPont announced its support of the Montreal Protocol in 1988, yet as late as 1995 Singer and Baliunas were testifying in Congress on behalf of Tom Delay's proposal to reverse the CFC phaseout. Indeed, during the last phase of CFC-ozone denial it was common to see allegations that the CFC manufacturers had *created* the 'ozone scare' so that they would be able too profit by selling newly patented alternatives. I suspect we'll see similar accusations about the Energy industry in the next decade.

Robert P.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, Robert, and presuming you are the Robert P one would suspect, a special welcome and thanks for dropping by.

John Mashey said...

Michael:
AGW denialism appears to have various roots:

1) Obvious company economics
ex: ExxonMobil, Western Fuels Association

2) Ideological, i.e., "under no circumstances can the government regulate anything that might interfere with business", i.e., AEI, CEI, Cato, George C. Marshall Institute, etc.

3) Family Foundations, economics of family wealth built on coal, oil, etc, but often ideological as well:
ex: Scaife, Charles Koch Foundations, etc.

4) Political:
"Al Gore says so, so it must be wrong"
ex: James Inhofe

====
In my tracking around through this, looking at Sourcewatch, EM giving records, etc, I actually *don't think* that most of the funds going to the various entities came from EM. I think the family foundations in particular are bigger funders... but it's hard to prove.

SO, EM may be lessening its support, for which I applaud them ... BUT, there are still more out there.

There's more detail over at DeSMogBlog

Dano said...

My question stands. If even Exxon/Mobil recognizes the problem, why is the confusion movement still so vigorous?

IMHO, the last real strategy that has a chance is the impression that the voters/grass roots [e.g. every third day, seemingly, in the Denver papers is a letter to editor that essentially states "GLOBUL WARMINS A SCAY-UM" and there are 335 comments to that letter, 315 of which essentially say the same thing, albeit uncapitalized] are vast enough to get mobilized against if a decision-maker makes the wrong move to anger this "vast" crowd of voters.

BTW, Matt Kahn has an interesting take on this, here.

Best,

D

zencarver said...

We heard similar in 2006.

Link by way of Deltoid.

Steven said...

This goes to the heart of the two-faced arrogance that I have mentioned before.

Of course everyone on each side assumes they are right, so that gets us nowhere. Assuming an objective and nuetral frame for the even handed debate, look at this from such a position:

You make a joke out of the possibility that you could be doing this for anything other than pure love. i.e. It's silly to think you could be "in this for the gold".

However, this is exactly what you accuse others of. I can think of many motivations for which people would profess to be on both sides of AGW debate.

On the Pro:
1. Genuine scientific belief.
2. Political capital.
3. Environmental religiosity.
4. Anti-Capital/Industrial.
5. The chicks on campus get hot for guys who support green causes.
6. Paid off.

On the Anti:
1. Genuine scientific belief.
2. Political capital.
3. Hate nature. (?)
4. Anti-regulation.
5. Anti-Hippie
6. Religious faith.
7. Personal investment (in oil, ex)
8. Paid off.

That's just a short list. I'm sure there are more. The point being that I can't test the hypothesis on anyone as to what their motive is. How could I possibly conduct an experiment to know why someone truly espouses the position they do.

Exxon/Mobil may be cynically taking the easier route because they assume it's unlikely the general public will know any better, and they can make head-fake PR fixes that look and sound good while mostly conducting business as usual.

I think this whole line of investigation as to motives is essentially fruitless. Both sides will make the same arguments and use all the same language. Neither offers an increase in evidence of what the temperature will be in 2100.

Before engaging in more of this same type of thing, do a "Mad Lib" and replace all the nouns with those of your own movement and you'll remember that this is pointless.

Anna said...

If Exxon really had changed its spots and wanted this known (and believed), they could redeem themselves by issuing "We at Exxon want you to know that anthropogenic global warming is real & denialists are delusional" type public service announcements. Coming from them it'd carry more weight with the remaining doubters, and the fact that they were actually trying to help the education effort now would carry weight with the rest of us.

As it is, we remain, ahem, skeptical.

Anna said...

> why is the confusion movement still so vigorous?

Find out who's funding Grassfire.org and I bet you'll have your answer.

Michael Tobis said...

Steven, there are two fundamental misunderstandings here.

First, that I am part of a "movement". Fundamentally I am just trying to convey important information which I have better access to than the public does.

Second, and more important, that my ideas of who is doing what why are universal. In fact, I have often said that the number of genuinely dishonest people can be very small. However, some of the arguments we see are such that they could not have been contrived by people who don't at some level actually know those arguments to be false.

I don't even claim that the dishonest arguments are unique to denialists. They are simply in a better position to promulgate them, being better organized, more skilled (with links to pro-tobacco, pro-CFC and anti-evolution movements, and at least until recently far better funded.

I am not saying everyone who adopts the denialist frame is dishonest. I am saying that by now they are all victims, to some extent, of a few people manipulating evidence and pretending (in some cases pretending to themselves) to be practicing scientists.

You think I am closed-minded but you don't go to the seminars.

Dano said...

This goes to the heart of the two-faced arrogance that I have mentioned before.

This is a repetition of the frame about 'elites', as is the rest of the argumentation, IMO.

Neither offers an increase in evidence of what the temperature will be in 2100.

I'd like to see evidence in the future too.

Say, what are the winning Powerball numbers this coming Saturday? That's the evidence I'm tawkin' 'bout.

Seein' the fyoocher. That's what we need more of.

Best,

D

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, I agree that in some moral sense they ought to do that, but I'd be astonished if it would happen anytime soon.

Whatever else Exxon is, it is also a social fabric. Human institutions don't work like that. There are surely genuine skeptics at Exxon in various corners. Internal morale won't put up with such abrupt turnarounds. Corporations are designed to look out for themselves and not the rest of us. Presuming all the various corners of the institution forking money over to thinktanks are actually brought into line, Exxon has helped the discourse as much as it is capable of doing for now.

I believe the job of disentangling the big picture mess left over from past denialist success falls more naturally to the press. The press are supposed to look out for the public interest, and not just their own, right? Or is that just PR, branding left over from a more innocent time?

Steven said...

Michael:

I can't help but be reminded of a Chrichton interview in your closing.

[I'm sure everyone already has their eyes-rolled, hackles up, and blinders on. Nevertheless I continue.]

On Charlie Rose, he said (paraphrasing~) "I don't read the policy summaries, I read the scientific papers they are based on".

He went on to say that he went to a seminar in Germany, and was met by a very hostile audience. He was capable of following the science and the theories, and as he tried to ask questions and nail down specific points "Ok, so these are your numbers, this is what you are saying..." everyone got real quiet.

From his account, his experience has been that when pressed by people who could actually follow all the scientific arguments, the AGW proponents aren't willing to show their data or have it scrutinized, and that they are generally evasive.

You're right in that I don't go to the seminars. I also grant that you don't have to be lumped in with anyone whose position you don't agree with by your own statement. For the sake of brevity, I don't parse everything down to that level of detail, but you certainly have to opportunity to state what group you are, or are not with.

I still think you treat the subject glibbly, use tactics and convey information in ways that you wouldn't want others using with you on the other end of the stick. That tone, and the information that usually comes with it, I think adds little or nothing to the debate.

My initial interests here were to continue to expose myself to AGW arguments and proponents thoughts, and to hear your specific criticisms of economics in relation to AGW.

Specific information pro-AGW that is understandable to the layman has been very thin... which is unfortunate because I think it's an area you could really make your niche (or one of). Specifics about economics have been thin as well. I hear a lot of "I don't understand and don't like econ" but very little evidence that you have made any effort to understand it.

One strong point has been your critique of free trade, and the prospect of wealthy buyers bidding the price of rice out of the reach of poor locals. It's not overwhelmingly compelling, and there are already an easy handful of counter arguments- but it has been a puzzle I've expended much time and thought to ever since you mentioned it.

John Mashey said...

Steven:
1) Do you live anywhere where you could actually attend seminars? Many scientists actually give quite understandable lectures to lay audiences and are quite patient in answering questions.

2) Are there other areas of science do you a prefer a science-fiction writer (outside their own science domain) to the mainstream science position? [For some people, including at least one well-known scifi author I've met, almost every mainstream science position is wrong. At the other extreme, AGW is the *only* area of science where the mainstream is distrusted.]

3) Here are 3 people, including one non-scientist, that I find rather hard to ignore:

Peter Darbee, CEO of a major gas & electric utility.
“Peter Darbee, now winding up his second year as chief exec of PG&E Corp., is a self-professed conservative and no great friend to progressive causes.” Read how a classical skeptic [not a denier] went about learning, changed his position, and started taking action. He's a finance guy, not a scientist.

Nobel Physicist Burton Richter, in G*mbling with the future.
I heard a subset of this talk years ago, and his verbal comments were *rather firm* along the lines of the Abstract. If you look at the slides, and have seen the (later) AIT, you may notice some resemblance to the first part of the talk. Burton gave this to a 30-person lay audience, and patiently answered lots of questions. I've heard similar talks from ~10 climate scientists over the years, at least some for lay audiences.

Geoscientist Lord Ron Oxburgh, ex-Chairman of Shell in UK who is really very worried for the planet. I’ve known him for years - he's smart, he's straightforward, and if he’s worried, I’m scared.

I’d be truly delighted if their concerns were baseless. *Anyone* can be wrong, but *I'm* certainly not smart enough to ignore what such people say.

3) There is plenty of layman-accessible information around - if you think it's thin, a few pointers will help.

If you haven't seen Naomi Oreskes' video American Denial Global Warming, it's a fine description of both the science and the later-manufactured controversy, by a fine geoscientist/science historian who knows personally some of the people she discusses, and one of whose specialities is the study of controversy in or around science.

Try the "Science Links" section of RealClimate. Flip through that list, and you should find at least several written at an appropriate level.

To that add:
UK Met

and Skeptical Science, a nicely-organized list of common long-refuted bad arguments.

bi -- IJI said...

Steven:

"the AGW proponents aren't willing to show their data or have it scrutinized, and that they are generally evasive."

Yeah, yeah, I can understand. See that temperature drop from January 2007 to January 2008. Well, the "AGW proponents" can say that it's not part of a long-term trend, that you need to look at periods of 30+ years... but if they say that, obviously they're being "evasive"! The fact remains that there was a temperature drop from January 2007 to January 2008! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop! Temperature drop!

"and to hear your specific criticisms of economics in relation to AGW."

I'm perfectly fine with economics, just not the non-peer-reviewed economics that the Fraser Institute, the Heartland Institute, the AEI, and other "free-market" purveyors gloom and doom like to pump out. I'm sure there's also a Warmist Conspiracy Theory of Economists to go along with this whole thing.

Steven said...

John M:
Thanks. I happen to be a big fan of Chrichton in general, having read almost all of his books, and being aware of him since way before AGW came up. I understand he is not a climatologist, but similar to how I've described myself in another thread- If a reasonably intelligent guy who can read and follow science can't be allowed to critique the theory, where does that get us?

It means we would simple have to take some group of experts at their word. I think that's dangerous and has real historical examples that have turned out very badly.

I appreicate the links. I will follow up with those over time.

I have been in some lectures that may not qualify with the type of seminar you have in mind. My experience has been that asking any questions gets you a very hostile greeting.

I have visited some of the links and other common sources. (RealClimate) What I find is that they aren't well organized and don't specifically address the issues I have questions about in a 1,2,3 fashion.

In fact, I could design exactly what I would like to see in a point by point pro-AGW rebuttal. It would be nice to see both sides compiled TOGETHER in such a way. As it is, the information from both sides comes from many different sources, rarely directly rebuts the other, and is not easily found in one place.

I freely admit that some of the anti-AGW stuff is from kooks and wingnuts. That's another problem.

I find this situation very comparative to my position as an atheist. I'm very used to receiving stunned disbelief by those around me who are predominantly religious.

tidal said...

Steven,

I have visited some of the links and other common sources. (RealClimate) What I find is that they aren't well organized and don't specifically address the issues I have questions about in a 1,2,3 fashion.

Have you actually been to the Start Here entry at Real Climate? (Note: My link to Real Climate is different than the suggestion John made above... check it out.) If you still maintain that the information you seek is not well-organized, and not targeted at various levels of interest/expertise... then I really don't know what else to suggest... By the way, none of the pointers at that site are back to Real Climate, fwiw...

I could design exactly what I would like to see in a point by point pro-AGW rebuttal. It would be nice to see both sides compiled TOGETHER in such a way. As it is, the information from both sides comes from many different sources, rarely directly rebuts the other, and is not easily found in one place.

Again, at the Real Climate "Start Here" site, there are several pointers to sites that do exactly what you describe in the subsection "Informed, but seeking serious discussion of common contrarian talking points:". I don't think I am the first to specifically recommend John Cook's excellent site, Skeptical Science. It's well-referenced as well, if you want to investigate the original work, etc.

Frankly, if those references don't help you, then I don't know how much more we can reasonably do to assist you.

tidal said...

By the way, one other pointer for Steven that I highly recommend, and that I think might be at the right depth. This is a 78-page pdf from the Australian government. It is a little dated (pre-IPCC AR4, as I recall...), but it does a very thorough job of describing the basic sciences, observation methodologies, the development of climate models over the past quarter-century, the history of the UNFCCC, etc. Hope that this helps as well.

If you do review this, I think one thing you might want to reflect on: When you, as you say, assemble the "pro-AGW rebuttal", do you tend to get a synthesis of results, a comprehensive model of climate - such as in the above pdf - or is it simply a bunch of contrarian points. I think that is a key distinction to look for, fwiw...

Steven said...

Thanks Tidal:

Funny, I haven't looked at RC from that link. Most of what I've seen there has just been reading the daily feed of what's on the page at whatever time someone has linked there. I don't "hang out" at RC and I haven't by any means delved through the whole thing. It's a big web out there.

I'll follow through with your stuff. Here's the thing though, is anything I see there going to surprise me? It's not that I've never heard the basic scientific concepts behind AGW.

What I find unlikely is that
1. We have enough information to accurately know what climate will look like in 100 years. That's a LONG time.
2. We have any idea what human technology will be like in 10, 20, 30 years. Just imagine yourself five years before the invention of the IC engine, the first nuclear plant, the iPod, the internet.
3. We can make specific policy reccommendations now.

My biggest concern though is much more general. We're talking about the world. THE WORLD. I think there are so many ways in which people can "oops, didn't think about that". In fact, pro-AGW scientists and politicians should really understand that, because that's exactly what they are accusing society at large of.

I think the policy end has a very distrubing feel of "I know better than you and here's what we should do."

That always makes me nervouse. It's been responsible for millions of deaths on this planet before. I don't like to let the argument jump the tracks by invoking Hitler or Stalin or Mao, but I do think it's relevant to consider. I can't help but give pause when the recommendations made by some are amazingly like the same recommendations they've been making for 60-70 years, before they had the be-all, end-all global reason for them.