Fossil Fuel Execs Lied to the Public About Climate Science for Years

A new report on what Rex Tillerson and others were up to has come out just in time for the ExxonMobil trial.
Rex Tillerson at a table with the ExxonMobil logo behind him.
Rex Tillerson, who was a top ExxonMobil executive before becoming Donald Trump's first secretary of state, in 2008. Photo by Brian Harkin/Getty

On Monday, just days before ExxonMobil goes on trial in New York state for allegedly lying to its investors about the risks of climate change, a team of academic researchers released an extensive report detailing the company's decades-long campaign to mislead the wider public about the reality of the climate crisis.

Per the suit and the report, as executives at the fossil fuel company—like Rex Tillerson, who left ExxonMobil in 2017 to become Donald Trump's secretary of state—were hearing one thing from the scientists they employed, they were telling the public another, investors a third, and themselves a fourth. Often, the arguments employed by the fossil fuel industry to minimize climate change didn't make sense when considered together, a dynamic the authors of the Center for Climate Change Communication report called "contradictory contrarianism." (Ironically, the center is housed at George Mason University, which is also home to several Koch brothers projects, like the Mercatus Center; the Koch family is among the most aggressive funders of climate denial networks.)


"Climate denial lacks consistency because it is not about scientific evidence—it is about how to continue business as usual in the face of climate disruption," the researchers write. "Climate deniers reject climate science because they are averse to proposed or perceived solutions to climate change."

As recounted by the report, energy companies knew climate change was real for decades, but they responded not by working to change the practices that were contributing to it but by deceiving the public, a campaign that included a now-infamous full-page advertorial in the New York Times on the "Unsettled Science" of climate change. These companies attempted to create a false narrative that there wasn't scientific consensus about the fact of human-caused climate change, and persuade influential media outlets to cover the issue as if there was doubt. (On that front, they succeeded.)

At ExxonMobil, according to the New York Attorney General, that aversion to the truth ran so deep as to have distorted its business practices. The company is alleged to have defrauded its investors by telling them that it was anticipating rising "proxy costs" related to environmental regulations and taxes, but not disclosing the full amount of those costs and sometimes failing to incorporate them in public-facing financial projections.

"Exxon provided false and misleading assurances that it is effectively managing the economic risks posed to its business by the increasingly stringent policies and regulations that it expects governments to adopt to address climate change," the initial complaint, filed by the New York AG just over a year ago, reads. "Instead of managing those risks in the manner it represented to investors, Exxon employed internal practices that were inconsistent with its representations, were undisclosed to investors, and exposed the company to greater risk from climate change regulation than investors were led to believe."


At least two reports issued to concerned shareholders in 2014, titled "Energy and Carbon-Managing the Risks" and "Energy and Climate," were approved by top executives, including Tillerson, Climate Liability News reports. According to the New York AG, both reports contained fraudulent information.

The AG's office began investigating ExxonMobil under Eric Schneiderman, who resigned after being accused by multiple women of physical abuse. His appointed successor, Barbara Underwood, brought the charges under New York state's Martin Act, a sweeping anti-fraud law; Letitia James, has continued prosecuting the case after winning the office in 2018.

The charges stem in large part from investigations stimulated by reporting from InsideClimate News, which showed ExxonMobil had been conducting research into the potential impact of climate change on its business as early as the 1970s, even as it poured millions of dollars into disinformation campaigns undermining public understanding of what was to come.

"For 60 years, the fossil fuel industry has known about the potential global warming dangers of their products. But instead of warning the public or doing something about it, they turned around and orchestrated a massive campaign of denial and delay designed to protect profits," one of the report's authors, Geoffrey Supran, told the Los Angeles Times. "The evidence is incontrovertible: Exxon misled the public."

James has reportedly asked the court to force the fossil fuel company to pay between $476 million and $1.6 billion in penalties, although that number could grow. ExxonMobil generated about $279 billion in revenue last year.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.