Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Creatively Interpreting the Exxon Dox

... or the ethics of letting your readers (if not yourself) know when you're doing it.


This is a follow-up of sorts on my previous post, Exxon and AGU Funding, to which Shollenberger took exception in comments on my article throwing Cook et al. (2013) under the bus:
I actually think the latest post here on the oil companies is incredibly wrong, and I think blaming "industry liars" for anything is a foolish move that shows a very poor understanding of why the public doesn't call for any strong action to combat global warming.
I agree that the public's attitude toward CO2 mitigation is not simply explained by saying nothing more than "the oil companies diddit".  But arguing that they have not been influential is dubious.  Arguing that fossil fuel interests haven't been actively attempting to influence public opinion would be flat out bonkers.

I clearly don't have a ton of nice things to say about Shollenberger, but batshit crazy hasn't been on the list of taunts.  So I asked:
I would be pleased if you'd trot over to the post itself and describe in comments there which part of it is wrong. Whether it's "incredibly" wrong or right will have to be left to the individual to decide.
He wrote an article on his own blog.  Let's have a peek ...

Beginning at the End

Shollenberger concludes his post by writing:
The only way to portray these documents as proving Exxon lied is to ignore the vast majority of what the documents say and rely on a handful of short quotations taken out context. You won't find a single quotation in these documents that, in context, shows Exxon endorsed any "consensus" on global warming. You won't even find that they acknowledged humans had already caused the planet to warm.

But according to Gates and other people who are certain groups like Exxon are filled with nefarious intent, these documents prove Exxon lied. In light of that and the sort-of challenge Gates included to me in his post, I offer a simple and direct challenge to Brandon Gates:

Show a single quotation from any Exxon document prior to 1996 in which Exxon accepted humans had already caused warming or that there would (not just might) be dangerous warming in the future. If you cannot, admit you were wrong.

Whhaat?  Move my own goalposts much?  And ... remind me to ask what's so special about 1996 ... it's covered in the interval in point 2 below from my original article:
Summary and Conclusions

Based on the above documentation, I think it is fair to conclude that:

1. Exxon was made aware by way of research that was self-funded and internally executed and distributed that global warming is a real phenomenon, human CO2 emissions are the main driver of it, and that it presented not only a risk to all of humanity but their own operations if not curtailed.

2. Between Dr. Hansen's 1988 congressional testimony and the runup to Kyoto in 1998, they internally decided that CO2 mitigation was the greater risk to their own profitability than continued warming.

3. On the basis of (2), they embarked on their own media campaign to undermine the scientific consensus they already acknowledged exists, and which their own prior research supported, and knowingly funded the GCC and GCS to do the same on their own behalf and other industry partners/competitors.
Does not the word "risk" typically entail some degree of uncertainty about future events?  He writes a bit further up in his article:
As for the quote saying "there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered," it is part of a discussion of how Exxon viewed the probability of various outcomes and what sort of damages of such events might have. In other words, Exxon knew there were potential issues to consider.
I think it's fair to conclude he understand what "risk" means.  Thus far it seems he and I have been reading the same 1982 Exxon primer on AGW from whence these quotes were taken.  We're clearly not reading them the same way.  Witness what he wrote just above that last text block:
The "greenhouse effect" is not likely to cause substantial climatic changes until the average global temperature rises at least 1C above today's levels. This could occur in the second to third quarter of the next century.
According to Exxon's stated position in this document, no substantial climatic changes would occur until at least 2050.
Notice how statements of uncertainty ("is not likely to cause", "could occur") have been parlayed into a statement of certainty ("would occur").

But Mom, It's OK to Cuss if I'm Just Quoting Someone!

Let me now deal with, "This is not a statement of position by Exxon or the people writing the document. It's a statement of what some people believed at that time. [...] In other words, Exxon knew there were potential issues to consider."  Ok sure.  Here's a Sept. 2, 1982 memo from Roger W. Cohen, then director of Exxon's Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory to A. M. Natkin, then of Exxon's Office of Science and Technology:
Although the increase of atmospheric CO2 is well documented it has not yet resulted in a measurable change in the earth's climate. The concerns surrounding the possible effects of increased CO2, have been based on the predictions of models which simulate the earth's climate. These models vary widely in the level of detail in which climate processes are treated and in the approximations used to describe the complexities of these processes. Consequently the quantitative predictions derived from the various models show considerable variation. However, over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2. The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 +/- 1.5)°C. The uncertainty in this figure is a result of the inability of even the most elaborate models to simulate climate in a totally realistic manner. The temperature rise is predicted to be distributed non-uniformly over the earth, with above-average temperature elevations in the polar regions and relatively small increases near the equator. There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth's climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.


In summary, the results of our research are in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2, on climate.  Our research appears to reconcile Newell's observations and proposed mechanism with the consensus opinion.  We are now ready to present our research to the scientific community through the usual mechanisms of conference presentations and publications in appropriate journals. I have enclosed a detailed plan for presenting our results.
Not only was Exxon not just distributing copypasta internally from the consensus literature of the time, they were actually contributing to it.  It's really difficult to argue that the above memo doesn't represent a "statement of position" by Exxon.  And Cohen's reasoning for wanting to publish their own results in primary literature for public consumption?
As we discussed in the August 24 meeting, there is the potential for our research to attract the attention of the popular news media because of the connection between Exxon's major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2.  Despite the fact that our results are in accord with those of most researchers in the field and are subject to the same uncertainties, it was recognized that it is possible for these results to be distorted or blown out of proportion.  Nevertheless the consensus position was that Exxon should continue to conduct scientific research in this area because of its potential importance in affecting future energy scenarios and to provide Exxon with the credentials required to speak with authority in this area.  Furthermore our ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature; indeed to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon's public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.
It's too bad there weren't more oilmen like Cohen in the ranks.  By essentially reversing course around 1989 in the face of detectible global temperature change, they set themselves up to lose an awful lot of public trust.

Back to the Middle

After writing "... Exxon knew there were potential issues to consider," Shollenberger writes:
But so what? Back in 1982, Exxon knew global warming might become a problem. It had a good grasp of what the scientific community thought about the subject, and it reported it accurately. So what's the beef? Above we saw it given as:
Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world's largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
But so what? That position is exactly what Exxon had said in the 1982 document. In addition to what I've quoted above, consider:
Making significant changes in energy consumption patterns now to deal with this potential problem amid all the scientific uncertainties would be premature in view of the severe impact such moves could have on the world's economies and societies.
So in 1982, Exxon said there was too much uncertainty over global warming to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions. They then helped create a group which said the same thing and used lobbying to push the narrative there was too much uncertaintty over global warming to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions. Whether or not one agrees they were right about the amount of uncertainty at any given time, their position was consistent.  Gates tries to portray it as otherwise:
Well, so what?  At least they were consistent!  Yeah, about one thing: uncertainty.  For the record, 3.0 +/- 1.5 °C is STILL the IPCC's best guesstimate of climate sensitivity to a CO2 doubling.  Hooray for consistency!

I can't write this often enough, apparently --  Hey idiots:
If you're uncertain about what the system will do, why are you actively lobbying against efforts to mitigate those changes?!
Shollenberger gives some hints as to how he might answer that question:
Here is a great quotation from the 1982 document Brandon Gates uses as his basis for this claim:
There is currently no unambiguous scientific evidence that the earth is warming.
Yes, Exxon "very bluntly stated that the debate was already settled" when it said there isn't even unambiguous evidence that the earth is warming. I know when I tell people the global warming debate is already settled, I make sure to inform them we don't even know if the planet is warming. Because things are so settled about global warming we don't even know if it's happening!

Update 4/5/2016

So I goofed up and read the highlighted statement literally when it was intended to be "sarcastic mockery" (March 30, 2016 at 7:38 pm):
[Brandon S.] I'd say you have to be "batshit crazy" to think my sarcastic mockery was a statement of my personal belief.

[Me] Or simple fatigue combined with prejudice. I get the crack now, thanks for putting me straight.
Note that it's been over 4 days since I acknowledged my error on Shollenberger's and corrected this post.  The strikethrough below is of course moot because it is specific to him.  Everything after that stands as a commentary on the general case against others who DO make the argument that the planet is not warming.

Yer stuck in the '80s, mate.  Can't say I blame you much ... I mainly miss the hair bands myself.  Alas, my ability to read a chart also exceeds your ability to keep the words "could" and "should" straight:

Figure 1 - No detectible warming here, no sirree.  Credit NOAA/NODC.

Not good enough?  Never is, is it.  But I'm a determined mo-fo:

Figure 2 - "Testing mechanics in a lab doesn't mean your results will be the same in the real world though."  Presumes, of course, that we agree on what the Real World looks like.  Keep in mind that Exxon called the ball in 1982 ... and GOT IT MOSTLY RIGHT according to this version of reality -- which I might add is NOT an outlier.

What else is there?  Oh, ah:

I mean, who knows really.  It's difficult for me to take the "we STILL can't tell if it's really warming" crowd seriously.  If I'm feeling particularly masochistic tomorrow, I may attempt to wade through more of Shollenberger's re-parsings of my arguments and see if there's any room for me to tighten up some stuff.  More what I think will happen is that I'll just find even more of Exxon's post-1988 internal and external doublespeak.


  1. Hey Brandon...

    I ran across your discussion over at Lucia's. I don't know if you've seen this or if it was already linked over there.

    I am not welcome to post there, and I thought you might like to see it.

    1. Joshua,

      You, banned? Never!

      I had not seen that one, thanks, added to my hopper.

      Discussion is at the point where I could lob a supertanker of literature and stats at 'em, but the hardcore objectors would deflect with "assumptions, models, extrapolations, bias ... bollocks!" So I'm in the mode of rebutting objections.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I don't know exactly if I've been "banned," but I was clearly disinvited. Apparently, the "denizens" there, and Lucia in particular, didn't see much value in my contributions to the discussion.

    4. Hollo Joshua.

      Brandon yup its so, unfortunately. Some question about being intentionally rude to Lucia. Also the regulars just didn't get along with Joshua at all. It sort of sucked, IMO.
      I always enjoyed talking with Joshua, still do.
      BTW Joshua, sorry about the bit over at Anders the other day; my abruptly disappearing. Anders was certainly cordial enough as you'd always suggested he'd be, but I didn't have the time or inclination to dance with Willard over my smiley faces and issues with my meaningless filler small talk.

    5. Hey Mark -

      I hope you won't disappear forever over there. I don't know if you saw it, but willard deleted my comments when I pushed back against his (IMO, heavy-handed) policing. He's got a thing about "playing the ref," which (IMO) he confused with my simply disagreeing with his views about your comments; I saw your comments pretty much as you described (meaningless filler small talk).

      As for the Lucia situation, while I recognize that others might see it differently, I don't think it's "rude" to call out Lucia for engaging in bad faith - which I thought was clearly the case and which was what was labeled on my part as being rude.

      Certainly not worth digging out to rehash - as it matters probably even less to Lucia and her buds than it does to me that I'm not welcome there to disseminate my wisdom - but I will say that the experience did help me to be that much more cognizant of how sometimes at places on "my" side of the fence, (say ATTP), "skeptics" are attempting to engage in good faith and get treated unfairly by the resident "tribe." It happened shortly after that at ATTP, I felt, to a "skeptic" and it was kind of funny to see the strong parallels.

      FWIW, because I have seen you make a strong effort to engage in good faith, and because I find that to be an exceedingly rare attribute in these online discussions, I will make it a point to continue to call for you to get the benefit of the doubt at ATTP, as I did the other day (and for which I incurred willard's moderation wrath). I know that Anders gets slammed regularly at Lucia's, not the least because of his moderation policies, and so you're probably dubious but I remain convinced that you'll get a fair shot there if you're interested in partaking. Not to say that Anders might not ever step over the line, but that generally, in balance, if you are civil and if you don't persist in presenting, over and over, arguments that he thinks are non-starters - you'll get a fair chance to exchange views in good faith.

    6. Thanks Joshua. I actually do hope to participate over at ATTP at some point. It's just that it looks like I'll need to have worthwhile things to say instead of my usual blather, at least till regulars get used to me. :) But it's all good. I'll continue to look for the opportunity to do so. Mostly I just don't have time to produce decent quality comments right now what with my workload at the moment.
      It's good talking with you.

    7. FWIW - I've never worried about waiting to have something worthwhile to say, and I haven't gotten a lot of grief. :-)

      I think that your voice would be a worthwhile contribution and help mitigate the echo-chamber effect.

    8. Joshua,

      I second the notion that Mark's voice would be welcome at ATTP's. Or here for that matter since Chic is out of pocket for a bit, and this joint is in danger of turning into an echo chamber ...

    9. Mark,

      Looks like I may be on the verge of mixing well with the regulars over at Lucia's. Been thinking I should just stick to only discussing the more interesting questions, or non-climate stuff. I'm just kind of done talking about the surface temperature record vs. satellites, Hokey Schticks and broad-sweeping allegations that climate scientists don't know the first thing about doing basic science. Oi vey.

      Thanks for stopping by, you're more than welcome any time. Cheers.

    10. *NOT mixing well

      blargh, must be time for bed.

    11. Brandon, no you're fine. Don't worry about Andrew and Angech. I'm probably a commie global warming alarmist by their standards. They can be exasperating, it's not just you. But it takes all sorts.

    12. Thanks for the perspective. I'd forgotten about Andrew ... he just reminded me. Full battle dress for a strategic op, or light gear and something tactically pithy. We'll find out.

      If commies are thoughtful, interesting and actually do discuss when they say they like discussions, you are guilty as charged.

  2. Oh, and this also...

    1. Joshua,

      Thanks again. Interesting for me to read, and certainly motivational.

    2. Gotta nephew in graduate school at Duke who is working on a project related to the studies described in that article. Very interesting stuff.

    3. Cool deal, hope it continues to work out for him.