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At Harvard, researchers work to hold Big Oil accountable for misinformation

The conference will be closed-door on Thursday and open to the public on Friday.

Demonstrators hold a banner that reads "Exxon Knew" during a protest on the first day of the ExxonMobil Corp. trial outside the New York State Supreme Court building in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.David 'Dee' Delgado/Bloomberg

It’s well documented that the oil industry spent decades trying to cover up climate science and obscure its role in fueling climate change. But even as demands to hold it accountable have recently come to a fever pitch — with Congressional investigations, high-profile lawsuits, acclaimed films, and activist campaigns — the industry has faced few consequences.

Now a group of Harvard researchers who helped reveal some of those misdeeds want to change that.

At a first-of-its-kind conference this week, they’ll attempt to take climate accountability research to the next level.

“The evidence is overwhelming that fossil fuel industry obstruction has been a major answer to the question of why we haven’t acted,” said Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard history of science professor, who will cohost the conference with her longtime collaborator Geoffrey Supran, a history of science research associate at Harvard. “If we can expose that obstruction, then maybe we can end it.”

The conference will convene scholars, lawyers, and activists who are all working to halt climate disinformation.

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“It’ll be a lot of brainpower laser-focused on this question,” Supran said.

Oreskes and Supran have produced seminal work on the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial and delay tactics.

“You can’t understand the climate emergency without reading their work,” said Jamie Henn, cofounder of environmental nonprofit 350.org.

In the mid-2000s, Oreskes published the first peer-reviewed paper demonstrating a scientific consensus that climate change is caused by fossil fuels, despite the contemporary public perception that the topic was up for debate.

Following the paper’s publication, she said, she was attacked. She began receiving hate mail. Economists tried to contest her work, even though climate scientists did not dispute it. And on the floor of the US Senate, a Republican senator said she was part of a conspiracy to bring down capitalism.

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“The fossil fuel industry is known for assailing critics no matter their credibility,” said Rachel Rose Jackson, director of climate research and policy at the Boston-based organization Corporate Accountability.

Oreskes began looking into the people behind the attacks and soon found that some belonged to a small well-connected group working to cast doubt on the science of not only climate change, but also acid rain, nuclear weapons, and tobacco — a finding that formed the core of her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, which she co-authored with historian Erik Conway.

Then in 2015, reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times found that ExxonMobil knew about the risks of climate change for decades and hid those risks from the public. The company asserted that the allegations were false, linking to 187 documents that journalists obtained and encouraging believers to read them themselves.

Oreskes teamed up with Supran, who had just started at Harvard, to do just that. In 2017, the two published the first-ever peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications, which found that while the firm consistently acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused in internal documents, in an overwhelming majority of public documents, it expressed doubt about that fact.

“Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public,” they wrote.

Exxon has disputed that conclusion.

In 2020 Oreskes and Supran analyzed even more documents and reinforced their conclusion. Then last year they used machine-learning to show that Exxon’s public language — even since it’s stopped denying the science of climate change — has pinned the blame for climate change on consumers, minimizing its own responsibility. And separately, the two have uncovered a network of climate-denying right-wing think tanks, and the ways oil companies sow climate doubt on social media.

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Their body of work has helped inspire a slew of attempts to hold oil companies accountable for misleading the public about climate change.

In the past four years, seven US attorneys general, including Massachusetts’ Maura Healey, and more than a dozen local governments have filed legal challenges against oil giants for hiding the dangers of burning fossil fuels, several of which have drawn on the researchers’ work.

Congress has also launched two ongoing investigations into oil companies’ history of climate deception; Oreskes testified in one, Supran is an adviser on the other, and both referenced their work in evidence.

“Professor Oreskes’ and Dr. Supran’s academic work is seminal and foundational,” said Representative Ro Khanna, who is leading a House Oversight Committee investigation that this month revealed new documents from ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP.

The academics’ work has also been cited in a Congressional subcommittee’s climate plan and in a 2019 Democratic presidential debate. It’s also helped inspire other research and activist campaigns.

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The climate activist Henn, for instance, said their work inspired his creation of Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit media lab that’s calling for ad agencies to stop working with oil companies.

As Supran and Oreskes are quick to note, other researchers are also working to expose Big Oil’s shady messaging. Brown University sociologist Bob Brulle found the industry has a pattern of producing advertisements about how integral fossil fuels are to society. Yale sociologist Justin Farrell has found that the industry’s messaging has impacted policy debates. Other scholars have produced evidence that oil PR influences public opinion and that the industry has promoted delayed climate action. And journalists, think tanks, and advocacy organizations have produced crucial reports, too.

In their attempt to plot a way forward for accountability, attendees at this week’s conference will hear from scholars who have studied other industries that have promoted science denial. Researchers, activists, and legal experts will also plan new research and campaigns. It’s an attempt to foster “unprecedented levels of research collaboration,” Supran said.

Research alone can’t halt climate misinformation, let alone slow climate change. But Richard Wiles, who directs the Center for Climate Integrity, a nonprofit supporting legal efforts against oil companies, and who will attend the conference, said it provides foundational support for lawsuits demanding climate-change-related damages.

Those suits, he said, could help create “an atmosphere where maybe we could talk about how you’re gonna solve the problem.”

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Oreskes said she’s looking outside of the legal sphere for accountability, too. After all, she said, it was not only science and litigation that worked to prevent the tobacco industry’s misinformation in past decades but also grassroots efforts to change policies and social norms.

Henn, of Fossil Free Media, who will attend the conference, said if oil companies ever face a reckoning, it will be in part due to Oreskes and Supran.

“If Exxon is finally held accountable for their climate lies, they’ll be high on the list of people to thank,” he said.


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.