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Exxon's Climate Denial -- Again

The arguments against action to combat climate change have undergone a remarkable evolution. When this whole debate started a decade ago, opponents said: “There’s no evidence that the climate is changing.” Then, as scientists began to document changes, the naysayers switched to: “Well, maybe it is, but humans aren’t to blame.” As still more evidence came in, the opposition moved on to: “Even if humans are responsible, so what? Warmer could be better and if not, we can easily adapt.”

But there’s one thing hasn’t changed as much as we thought: the role of Exxon (now ExxonMobil).

For years, Exxon quietly gave millions of dollars to a web of climate-naysaying groups, such as the Cato Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute. Using tactics similar to the tobacco industry’s playbook, these groups successfully created the impression that the science was still far too uncertain to know whether action was needed.

Over the six months, however, ExxonMobil has been claiming that it has modified its views. “Our approach to this has evolved,” vice president for public policy Kenneth Cohen told me. The oil giant said it was dropping funding for some of the groups challenging global warming--in particular, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which the media was increasingly describing as being supported by Exxon. “The funding of that group was unfortunately becoming a distraction,” said Cohen. And the company’s position has been “misunderstood,” he added.

Now we find out that Exxon while may have changed the words, it’s still singing the same basic tune. Foundations must report annual giving to the IRS. And an analysis by Greenpeace of the corporate foundation’s latest IRS forms (for 2006) reveals that the oil giant “continues to fund the core network of front groups that have been misrepresenting the science on global warming,” Greenpeace concludes.

The company did cut off CEI and the Free Enterprise Education Institute, which had become controversial for attacking companies that advocated action against global warming such as General Electric and Federal Expresss. But that’s just about it. In 2006, Exxon handed out more than $2.1 million to several dozen groups--including Cato, George C. Marshall, and the Heartland Institute--in the forefront of the campaign to block action. “Although Exxon’s public rhetoric on global warming appears to be shifting, in reality they continue to fund the denial industry,” charges Greenpeace’s Kert Davies.

Exxon’s response? Spokesman Dave Gardner sent me quick email reply. “Our position on climate change is clear,” he wrote. “We believe that climate change is a serious issue and that action is warranted now.” As for the funding, he wrote, “we support numerous public policy organizations that research and promote discussion on a variety of topics such as energy policy and international affairs. These groups do not represent us or speak on our behalf, nor do we have any control over their views and messages.”

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