Climate Wise: Exxon Mobil: The Rest of the Story

Climate Wise: Exxon Mobil: The Rest of the Story

Although the company has made noises suggesting it's seen the light on global warming, a new report from Greenpeace shows that they're still the major funder of climate change-denying groups. So what's the real story?

Last winter, ExxonMobil told reporters that it was cutting back on its its funding to groups that challenge the science of global warmings. Jeffrey Ball of The Wall Street Journal and Steven Mufson of The Washington Post, among others, reported that Exxon had since 2005 stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Business Week said: "The oil giant has now closed its cash spigot to some groups challenging global warming." I wrote a column for CNNMoney suggesting that ExxonMobil had acknowledged the reality of global warming and opened discussions with well-regarded environmental groups, including Resources For the Future.

Well, there's more to the story. Greenpeace, in a new report, has taken a look at the company's grants for 2006 and found that ExxonMobil continues to fund a number of groups that it calls "climate deniers." The Greenpeace analysis says:
We have found that, despite the rhetoric, ExxonMobil continues to fund the majority of the organizations which have been central to the global warming denial campaign the company has run for the past decade or more.
The issue's complicated, but my first read through the Greenpeace study -- posted on a website called Expose Exxon -- indicates that they have a point. Some of the groups that Greenpeace identifies as climate deniers, like the Cato Institute and the Congress of Racial Equality, have much broader agendas (although I was surprised to learn that, in fact, CORE has been aggressively critical of mainstream climate science) but others seem narrowly focused on confusing the debate over climate change.

One prominent example: The Heartland Institute, a free market think tank with longtime ties to the tobacco industry (a portion of its website defending smoking is called the smoker's lounge) that now devotes considerable effort to fighting the idea that there's a scientific consensus around global warming. It publishes a monthly newsletter called Environment and Climate News. Sample headlines: "Fears of Melting Polar Ice Are Discredited," "Record April Freeze Hits U.S." (!), "Scientists Urge Gore to Cool His Global Warming Rhetoric," "When Will We Tire of the Fear Mongers?" You get the idea. XOM gave $115,000 to the Heartland Institute in 2006.

Another group still on Exxon's support list is the George C. Marshall Institute. When you visit the climate change page of its website, you find such headlines as "Storm Guru: Oceans, Not CO2, Cause Global Warming," and "Earth's Climate is Seesawing, According to Climate Reseachers." The George C. Marshall Institute got $85,000 last year from ExxonMobil.

I've not had the time to check out all the groups that XOM has funded -- it's a long list -- but the company's support for these two organizations leads me to conclude that Greenpeace has a valid point when it says ExxonMobil is trying to "spread misinformation about the science and policies of global warming." It's akin to the tobacco company efforts in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s to confuse the public about whether cigarettes were addictive or harmful.

So what's the significance of the Greenpeace study?

First, let me be clear and say that ExxonMobil has the right to finance climate skeptics or climate deniers if it wants to. I don't believe in stifling debate on this issue, or any issue. When Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe wrote to XOM last year, asking the company to end its funding of the climate denial campaign, I thought they were overreaching.

Second, I have to say that I feel a little misled by Ken Cohen, Exxon's head of public affairs. He did not lie to me, to be sure, but he left me with the strong impression that ExxonMobil was moderating its position on climate change. Now I'm not at all sure about that. I wish the company had been more transparent. Certainly I wish I'd asked a few more followup questions.

Third, more important question than the question who Exxon funds -- because they fund dozens of groups, ranging from the Asia Society and the Brookings Institution to Seeds of Peace and Transparency International -- is the question of where they stand on carbon regulation. Two big oil companies, BP and ConocoPhillips, have now signed on with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a corporate-environmental alliance calling for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. (Other members include GE, Caterpillar and Duke Energy. This isn't a bunch of tree huggers.) Exxon has not.

If ExxonMobil believes that global warming is a serious problem, as Cohen told me early this year and as its op-ed-ads suggest, I'd like to know what the company proposes that we do about it. As we used to say: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Marc Gunther is a senior writer at Fortune, a columnist for CNNMoney and blogs at