Winter is coming: The Climate Minute Podcast

It seemed that fact was stranger than fiction in our discussion. We covered the climate implications of the solar eclipse, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes’ new paper about ExxonMobil’s climate change communications, and Game of Throne’s “CliFi” subtext.

We enjoyed a celestial event this week—the sun was eclipsed by the moon and it was magnificent. As climate hawks, we noted the irony, pointed out by The New York Times in this article, with the country’s enthusiasm over the science that predicted the totality of the solar eclipse down to the minute of complete obscurity. Yet the science on climate change is equally as robust and should inform our choices and actions similarly. This tells you something about the human choice about climate – choosing not to know, and not to believe in a changing climate is an easier choice; some part of your psyche works better if you choose not to believe.  Choosing to believe the science about the eclipse is more appealing and if you do, you’ll drive to South Carolina or pay $30 for a pair of hard to find solar glasses. Another interesting climate note about the eclipse was the ThinkProgress article that pointed out that the grid did not collapse. Science made the solar eclipse so predictable that everyone could prepare for it. By 2024 there will be another eclipse and at some point the intermittency becomes more important; we will have another test when totality passes over the Boston area seven years from now. Needless to say, our faith in climate science cannot be eclipsed!  

We cannot say the same for ExxonMobil—at least as far as its public communications go. The Los Angeles Times summarized Naomi Oreskes’ and Geoffrey Supran’s main findings of a study  of Exxon’s consistency with its internal and external climate change communications. It turns out that ExxonMobil lies. Oreskes and Supran are more thoughtful in presenting this conclusion saying, “We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.”

Supran and Oreskes undertook this research not to study whether ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research, but how ExxonMobil communicated about it. One of the reasons the authors began the study is due to Exxon’s challenge that the InsideClimate News report we referenced in an earlier podcast and the 2015 Los Angeles Times and Columbia School of Journalism report cherry-picked statements from their documents. In 2015 a team of researchers from the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism reported on ExxonMobil’s prospecting research – as guided by climate science. According to the report by Oreskes and Supran, ExxonMobil claims that they have “continuously, publicly and openly researched and discussed the risks of climate change, carbon life cycle analysis and emissions reductions.” ExxonMobil challenged the public to read their documents and confirm their transparency. So Oreskes and Supran took on this challenge. Los Angeles Times highlighted the following example finding from the paper: “83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents [produced by Exxon] acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials [paid, editorial-style advertisements] do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt.”  Oreskes and Supran study advertorials because they come directly from ExxonMobil and are an unequivocally public form of communication designed to affect public opinion or official opinion.

The methodology in the paper is meticulous as well as conservative in its analysis. Oreskes and Supran grouped communications based on their accessibility to the public. This allowed the authors to analyze communications that were outward-facing vs. inward-facing at ExxonMobil. Supran and Oreskes also created “bins” to accommodate the reasonable doubt that accompanied the research over the years – for example, in 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) was real. Therefore, Supran and Oreskes exempted expressions of doubt that anthropogenic global warming was real in studies prior to 1990 (as that was a reasonable doubt at the time). In 1995 the IPCC confirmed that AGW is human-caused. Similarly, the authors exempted expressions of doubt that AGW is human-caused if they were made prior to 1995. Yet even with a conservative approach that allowed for reasonable doubt, Oreskes and Supran still concluded that ExxonMobil misled the public.

While ExxonMobil is leading some of America to doubt climate change with “alternative facts,” Game of Thrones offers fiction almost as strange. It turns out that the country’s current television obsession has a climate fiction subtext. As we have not seen many episodes, we can’t do the story justice, but a recent piece in Think Progress points out the rising subtext. (caution spoiler alert! The next sentence discusses the end of a recent episode) Notably, Jon Snow has warned of the dangers coming from the north. The queen will not believe him until he actually captures one of the creatures and brings it to the queen to show her the impending threat. The queen finally believes him and begins preparing for the battle. If only there was such a token we could present to our current policymakers to knock some sense into them.

Climate fiction, or CliFi, as a genre piqued our interest in how art is interfacing with our opinions on climate change. A few CliFi picks: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy beginning with Forty Signs of Rain (Mariah’s pick) or The Dog Stars  , The Water Knife , Rivers or even McKibben’s collection I'm with the Bears (Ted’s picks). Let us know—what expressions of art and climate do you recommend?

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