Exxon's Brazen Greenwashing, on the Front Page of The New York Times

Exxon's new ads tout the idea that car emissions are 95% lower now than in 1970. But not so fast, says one scientist.

New York Times June 16, 2009

Yesterday, on the bottom of it's front page, The New York Times ran the ad you see above, from ExxonMobil, which touts the idea that car emissions have fallen by 95% since 1970. Which sounds great! There's nothing at all to worry about with global warming! We're already doing such an amazing job!

Not exactly, says noted climate scientist and physicist Joseph Romm. While it's clear that various tailpipe emissions such as ozone have fallen thanks in large part to catalytic converters, carbon emissions have not. And even though our cars get better gas mileage now than in 1970, our country has vastly more cars and drives them further thanks to sprawl. As a result, our carbon emissions have actually accelerated. (Atmospheric carbon was, in fact, just found to be at its highest point in 2 million years, and the government just released a sobering climate report that unpacks some of the best climate science currently available.) As Romm writes:

Needless to say—or, rather, in this case, needful to say—while today's car has lower emissions of urban air pollutants thanks to government regulation, today's car has, if anything, higher emissions of greenhouse gases, which threaten the health and well-being of the next 50 generations. And needful to say, ExxonMobil has done more than just about any other company to undermine efforts to achieve the greenhouse gas regulations that could lower those emissions.

ExxonSecrets details the millions of dollars that the company has shoveled to fund the disinformation campaigns of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, all of which continue to advance unfactual anti-scientific attacks as I have detailed recently (see posts on Heritage and CEI and AEI). Chris Mooney wrote an excellent piece on ExxonMobil's two-decade anti-scientific campaign. A 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report looked at ExxonMobil's tobacco industry-like tactics in pushing global warming denial (see "Today We Have a Planet That's Smoking!").

So it is especially egregious that The New York Times would take money to publish this disinformation on their front page. Had this been a news article, I do think that the NYT would never have published it, although they have certainly been running a lot of questionable stuff—see NYT suckered by ExxonMobil in puff piece titled "Green is for Sissies."

And in the irony department, if you go to ExxonMobil.com, as the ad urges, you'll see ... wait for it ... a picture of a huge hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, with the headline "Learn how ExxonMobil prepares and responds to hurricanes." How about "Learn how ExxonMobil works hard to make sure future hurricanes will be far more destructive" (see "Nature: Hurricanes ARE getting fiercer—and it's going to get much worse" and "Why future Katrinas and Gustavs will be MUCH worse at landfall")?

You can't make this stuff up. Well, ExxonMobil can, and The New York Times will let them publish it—but you can't make stuff up and publish it on the front-page of the New York Times because you don't have the tens of thousands of dollars needed and frankly the NYT would probably subject your ad to more scrutiny.

Bracing stuff. Do magazines and newspapers have a responsibility to factcheck their ads? It sounds difficult to do—and unlikely, given how those outlets are hurting for cash—but note how severely cigarette ads have been curtailed. Why shouldn't ads that fly in the face of established scientific and journalistic evidence—and which advocate policies that are widely harmful to the public, in the form of global warming—be similarly curtailed? Just wondering.

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  • Paul Lauenstein

    With atmospheric CO2 already well above the maximum safe level of 350 ppm, and climbing at an accelerating rate, we have already mortgaged our grandchildren's future with a massive carbon debt to Mother Nature, who is sure to come after us with a vengeance if we don't pay her back soon by removing that CO2.

  • geetha thurairajah

    It's disheartening to hear of reputable news outlets like the New York Times propagating Exxon Mobil's greenwashing tactics. In theory newspapers are supposed to be our source for objective information, not an outlet for a corporation to use as a tool for their self- promotion. If you're sick of hearing stories like this, vote for these corporations at Corporate Accountability International's Hall of Shame:

  • Cliff Kuang

    Also, I'd just like to point out how silly the first commenter's "argument" is: First off, no one is claiming that governments invent the technologies that ultimately benefit the environment. But governments, through regulation, spur innovation. You can actually graph the number of auto patents before the first CAFE standards were introduced (which mandate MPG performance) and after--they explode. Those patents were ultimately enormous profit centers for Detroit.

    But the point is that industry can and does have the ingenuity to effect positive change. Yet to date, many companies--Detroit and the American oil industry being notable examples--have preferred to lobby for business as usual. That's a fact established by decades of voluminous reporting. Meanwhile, business-as-usual is not sustainable given what we know about climate change and current CO2 levels.

    Second, the ad above is perhaps factually accurate, but it's rhetorically misleading--as even a cursory look at the website it shouts out proves. That sort of slippery logic is the classic province of marketers selling harmful products--witness cigarette ads through the ages. In the case of the Exxon ad, saying that car emissions have improved so dramatically suggests that we've already tackled this problem. Don't worry about it. We're part of the solution. But what that rhetoric hides is that noxious emissions aren't the problem with burning fossil fuels. CO2 is the problem, as the commenter notes. To say that the facts are right and there's nothing misleading is a willful misreading of the ad's obvious intent.

    That said, Exxon is doing some interesting things related to carbon reduction, as we've noted on the website. That doesn't give them--or any company, government, or organization--a free pass in all their other efforts.

  • Gerald McGlamery

    Apparently, both the author and his cited source are knee-jerk reactionaries. Either that, or they deliberately obfuscate or are downright not very bright. I'm not sure which other options are possible.

    Automobiles emit several different gases, including unburned hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and carbon oxides (both monoxide and dioxide). All of these gases have or are alleged to have harmful effects on humans or the environment. ExxonMobil's ad could be talking about any one of these, perhaps with the exception of carbon dioxide. All except CO2 have been reduced significantly through technologies such as catalytic converters, electronic ignitions, and efficient hydroprocessing catalysts for cleaner fuels. Even carbon dioxide can be debated as the author points out, depending on whether you are talking about per-car emissions or total emissions. While governments in the U.S. and around the world have certainly driven this change through regulation, in general, the technologies were not invented by governments. They were invented by the automobile and oil companies to meet those regulations.

    I see nothing in the ad that is incorrect or misleading. The author and his cited source are simply trying to mislead us into believing their own distorted views about a large corporation.