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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Climate Change Conversations with ExxonMobil, Part 4: - Earning The Public's Trust

The following is a letter I sent yesterday to Ken Cohen, Vice President of Public Affairs for ExxonMobil, following up on a series of recent conversations between bloggers and Mr Cohen on ExxonMobil's position on climate change and allegations of their continued involvment with organizations seeking to prolong the debate on the science of climate change or impune the credibility of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report released yesterday [Part 1, 2 and 3].

I decided to follow up on our last conversation with this frank email suggesting what ExxonMobil would have to do to 'get out of the hole' they are currently in and start shifting the public's awareness of Exxon's position on climate change...

What Its Going to Take to Get Out of the Hole - A Letter to ExxonMobil

Mr. Cohen,

Thank you very much for your quick response to my questions and concerns regarding the Guardian article on AEI and Exxon's involvement with their organization. Our continued dialogue has been very educational for me and I hope we all agree has elevated the level of discussion on these topics amongst the blogosphere. I very much appreciate you taking time to speak with us, and I will continue to extend you the courtesy of commenting on issues pertaining to ExxonMobil as they arise. I hope we can continue our open dialogue.

In the past two conference calls, you have made it very clear that ExxonMobil's position on climate change is that we should no longer be debating the science, but rather discussing smart policy solutions to the threat posed by global warming. While the science will continue to be refined over time, you've made it clear that Exxon does not doubt that the climate is warming (and has warmed already), that CO2 levels are at their highest level in several hundred thousand years, and that human activities including the burning of fossil fuels are a major contributor to those CO2 levels and the resulting increase in global temperatures.

This position was very much news to me, and I imagine to the other participants in our discussion (and our blogs' readers) as well. In fact, I had been under the impression, based on media reports such as today's Guardian article, that Exxon was still in a position of denial about global warming. In fact, this seems to be a very widespread and well-entrenched public opinion concerning ExxonMobil's position on climate change.

To a degree, this could be blamed on certain media outlets, or on groups like Greenpeace (who you mentioned today), who may latch on to any indication that Exxon is involved with activities calling into question the scientific consensus on climate change without doing adequate reporting or getting comment from Exxon. I know from personal experience with the press that reporters often have their angle when they set out to write a story and may not look too hard for anyone or anything contradicting that angle. The same can clearly be said for bloggers who don't even have a professional code of journalism to adhere to. And yes, perhaps Greenpeace's fundraising efforts stand to benefit from having a convenient 'bad guy' out there to point to.

Still, as I think we covered in our discussion today, if you don't want to be that 'bad guy' in the public's mind, it is also ExxonMobil's responsibility to make their true position clear if it is being consistently mis-reported in the press. And more specifically, it is your responsibility, as VP of Public Affairs for Exxon, to counteract any inaccuracies in press coverage of ExxonMobil.

As you have now made us aware (that is, the participants in our discussions), ExxonMobil's official position on climate change, as published in various publicly available statements and reports, is that the question is not about the science, but about the appropriate policy response. However, that position has clearly not been received by the public or the media, and if your goal is to avoid being "put in the bucket" with those who seek to confuse the science of climate change and continue that weary debate, ExxonMobil must do a considerably better job at publicly clarifying their position on climate change.

As Susan Smith pointed out, if you truly want to avoid being painted as being in a state of denial about climate change science, it would behoove you and ExxonMobil to actively attempt to distance yourselves from any organizations that might be engaged in such denial. From a PR perspective, this has now included AEI. Regardless of the veracity of the Guardian article, from a PR perspective, it must be clear that your continued funding of AEI has once again painted you in the public eye as a company engaged in activities designed to confuse the climate science discussion and continue what you have conceded is the wrong debate, detracting from efforts to move beyond debates about science and instead discuss smart policies.

This is a very widely held and well entrenched public view, and one that you will need to make concerted efforts to undo. It will take much more than publicly available statements on your website. Without a concerted and very public effort to clarify your position, the public will continue to consider ExxonMobil one of the last climate change detractors.

And this goes beyond simply clarifying your position. You must actively strive to maintain the consistency of that position. If you publicly clarify Exxon's position on climate change, yet continue to be linked to groups that are continuing to debate the science not the policy, than the perception will likely be that ExxonMobil is saying one thing while funding organizations that are saying another thing, maintaining a convenient level of deniability in the process.

Let's be honest, Mr Cohen; we both know the public is not going to trust you easily, nor will they simply take your word for it at first that your company is truly committed to policy solutions and wants to see us move past debating the science. You are going to have to earn our trust, and that will take a concerted effort.

If your goal as a company is truly to advance the discussion surrounding smart policy solutions to climate change, than it is in your interest to make that effort. Even if it is false, the public perception that ExxonMobil continues to deny the scientific consensus on climate change continues to mire us in the wrong debate, while hampering efforts to move beyond the science to discuss policy solutions.

Thus, making a very public effort to clarify Exxon's position will go a long way towards clearing your clearly tarnished reputation while advancing the debate on policy solutions to climate change, a goal that we supposedly both share.

To this end, I would suggest that Exxon make a very public announcement (on par with the USCAP press event last week) that it considers the scientific consensus on climate change to be adequate enough to begin a serious discussion on policy solutions. I would encourage Exxon to hold a press conference very soon to clarify your position and to publicly state that you are willing to testify to that effect before Congress and that you are very much interested in seeing Congress take policy action at the earliest practicable opportunity.

You do not have to endorse a particular set of policy proposals, or a particular bill, if you are not ready to do so at this time, but doing so would lend credibility to the fact that this is something ExxonMobil is very serious about and is something you have given considerable thought to.

I would also encourage you to publicly distance yourself from any organizations that could be perceived as further linking ExxonMobil to efforts to continue the scientific debate on climate change, so as to make your position appear as consistent as possible.

The release of the IPCC report today makes this a very opportune moment to make such an announcement and to receive the press attention that you will need to begin to counteract the widespread public misperception of ExxonMobil's position on climate change.

Counteracting that very public misperception will go a long way towards buoying Exxon's reputation and will help establish the credibility on this topic that your company will need if it wishes to become an active (and heeded) participant in the ongoing policy discussions concerning climate solutions. It will also be a significant help in advancing the public and political debate beyond questions of science and onto questions of policy, a goal you have repeatedly said you hold.

I very much appreciate your candor and honesty on this topic, and I welcome continued dialogue in the future. And I hope to see ExxonMobil become publicly viewed as one among a growing list of companies seeking to see smart policy solutions to climate change. I hope we can agree that such an outcome would be in all of our best interests. Thank you again for your time.


Jesse Jenkins

We'll see if Mr Cohen and ExxonMobil take any of this to heart. Hopefully we will see a big press release in the near future in which ExxonMobil very publicly states their belief that the scientific debate on climate change is over and that they now want to see an ernest discussion of smart policy solutions.

I think that this will go a long way towards moving us forward towards implementing real climate solutions.

Whether it's true or not, the fact that ExxonMobil is still publicly viewed as continuing the question the remarkably strong consensus on climate science continues to mire attempts to move past the science debate and onto discussing policies. The opinion of the largest corporation in the world, however self-interested they may be, still have quite a bit of weight, and the continued perception that Exxon is still in doubt about the science fuels the fire and provides more ammunition to those like Senator Inhofe (R-OK) who continue to challenge the scientific consensus and maintain that climate change is "a hoax."

If ExxonMobil indeed truly wants to see Congress debating policy solutions, and not the science, then it's up to Mr Cohen and his PR department to make that very clear to the public and to Congress.

The ball is in your court, Mr Cohen. What's your next move?

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