Sunday, December 12, 2021

Exxon Mobil: A Disinformation Campaign to Combat Climate Change Action (1980-)

Pictured: Rex Tillerson (former CEO of ExxonMobil) entering court in preparation for trial.

Case Controversy:

ExxonMobil (previously two separate companies that joined in 1999) is one of the world's largest gas companies. It was founded by John D Rockefellar in 1859 and was previously called Standard Oil Co. In 1911, Standard Oil was broken up into 34 unrelated companies. Then in 1966, the main company was renamed Mobil Oil Corporation. And then on November 30, 1999, Mobil joined together with another company named Exxon, and they together became ExxonMobil. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, concern about global warming was rising. New studies from various scientists and science organizations were showing evidence that the climate on Earth was growing warmer and warmer. Scientists concluded that global warming was happening due to human activity. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary human action that results in global warming. That being said, it is clear how ExxonMobil and other gas companies contribute to global warming. Because of this obvious correlation, ExxonMobil did everything they could to maximize confusion and doubt about global warming and the role of human activity. ExxonMobil had been researching and employing top scientists. They did this to look into the effects of climate change. They hired them to look into this issue and they launched their own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. In 1978, a man named James Black who worked under Exxon’s Products Research Division, wrote an internal briefing paper called “The Greenhouse Effect” following from a presentation to Exxon’s management committee. This paper warned about how human-caused emissions could raise global temperatures and result in serious consequences. And years beyond, many experts and scientists had been warning these oil and gas companies, not just ExxonMobil, about how catastrophic climate change could get if fossil fuel use is not reduced. 

ExxonMobil used a variety of tactics to confuse the public about the lasting effects of climate change. They did this  by modeling a strategy after big tobacco. Big tobacco used cherry-picked data and their hefty bank account to persuade the public and, more importantly, lawmakers that second-hand smoke did not play a significant role in the cause of cancers (JSTOR). As we now know this to be a true correlation, at the time big tobacco was successful in preventing laws that would protect the public health and, consequently, maximizing their profit. This selfish goal of maximizing profit at the expense of the public’s health that big tobacco established is demonstrated again by ExxonMobil in the global warming discussion. 

Exxon Mobil has spent tens of millions of dollars to support misinformation to keep their revenue and profit as high as possible. Much like big tobacco, Exxon Mobil created and funded organizations labeled as scientific to release statistics to the media outlets. These statistics are cherry-picked and misleading in order to cause uncertainty and opposition in regards to climate change. The company knew they would not convince legitimate scientists that climate change is irrelevant to human activity, which is why they provided these statistics to media outlets, to reach the public. ExxonMobil had contributed millions of dollars to think tanks and politicians so they could spread false information about climate change and to say that climate change isn’t real and it’s not that bad. They have spent millions of dollars to protect their profit at the expense of people everywhere. Exxon would release data that appears to be valid, but is usually just a distraction. To oppose the evidence that global warming is putting animals in danger, an ExxonMobil representative changes the subject to show the increase in other animal species, “in an attempt to dispute solid scientific evidence that climate change is causing extinctions of animal species, Ferguson offers the non sequitur that several new butterfly and frog species were recently discovered in New Guinea” (JSTOR). 

Pictured: Protesters rallying outside the court house.

Not only did they create these fake science organizations, they also pumped 16 million dollars into small unknown organizations that produced the same (misleading) data (Exxon Knew). They formed a community of organizations with ExxonMobil’s money to spread misinformation as much as possible. Many of the leading representatives for these organizations are from ExxonMobil or are representing multiple organizations in this community of information laundering. 

Upon the success of creating doubt, Exxon needed to follow big tobacco’s footsteps once again. They needed to get their hand in the government to fight against lawmakers implementing climate related policies. ExxonMobil has used the Bush administration as well as other politicians to actively lobby against such policies. One senator in particular has received almost $850,000 from Exxon to vote against climate change related laws that would harm the company's profit (JSTOR). Over time, as climate change became bigger and bigger of a public issue, attention was brought to ExxonMobil for providing and supporting misleading information. In 2015 researchers found ExxonMobil gave corporate funding to climate counter movement groups (SA). ExxonMobil has lied about their part in climate change as well as mislead the public for decades to maintain their place as one of the largest gas and oil companies in the world. The state of Massachusetts had even filed a complaint against ExxonMobil for the deceit and manipulation of the state’s investors and consumers (Mass Gov). Most recently, ExxonMobil CEO denies that the company was spreading misinformation saying the company “has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks.” (APNews). No matter how much data goes against them, ExxonMobil will continue to deny any wrongdoings regarding the very important public issue of global climate change.


The stakeholders in this case are the executives of ExxonMobil, the general public, the politicians, and the community of disinformation organizations plotting against climate action. The executives of ExxonMobil are stakeholders because they are the ones who are making the decisions to spread disinformation. The general public are the people  who will be affected by the negligence of the ExxonMobil executives who belittle the impact of climate change. Since climate change affects everyone on Earth, the general public in this case is the world population. The politicians who accepted bribes and incentives from ExxonMobile to vote against climate change laws and regulations are stakeholders because they are responsible for the prevention of these laws that would otherwise protect the Earth and everyone/everything on it. The other organizations that produced and spread disinformation are stakeholders as well because they are just as responsible as ExxonMobil for endangering the Earth by attempting to create confusion over the topic of climate change and prevent actions that would help the cause.


Individualism in economy is defined by Friedman as “The only goal of business is to profit, so the only obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner or the stockholders within the law of the land.” Similarly, individualism is defined by Machan as “The only direct goal of business is to profit, and the primary obligation of the business person is to maximize profit within the law, BUT: 1. The direct goal of profiting may need to be met by indirect goals not aimed at profiting. 2. Business people may have other goals and those goals may at times be prioritized over the goals of profit-maximizing.” In the case of ExxonMobil and their disinformation campaign regarding global climate change, the company follows both of these definitions and stays within the individualism definition. The company followed Friedman’s definition because they did everything within their power to increase profit. The company released misleading data and formed groups of organizations and politicians that lobby against climate change actions. Both of these practices are morally irresponsible; however, they are not necessarily illegal, which is why the company stayed in the individualistic viewport as defined by Friedman. As for Machan’s definition, ExxonMobil stayed within the viewport as well as demonstrated the two given exceptions. ExxonMobil demonstrates the exceptions when they spend millions of dollars to create and form these climate counter movement groups. This is because it is obviously not immediately financially beneficial to spend millions on this; however, it protects the public view of the company so that the company does not look like the “bad guy” and can prevent the decrease in profit in the future. The one part that gets close to violating the individualistic outlook is lobbying. Lobbying is legal in the U.S., while bribery is illegal. These two activities are very close in nature; however only one is legal. To remain on the legal side of this practice, ExxonMobil has to be very careful in how they deliver funds to the politicians. If it is found that they directly pay politicians to oppose climate change related laws, that could be considered bribery and they would no longer be within the individualism definition by either philosopher.  


If a utilitarian were to look at this case, they would handle it the best way possible. Utilitarianism is that happiness or pleasure are the only things of intrinsic value. Utilitarians try to look at any situation as getting the most pleasure, but individual freedom matters too it is not just overall happiness. In businesses this is important, business owners are required to make a decision that holds the most ethical choice that will benefit the most amount of people. Utilitarianism is when an individual choice is made that will benefit the entire population. From the viewpoint of a utilitarian, they would say that the ExxonMobil should have released their information about climate change earlier because it could have prevented certain situations from happening. In this situation if ExxonMobil did address that their company is a possible reason for climate change it would benefit the entire population. Although gas and oil are a necessity to many people, generally people would be more aware that their purchase was amplifying the issue. “The ends don’t justify the means. There are some things we should do even if it doesn’t produce overall happiness” (Salazar). Even though ExxonMobil didn’t want to lose any profit and denied the claims that carbon dioxide was a main cause of climate change it was morally impermissible because it is a danger to the health and safety of many people. The key characteristics of a utilitarian is honesty, professionalism, and accountability and in this case none of these characteristics were present. ExxonMobil was caught lying and the employees, scientists and CEOs of the company were not morally right. This was clear that as viewed as a utilitarian ExxonMobil’s lack of action to be taken was unethical.


Kantianism talks about how the motive is more important than the consequences, even if the motive is morally wrong. When thinking like a Kantian, you believe that the motive matters more than what the consequences could result in. Kantianism was discovered by Immanuel Kant, and it emphasizes that “morality of an action/decision is not determined by its consequences but by the motivation of the doer.” Kantianism is a deontological theory and explains that “actions should be motivated by goodwill and duty and the morality of an action is not measured by its consequences.”

With the ExxonMobil case, Exxon tried to make it seem like they didn’t know how bad climate change was going to get. Even though all of the evidence and facts and warnings were right in front of them. But they were more motivated by the money than the overall consequences. 

The top ExxonMobil lobbyist admitted to working with the “shadow groups” who engaged in disinformation around climate science, to avoid scrutiny. This shows that one of their motives for keeping what they knew a secret was to avoid scrutiny. In the draft that was released by scientists, they reported that the fossil fuel companies spread false information about climate change science to purposely mislead the public and disrupt efforts to implement needed climate policies. This shows their motivation to mislead so that they can continue to benefit financially. 

ExxonMobil paid politicians to spread false information about climate change and was misleading the public to try to make them think that climate change wasn’t real or wasn’t that bad. ExxonMobil was also caught systematically saying one thing to the public but would say something different in private about climate change.  

With the public not knowing or thinking how bad climate change was going to get, they continued to use these gas and oil company’s products which in turn made the companies even more money. Exxon and many other fossil fuel companies made lots of money because they could continue to fossil fuel gas and oil without caring about the consequences of climate change. They knew that people were unsure of it because of all the prompting they did to make it not seem bad. They were motivated by the money and didn’t care about the consequences.

Virtue Theory:

A virtue theorist would analyze this case not in terms of the rules that may have been broken, but in terms of the ethical mistakes that were made by ExxonMobil. In his article on virtuous markets, Ian Maitland outlined several key virtues that every business should uphold. Of those virtues, the most imperative in this case are trust, justice/fairness, honesty, and moral leadership (Maitland). In their attempts to cover their track, ExxonMobil denied each of these virtues, causing the entire corporation’s ethical standing to be questioned.

By backtracking on their own research and denying proven facts, ExxonMobil proved their lack of trust and honesty. Shareholders, employees, and customers all placed their trust into the hand of Exxon, as a reputable business with seemingly valid research. By sponsoring and/or publishing information to the public which knowingly manipulated prior research into demonstrating a lack of connection between rising carbon dioxide levels and environmental impact, the company also disproved its honesty. The company willingly manipulated its stakeholders into working for/providing business to a company they likely would not have, had they known the truth of the climate crisis as ExxonMobil did.

As one of the largest and most reputable organizations in the world, ExxonMobil should strive to represent an ethically sound business. Other, smaller companies who seek to gain business may look up to Exxon as a source of inspiration for ways to build a company. By deceiving customers and employees alike, Exxon portrays the idea to other companies that doing what is financially best for a business ranks more important than valuing the humanity in business.

There truly is no justice or fairness in the actions taken by ExxonMobil. As such a wealthy corporation, Exxon had easy access to research and funds that could be focused on climate change, ways to prevent it, and predictive factors concerning global temperatures. The typical person does not have access to such vast forms of information, and therefore relies on the organizations that do. By utilizing this power to benefit their own company rather than to benefit the entire human population, ExxonMobil proved that their values do not align with justice or fairness in any way.

The virtues upheld by ExxonMobil do not fall into a respectable ethical standing, and do not promote moral integrity. Any virtue theorist would highly disapprove of the actions taken by this organization.

Action Plan:

Climate change is when the atmosphere experiences long term shifts and changes in the temperature and weather patterns. Over several decades, scientists have been warning the world of the changes. Lots of countries around the world have taken initiative to help prevent climate change from becoming much worse. The initiatives include limiting the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, have been pretty successful with their business of supplying gas and oil to consumers. Companies like this have even tried to promote the things they could do to help stop climate change. Exxon Mobil has spoken about working with scientists in campaigns to slow the lasting effects of climate change. But what the public didn't know was how bad climate change was going to get. 

ExxonMobil had been one of the companies who were warned about how their actions could worsen the climate. They were told by many employees and scientists that they should slow and limit the amount of crude oil they produce. But they didn’t think it could be that bad. But in fact it was, and they were fully warned before the public even knew. In fact, they didn’t want the public to know because they didn’t want to lose money. So they paid some politicians to speak about how climate change wasn’t that bad/it didn’t exist. 

So to help them improve their actions as a company, they can do many things. These include listening to the scientists and specialists about limiting the amount of crude oil they drill. Even though this would cost them more money, it would be helping to protect the Earth and the people on it. They might need help figuring out what they can do differently to still be able to function as a company. But there are many specialists out there who should have some ideas of what they can do. They can also donate to climate crisis relief groups, there are several out there who are trying to put an end to the crisis of climate change. They can also partner up with companies around the world who are already taking the steps to limit their use of fossil fuels. ExxonMobil could also use their platform to promote ways citizens can improve their carbon footprint. Lastly, they could also pay politicians and influencers to promote the science behind climate change and to express their concerns about it. By making these changes, ExxonMobil will be able to promote the safety and wellbeing of the public and citizens all over the world. 

Pictured: A visual representation of global climate change. 


Reese Smith

Miranda Gendron

Annina Rettura

Skyler Jacobs


Daly, Matthew. “Oil Giants Deny Spreading Disinformation on Climate Change.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, October 28, 2021.

Hall, Shannon. “Exxon Knew about Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago.” Scientific American. Scientific American, October 26, 2015.

“October 24, 2019 Massachusetts Complaint Exxon |” Mass Gov. Mass Gov. Accessed November 14, 2021.

“Our History.” ExxonMobil. Accessed November 13, 2021.

Union of Concerned Scientists. “ExxonMobil’s Disinformation Campaign - JSTOR.” JSTOR, 2007.

“#Exxonknew.” #ExxonKnew. Accessed November 14, 2021.

Matthews , B. (2018, June 13). ExxonMobil Corporation: Positive growth heading into 2018. Retrieved from  

Company , E. M. (2021, July 22). Our history. ExxonMobil. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from  

Hall, S. (2015, October 26). Exxon knew about climate change almost 40 years ago. Scientific American. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from


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