What You Should Know About Exxon Mobil’s Latest Ad Campaign

Why is the oil company that funded climate change deniers suddenly calling for better science?

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

A EXXON service station on March 13, 2012 in Washington, DC.

If you were watching the Masters golf tournament last weekend, you would have noticed it was laced with ads from Exxon Mobil calling for….better science. That’s right. The very company that funded decades of science denial takes it back. Sort of. ExxonMobil ranks high in a short list of powerful institutions that has done this country an enormous disservice in undermining the overall credibility of the scientific method in general, and climate scientists specifically.

They now realize, of course, that without scientifically sophisticated workers, our global standing slips backwards. The company plans to spend a small fortune on the ad campaign featuring the National Math and Science Initiative and is a founding sponsor of this effort to dramatically improve science education in the U.S.

I have a friend, Jackson Robinson, who runs a green investment company called Winslow Management. He regularly asks CEOs, what is keeping you awake at night? More than half the time, the answer has to do with the work force: how hard it is to find educated, skilled people to take their companies to the next level. The workforce issue has gotten so serious that Chicago, with 100,000 jobs that could not be filled in 2010, has had to launch a “college to careers” movement to train students. For the record, not one CEO has ever responded to Jack that he stays awake because of global warming. And I imagine one reason it isn’t top of mind: a disinformation campaign that has been raging for decades.

The ExxonMobil website explains that its ads are meant to alert people about “underperformance” of U.S. students, who rank internationally 25th in math and 17th in science. Considering that the company employs more than 18,000 people around the world, their success must depend on a capable workforce—“Its not just U.S. leadership in energy that’s at risk—it’s also our leadership in medicine, research, technology and other pillars of the American economy.”

No kidding. The ad campaign was slick, and smart on many levels, not the least of which is to position ExxonMobil as a science-friendly company. Which, undoubtedly, it is—so long as the science supports their agenda. Though ExxonMobil pledged to quit funding climate change deniers back in 2008, as recently as 2011 a Greenpeace Freedom of Information Act turned up evidence that the company was still at it, though ExxonMobil denies this.

I suppose we should be grateful for support to science and math from any quarter, these days—given what’s happening in places like Tennessee, where students will soon be learning that evolution is just one of those quirky ideas those radical science types throw out there to confuse people, since God made the universe not so long ago—and in a week, no less. Which is why we have weekends free to play golf.

Still, how about teeing up another campaign? ExxonMobil tells Americans that it was wrong to mislead people. That it was wrong to undermine credibility in the scientific method. That we have entered an era of manmade global warming, that it could lead to cascading catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen, that we are rolling the dice, way off the game board, in the risks we are taking in contributing further to greenhouse gas pollution—and that ExxonMobil is proud to announce that it is doing everything in its power to support the training of a new generation of scientists who will show us how we can adapt to this difficult new reality.