Exxon began its trial — for allegedly deceiving its investors about the sizable financial risks posed by climate change — at the New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The deep-pocketed oil behemoth, which has vast oil reserves in Brazil, Canada, Texas, Guyana, Malaysia, the Netherlands and beyond, is in legal trouble, according to environmental law experts. There’s compelling evidence the Exxon Mobil Corporation defrauded its investors, and at minimum, the company will be exposed to deep public scrutiny as the trial develops. “We’re seeing the company for the first time confronted in open courts with the evidence of its climate deception,” Carroll Muffett, the president of the Center for International Environmental Law, told Mashable on Monday.
To combat the terrible publicity associated with fraud allegations, brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, the company strategically purchased ads from Google for people searching for the climate trial. Exxon has specifically targeted keyword searches like “Exxon climate trial,” “Exxon knew,” and “Exxon climate change.” (Mashable spotted the ads on Oct. 18 and the morning and afternoon of Oct. 22.)
Though the oil giant’s scientists have understood the consequences of emitting prodigious amounts of carbon into the atmosphere since the 1950s, Exxon began to sow doubt about climate science in the 1980s. This latest Google ad campaign is a continuation of Exxon’s decades-long efforts to influence the public’s perception of climate change.
“You would totally expect them to do that,” said John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.
“It’s striking that they’re using the same tactics,” added Cook, who on Monday released a new report about how fossil fuel companies have misled people, notably Americans, about the risks posed by climate change.
It’s a message crafted by Exxon’s PR team. Exxon recently sent the identical missive to Mashable, the Associated Press, and other media that inquired about the trial. “The New York Attorney General’s allegations are false,” Exxon’s message reads. “We tell investors through regular disclosures how the company accounts for risks associated with climate change. We are confident in the facts and look forward to seeing our company exonerated in court.”
The opening note then leads to a detailed webpage that seeks to discredit reports, research, and media that found Exxon has actively mislead the public on the dangers posed by climate change, which the corporation lumps together as the “#exxonknew campaign.” Atop the webpage, Exxon cites “flawed academic reports” have been used to “misrepresent” company research on climate change and other policy.
“They gloss over the fact that they funded climate misinformation”
“When you scan this page, the bulk of it is attacking anyone who promotes the ‘Exxon knew’ narrative,” noted Cook. But Exxon isn’t telling the whole story.
“They gloss over the fact that they funded climate misinformation,” said Cook.
For example, in 2004 Exxon paid for an ad in The New York Times entitled “Unsettled Science.” Cook and other researchers have illustrated how Exxon’s shrewdly-composed ad casts doubt on climate science and the scientific consensus that amassing carbon in the atmosphere is stoking global climate change. (Today, Exxon still pays for promotional ads in The New York Times that intend to green the company’s image.)
There’s been a strong consensus since the late 1990s that human activity has caused climate change, according to climate scientists. (Experts who aren’t climate scientists will sometimes disagree, sometimes with profoundly silly arguments).
Exxon may despise the greater #exxonknew campaign, which has blossomed not just on social media, but is a now a widely-used term used to describe a past that the oil company can’t escape: Exxon’s scientists did know, sometimes with astonishing accuracy, that burning fossil fuels would destabilize the climate. The climate has indeed begun to destabilize, though the consequences are expected to grow increasingly worse.
Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions are now skyrocketing. CO2 levels haven’t been this high in at least 800,000 years — though more likely millions of years. What’s more, carbon levels are now rising at rates that are unprecedented in both the geologic and historic record.
The planet’s carbon emissions will likely keep rising for at least another decade, unless unprecedented efforts are made to dramatically and promptly slash carbon emissions globally. This would, however, mean significant financial losses and stranded assets for oil giants like Exxon.
So the company is now buying Google ads to defend its public perception, and business.
“Disinformation about climate change has a straightforward purpose — to block action on climate change,” Cook’s new report reads. “In America, it has largely succeeded, with policies to mitigate climate change stymied or delayed for decades.”
These Rats Drive Tiny Cars—for Science
If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s gonna ask for milk. And if you give a rat a tiny electric car, it’s going to drive it to pick up Froot Loops. For that they can thank Kelly Lambert, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, who has trained rats to operate custom “rat-operated…
If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s gonna ask for milk. And if you give a rat a tiny electric car, it’s going to drive it to pick up Froot Loops. For that they can thank Kelly Lambert, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, who has trained rats to operate custom “rat-operated vehicles” (you can’t just order a car made for rats on Amazon, after all).
The rats climbed into what is essentially a plastic container on wheels. They stood on an aluminum plate and steered by touching bars to complete a circuit. Lambert and her colleagues put the rats through driver’s education, setting them in a box and placing the Froot Loop award at the opposite end of the arena. They worked with two groups of subjects, one that lived in “an enriched environment, kind of a Disneyland of sorts for rats, so they had different stimuli to interact with,” says Lambert, while the other group was kept in a standard, drab lab enclosure.
Interestingly, only the former group was able to learn to drive, suggesting their environment plays a critical role in a rat’s ability to learn new skills. And by testing the drivers’ feces for stress hormones, the researchers were able to show that scooting around in pursuit of Froot Loops was relaxing for the rats, suggesting they may be getting enjoyment out of driving, the opposite of humans stuck in traffic. Rats, after all, have been previously shown to enjoy play, at least when it comes to learning hide-and-seek.
To learn more about what all this means for science’s understanding of rat behavior, and even potential implications for human learning, we sat down with Lambert in the video above.
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The EPA’s Anti-Science ‘Transparency’ Rule Has a Long History
Sometimes a bad piece of legislation doesn’t die, it just returns in another form—call it a zombie bill. In this case, the zombie is a bill that morphed into a proposed rule that would upend how the federal government uses science in its decisionmaking. It would allow the US Environmental Protection Agency to pick and…
Sometimes a bad piece of legislation doesn’t die, it just returns in another form—call it a zombie bill. In this case, the zombie is a bill that morphed into a proposed rule that would upend how the federal government uses science in its decisionmaking. It would allow the US Environmental Protection Agency to pick and choose what science it uses to write legislation on air, water, and toxic pollution that affects human health and the environment.
Republicans tried to pass this type of legislation from 2014 to 2017, with titles such as the Secret Science Reform Act, followed the next year by the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act. The idea, which on the surface seems like a good one, was to force the EPA to use only research that is publicly accessible, reproducible, and independently verified.
Critics, including much of the US scientific community, complained it would throw out nearly all epidemiological studies in which patients give consent to use their medical information but not their names, to protect their privacy. That would mean limiting studies on the effects of air pollution on lung disease or toxic chemicals’ effects on Parkinson’s disease and cancer, for example. Scientists also argued that some data, by its nature, can never be reproduced. That would include, for example, the collected particles spewed out by erupting volcanoes, or oil-stained creatures from the Deepwater Horizon spill, or tissue samples taken from soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Despite years of hearings and committee votes, these bills never passed the Senate. The Democrats took over control of the House in 2018, and so current EPA administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler isn’t going to Congress a third time. Instead, the so-called science transparency legislation has been resurrected in the form of an EPA regulation that doesn’t need congressional approval.
The proposal stirred controversy in 2018, when the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained emails revealing that EPA scientists were excluded from giving input on the rule, which would also allow the EPA administrator to exempt any studies from the transparency requirements on a case-by-case basis.
“This is not being driven by scientists at the agency, it’s being driven by political staff who have spent their careers trying to reduce the authority that the EPA has,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. Halpern noted the proposal has been championed by chemical and tobacco industry groups that have for years sought to reduce the EPA’s regulatory powers.
The Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions, according to a draft copy obtained this week by The New York Times.
At a hearing of the House Science Committee on Wednesday entitled Strengthening Science or Strengthening Silence?, EPA science adviser Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta was put in the difficult position of defending a regulation she either wasn’t able to discuss or didn’t seem to know about. Although Orme-Zavaleta has spent 38 years at the agency and is its top scientist, she isn’t reviewing the new rule and couldn’t answer many questions from the congressional panel.
Although the rule only applies to future regulations and is not retroactive, Orme-Zavaleta didn’t know if it could be used to overturn existing health standards when they come up for periodic review every few years. She also didn’t know how the EPA administrator would grant exemptions to the requirement that data from studies used to justify EPA rules have to be made public. “That’s currently being discussed and debated,” Orme-Zavaleta said in response to a question from US representative Bill Foster, a Chicago-area Democrat and former nuclear physicist.
Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) complained that previous air pollution studies were based on “secret” science and praised the new transparency provisions. “The EPA has used data from secret studies to push a particular political agenda to regulate fine particulate matter or airborne dirt. That would hurt the agriculture industry. There would be no way to test the data because it was secret. I have a problem with that.”
In contrast, Sean Casten (D-Illinois) pleaded with Orme-Zavalata to join the ranks of the anonymous Ukraine whistle-blower and go against the Trump administration by publicly refuting the EPA science rule. “Look, this is painful,” Casten said. “We are sitting here in a moment where none of this assault on science happens if people in your shoes stand up. If and when you stand up, we have got your back. But please stand up.”
Orme-Zavalata did not respond to Casten’s statement.
A panel of experts including a toxicologist, a pulmonary epidemiologist, a neurologist, and a psychologist all testified about the importance of transparency and reproducibility in science. None of the experts—including the one expert invited by the Republican side—said they supported the new EPA rule. The proposal was recently submitted to the Office of Management and Budget and will be made public sometime next year for a final round of comments before going into effect.
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How Lasers Work, According to the World’s Top Expert
Whether you’re losing your mind at a Pink Floyd tribute show or playing with your cat, there’s hardly a situation that wouldn’t be made better with a few lasers. “Optical masers” were first described by physicist Charles Townes in the late ’50s and since then they’ve come to define modern life. They’re used to scan…
Whether you’re losing your mind at a Pink Floyd tribute show or playing with your cat, there’s hardly a situation that wouldn’t be made better with a few lasers. “Optical masers” were first described by physicist Charles Townes in the late ’50s and since then they’ve come to define modern life. They’re used to scan groceries at the checkout, read DVDs, guide missiles, perform surgery, and even to produce nuclear fusion.
But if you’re not exactly sure what lasers are or how they work, you’re not alone. WIRED caught up with physicist Donna Strickland, whose work with lasers earned her a Nobel Prize in 2018, and challenged her to explain a laser at five levels of difficulty. Strickland’s explanation at the expert level made total sense, but she also explained it to a child—you know, just in case.
“A laser is a way to get light to be a single color, going in a single direction, with all the waves peaking at the same time so the intensity can get very high,” Strickland says. Unlike light from the sun, which emits photons at all the visible wavelengths, lasers focus their energy on one specific wavelength. This allows them to be powerful enough to cut through steel and precise enough to shave the hair from your skin.
But now that you know what a laser is, you’re probably wondering how it works. The answer, says Strickland, is that bouncing energized photons between two mirrors can cause them to sync up, producing a nice strong beam of a single color. This, of course, leads us to the next natural question about lasers: What is the most powerful possible laser and are we anywhere close to building it?
Strickland has an answer for this and all your other burning questions about lasers. Check it out in WIRED’s new video. You can also watch the next episode (about sleep) on WIRED’s free app for Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, and Amazon Fire TV.
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