What Exxon Knew About Climate Change
There’s a sense, of course, in which one already assumed that this was the case. Everyone who’s been paying attention has known about climate change for decades now. But it turns out Exxon didn’t just “know” about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the 1970s and 1980s, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company’s tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO2 readings over the ocean. By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company’s management committee that there was “general scientific agreement” that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO2; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, we would increase temperatures two to three degrees Celsius. That’s just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day. “Present thinking,” Black wrote in summary, “holds that man has a time window of 5-10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Those numbers were about right, too. It was precisely ten years later—after a decade in which Exxon scientists continued to do systematic climate research that showed, as one internal report put it, that stopping “global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion”—that NASA scientist James Hansen took climate change to the broader public, telling a congressional hearing, in June of 1988, that the planet was already warming. And how did Exxon respond? By saying that its own independent research supported Hansen’s findings? By changing the company’s focus to renewable technology?
That didn’t happen. Exxon responded, instead, by helping to set up or fund extreme climate-denial campaigns. (In a blog post responding to the I.C.N. report, the company said that the documents were “cherry-picked” to “distort our history of pioneering climate science research” and efforts to reduce emissions.) The company worked with veterans of the tobacco industry to try and infuse the climate debate with doubt. Lee Raymond, who became the Exxon C.E.O. in 1993—and was a senior executive throughout the decade that Exxon had studied climate science—gave a key speech to a group of Chinese leaders and oil industry executives in 1997, on the eve of treaty negotiations in Kyoto. He told them that the globe was cooling, and that government action to limit carbon emissions “defies common sense.” In recent years, it’s gotten so hot (InsideClimate’s exposé coincided with the release of data showing that this past summer was the United States’ hottest in recorded history) that there’s no use denying it any more; Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, has grudgingly accepted climate change as real, but has referred to it as an “engineering problem.” In May, at a shareholders’ meeting, he mocked renewable energy, and said that “mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity,” which would stand it in good stead in the case of “inclement weather” that “may or may not be induced by climate change.”
The influence of the oil industry is essentially undiminished, even now. The Obama Administration may have stood up to Big Coal, but the richer Big Oil got permission this summer to drill in the Arctic; Washington may soon grant the rights for offshore drilling along the Atlantic seaboard, and end a longstanding ban on oil exports. All these measures help drive the flow of carbon into the atmosphere—the flow of carbon that Exxon knew almost forty years ago would likely be disastrous.
We’ve gotten so inured to this kind of corporate power that the report in InsideClimate News received relatively little coverage. The big news of the day on social media came from Irving, Texas, where the police handcuffed a young Muslim boy for taking his homemade alarm clock to school; all day people tweeted #IStandWithAhmed, and rightly so. It’s wondrous to see the power of an Internet-enabled world shining the light on particular (and in this case telling) injustice; there’s a principal and a police chief in Irving that will likely think differently next time. But we badly need the same kind of focus on the long-lasting, underlying abuses of corporate might. As it happens, Exxon is based in Irving, Texas, too.