Greatest Corporate Crime In History: Exxon On Climate

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Above Photo: By 1978 Exxon’s senior scientists were telling top management that climate change was real, caused by man, and would raise global temperatures by 2-3C. Pat Sullivan/AP.

The truth of Exxon’s complicity in global warming must to be told – how they knew about climate change decades ago but chose to help kill our planet

I’m well aware that with Paris looming it’s time to be hopeful, and I’m willing to try. Even amid the record heat and flooding of the present, there are good signs for the future in the rising climate movement and the falling cost of solar.

But before we get to past and present there’s some past to be reckoned with, and before we get to hope there’s some deep, blood-red anger.

In the last three weeks, two separate teams of journalists — the Pulitzer-prize winning reporters at the website Inside Climate News and another crew composed of Los Angeles Times veterans and up-and-comers at the Columbia Journalism School — have begun publishing the results of a pair of independent investigations into ExxonMobil.

Though they draw on completely different archives, leaked documents, and interviews with ex-employees, they reach the same damning conclusion: Exxon knew all that there was to know about climate change decades ago, and instead of alerting the rest of us denied the science and obstructed the politics of global warming.

To be specific:

  • By 1978 Exxon’s senior scientists were telling top management that climate change was real, caused by man, and would raise global temperatures by 2-3C this century, which was pretty much spot-on.
  • By the early 1980s they’d validated these findings with shipborne measurements of CO2 (they outfitted a giant tanker with carbon sensors for a research voyage) and with computer models that showed precisely what was coming. As the head of one key lab at Exxon Research wrote to his superiors, there was “unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere”.
  • And by the early 1990s their researchers studying the possibility for new exploration in the Arctic were well aware that human-induced climate change was melting the poles. Indeed, they used that knowledge to plan their strategy, reporting that soon the Beaufort Sea would be ice-free as much as five months a year instead of the historic two. Greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels,” a key Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991. “Nobody disputes this fact.”

But of course Exxon did dispute that fact. Not inside the company, where they used their knowledge to buy oil leases in the areas they knew would melt, but outside, where they used their political and financial might to make sure no one took climate change seriously.

They helped organise campaigns designed to instil doubt, borrowing tactics and personnel from the tobacco industry’s similar fight. They funded “institutes” devoted to outright climate denial. And at the highest levels they did all they could to spread their lies.

To understand the treachery – the sheer, profound, and I think unparalleled evil – of Exxon, one must remember the timing. Global warming became a public topic in 1988, thanks to Nasa scientist James Hansen – it’s taken a quarter-century and counting for the world to take effective action. If at any point in that journey Exxon – largest oil company on Earth, most profitable enterprise in human history – had said: “Our own research shows that these scientists are right and that we are in a dangerous place,” the faux debate would effectively have ended. That’s all it would have taken; stripped of the cover provided by doubt, humanity would have gotten to work.

Instead, knowingly, they helped organise the most consequential lie in human history, and kept that lie going past the point where we can protect the poles, prevent the acidification of the oceans, or slow sea level rise enough to save the most vulnerable regions and cultures. Businesses misbehave all the time, but VW is the flea to Exxon’s elephant. No corporation has ever done anything this big and this bad.

I’m aware that anger at this point does little good. I’m aware that all clever people will say “of course they did” or “we all use fossil fuels”, as if either claim is meaningful. I’m aware that nothing much will happen to Exxon – I doubt they’ll be tried in court, or their executives sent to jail.

But nonetheless it seems crucial simply to say, for the record, the truth: this company had the singular capacity to change the course of world history for the better and instead it changed that course for the infinitely worse. In its greed Exxon helped — more than any other institution — to kill our planet.

  • Thom Rip

    Incredible..lets get this on Fox

  • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen

    Are you sure they were lying? Or did they simply disbelieve the scientific data because they simply didn’t believe that the ice sheets would melt, and they took out the leases “in the areas that they knew would melt” simply because they didn’t want to take any chances? Before reading this, I assumed they did lie along with other oil corporations but I had forgotten for months, but after reading this I thought about it and assumed the benefit of the doubt.
    I haven’t read those two articles, and I will do so now, but I give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

  • kevinzeese

    You are too kind to give the oil companies, especially Exxon Mobil the benefit of the doubt with their long history of environmental degradation and profiteering.

  • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen

    I understand you opinion, but I must disagree. I have read the two articles, and still give them the benefit of the doubt. That being said, I didn’t know that synthetic fossil fuels led to the development of the oil sands of Alberta! That’s really interesting! I didn’t know that until I read the second article!

  • Helga Fellay

    I suspect you are a troll – the new variety of trolls being groomed at the moment. The “old” trolls were aggressive, insolent and hateful, turning most people off to them and and with that to their propaganda. The new sort I noticed just emerging come on as gentle, amiable, and sensitive, but spout the same neocon fascist propaganda – in a less alienating tone. The approach and the tone have changed, not the neocon propaganda

  • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen

    I am not a troll. I am opposed to the corporations destroying the environment and causing global warming. I am opposed to global warming sceptics. BUT…nonetheless I offer them the benefit of the doubt, although as recently as several months ago I did not.
    I used to think the corporations were deliberately lying, but then I thought I should give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were simply being mistaken, due to their research being prejudiced, due to the fact that they had ulterior motives for not believing in global warming and therefore their research reflecting that.
    After I read the two articles, I came to a slightly different conclusion – they believed in global warming at first, but stopped believing in it because they couldn’t handle the truth that they were causing an even more terrible national disaster than they thought and that opposing it would cause a bigger impact on their profits than they thought.
    So they conducted research to try to prove that global warming was not happening, and because their research was prejudiced, they saw what they wanted to see.
    Of course, the smart thing to do would be to accept that global warming is happening and to decrease their use of oil and natural gas exploitation, but they were too foolish to realise that. Anyone would know that they should have done something to stop global warming, but they didn’t do that, the fools.