Denier-gate: What Exxon Knew and When They Knew It

seeinggreen_oil-wellBY Will Stahl

In November 2009 the media world was roiled by the news that hackers had gotten into the e-mails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Right-wing media outlets and commentators crowed that here was the smoking gun that proved global warming was a hoax promulgated by a conspiracy.

In fact only a few cherry-picked quotes seemed to confirm anything like the deniers’ claims, and those resulted from a misunderstanding of scientific jargon. Though the whole “scandal” has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, deniers still cite it when they troll climate-change articles on the Internet.

This past week a smoking cannon has been discovered that indicates the hoaxing has been coming from the other direction.

InsideClimateNews, a Pulitzer Prize-winning website, has released a series of articles resulting from an eight-month investigation into Exxon’s global warming research that demonstrates conclusively that the oil giant’s own scientists had brought the problem to the company’s attention literally decades ago.

In recent years Exxon has been a heavy funder of global warming denial, but in the 1970’s they began a research program to find out if climate change could be caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, whether burning fossil fuels contributed to the buildup of CO2, and if the resulting climate change could be problematic for human welfare. The answers turned out to be yes, yes, and yes.

This research started during the late seventies, which deniers point to as a time when scientists were talking about global cooling and an impending ice age. In fact much of this cultural memory relates to a series of brutally cold winters and a splashy TIME magazine article on the subject.

Serious climate scientists, some of them working for Exxon, were already researching and discussing global warming. As early as 1977, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, James F. Black, told a gathering of oil barons that the release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels could dramatically warm the Earth’s climate in ways that could put the human population in jeopardy.

In July 1977 he made the same pitch to Exxon’s top executives. Black was unequivocal in his assertion that fossil fuel consumption would affect the world’s climate in mostly negative ways, but the exact affects could not be known. “Some countries would benefit, but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” he told Exxon’s scientists and managers.

His advocacy prompted Exxon to establish a wide-ranging program to study how fossil fuel use would affect the Earth. In 1979 the company began a project to use one of its supertankers to collect data on CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean. An important goal was to find out how much carbon dioxide the ocean could absorb. If it was enough, perhaps nothing needed to be done in the near future to curtail the use of oil, gas and coal.

When asked about this project by the InsideClimateNews investigators, the Exxon spokesman denied the project was concerned with CO2 effects on climate and was instead concerned with the “marine carbon cycle.” Documents and former employee accounts tell a different story.

According to former employees, at that time Exxon had an internal culture that valued “foresightedness.” It constantly monitored possible risks to corporate profits, including such factors as environmental effects. They anticipated that if carbon-induced climate change became accepted science, government might step in with regulation and programs to reduce fossil fuel use.

The scientists Exxon hired worked to develop better climate models and publish their results in reputable scientific journals. Within five years they concluded that global warming could exceed even Black’s dire predictions. Though uncertainties existed in the models, Exxon scientists saw those as research questions, not a negation of the reality of greenhouse gas-induced climate change.

Though the corporation was backing climate research and some of its scientists and executives were extolling the opportunities in alternative energy, Exxon said little to their stockholders about their products’ contribution to global warming. In private though they fretted about the ramifications of developing certain gas fields and new sources of oil from tar sands and shale because it was obvious those sources would contribute huge quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere.

When oil prices plunged in the mid-eighties, due mainly to new discoveries in places such as the North Sea and Mexico, Exxon laid off many of its scientists and climate change research slowed. The tanker research project had ended in 1982 after concluding that the oceans could absorb only 20% of the annual emissions of carbon dioxide. Nothing Exxon scientist’s research found disproved anything about global warming, and in fact, it amplified their earliest predictions. They were major contributors to climate research, and their models have been remarkably on-target and borne out by subsequent events.

They understood the poles would see the fastest warming and the melting of the ice and snow in those regions would accelerate the process. They realized that sea levels would rise and precipitation patterns would change. They foresaw that weeds and pests would multiply with the droughts and floods, human migration would increase as agriculture in some regions failed. We are now seeing the early phases of these trends.

But the eighties were the Reagan years when the Great Communicator said to forget that gloomy Carter stuff and party hearty. These were the early years of the SUV, uninhibited suburban sprawl and airline travel for the masses. Exxon’s climate research
limped along until the late eighties when climate change emerged as a serious potential political issue.

In 1988 James Hansen, a leading climate expert from NASA, testified before Congress about the reality of global warming and set legislators talking about what might be done to mitigate it. By 1989 Exxon had reversed course and began funding various efforts to cast doubt on the climate science it had helped to create.

One Exxon initiative was the Global Climate Coalition that pulled together some of the world’s largest companies to stop government attempts to restrict fossil fuel emissions. Through the American Petroleum Institute, various right-wing think tanks and liberal contributions of money to lobbyists and politicians, they spread their message that climate science was as yet too unreliable to make any big changes in the way we used fossil fuels.

In 1996-97 Exxon’s CEO Lee Raymond made high-profile speeches urging caution and delay in dealing with climate change. “Let’s agree there’s a lot we don’t know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond…It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”
Long respected in the scientific community for its support of early climate research, Exxon became the object of derision. The Royal Society, the UK’s noted science academy, accused Exxon of being “inaccurate and misleading” when it talked up “uncertainty” in climate research. In 2006 activists among its shareholders pressured the company into ending support for some of the groups that distorted the science.

But the damage is done. Due in large part to the campaign of misdirection and falsehood waged by Exxon and its ilk, we have lost 25 years that we could have used to work toward a low-carbon economy. Millions believe that a vast conspiracy of scientists grasping for research dollars and socialistic liberals who want to take away their trucks is more credible than that the world’s most profitable corporations, making hundreds of billions per year, might be paying to spread disinformation to safeguard their profits.

Not one of the current Republican presidential candidates is willing to admit that humankind can do anything to stop the steady rise in world temperatures and some deny it is even occurring. Because of the money spent by Exxon and others, they can be assured they are saying what their base wants to hear. These articles plainly show that Exxon’s executives, at the highest level, knew what their product would do to the environment. And they chose to ignore it.

To see these articles and their documentation go to More articles on the same subject are coming.

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