Exxon knew about Climate change in 1981 but funded deniers for 30 years
A former ExxonMobil climate experts spills the beans : Lenny Bernstein reveals that the oil corporation has known for decades that fossil fuels drive global warming and has intentionally funded denier groups because admitting the truth would have been bad for profit.
- 1 An email from a former Exxon climate expert
- 2 Exxon has known about climate change since 1981
- 3 The public only knew about climate change in 1988
- 4 And funded deniers for almost 30 years
- 5 The same denial strategy as Big Tobacco
- 6 Which makes Exxon’s current statements on climate change hypocritical
- 7 Other energy companies probably knew as well
- 8 Expanding fraud investigation against oil companies
An email from a former Exxon climate expert[edit | edit source]
Lenny Bernstein has seen the inside of the beast - he has worked as a scientist 20 years for Exxon and then 10 years for Mobil. And during the 1990's, he was the head of the scientific committee of the Global Climate Coalition, a lobby that fought the scientific consensus on climate change and its causes. When asked to answer an inquiry for the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, Lenny Bernstein probably exceeded the inquiry's expectations and gave a detailed account of the environmental choices of Exxon when confronted with the certainty that our climate was being negatively affected by carbon emissions. This email was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on July 8th 2015, to illustrate a broader report on the misinformation that corrupt and self-interested big oil corporations were responsible for.
Exxon has known about climate change since 1981[edit | edit source]
Bernstein's email is evidence that Exxon knew that fossil fuels were a factor that drove climate change. This became clear for Bernstein when the company studied the idea of a big gas project in Indonesia : “Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia,” he wrote, “This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO²”. This indicates that Exxon knew that carbon emissions were responsible for climate change and that it could expect some regulations on the emissions in the upcoming decades. And Exxon wanted to be sure that every dollar it invested in this project would generate profit. Because this was such a big field and because the carbon concentration of the gas was so high, Exxon seemed to fear the risk of future regulations that would cut profit or even cause losses. But this anticipation makes no sense if Exxon didn't know that carbon emissions were causing global warming and would therefore sooner or later lead to regulations that it should factor into its risk assessment. This email means that Exxon not only knew about climate change many years before the public did but also failed to disclose any information it knew would harm its bottom line.
The public only knew about climate change in 1988[edit | edit source]
The incredible thing is that Exxon learned about global warming years before the issue was known by the public. This became clear in 1988, when James Hansen, a climate scientist, informed the Congress that the atmosphere was becoming hotter and that it wasn't due to natural variations but to a carbon buildup that man-related activity had created. This means that Exxon was aware of global warming before everybody was and could actually have helped accelerate the response to this global issue by sharing its information with governments and acting responsibly to start an energy transition before the global warming process got worse. They did the opposite. They used their knowledge to prepare the fight against the idea of global warming because any admittance would have meant a decrease in their profits.
And funded deniers for almost 30 years[edit | edit source]
So instead of being a part of the necessarily global solution to global warming, Exxon chose to make the problem worse by fighting the scientific knowledge of global warming. The notion of “crime against humanity” may not have been invented for environmental crimes but what Exxon did is indeed a crime against every woman and every man on this planet, and the cost of these crimes are incalculable. Exxon fought the scientific consensus by funding denier groups for decades after it knew about global warming. Exxon has paid more than $30 million to support groups that claimed that climate change wasn't real or that it wasn't triggered by human activity. For example, between 1998 and 2012, ExxonMobil has given $3.6 million to the American Enterprise Institute, an organisation that has repeatedly questioned the credibility of global warming. Exxon was also a member of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobby that brought together oil companies in a joint effort to prevent or stall any policy to mitigate the effects of global warming. For instance, the GCC was extremely vocal in fighting the Kyoto Protocol that would have forced the United States to decrease carbon emissions. The GCC also played a big part in the American withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. Kenneth Kimmel, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, accuses big oil corporations of behaving irresponsibly : “Instead of taking responsibility, they have either directly – or indirectly through trade and industry groups – sown doubt about the science of climate change and fought efforts to cut emissions”. This stance has been widely criticized : even the members of the Rockefeller family didn't agree with the policy of the company John D. Rockefeller had built.
The same denial strategy as Big Tobacco[edit | edit source]
Many observers have likened Exxon and other big oil companies to Big Tobacco, who tried to deny the truth that smoking tobacco led to dramatic health issues and numerous premature deaths. A telling sign, Lenny Bernstein seems to agree : “One thing that occurs to me is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offence, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilisation, not to be melodramatic.” Indeed, if the strategy seems to be similar, the scope of Exxon's crime is even greater because every woman or man living on this earth will be victim of the global warming that it has done so much to enhance.
Which makes Exxon’s current statements on climate change hypocritical[edit | edit source]
The oil corporation stated that it now recognizes the risk of global warming and that it does not fund denier groups : “I am here to talk to you about the present,” Exxon's spokesman said in July. “We have been factoring the likelihood of some kind of carbon tax into our business planning since 2007. We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change.” First of all this statement almost openly admits that Exxon really did fight the truth about climate change for decades by funding denial groups, only it's not doing it anymore ! And then, factoring the probability of “some kind of carbon” tax into their strategy is not all the the same thing as promoting such a carbon tax. Indeed, Exxon may have stopped its aggressive fight against the idea of global warming and policies that seek to mitigate it, but it's still using its influence to stall policies that will decrease its profits. The day ExxonMobil starts actively pushing for an ambitious carbon tax and stops drilling for fossil fuels, we'll agree in saying it understands the risks generated by climate change.
Other energy companies probably knew as well[edit | edit source]
According to Lenny Bernstein, Exxon was the only oil company that knew about climate change as early as 1981, and the other ones learned about it in 1988, at the same time as the public. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor specialized in the history of climate science, doesn't share that view. According to her, even if the issue was only discussed in scientific groups in the 1970's and 1980's, big oil companies could not not have known about the consensus that was forming on climate change. She points out that there were several studies on climate change conducted by government scientific agencies in the 1960's and that their findings were discussed in major scientific meetings on the issue in the 1970's. They were also published in several important reports by the White House or the National Academy of Science in the same decade. She therefore finds “it difficult to believe that an industry whose business model depends on fossil fuels could have been completely ignoring major breakthrough reports and major environmental meetings taken place in which carbon dioxide and climate change were talked about”. This means that the other Big Oil companies probably knew as well, and are as guilty of deception and misinformation as Exxon.
Expanding fraud investigation against oil companies[edit | edit source]
The revelations of Lenny Bernstein's email have triggered an investigation by New York General Attorney Eric Schneiderman. His teams are currently studying ExxonMobil documents to find more evidence of fraud. As he explained, he is using the obligation to inform investors as a ground to prosecute Exxon for its environmental crimes : “Just like any other publicly traded company, these energy giants have an obligation to ensure that their disclosures to investors of known and reasonably likely risks are truthful and not misleading, and to disclose to the public the risks associated with their products.” His office is also studying the possibility of expanding the case to other oil companies that knew about global climate change but pretended they didn't. The New York investigation is now being followed by other states such as California. Indeed, in California, Attorney General Kamala Harris has also opened an investigation concerning Exxon that could lead to a prosecution.
It seems like the end of the game is getting near for big oil companies. Blinded by their lust for profit, they intentionally hid the truth about climate change and funded groups to deny this process in the public debate, thus stalling policies that could mitigate this disastrous process. The cost of their actions can probably not be measured. Which is why it's high time they began paying.