Exxon’s early knowledge of climate risks, their long campaign of climate deception, and why it mattersPosted by Jim at Friday, October 16, 2015
By Peter Frumhoff
10 October 2015
(UCS) – Internal Exxon memos recently brought to light through meticulous investigative reporting by Inside Climate News (ICN) show that senior company executives knew by 1978 that emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels posed significant risks of disrupting the climate.
Over the decade before NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony before Congress made the evidence of global warming front page news, Exxon invested in understanding the problem and learned that fossil fuel emissions could drive potentially catastrophic climate impacts. Exxon executives heard advice from their own scientists to take a leadership role in addressing it.
They firmly rejected this advice. Instead, Exxon (later, ExxonMobil, which formed in 1998) financed and engaged in a decades-long industry campaign of doubt-mongering about the scientific evidence of climate change in order to avoid regulation of their products.
In an op-ed published in today’s New York Times, Harvard University historian of science Naomi Oreskes reminds us that Exxon chose a “path of disinformation, denial, and delay” taken from the tobacco industry playbook. For decades, tobacco companies argued that responsibility for the ills of smoking rested with the smoker: individuals made a choice to smoke, and any resulting illness was their responsibility. When internal memos came to light showing that these companies knowingly spread disinformation about the health risks of their products, they ultimately led to the rejection of that argument in the courts of public opinion and law. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the industry was legally culpable for knowingly spreading disinformation, bringing charges against them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act.
ExxonMobil’s climate responsibilities
ICN’s reporting focuses a long-overdue spotlight on ExxonMobil’s responsibilities for climate change. It highlights, for example, growing interest in legal action against ExxonMobil – both for failure to disclose climate risks to shareholders and financial regulators, and for manufacturing doubt to deceive the public. Pressure, they say, could “come from the U.S. Department of Justice, state attorneys general, private plaintiffs in the U.S. or abroad”.
Many of us think about responsibility for climate change as something that falls to each of us individually through the choices we make about energy use, and to governments – what the international climate negotiations refer to as the “common but differentiated responsibilities” among nations.
In a paper in the journal Climatic Change geographer Richard Heede (Climate Accountability Institute), Naomi Oreskes and I argue that ExxonMobil and other large investor-owned fossil energy companies also have significant and distinctive responsibilities for climate change.
We emphasize that a relatively small number of large companies, including ExxonMobil, have produced the fossil energy responsible for a large proportion of the total historic emissions. These corporations commanded a high level of internal scientific and technical expertise and they were in a position to understand the available scientific data. In Exxon’s case, we now know that they not only understood the science, they contributed to it.
An alternative was available to them: given what they knew, they could have adjusted their business models to speed a transition to low-carbon energy by investing in low-carbon energy technologies and carbon capture, constructively engaging in policy design, and helping investors and consumers understand the need to dramatically reduce the adverse impact of their products.
But they did not. [more]
ABSTRACT: Responsibility for climate change lies at the heart of societal debate over actions to address it. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” among nations, suggesting that industrialized nations that had produced the greatest share of historic emissions bore particular responsibility for preventing dangerous interference with the climate system. But climate responsibilities can be attributed in other ways as well. Here, we explore the conceptual territory of responsibility. We consider the distinctive responsibilities of the major investor-owned producers of fossil fuels, assessing the actions these companies took and could have taken to act upon the scientific evidence of climate change. We conclude that major investor-owned fossil energy companies carry significant responsibility for climate change. It is still possible for these companies to effectively contribute to a solution. Significant progress in reducing emissions and limiting climate change could be achieved if companies 1) unequivocally communicate to the public, shareholders, and policymakers the climate risks resulting from continued use of their products, and therefore the need for restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the 2 °C global temperature target; 2) firmly reject contrary claims by industry trade associations and lobbying groups; and, 3) accelerate their transition to the production of low-carbon energy. Evidence from history strongly suggests that a heightened societal focus on their climate responsibilities will be needed to hasten such a transition.