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Exxon and Climate Change



In modern America, perhaps no industry is as demonized as tobacco. That’s because they knew that their products killed people and responded by hiding that evidence and asserting their product was safe. But the energy industry has done the exact same thing with evidence about climate change and those companies deserve the same level of disdain. The film Merchants of Doubt, which I sort of recommend (it really drags at the end and if you already know about this stuff, you don’t need to watch it), gets into this comparison in some detail. Bill McKibben explores this further, asking what Exxon knew and when did it know it:

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 nineteen-seventies and eighties, 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 five to ten 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.”

McKibben goes on to note that while Obama has stood up to the coal industry, he has largely acquiesced to the desires of the oil industry, opening up a lot of new drilling, including in the Arctic. Oil’s power is tremendous and it is killing us and our descendants through climate change as the tobacco industry killed us. We need to take on this industry and defeat it, something that will require real leadership from Washington to move our energy investments toward renewables and to rip power from sociopaths like Rex Tillerson.

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  • Rob in CT

    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?

    I once fantasized that it would be possible to buy off the fossil fuel stakeholders by essentially handing them the keys to the green energy revolution. In exchange for them agreeing not to fight the shift, they get some juicy government contracts (like installing renewable power sources for all manner of government facilities) and/or tax breaks and other incentives that help them transition from oil drilling/coal mining over to wind, solar, etc.

    This fantasy, of course, is all sorts of crony capitalist. But I, for one, would’ve made the trade, squish that I am.

    • I had a similar fantasy, but the problem is that it is cultural. Green energy is hippie energy and fuck hippies. We’re real men, we fucking roll coal in our trucks.

      • Rob in CT

        So I’ve learned over the years.

        Also, too: these guys aren’t stupid. They’re short-sighted, mean bastards but they’re not actually dumb. And the truth is likely that even if you bought them off their profits would decline, their shareholders would be pissed, their bonuses would be smaller, etc. So fuck you hippy. IBGYBG.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Aprés moi le deluge… quite literally in coastal area.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Though the people with coal in their trucks are different from the people who are leading the fracking revolution. So you might think that companies heavily invested in “cleaner burning” natural gas like Chesapeake and Devon — which are still evil in many ways — might have eased up more on the denialism than they have.

    • samh

      Would Exxon have made the trade, though? Exxon’s capital is in refineries, drilling technology, pipelines, rigs, some petrochemicals, and land. When emissions go to zero, all that capital is worth zero.

      Their well geologists are trained to find oil, not to do research. Their refinery engineers and operators are trained to handle refinery-specific unit ops, not those in chemical or pharma plants. Their field and rig engineers and operators have no remote equivalent in other industries. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of middle-age career changes.

      It’s not a matter of adding some wind here, solar there (I assume you mean in the Japanese way of forcing a company to invest in their competitor?). But this isn’t like Toyota investing in Nissan, it’s like demanding GM make bikes. They’re just not going to do that. These companies won’t be bought, they’ll have to be smashed.

      • Rob in CT

        Would Exxon have made the trade, though?

        No, which is why I later said:

        these guys aren’t stupid. They’re short-sighted, mean bastards but they’re not actually dumb. And the truth is likely that even if you bought them off their profits would decline, their shareholders would be pissed, their bonuses would be smaller, etc. So fuck you hippy.

        Your explanation is even better, but we’re getting at the same thing.

        It was a fantasy. Of course it didn’t add up.

  • Rob in CT



    Kudos to the Senate Democrats for leading with leadership ;)

  • pseudalicious

    On The Media (great podcast) did a piece on this. According to that piece, they were a little less Machiavellian than the tobacco industry; the shift from climate research to funding denial seemed to be the result of an internal coup, sort of like what happened within the NRA. It seemed like the shift went from “research what we’re doing to the climate so we can be credible when we fight the regulations that will come” to “full on deny the whole thing.” Again, according to the ClimateNews piece quoted in OTM story.

    ETA: That said, if treating them like the tobacco industry gets us where we need to be, I’m 100% fine with that, obviously.

    • Hogan

      I heard the OTM piece on NPR. The interviewer really took it to the ExxonMobil rep.

    • jroth95

      As it happens, I was already planning to comment about the internal politics here. My dad worked for Exxon for his entire 30+ year career* (ah, the good old days), and the rise of Lee Raymond absolutely represented the triumph of the Texas faction, and with it the corporate version of what has happened to the GOP since Goldwater: the systematic rooting out of all moderation, acceptance of government rule or corporate restraint. Mind you, I’m not trying to claim that Exxon was some force for good in the distant past, any more than Taft’s GOP was benign, but it was non-malignant (as evidenced by the climate change research). During the ’80s, presumably as part of the same trends happening throughout American capitalism, the idea of being a good corporate citizen started to decline, and, as I said, by ’93 the loathsome Raymond marked the victory of, in essence, Texas Republicanism over Northeastern.

      Meanwhile, it should probably be noted that the reason tobacco is considered more evil than the oil industry is that fossil fuels have their drawbacks (do they ever), but they also benefit humanity. Tobacco is much closer to pure downside. Take away all the nasty side effects, and tobacco is still kind of meh—a certain pleasure, but also an expensive addiction—whereas pollution-free fossil fuels would be more or less miraculous.

      *he did a variety of things early on, but the bulk of his career was in corporate planning, doing forecasting and such

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Hmmm… Things to Destroy This Week
        1. Exxon
        2. Texas

  • njorl

    McKibben goes on to note that while Obama has stood up to the coal industry, he has largely acquiesced to the desires of the oil industry, opening up a lot of new drilling, including in the Arctic.

    One of the reasons the ACA squeaked through was that Obama essentially gave the pharmaceutical industry a pass. I hope his successor goes after their abuse of patent laws, and takes measures to prevent ploys like Shkreli’s, but I think Obama was wise to limit his opposition. I think going after coal in isolation was wise as well.

    I suppose, since Obama didn’t need congressional approval for his actions against the coal industry, he could have acted more broadly, however, mandating useful limits on CO2 emissions from cars would have created a backlash which guaranteed all emission standards would be rolled back by the Republican president and the supermajorities the Republiicans would enjoy in both houses of congress.

    • Fake Irishman

      But he has put some pretty meaningful limits on CO2 emissions from cars, both indirectly through much, much, stricter fuel efficiency regulations and directly through actually making CO2 emissions reduction a direct requirement in those same CAFE regs. HE also has regulated large commercial vehicles for the first time, which will keep another several hundred million tons of CO2 out of the air.

      See here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/business/energy-environment/obama-unveils-tighter-fuel-efficiency-standards.html

      and here:

      • Fake Irishman

        …and I see Joe beat me below with the broader point of Obama being softer on production, but ramping up on the supply side. Still a problem, (and Erik’s point stands), but raising vehicle fleet standards as high as he has (plus remolding transportation policy to be much friendlier to mass transit, cyclists, and pedestrians — the TIGER program and better standards at the FTA have done a lot in this regard)

  • joe from Lowell

    1) Wow, 1977. Apart from everything else, that’s some pretty impressive scientific work.

    2) The neat “tough on coal, loose on oil” dichotomy isn’t really right. The Obama administration has been pretty soft on oil production, but they’ve done big things, or tried to, on the demand end – things like the CAFE standards, the favorable treatment of hybrid and electric cars, the ultimately-doomed high-speed rail initiative in the ARRA, and clean air regs that hit fuel-oil power plants as well as coal-fired.

    3) One of the nexuses between tobacco denialism and climate denialism is Reason Magazine’s own Ron Bailey.

    • Fake Irishman

      Good points. Don’t completely write off that high-speed rail initiative, either. That and the full funding of the PRIA of 2008 in the Stimulus has made a lot of small and medium-sized improvements on Amtrak routes all across the country (Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, Vermont and Washington all got some major upgrades to their routes, while Missouri, Oregon, New York, Indiana, Iowa, California and Maine all received significant improvements as well. The NE corridor got several major bridges replaced in Connecticut (all on time and under budget), a major speed upgrade in a part of NJ, and a lot of fundamental maintainence, and major station upgrades in Providence and Wilmington). Plus that money is helping California move forward on a true high speed rail project. So not quite transformative, but still extremely helpful.

  • AMK

    It’s been 400+ years since the then-American government (King James I) officially endorsed liberal-socialist propoganda like the idea that burning poisonous plants and huffing the smoke is bad for you. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, tobacco is still killing people….and for big tobacco, lower smoking rates in this country are more than offset by the money they print in the emerging/developing world. If the same holds even partially true for fossil fuels, we’re all doomed.

    • Redwood Rhiadra

      This. So much this.

      We won’t do anything about climate change. Hell, the climate negotiators for the next round of talks have already admitted that meeting the two degree target is now flat-out impossible. And even two degrees is disastrous.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’ll never forget a meeting some 15 years with a top staffer for one of the House Democrats from Texas. He said it did not take him long to learn that Exxon did not believe the government had any proper role in the energy industry at all. Exxon will always try to humor the elected officials in Washington by pretending to agree that their should be a national energy policy, but in practice they do not accept it.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Heard just a little bit of this on the public radio yesterday, and thought, 1977? Jimmy Carter and his sweater and his asking us to turn down the thermostat… this has been one long era of folly. Will we ever be able to apologize to him, or tell him he was right? Hmmm, what are the odds on him living another 30 years?

    The path was clear. Then a smiling cowboy showed up and…

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