Godalmighty, Exxon Knew Absolutely Everything

January 15th, 2023 - by Bill McKibben / Substack

Especially Exactly How Much They Were Going to Heat the Earth

Bill McKibben / Substack

(January 14, 2023) — An important new study that came out a few minutes ago makes painfully clear precisely how much (and precisely how precisely) Exxon understood climate change, back in the days when it could have made a huge difference if they’d simply been honest.

It’s not, of course, as if we didn’t know a lot of this story already, and in some depth. In 2015, the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Inside Climate News published a landmark series of reports drawing on archives and whistleblowers to demonstrate that Exxon had set its scientists to work studying what we then called the greenhouse effect back in the 1970s, and that those scientists had reached the same conclusion as researchers working at NASA and elsewhere: the carbon dioxide coming from the fossil fuel industry was about to heat the earth in dramatic fashion.

That was huge news — and it explains the picture above, when I staged a one-man sit-in at an Exxon station near me till the police took me away in handcuffs. I was desperate that this story not go away — and it didn’t. It helped fuel the massive fossil fuel divestment campaign, as well as a score of lawsuits aimed at making Exxon pay up.

But this new study — from Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research — actually looks at the specific results that Exxon’s scientists predicted back in those years, and sees how well they panned out. Remarkably well: their temperature projections had an average “skill score” of roughly 75%, which is higher than many government researchers.

“These findings corroborate and add quantitative precision to assertions by scholars, journalists, lawyers, politicians and others that ExxonMobil accurately foresaw the threat of human-caused global warming, both prior to and parallel to orchestrating lobbying and propaganda campaigns to delay climate action action,” the authors write.

As lead author Geoffery Supran (who has just taken up a new post at the University of Miami) put it:

“This is the nail-in-the-coffin of Exxon Mobil’s claims that it has been falsely accused of climate malfeasance. Our analysis shows that ExxonMobil’s own data contradicted its public statements, which included exaggerating uncertainties, criticizing climate models, mythologizing global cooling, and feigning ignorance about when — or if — human-caused global would be measurable.”

What Supran is referring to is the decades-long effort, organized by Exxon and others, to minimize and obfuscate the reality of climate change; its high point may have come when then CEO Lee Raymond went to the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing, just weeks before the Kyoto climate talks, and insisted that the world was cooling, and that even if it wasn’t it would make no difference if people delayed action for a few decades. We now know in greater detail just how precisely Exxon’s scientists had been saying the opposite.

It makes me think, once more, of what may be the greatest climate counterfactual of all. What if, on the night in 1988 that NASA’s Jim Hansen had told Congress about global warming, Exxon’s CEO had gone on the nightly news (which was still a thing then) and said: “That’s what our scientists have been telling us too. It’s a real problem.”
That seems the minimum any religious or ethical system would require, and it would have had enormous impact — no one was going to accuse Exxon of climate alarmism. We could have gotten down to work as a society.

They chose another course instead, and in certain ways it worked for them: in some of the years that followed, Exxon set the record for highest annual corporate profit. But that’s not what history is going to remember about them.

In other news from the world of climate and energy:

  • You know who wants you to get an EV? Your dog. Professor Daniel Mills, professor of Veterinary Behaviour Medicine at the University of Lincoln, said:

‘Our results clearly show that dogs seem to be more relaxed in electric vehicles, particularly when looking at behavioural traits such as restlessness.’ Additionally, an interesting and somewhat unintended revelation from the study came from the dogs that we identified as having potential symptoms associated with travel sickness.

‘During their journeys in the electric vehicles, biometric recordings of these dogs revealed their heart rates slowed markedly more than when they were in diesel cars. This was of particular interest to us given an increase in heart rate is commonly associated with motion sickness. It’s an intriguing result.’

  • Dr. Rose Abramoff, a climate scientist at the federal government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, took part in a small and nonviolent climate demonstration at last month’s AGU meeting. So the federal governmentfired her:

I used to be a well-behaved scientist. I stood quietly on melting permafrost in Utqiagvik, Alaska, and measured how much greenhouse gas was released into the atmosphere. I filled spreadsheets and ran simulations about how warming temperatures would increase the carbon emissions from soil.

To do my job, I dissociated the data I was working with from the terrifying future it represented. But in the field, smelling the dense rot of New England hemlock trees that were being eaten by a pest that now survives the warming winters, I felt loss and dread. Only my peers read my articles, which didn’t seem to have any tangible effects. Though I saw firsthand the oncoming catastrophe of climate change, I felt powerless to help.

  • Pakistan continues to need international support to recover from devastating flooding this autumn. Among other things, 23,000 schools and clinics were destroyed. As the country’s prime minister wrote in the Guardian this week:

Aid will reassure millions of imperilled people — who have already lost everything — that they have not been forgotten; that the international community will help them to rebuild their lives.

It will also remind us that we are all — increasingly — at the mercy of forces of nature that do not respect borders and can only be tamed by joining hands. It is, therefore, my sincere hope that our gathering in Geneva comes to symbolise our common humanity and generosity of spirit — a source of hope for all people and countries who may face natural adversity in the future.

  • Abeautiful account from Patricia Tull of the work underway at the Faith working group of Third Act. Meanwhile Third Act Lawyers is meeting soon, and so are Third Act Educators
  • Sea ice around the Antarctic is at anall-time record low
  • The late Richard Trumka once led the coal miner’s union. Now his son, Richard Trumka Jr., is on the Consumer Product Safety Commission and issuggesting they may outlaw new gas stoves because — as Iwrote last week — the danger they pose to children in households where they burn is becoming ever clearer.

The reaction to his proposal is clear: conservatives are determined to make gas stoves the next focus of the culture wars, with Texas congressman Ronny Jackson (chief medical advisor to President Trump) expressing his allegiance to the blue flame science be damned, and promising that his range will only be taken from his “COLD, DEAD FINGERS.”

Meanwhile, the propane industry is scared enough of heat pumps and induction cooktops that they’re hiring actors to spread their message. Great coverage in the NYTimes:

“When I think of winter, I think of being inside. I think of cooking with the family, of being by a roaring fire — and with propane, that is all possible,” Matt Blashaw said on a segment of the CBS affiliate WCIA, calling in from his bright kitchen. “That’s why we call it an energy source for everyone.”

Less well-known is the fact that Mr. Blashaw is paid by a fossil fuel industry group that has been running a furtive campaign against government efforts to move heating away from oil and gas toward electricity made from wind, solar and other cleaner sources.

  • Finally, for those of you who enjoyed The Other Cheek, our serialized nonviolent epic, I wrote ashort accountof the pleasures of publishing it.
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