Exxon Knew Everything There Was to Know About Climate Change by the Mid-1980s -- and Denied It
October 29, 2015
Bill McKibben / The Nation & Zoe Carpenter / The Nation
Documents reveal Exxon knew as early as 1981 that carbon emissions drive climate change. As early as the late 1970s, Exxon scientists warned top executives that climate change was real, dangerous, and caused by their products. By the early 1980s, Exxon's own climate models were predicting -- with great accuracy -- the track the global temperature has taken ever since. This all adds weight to rising calls that fossil-fuel companies be prosecuted for criminal conspiracy.
Exxon Knew Everything There Was to Know About Climate Change by the Mid-1980s -- and Denied It
And thanks to their willingness to sucker the world, the world is now a chaotic mess
Bill McKibben / The Nation
(October 20, 2015) -- A few weeks before the last great international climate conference -- 2009, in Copenhagen -- the e-mail accounts of a few climate scientists were hacked and reviewed for incriminating evidence suggesting that global warming was a charade.
Eight separate investigations later concluded that there was literally nothing to "Climategate," save a few sentences taken completely out of context -- but by that time, endless, breathless media accounts about the "scandal" had damaged the prospects for any progress at the conference.
Now, on the eve of the next global gathering in Paris this December, there's a new scandal. But this one doesn't come from an anonymous hacker taking a few sentences out of context.
This one comes from months of careful reporting by two separate teams, one at the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Inside Climate News, and the other at the Los Angeles Times (with an assist from the Columbia Journalism School).
Following separate lines of evidence and document trails, they've reached the same bombshell conclusion: ExxonMobil, the world's largest and most powerful oil company, knew everything there was to know about climate change by the mid-1980s, and then spent the next few decades systematically funding climate denial and lying about the state of the science.
This scandal -- traveling under the hashtag #exxonknew -- is just beginning to build. The Inside Climate News series of six pieces is set to conclude this week and be published as a book, but the Los Angeles Times apparently has far more reporting waiting to be released. Already members of Congress -- Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier of California -- and presidential candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders have called on the Department of Justice to investigate, comparing it to the predations of the tobacco industry.
Should the DOJ muster its courage to go after this most profitable and connected of companies, the roadmap is already well laid out by the two investigations.
ICN has demonstrated that as early as the late 1970s, Exxon scientists were briefing top executives that climate change was real, dangerous, and caused by their product. By the early 1980s, their own climate models were predicting -- with great accuracy -- the track the global temperature has taken ever since.
The Los Angeles Times reporting is at least as important. It demonstrated that Exxon clearly believed their own climate models and used them to guide their efforts in the newly melting Arctic, where as their senior researcher said "warming will clearly affect sea ice, icebergs, permafrost and sea levels." (Indeed, he added, climate change "can only help lower exploration and development costs," thus making their bids for Arctic lease rights more profitable).
But though we know now that behind the scenes Exxon understood precisely what was going on, in public they feigned ignorance or worse. CEO Lee Raymond described global warming as "projections are based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation," and insisted -- in a key presentation to China's leading officials in 1997 -- that the globe was probably cooling.
This scandal will not go away easily. The insider Washington Monthly came out with language as strong as you're likely to hear:
A fossil fuel company intentionally and knowingly obfuscating research into climate change constitutes criminal negligence and malicious intent at best, and a crime against humanity at worst. The Department of Justice has a moral obligation to prosecute Exxon and its co-conspirators accordingly.
And on Sunday the investigation truly came home, when the The Dallas Morning News -- read across the oil patch and hometown paper for Exxon -- put the ICN investigation on its front page. The whole business angered me so much that I sat down in front of a Mobil gas pump near my home, shutting it down for the few minutes before I was arrested in an effort to draw more attention to the story. (It's possible that this is the first time anyone's gone to jail to encourage newspaper readership.)
A few observers, especially on the professionally jaded left, have treated the story as old news -- as something that even if we didn't know, we knew. "Of course they lied," someone told me. That cynicism, however, serves as the most effective kind of cover for Exxon (right alongside the tired argument that it's "not the fault of the companies -- they're just meeting demand from all of us").
What's beginning to sink in is the horrible impact of their lies: Exxon, had its leaders merely stated directly what they knew to be true, could have ended the pretend debate over climate change as early as the 1980s.
When scientists like NASA's Jim Hansen first raised public awareness of climate change, think of what would have happened if Exxon's CEO had gone to Congress, too, and said that their internal scientific efforts show precisely the same thing. Instead, they funded every climate-denial outfit that asked for cash and worked with veterans of the tobacco wars to help raise the same kind of doubt about climate science.
When Hansen testified before a Congressional committee in 1988, the atmospheric level of CO2 was just passing 350 parts per million. Now we've gone beyond 400 ppm, we've seen the rapid melt of the Arctic, the acidification of the planet's oceans, and the rapid rise in extreme weather events. (Just lately: "thousand-year-rainfalls" in South Carolina and Southern California so far this month, and now a typhoon dropping a meter or more of rain on the Philippines.)
Thanks to Exxon's willingness to sucker the world, that world is now a chaotic mess. We've finally begun to see the rise of a movement large enough to challenge the power of the oil companies, and that means that Paris will come out better than Copenhagen, but the quarter-century wasted will never be made up.
And count on the fossil-fuel industry to continue trying to delay progress and obfuscate reality. Exxon is clearly flustered (its PR guy called the Los Angeles Times story "complete bullshit") but unrepentant.
They continue to demand favors from government, most recently a lifting of the longstanding ban on exporting American crude ("The sooner this happens, the better for us," said Kenneth P. Cohen, Exxon Mobil's vice president for public and governmental affairs informed The New York Times.) It remains to be seen if the world's media will overcome their tendency to truckle and give this true scandal anything like the oxygen it poured on those few hapless e-mails.
If they do, then more rapid progress on climate will be possible. The evidence of Exxon's bad faith is so overpowering that this debacle will only deepen on further investigation; think about what a prosecutor with deposition power could accomplish.
If the media and the authorities don't shirk their jobs, then someday, when the world thinks back on this greatest of crises, those climate scientists whose e-mails were hacked will be remembered as heroes, and Exxon will be the great object lesson for the damage unfettered greed can do.
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Bill McKibben Reader, an essay collection. A scholar in residence at Middlebury College, he is co-founder of 350.org, the largest global grassroots organizing campaign on climate change.
The Government May Already Have
The Law It Needs to Beat Big Oil
Zoe Carpenter / The Nation
(July 15, 2015) -- On a Wednesday in early May, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse went to the floor of the Senate to deliver his 98th weekly speech on climate change. As he usually does, Whitehouse spoke to a largely empty chamber, and the media ignored him.
Afterwards, few people knew that he'd just laid out what could be a groundbreaking legal strategy to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable not only for the damages of climate change but also for their efforts to mislead the public about climate science.
Whitehouse's speech (and a subsequent op-ed in The Washington Post) focused on the parallels between the fossil-fuel industry and tobacco companies. They share a "playbook," he argued, profiting from products that put health and safety at risk while working to disseminate deceptive information to downplay those risks and evade regulation.
"The match between the fossil fuel industry and Big Tobacco is pretty good in terms of the business risk presented if the public were to be really aware of the harm. They have a motive to deceive," Whitehouse said. "If anything, the fossil fuel industry's climate denial scheme has grown even bigger and more complex than Big Tobacco's."
But the government has its own playbook, Whitehouse noted: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Congress passed RICO in 1970 for the purposes of prosecuting mobsters, but the statute's contours are broad enough that it's been used against anti-abortion activists, the police, and, most recently, FIFA officials.
In 1999, the government filed a civil suit alleging tobacco companies had violated RICO by executing "a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes."
A federal judge agreed, ruling in 2006 that the corporations had "coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of the shared objective -- to . . . maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public."
Could fossil-fuel companies be liable under RICO? The idea hasn't yet been tested in court, but lawyers have been considering it at least since 2013, when climate scientist Richard Heede published a stunning paper concluding that just 90 corporations -- including ExxonMobile, BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, and Shell -- are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all carbon dioxide and methane emissions since the beginning of industrial era.
There is mounting evidence that many of these companies have been aware of the link between carbon emissions and climate change for decades, yet employed a variety of tactics to undercut publicly the science they acknowledged in private.
The fundamental basis of a RICO case "is that there is a group of people acting together to disseminate false information," explained Richard Ayres, an environmental lawyer and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "In terms of litigation strategies," Ayres continued, "RICO is as good as anything I've seen."
Just last week the Union of Concerned Scientists released a collection of 85 internal memos and other documents detailing a "coordinated campaign of deception" endorsed by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy, and other companies. They include:
* forged letters opposing the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill, supposedly sent by groups like the NAACP, but actually by a coal-industry group;
* a primer prepared in 1995 for a front group created to discredit climate science that acknowledges the "scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established"; and
* a newly uncovered e-mail from an Exxon employee which demonstrates the company was factoring concerns about carbon emissions and climate change into its decision-making as early as 1981, seven years before NASA scientist James Hansen brought the issue to public attention.
According to the e-mail, those concerns led Exxon to walk away from "an immense reserve of natural gas" off the coast of Indonesia because it had an unusually high concentration of carbon.
"The revelation that Exxon knew about the link between climate change and carbon pollution as early as 1981, and yet continued to support the decades-long campaign of denial described in the [Union of Concerned Scientists] report, strengthens the parallel with the tobacco-industry conduct that led to a civil RICO verdict against tobacco," Senator Whitehouse told The Nation.
"Whether DOJ pursues this or not is their call, but if nothing else, the UCS report shows these are legitimate questions to ask."
Some of the trickier aspects of prosecuting fossil fuel companies for racketeering would be beating a free-speech defense, and demonstrating specific acts of fraud and collusion.
The climate-denial beast (to use Whitehouse's phrase) is a more complex animal than the institute that the tobacco industry set up as its primary front group; it's made up of companies, wealthy individuals like Charles and David Koch, multi-issue think tanks, and academics.
Degrees of separation might insulate companies from direct liability for spreading misinformation. Still, there is evidence that fossil-fuel interests coordinated their public-relations campaigns.
For instance, in 1998, during negotiations of Kyoto Protocol, Exxon, and other members of industry and conservative groups met in the office of the American Petroleum Institute and came up with a "global climate science communications plan," designed to make "average citizens 'understand' (recognize) uncertainties in climate science" such that "recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'"
A civil suit under RICO could be brought by states or individuals as well as by the DOJ. And it could have an impact even if it weren't ultimately successful, particularly if the case made it to the discovery phase, in which defendants could be forced to hand over other internal communications detailing what they knew about climate change when, and how they worked together. In the tobacco case, those types of documents helped shift public opinion and built support for regulatory action.
"There are a lot of similarities with what we're seeing the fossil-fuel industry has done and what the tobacco industry did," said Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department lawyer who led the RICO case against the tobacco companies. "When you're looking at a large industry, it takes a series of cases over time to have a solid claim that's going to survive all the motions to dismiss."
At the end of his speech, Senator Whitehouse reminded his colleagues of their "legislative responsibility to address climate change." But it's clear that too many lawmakers have abdicated, thus the pressure to tackle the climate issue through existing regulations like the Clean Air Act, and through the courts.
"I've been hearing for twelve years or more that legislation is right around the corner that's going to solve the global-warming problem, and that litigation is too long, difficult, and arduous a path," said Matthew Pawa, a climate attorney. "Legislation is going nowhere, so litigation could potentially play an important role."
A racketeering suit isn't the only possible avenue -- most climate cases so far have relied on common-law claims of public nuisance -- but given the tobacco precedent and a deepening understanding of the energy industry's awareness of climate science, Whitehouse's little-noticed speech might one day appear entirely prescient.
Zoë Carpenter is The Nation's assistant Washington editor.
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