Reprinted from The New Yorker
Wednesday morning, journalists at InsideClimate News, a Website that has won the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on oil spills, published the first installment of a multi-part expose that will be appearing over the next month. The documents they have compiled and the interviews they have conducted with retired employees and officials show that, as early as 1977, Exxon (now ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest oil companies) knew that its main product would heat up the planet disastrously. This did not prevent the company from then spending decades helping to organize the campaigns of disinformation and denial that have slowed -- perhaps fatally -- the planet's response to global warming.
There's a sense, of course, in which one already assumed that this was the case. 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."
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 expose 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."
The influence of the oil industry is essentially undiminished, even now. The Obama Administration may have stood up to Big Coal, but the richer Big Oil got permission this summer to drill in the Arctic; Washington may soon grant the rights for offshore drilling along the Atlantic seaboard, and end a longstanding ban on oil exports. All these measures help drive the flow of carbon into the atmosphere -- the flow of carbon that Exxon knew almost 40 years ago would likely be disastrous.
We've gotten so inured to this kind of corporate power that the report in InsideClimate News received relatively little coverage. The big news of the day on social media came from Irving, Texas, where the police handcuffed a young Muslim boy for taking his homemade alarm clock to school; all day people tweeted #IStandWithAhmed, and rightly so. It's wondrous to see the power of an Internet-enabled world shining the light on particular (and in this case telling) injustice; there's a principal and a police chief in Irving that will likely think differently next time. But we badly need the same kind of focus on the long-lasting, underlying abuses of corporate might. As it happens, Exxon is based in Irving, Texas too.