What and When Exxon Knew

Artwork copyright (c) 2015 by Tucker Nichols.

What and When Exxon Knew

By   |  Oct. 19, 2015

I was at an event in Hermosa Beach last week hosted by 350 So Cal, for which Bill McKibben had sent a special video message

I didn’t realize that he was aiming to get arrested the next day – at a gas station. It wasn’t a mass protest, just one man and a sign temporarily closing down a pump. It hit me in the gut as being somehow more poignant and powerful that way. 

His action and disgust was about the recent story describing Exxon’s knowledge of dangers posed by their industry to the life of the Earth.

The report, if you haven’t read it, opens like this: 

Back in 1990, as the debate over climate change was heating up, a dissident shareholder petitioned the board of Exxon, one of the world’s largest oil companies, imploring it to develop a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its production plants and facilities.

The board’s response: Exxon had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company’s “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”

Yet in the far northern regions of Canada’s Arctic frontier, researchers and engineers at Exxon and Imperial Oil were quietly incorporating climate change projections into the company’s planning and closely studying how to adapt the company’s Arctic operations to a warming planet.

Bill is scathing in stating that “no corporation has ever done anything this big or bad,” but as John Cobb commented in an email to me, “the language is well deserved.”

Bill writes:

To understand the treachery – the sheer, profound, and I think unparalleled evil – of Exxon, one must remember the timing. Global warming became a public topic in 1988, thanks to Nasa scientist James Hansen – it’s taken a quarter-century and counting for the world to take effective action. If at any point in that journey Exxon – largest oil company on Earth, most profitable enterprise in human history – had said: “Our own research shows that these scientists are right and that we are in a dangerous place,” the faux debate would effectively have ended. That’s all it would have taken; stripped of the cover provided by doubt, humanity would have gotten to work.

Instead, knowingly, they helped organise the most consequential lie in human history, and kept that lie going past the point where we can protect the poles, prevent the acidification of the oceans, or slow sea level rise enough to save the most vulnerable regions and cultures. Businesses misbehave all the time, but VW is the flea to Exxon’s elephant. No corporation has ever done anything this big and this bad.

I wondered what ExxonMobil itself was saying about this, and found this Perspectives piece on its website written in defense. 

Exxon denies a conspiracy. Asserts its corporate, research and engineering bona fides. And confirms that “our scientists and researchers were among the first to grapple with the fact there might be a connection between the carbon dioxide emissions from humanity’s use of fossil fuels and climate fluctuations.”

They “refute the claim, central to activists’ conspiracy theories, that anyone had reached a firm conclusion about catastrophic impacts of climate change back in the 1970s and ‘80s.”

In fact, says Bill, summarizing recent findings:

• By 1978 Exxon’s senior scientists were telling top management that climate change was real, caused by man, and would raise global temperatures by 2-3C this century, which was pretty much spot-on.

• By the early 1980s they’d validated these findings with shipborne measurements of CO2 (they outfitted a giant tanker with carbon sensors for a research voyage) and with computer models that showed precisely what was coming. As the head of one key lab at Exxon Research wrote to his superiors, there was “unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere”.

• And by the early 1990s their researchers studying the possibility for new exploration in the Arctic were well aware that human-induced climate change was melting the poles. Indeed, they used that knowledge to plan their strategy, reporting that soon the Beaufort Sea would be ice-free as much as five months a year instead of the historic two. Greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels,” a key Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991. “Nobody disputes this fact.”

Exxon’s Perspectives defense makes the interesting observation that “Three decades after we began this research, our view hasn’t changed…”

Okey dokey, then.

For a “defense,” there are a lot of awkward references it seems to me.

For instance, Exxon flags its collaborative research with MIT and Stanford – which seems an odd thing to do given the recommendation by MIT researchers earlier this year for some fossil fuel divestments and Stanford’s move to divest from coal last year.

And then Exxon describes forward-looking actions it is taking technology-wise to create “next-generation energy technologies.”

But which generation exactly are these “next-generation” technologies supposed to be for? Say, are they for the generation that might come after Exxon has burned up the fossil fuels they now own? According to Exxon’s own models, what do they think this generation is going to be like?

Exxon says that it is a “global leader in carbon capture and sequestration,” which sounds to me a lot like Phillip Morris promoting the idea that it is the leading pioneer in multi-organ heart/lung transplantation techniques.

I’m making this up about Phillip Morris, but in terms of Exxon, theirs is the sort of statement that, however true, one wants to respond by asking, “Really? Is that your business model? To get us coming and going?”

The final paragraph of the online ExxonMobil defense appeals for confidence in its “scientific and engineering mindset.”

It’s because of mindsets like this that John Cobb, Bill McKibben and so many others are calling for a new worldview.

John B. Cobb, Jr. is founding chairperson of Pando Populus and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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