Exxon Feeling the Heat Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

A look at the oil giant’s checkered past on climate science

Distillation towers and flare in dawn light Photo credit: Roy Luck / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the oil giant now called ExxonMobil was at the cutting edge of climate science. In the late 1970s, Exxon’s own scientists told company executives that greenhouse gases would cause the world to warm.

“What is considered the best presently available climate model for treating the Greenhouse Effect predicts that a doubling of the C02 concentration in the atmosphere would produce a mean temperature increase of about 2°C to 3°C over most of the earth,” Exxon researcher James Black wrote in a memo to executives in 1977.

At first, Exxon acted on this information by stepping up efforts to investigate climate change and its causes. In the early 1980s, not long after the Black memo was written, the company spent comparatively large amounts on climate science, according to an investigation by InsideClimate News (ICN).

Profits at the Expense of the Planet

In 1982, however, funding for Exxon’s “CO2 Greenhouse program” was slashed from $900,000 to $385,000 and then to $150,000 the following year.

The company counters that the budget cuts were triggered by low oil prices and that they were reversed later.

“The 1980s was a period in which the oil and gas industry was battered by extremely low oil prices, causing mass layoffs and an economic tailspin,” Ken Cohen, vice president of public and government affairs for ExxonMobil Corporation, stated.

“During this time period, budgets were cut all throughout the company, as they were all throughout the industry. The big news – which ICN did not report – is that when prices rebounded so did our climate-related spending.”

However, another possible reason can be found in a 1981 document, in which Exxon noted that “there is no near term threat of legislation to control CO2.”

Spending on Crushing Critics

Exxon’s spending did pick up again in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t just for research. The company joined anti-climate change groups like the Global Climate Coalition. While critics say these groups wanted to obscure an emerging consensus on climate change, ExxonMobil’s Ken Cohen stated that this group and others “opposed ineffective climate policies.”

The oil giant’s explanations do not assuage its critics and the recent revelations may lead to legal trouble. New York’s attorney general is investigating whether ExxonMobil intentionally misrepresented the science and the risks of climate change to its investors and the public.

The two leading Democratic presidential candidates are also demanding action.

“It’s a big deal. It is unacceptable for anyone to put the health of our families and our planet at risk by obscuring science,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “Science, by the way, that they themselves initiated, and then, as time went by, they rejected.”

In noting that Exxon has contributed $31 million “to think tanks and organizations that cast doubt on mainstream climate science” since 1998, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders likened the company’s efforts to obfuscate the facts to the tobacco industry’s misinformation campaign about the deadly effects of cigarette smoking.

The way ExxonMobil tells it, the company has been consistent in its efforts to get to the bottom of climate change while also noting that it is not responsible for the world’s addiction to carbon fuels.

What it conveniently fails to mention is its generous support of climate change sceptics, whose influence has impeded efforts to have the US play a leading role in the fight against global warming.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Shooter (Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from U.S. Marine Corps)

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5 responses to “Exxon Feeling the Heat Ahead of Paris Climate Conference”

  1. Kevin says:

    Recently Maurice Strong died. I pasted one paragraph of Peter Foster’s recent National Post article, that discussed his death. Check out that last sentence about coordinating all human activity.

    This is what (at least some of us) AGW skeptics fear is the true motive behind this whole thing.

    ================================
    ‘Clarkson claimed that Strong had “invented the environment.” While that may have been somewhat exaggerated, he did play a critical role in promoting political responses to environmental concerns. As a lifelong socialist, he saw the potential of the environmental movement to fight capitalism and introduce a system of “global governance” that would co-ordinate all human activity.’
    ================================

  2. Kevin says:

    Some more environmental concerns I have:

    1) The fallout from Fukushima. Is there going to come a time (if it hasn’t already happened) when it is no longer safe to eat seafood?

    2) Nuclear plants around the world. Is there a safer source of energy? I’ve heard Thorium reactors might be better. I’ve also heard about hydro powered reactors (that harness the energy of the ocean).

    3) Continuing your (outstanding) coverage of the effects of depleted uranium.

    I realize it takes a lot of money to do these types of stories (especially without corporate sponsors influencing/suppressing the outcome of the reporting) but just throwing this out there.

  3. Kevin says:

    Below are quotes from Bill Gates (who proposes a governmental solution to these problems). Can WhoWhatWhy at least explore the “cui bono?” aspect of this story. In particular:

    -Who will be collecting these taxes ?

    -How will the group that collects these taxes be appointed ?

    -Exactly what power will they be given?

    Also, again, how will the Pentagon (again the #1 user of fossil fuels) stop contributing to the problem ?
    ==============================
    Bill Gates, speaking to ‘The Atlantic’, November 2015:

    ‘Without a substantial carbon tax, there’s no incentive for innovators or plant buyers to switch.’

    ‘Since World War II, US-government R&D has defined the state
    of the art in almost every area.

    (also of R&D)- ‘ …the private sector is in general inept.’

    ‘The climate problem has to be solved in the rich countries. China and the
    US and Europe have to solve CO2 emissions, and when they do, hopefully
    they’ll make it cheap enough for everyone else.’
    ==============================

  4. Kevin says:

    Also, once again I want to point out the hypocrisy of the people who are supposedly trying to “save the world” from climate change (as per the passages from the article below).

    ——————————–
    ‘The Washington Free Beacon’, Dec 01, 2015, reports that:

    ‘The COP21 meeting of global leaders, which President Obama said is a “powerful rebuke” to terrorists, began on Monday. Representatives from 195 countries traveled to Paris, burning 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide for the United Nations conference that is seeking to reduce global emissions.

    “No Sustainability Included,” the document states under a section for contract clauses.’

    ——————————–

  5. Kevin says:

    Was this document found right before the Paris climate conference? If so, that seems pretty fishy. Also, let’s keep an open mind to the possibility that Exxon is going to take a hit here but will benefit them in the long run (similar to the way big banks made enormous profits that dwarfed the “record fines” they paid for breaking the law).

    It’s interesting too that Exxon is the focus here when the biggest user of fossil fuels is the Pentagon. Yet lately we’ve been hearing (e.g. from Bernie Sanders) that “terrorism is tied to climate change”. Maybe his “solution” will be to increase the size of the military? And maybe nations around the world can give up their national sovereignty (to comply with the laws of a global governing body) while we’re at it? Wonderful!

    I still don’t understand how any rational person can see all the lies of governments around the world (and throughout history) but still look at this climate change conference without an incredibly skeptical viewpoint.

    This is not to say that I’m unconcerned about the environment. Things like GMOs and fracking greatly concern me and I wish a lot more focus would be put on both of those issues. I know there are plenty of global warming believers who are also sincere in their beliefs and I respect them for that. I ask again, however, that they keep an open mind on this issue and consider the viewpoints of us skeptics.