According to a recent investigation by InsideClimate News, oil juggernaut Exxon (now ExxonMobil) became aware of climate change as early as 1977 - 11 years before it became a worldwide environmental issue. However, the company’s knowledge of climate change did not prevent it from spending years refusing to acknowledge the phenomenon to the public. The company even promoted the disbursement of “climate misinformation.” Many equate this type of propaganda-spreading to the approach taken by the tobacco industry in promoting and disseminating lies about the health risks of smoking. In fact, both industries used the same consultants to try and keep their respective products profitable.
Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University is not surprised by the revelations. “It’s never been remotely plausible that they did not understand the science.”
The investigation also revealed that Exxon understood the science AND it actively employed leading scientists to research the issue. Exxon spent more than $1 million on a project that would attempt to determine how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by the planet’s oceans. Exxon was conducting unprecedented research into one of the biggest scientific questions of the time.
Reporters found that Exxon’s knowledge of climate change dates back to 1977, when its top scientist James Black told the company’s executives and management committee that, “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," He added a warning that, “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical."
ExxonMobil disagrees that any of its early research was so grim, let alone conclusive. ExxonMobil spokesperson Allan Jeffers stated that, “We didn’t reach those conclusions, nor did we try to bury it like they suggest. The thing that shocks me the most is that we’ve been saying this for years, that we have been involved in climate research. These guys go down and pull some documents that we made available publicly in the archives and portray them as some kind of bombshell whistle-blower exposé because of the loaded language and the selective use of materials.”
However, in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen told Congress that Earth was already warming, Exxon publicly stated that the science was, at best, controversial. Furthermore, Exxon apparently then led “campaigns of confusion.” By 1989, the company co-created a coalition to question the scientific basis regarding climate change. The company also helped prevent the United States from signing an international treaty on climate in order to control greenhouse gases. Exxon’s efforts also stopped other countries, such as India and China, from signing the treaty.
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released the results of an investigation to complement the one conducted by InsideClimate News. Union president Kenneth Kimmel stated that, “We included a memo of a coalition of fossil-fuel companies where they pledge basically to launch a big communications effort to sow doubt. There’s even a quote in it that says something like ‘Victory will be achieved when the average person is uncertain about climate science.’ So it’s pretty stark.”
Since then, Greenpeace has alleged that Exxon has spent more than $30 million on think tanks promoting climate change denial. Experts believe that Exxon’s misinformation has caused significant damage to environmental efforts. Kimmel proffered that, “one thing for certain is we’ve lost a lot of ground. I have to think if the fossil-fuel companies had been upfront about this and had been part of the solution instead of the problem, we would have made a lot of progress [today] instead of doubling our greenhouse gas emissions.”