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4 Ways Exxon Stopped Action on Climate Change

Climate

In the last few months, exposé after exposé has uncovered how Exxon knew about the dangerous reality of climate change before the media, politicians and just about everyone else. But instead of doing the right thing or even just sitting on its evidence, Exxon did something much more insidious. It tried to hide the truth from all of us.

Exxon has known about the dangerous reality of climate change for decades. Photo credit: Greenpeace International

As we approach COP21, a global meeting to address the climate crisis, let’s take a look back on four examples of how far Exxon has gone to stop climate action:

1. That Time Exxon Learned in 1982 That Climate Change Would Lead to Environmental Catastrophe

As early as 1977, Exxon’s own scientists were researching human-caused global warming. Exxon dedicated a substantial research budget to studying carbon emissions, developed sophisticated models and published its findings in peer reviewed journals. By 1982, an internal company report told Exxon management “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered … Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

So Exxon knew. But instead of acting to protect the planet, Exxon acted to protect its profits. It spent the next three decades funding and spreading climate denial. Exxon funded groups like ALEC, the Heartland Institute and the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition—all of which ran successful public climate denial campaigns. The Advancement of Sound Science got its start challenging the dangers of secondhand smoke, so climate denialism wasn’t a big stretch. And ALEC—a climate-denying front group that peddles its pro-corporate legislation to U.S. statehouses—spread misinformation so egregious that Shell’s investors forced the oil giant to cut ties.

Hurricane Sandy aftermath in New Jersey. Oct. 30, 2012. Photo credit: Greenpeace / Tim Aubry

Now, the catastrophic events Exxon predicted are here. But Exxon continues to fund climate denialism to this day.

2. That Time Exxon Paid for a PR Strategy to Convince the World Climate Change Wasn’t Real 

Of course, Exxon isn’t alone in funding and spreading climate denialism. In 1988, Exxon joined a group of fossil fuel companies and industry front groups organized by the American Petroleum Institute to create the Global Climate Science Communications Plan. The group spent $2 million dollars on a plan to get the average citizens and the media to "'understand' (recognize) uncertainties” in climate science and for these uncertainties become part of the “‘conventional wisdom.’” That “uncertainty” set the planet back decades in terms of climate change policy—and it’s one reason people who don’t believe in science can run for president in the U.S.

3. That Time ExxonMobil Got the U.S. to Withdraw From the Kyoto Protocol

For decades, Mobil—and then ExxonMobil—ran a weekly “advertorial” on the opinion page of the New York Times. After the 2000 election, these advertorials practically became a guidebook for the new Bush administration.

In January 2001, an Exxon advertorial called the Kyoto Protocol “unrealistic” and “economically damaging” because of its “fundamental flaws.” When President Bush gave his now-infamous June 2001 speech on climate change, he echoed Exxon—calling the policy “unrealistic,” “fatally flawed in fundamental ways” and said it would have had a “negative economic impact.”

Sandbagging action against ExxonMobil in New Zealand during a global warming protest. June 12, 2001. Photo credit: Greenpeace / Mark Coote

The harm this caused to the planet is undeniable.

 4. That Time Exxon Called the Current New York Attorney General Investigation Into Its Deception a “Distraction”

 “I really don’t want this to be a distraction.” That’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson talking about the New York Attorney General’s investigation into Exxon’s “possible climate change lies.” Then there’s Exxon flack Dick Keil, calling Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s suggestion that Exxon be investigated for corruption “complete bullshit.”

Tillerson sounds a lot like Tony “I’d like my life back” Hayward in the midst of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. We can all sympathize with beleaguered CEOs in the middle of a corporate PR disaster, but the Exxon investigation is more than a distraction. The Attorney General is looking into Exxon’s history of misleading statements on climate change, to investors and to the public. California and the Philippines might be next and the public is clamoring for a federal Department of Justice investigation. Rex Tillerson and Dick Keil might be in denial, but Exxon’s woes aren’t going anywhere.

Typhoon survivors and civil society groups in the Philippines, delivered a complaint to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR), calling for an investigation into the responsibly of big fossil fuel companies for fueling catastrophic climate change that is resulting in human rights violations. Sept. 22, 2015. Photo credit: Greenpeace / Vincent Go

The truth is that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies fueled climate debate for years knowing the harm it was causing. Join us and support an investigation into Exxon and other Big Oil companies now.

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"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine is creating the right conditions for lobster, so it's helped our industry—and it's been a big boost for the Maine economy," Porter, the current president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said. "But you never know what lies ahead. If it continues to warm, it may end up going the other way."

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"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."

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Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."

State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)

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Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."

The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.

The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.

While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."

Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.

"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."

Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.

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