Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Bill McKibben: 'VW Is the Flea to Exxon's Elephant. No Corporation Has Ever Done Anything This Big and This Bad'

Climate

I’m well aware that with Paris looming it’s time to be hopeful and I’m willing to try. Even amid the record heat and flooding of the present, there are good signs for the future in the rising climate movement and the falling cost of solar.

But before we get to past and present there’s some past to be reckoned with and before we get to hope there’s some deep, blood-red anger.

In the last three weeks, two separate teams of journalists—the Pulitzer-prize winning reporters at the website Inside Climate News and another crew composed of Los Angeles Times veterans and up-and-comers at the Columbia Journalism School—have begun publishing the results of a pair of independent investigations into ExxonMobil.

Though they draw on completely different archives, leaked documents and interviews with ex-employees, they reach the same damning conclusion: Exxon knew all that there was to know about climate change decades ago and instead of alerting the rest of us denied the science and obstructed the politics of global warming.

To be specific:

  • 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.”

But of course Exxon did dispute that fact. Not inside the company, where they used their knowledge to buy oil leases in the areas they knew would melt, but outside, where they used their political and financial might to make sure no one took climate change seriously.

They helped organize campaigns designed to instill doubt, borrowing tactics and personnel from the tobacco industry’s similar fight. They funded “institutes” devoted to outright climate denial. And at the highest levels they did all they could to spread their lies.

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 organize 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’m aware that anger at this point does little good. I’m aware that all clever people will say “of course they did” or “we all use fossil fuels,” as if either claim is meaningful. I’m aware that nothing much will happen to Exxon—I doubt they’ll be tried in court or their executives sent to jail.

But nonetheless it seems crucial simply to say, for the record, the truth: this company had the singular capacity to change the course of world history for the better and instead it changed that course for the infinitely worse. In its greed Exxon helped—more than any other institution—to kill our planet.

This op-ed first appeared in The Guardian.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Another U.S Nuke Bites the Dust

Bernie Puts Corporate Greed Center Stage, Hillary Holds Her Own at #DemDebate

Oil and Water Don’t Mix: California Must Ban Fracking

Melting of Antarctic Ice Shelves Could Double by 2050, Dramatically Increasing Sea Level Rise

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Firefly Watch project is among the options for aspiring citizen scientists to join. Mike Lewinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tiffany Means

Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.

Read More Show Less
People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas spiked after being one of the first states to begin reopening. SERGIO FLORES / AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less
A never-before-documented frog species has been discovered in the Peruvian highlands and named Phrynopus remotum. Germán Chávez

By Angela Nicoletti

The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.

Read More Show Less
Left: Lemurs in Madagascar on March 30, 2017. Mathias Appel / Flickr. Right: A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. National Marine Fisheries Service

A new analysis by scientists at the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that lemurs and the North Atlantic right whale are on the brink of extinction.

Read More Show Less
Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular. Colin Dunn / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Julia Vergin

It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.

Read More Show Less
Data from a scientist measuring macroalgal communities in rocky shores in the Argentinean Patagonia would be added to the new system. Patricia Miloslavich / University of Delaware

Ocean scientists have been busy creating a global network to understand and measure changes in ocean life. The system will aggregate data from the oceans, climate and human activity to better inform sustainable marine management practices.

EcoWatch sat down with some of the scientists spearheading the collaboration to learn more.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Authors of a new study warned Thursday that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nearing a level not seen in 15 million years. Dawn Ellner / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jessica Corbett

As a United Nations agency released new climate projections showing that the world is on track in the next five years to hit or surpass a key limit of the Paris agreement, authors of a new study warned Thursday that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nearing a level not seen in 15 million years.

Read More Show Less