Michael Mann: Exxon Doubled Down on Climate Denial and Deceit

Thanks to a months-long investigation by the Pulitzer-prize winning InsideClimate News, we learned last week that ExxonMobil's own scientists had secretly confirmed the science behind human-caused climate change as early as the late 1970s.

Yes—this is the same ExxonMobil that has funded efforts to attack the science of climate change for more than two decades. As I recount in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, I found myself at the center of those attacks because of the iconic Hockey Stick graph my co-authors and I published back in the late 1990s. The graph highlighted, in an easily understandable way, the unprecedented nature of modern global warming. As a result, it proved greatly inconvenient for vested interests, like ExxonMobil, who are opposed to regulation of carbon emissions—from the burning of fossil fuels—that are behind the warming of the globe and the associated changes in climate.

Exxon's Richard Werthamer (right) and Edward Garvey (left) are aboard the company's Esso Atlantic tanker working on a project to measure the carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere. The project ran from 1979 to 1982. Photo credit: Richard Werthamer

The parallels with the tobacco industry, which knew about—and hid from the public—the health dangers of cigarette smoking, are staggering. Indeed, the industry-funded climate change denial campaign, as I discuss in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, has its roots in the earlier tobacco industry disinformation campaign.

In their blockbuster new article, InsideClimate News details how key senior Exxon scientists had warned top executives about the reality and threat of continued fossil fuel burning and the associated warming of the planet and changes in climate "well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis." They describe a rather prescient presentation made by one of Exxon's senior scientists as far back as July 1977:

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation's headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world's use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

"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," Black told Exxon's Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

ExxonMobil, we learn from InsideClimate News, chose as a result to fund an internal research effort over the next few years to assess the threat posed by climate change:

Exxon budgeted more than $1 million over three years for the tanker project to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. It was a small fraction of Exxon Research's annual $300 million budget, but the question the scientists tackled was one of the biggest uncertainties in climate science: how quickly could the deep oceans absorb atmospheric CO2? If Exxon could pinpoint the answer, it would know how long it had before CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere could force a transition away from fossil fuels.

They even worked closely with outside climate researchers, ultimately reaching the conclusion that the potential threat was indeed great (emphasis added):

Exxon also hired scientists and mathematicians to develop better climate models and publish research results in peer-reviewed journals. By 1982, the company's own scientists, collaborating with outside researchers, created rigorous climate models—computer programs that simulate the workings of the climate to assess the impact of emissions on global temperatures. They confirmed an emerging scientific consensus that warming could be even worse than Black had warned five years earlier.

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ExxonMobil executives were informed in no uncertain terms, by their own science division, that climate change impacts could be "catastrophic" and potentially "irreversible" unless there were major reductions in fossil fuel burning:

Exxon's research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked "not to be distributed externally," it contained information that "has been given wide circulation to Exxon management." In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming "would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion."

Unless that happened, "there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered," the primer said, citing independent experts. "Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible."

ExxonMobil scientists, furthermore, recognized that the company had an ethical obligation to come forward with what they had learned. Staff scientist Roger Cohen stated as much in a September 1982 memo described by InsideClimate News:

He warned that publication of the company's conclusions might attract media attention because of the "connection between Exxon's major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2."

Nevertheless, he recommended publication.

Our "ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature," Cohen wrote. "Indeed, to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon's public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity."

A good faith effort on their part to acknowledge and communicate the scientific basis and the risks involved would, their own researchers argued, grant them legitimacy when it comes to the honest debate that is to be had about policy prescriptions for dealing with the climate change problem. According to InsideClimate News:

In the early 1980s Exxon researchers often repeated that unbiased science would give it legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.

So let's be clear. ExxonMobil chief executives could have heeded that advice. They could have gone down in history as heroes who helped save the planet from the ravages of climate change.

But that was not to be.

InsideClimate News quotes me at the end of the article:

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, who has been a frequent target of climate deniers, said that inaction, just like actions, have consequences. When he recently spoke to InsideClimate News, he was unaware of this chapter in Exxon's history.

"All it would've taken is for one prominent fossil fuel CEO to know this was about more than just shareholder profits, and a question about our legacy," he said. "But now because of the cost of inaction—what I call the 'procrastination penalty'—we face a far more uphill battle."

Economic pressures, InsideClimate News notes, led Exxon to dissolve their climate research division by the late 1980s. In his famous July 1988 congressional testimony, NASA scientist James Hansen had meanwhile announced to the world that human-caused climate change had arrived, and that the cause was the burning of fossil fuels. ExxonMobil had to make a decision: would they choose to be part of the solution, or part of the problem? InsideClimate News lays out the answer for us:

Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world's largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.

Perhaps nothing better conveys the dramatic shift in ExxonMobil's attitude toward climate change than the subsequent activities of the aforementioned staff scientist Roger Cohen, who had once warned of the potentially "catastrophic" future impacts of climate change and had expressed concern about the implications for Exxon's "honesty and integrity" were it not to come forward with it's knowledge that human-caused climate change is real and a threat. You see, Cohen went on to work for industry front groups like the George C. Marshall Institute that advocate for fossil fuel interests like Exxon by denying the reality and threat of climate change. Austin is one of a small fringe group of scientists who sought to sabotage the American Physical Society's position statement affirming the science of human-caused climate change. One is reminded of the famous Upton Sinclair quote "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

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One might think that the latest revelations about ExxonMobil and their tobaccoesque decades-long effort to hide the findings of their own scientists, would end climate change denialism for good. If you're a hardcore climate change denier, after all, it must be rather demoralizing to learn that ExxonMobil's own scientists expressed contempt for your views behind your back. If you've lost ExxonMobil's own scientists, you've lost the scientific debate.

But let's remember that climate change denial isn't actually about the science. That was settled long ago—including by Exxon's own scientists no less. Climate change denial is about opposition to regulation. It is about science-denying front groups, industry shills, bought-and-sold politicians, and other bad faith actors who continue to provide cover for corporate polluters like ExxonMobil by fooling the public.

By any reasonable measure, just about every conceivable climate change denier talking point had been shot down by 2007 (and arguably much earlier). As I explained in chapter 12 ("Heads of the Hydra") of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars:

The complete or near collapse by 2007 of the pillars of defensible climate change skepticism represented a critical juncture in the debate over the science. Would climate change contrarians throw in the towel and at least concede the reality of human-caused climate change? Would they engage constructively in the discourse, focusing their efforts on the legitimate remaining uncertainties, such as the uncertain nature of climate change projections and the worthy debate to be had regarding what to do about the problem? Or would they retrench and continue to contest the ever-accumulating evidence supporting the reality of the climate change problem? The question is of course rhetorical; we already know the answer.

As we know, of course, the climate change disinformation campaign simply ratcheted the denial machine up a notch. Attack dogs doubled down in their campaign of denial and deceit, and so we soon got the ironically-termed "climategate" campaign, wherein climate scientists emails were stolen, combed through, cherry-picked, and misrepresented through out of context quotations in an effort to call the scientific evidence for climate change into question on the eve of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit (read chapter 14, "Climategate: The Real Story" of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars for further details).

The irony, of course, is that rather than uncovering any wrongdoing or indiscretion by climate scientists, the "climategate" affair simply revealed that climate change deniers were now more than willing to engage in criminal behavior in their efforts to misrepresent the science and scientists and deceive the public. Like Watergate before it, the real scandal was the criminal theft, not the content of the stolen materials—a fact that was oddly lost on many media organizations who readily bought into the denialist framing of the matter. As I note in the epilogue of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars:

While the campaign did have the immediate impact of casting doubt over climate science, it also marked a critical juncture, and indeed potentially a turning point, in the climate change debate. Perhaps "climategate" was the moment when the climate change denial movement conceded the legitimate debate, choosing instead to double down on smear and disinformation, a tacit acceptance that an honest, science-based case for denying the reality of human-caused climate change and the threat it presents could no longer be made. Maybe it was the moment when the seamy underbelly of the climate change denial movement became exposed for all to see.

So one might well wonder as we head toward the critical December 2015 climate summit in Paris, have the latest revelations about ExxonMobil caused climate change deniers to see the light, to reconsider their position? And one might well suspect the answer.

Since the ExxonMobil story broke, the "merchants of doubt" have instead engaged in a campaign of misdirection, presumably hoping they can distract the public and policymakers from the stunning new revelations. Among other things, we have seen these events unfold in the few days since the story broke:

  1. The right-wing Canadian newspaper National Post engaged in a reprehensible personal attack against climate advocate Naomi Klein and her opposition to mining the Canadian tar sands (something James Hansen has warned would be "game over for the climate"). The piece included a false and libelous allegation of "fraud" against yours truly. It is worth noting that the National Post has previously lost a defamation suit brought by a climate scientist. It is also worth noting that the columnist who penned the piece, Conrad Black, is best known for having served a prison term for actually committing fraud. Chalk one up for chutzpah.
  2. Conservative commentator George Will, known for his serial distortions when it comes to the matter of climate change, has attacked Pope Francis for his efforts to raise awareness about the threat of climate change. Though Will's commentary is filled with half-truths, falsehoods and innuendo, what is most cynical and pernicious about the piece is the pretense of concern that acting on climate change "would devastate the poor" when precisely the opposite is known to be true.
  3. Professional climate smearmonger Marc Morano joined with Koch Brothers-funded attack dog John Hinderaker and others in the conservative media and blogosphere accusing climate scientists of wanting to "arrest climate skeptics". As with just about anything that comes out of the climate denialosphere, the allegation is of course completely untruthful. The reality is that a small group of climate scientists recently suggested that the department of justice investigate the possibility that certain fossil fuel companies (not individuals) might be subject to civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ("RICO") charges. Civil RICO seeks the payment of fines (not imprisonment of any individuals) by corporate entities that knowingly hid the damages done by their product. That is precisely what happened with big tobacco, and the same Department of Justice lawyer who successfully brought a civil RICO suit against tobacco companies more than a decade ago has recently argued that Exxon and other fossil fuel companies might suffer similar liability given the latest revelations over what they knew about the dangers of climate change, and when they knew it.

As the curtain continues to be lifted on the climate change denial machine and its deceitful tactics, we must assume that the smears and distortions will simply grow more desperate, the misdirection and distraction more brazen. Expect the worst as the 2015 Paris climate summit—potentially the last opportunity to reach an international agreement that will stave off dangerous and irreversible changes in climate—approaches. Bad faith actors have shown they will do anything they can—including engaging in criminal actions—in their efforts to sabotage global agreements aimed at limiting carbon emissions.

Let's not allow their cynical efforts to be successful. Call out climate change disinformation when you encounter it, and do what you can to correct the record. Explain to your family, friends, coworkers and classmates the importance of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations below dangerous levels. And most of all, keep your eye on the prize—a binding international treaty to reduce carbon emissions later this year in Paris.

Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines and the recently updated and expanded Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change.


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