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.
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.
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."
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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