‘We do not now have a sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and/or justify drastic measures’, wrote Lee Raymond, former CEO of ExxonMobil, in a company brochure published in 2000. During the oil giant’s annual shareholder meeting in 1999, Raymond stated that ‘projections are based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation.’ Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, echoed this sentiment in the 2015 annual meeting, explaining that ‘we do not really know what the climate effects of 600 ppm versus 450 ppm will be because the models simply are not that good.’
Yet Raymond and Tillerson did know; they knew more than they let on and were equally or more knowledgeable than scientists in government and academic spheres. A recent peer-reviewed study examined ExxonMobil’s climate projections and evaluated their strength to determine what Exxon knew about global warming and when. Geoffrey Supran, the study’s co-author, told the Guardian: ‘We now have the smoking gun showing that [Exxon] accurately predicted warming years before they started attacking the science [in public].’
This study, entitled ‘Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections’, published in January 2023, was not the first instance where allegations of negligence and deceit were pushed against ExxonMobil. In 2015, investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times, Inside Climate News, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism published a 9-part series that merely scratched the surface of Exxon’s insight. The first article unearthed internal company documents showing that Exxon’s own scientists have been warning their executives of the ‘potentially catastrophic’ consequences of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming since 1977. This series revealed the reality that high-level executives were warned of the possible consequences of the greenhouse effect and thereafter spearheaded efforts to ‘block solutions.’
The revelations in the series of articles sparked a grassroots activist movement under the moniker #ExxonKnew. This movement sought accountability for crimes against the Earth and its inhabitants. The home page of the movement’s website states, ‘Exxon knew about climate change half a century ago. They deceived the public, misled their shareholders, and robbed humanity of a generation’s worth of time to reverse climate change.’ The #ExxonKnew movement provoked various cities, counties, and states across the United States of America to pursue lawsuits and the European Parliament to hold a hearing on climate change denial.
Nevertheless, ExxonMobil denies these allegations and holds its position strongly. The corporation dedicated a page of its website specifically to addressing the #ExxonKnew movement. The first line of their long defence reads, ‘ExxonKnew is a coordinated campaign perpetuated by activist groups with the aim of stigmatising ExxonMobil.’ It continues, stating that the activists created ‘the false appearance that ExxonMobil has misrepresented its company research and investor disclosures on climate change to the public.’ ExxonMobil maintains that they not only did not mislead the public on climate science but were the research team at the forefront of such science, and denies claims that they have sowed doubt, obfuscated the truth, and feigned ignorance on climate science.
While ExxonMobil has been on the cutting edge of climate research, they have failed to communicate their findings and feigned ignorance about the validity of climate science. Though Texas and New York, among other states, attempted to sue ExxonMobil, #ExxonKnew led more so to public outcry than legal justice. In response, Exxon filed a lawsuit against both Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York and Maura T. Healey of Massachusetts, citing ‘bad faith’ and an attack on Exxon’s constitutional rights. Many legal actions taken by communities, state governments, individuals, and the federal government have been discarded due to insufficient evidence of Exxon’s knowledge regarding the consequences of global warming.
In 2015, people were shouting that ‘Exxon knew’ – what it was precisely that they knew was not yet assessed. Nevertheless, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute conducted a recent study to do so. In their assessment, they found that ‘ExxonMobil didn’t just know ‘something’ about global warming decades ago—they knew as much as academic and government scientists knew. But whereas those scientists worked to communicate what they knew, ExxonMobil worked to deny it.’
These climate experts analysed 32 internal documents produced in-house by ExxonMobil scientists and managers between 1977 and 2002, and 72 peer-reviewed scientific publications authored or co-authored by ExxonMobil scientists between 1982 and 2014. What was discovered in this analysis was the fact that ‘in private and academic circles since the late 1970s … ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully.’ They found that 63 to 83% of climate projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists ‘were accurate in predicting subsequent global warming.’ Exxon scientists projected warming at a rate of 0.20° ± 0.04°C per decade, matching independent academic and government projections published between 1970 and 2007.
‘Summary of all global warming projections (nominal scenarios) reported by ExxonMobil scientists in internal documents and peer-reviewed publications (gray lines), superimposed on historically observed temperature change (red).’ via Science.org.
‘Exxon really did know,’ wrote Mark Gonglof, a Bloomberg columnist, commenting on this recent study. Supran, Oreskes, and Rahmstorf claim that, despite publicly promoting the opposite, ‘ExxonMobil scientists correctly dismissed the possibility of a coming ice age in favour of a ‘carbon dioxide induced ‘super-interglacial’’; accurately predicted that human-caused global warming would first be detectable in the year 2000 ± 5; and reasonably estimated how much CO2 would lead to dangerous warming.’
Since 2000, ExxonMobil has been forced to pay $2,230,998,704 in penalties, $2,181,414,959 of which were a direct result of environmental violations. Routinely, Exxon pays fines and settles lawsuits due to its egregious disregard for the environment and humanity. ExxonMobil disregards environmental regulations in pursuit of profit with minimal legal repercussions. The billions lost in fines are but an absent drop in Exxon’s profit bucket, which is willingly paid to continue its exploitation of the environment.
However, the findings of the study by Supran, Oreskes, and Rahmstorf provide new evidence and objective data contradicting the company’s unwavering position. The coming months and years will determine whether the public and its governments will continue to sit idly as oil and gas companies pollute the Earth or finally decide to hold them accountable. The study asserts that ExxonMobil worked to deny climate science by ‘overemphasising uncertainties, denigrating climate models, mythologising global cooling, feigning ignorance about the discernibility of human-caused warming, and staying silent about the possibility of stranded fossil fuel assets in a carbon-constrained world’ all the while knowing the truth behind their lies. Only now is there quantitative evidence as to what Exxon knew.
Irrespective of the current rulings of courtrooms, the court of public opinion undoubtedly sways against big oil. ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel companies, have known about their role in provoking climate catastrophe, regularly lied to the public, and routinely put profits over people. Exxon knew, and now the people do too.
Image via Unsplash.