Photo of ExxonMobil oil refinery in Jolliet IL by afromusing
Rsesponding to calls from Congress, the New York Attorney General's office has announced it will open an investigation into ExxonMobil for allegedly "organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science.” This may come as no surprise, as Greenpeace and others have long asserted that the company has actively sought to confound public discussion on climate change.
But what's new is the allegation that the oil giant's coverup of climate science was initiated in part in response to cutting edge research produced by the company itself.
Separate investigations by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, reveal that as early as 1979 ExxonMobil dedicated millions in funding for research projects that established a fossil-fuel consumption-climate change connection. In 1982, ExxonMobil researchers released a "corporate primer," confirming that heading off global warming "would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion" and that "there is concern among some scientific groups that once the effects are measureable, they might not be reversible..." The Los Angeles Times reported that, "Since the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Exxon had been at the forefront of climate change research, funding its own internal science as well as research from outside experts at Columbia University and MIT."
Appearing on Frontline, Inside Climate News senior correspondent Neela Banerjee described the company as "smart people," and "great scientists who saw the writing on the wall."
"Exxon was on the cutting edge of science 40 years ago on climate change," she said, "and they ended up instead leading the denial and clouding of public perceptions of the science of climate change. The change is amazing, and that story that they were doing things differently, that their research was being praised by independent scientists, is not known."
About his time working for the company almost 30 years ago, scientist Edward Garvey elaborated, "Exxon wanted to help to lead where things would go… It saw it as an opportunity to lead in the science and the discussion. Had Exxon continued in that role there wouldn't have been such a cacophony of anti-climate voices on the issues… It didn’t happen, but I really think that was their intention when I was working there."
According to a report in The Guardian, Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, two Democratic members of Congress from California who had called for the ExxonMobil investigation, wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice:
ExxonMobil’s apparent behavior is similar to cigarette companies that repeatedly denied harm from tobacco and spread uncertainty and misinformation to the public. We ask that the DoJ similarly investigate Exxon for organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science and failing to disclose truthful information to investors and the public.
Richard Keil, a spokesman for Exxon, rejected the allegations from Lieu and DeSaulnier, telling the The Guardian “This is complete bullshit.”
Greenpeace's investigation of the role of ExxonMobil in funding climate change deniers led to an interactive website, ExxonSecrets.org, where visitors can select people and organizations and view the charted connections between dozens of organizations, funding streams, and climate-denying experts active in the decades-long, $30 million effort.
Under pressure from activists and shareholders the oil company pledged to stop funding climate change denial in 2007. But the Guardian recently reported that, since 2007, the oil company's financial records show that it has given $1.87 million to Republicans in Congress who deny climate change and an additional $454,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of corporations and state lawmakers which has produced a raft of anti-renewable-energy legislation.
As disheartening as these allegations are, they do help to explain something of the confusion about and resistance to climate change science over the past three decades. Although this latest twist in the ExxonMobil saga will do little to restore public confidence in science, it can serve as reminder of the importance of well-funded and transparent public research.