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What Exxon Knew about Climate Change: Let’s Get the Facts

pooley-eric-edfBefore joining Environmental Defense Fund in 2011, I was a journalist covering the politics of climate change. Part of that meant tracking the professional deniers who were paid to spread doubt and confusion on this urgent issue.

You won’t be surprised to learn that one of the corporations that spent millions to support climate-denying think tanks and scientists was ExxonMobil.

But here’s what we didn’t know then: According to a series of blockbuster reports by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News, long before Exxon began its campaign of denial – as far back as the late 1970s – the company employed its own in-house climate scientists to do sophisticated analysis of the issue.

These scientists understood that climate change is real and carefully modeled its likely impacts.

Next, they reportedly briefed Exxon’s top executives, who factored climate change into their business decisions – only to then reverse course, allegedly making the decision to launch their campaign of climate denial even though they knew full well it was real.

As the Dallas Morning News wrote in an Oct. 20 editorial:

“Exxon had the opportunity to lead the world toward a measured, manageable…solution.” Instead, “with profits to protect, Exxon provided climate-change doubters a bully pulpit they didn’t deserve and gave lawmakers the political cover to delay global action…. It reminds us of the days when Big Tobacco adamantly insisted that science was inconclusive about the cancer-causing effects of cigarettes.”

Big Tobacco’s massive public fraud was brought to light by a federal investigation.

Today, EDF President Fred Krupp was among 49 leaders from environmental, indigenous and civil rights groups signing a public letter asking US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a probe to determine whether Exxon “knew about the dangers of climate change even as it funded efforts at climate denial and systematically misled the public.”

We don’t have all the facts about what Exxon knew, and we’re not prejudging what happened inside the company. But what several teams of award-winning journalists have reported is detailed, troubling, and clearly deserving of further investigation. Let’s get all the facts out on the table.

It’s one thing for a company to offer its perspective on matters of global importance. It’s quite another for a company to deploy its resources to intentionally mislead the public and thwart collective action when its own scientists have warned of terrible consequences. And that’s what Exxon Mobil is accused of.

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Eric Pooley
Eric Pooley is the senior vice president for strategy and communications at the Environmental Defense Fund. He works with program staff throughout the organization to develop and implement strategies to achieve its environmental advocacy goals. He is the author of The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth (Hyperion, 2010), which Bill Clinton hailed as "a riveting tale" and "the very first account of the epic American campaign to get serious about global warming."
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2 thoughts on “What Exxon Knew about Climate Change: Let’s Get the Facts

  1. Now that I know that articles are written by individuals who state absolutely that anyone who does not agree with them is an evil human being, will be very careful to believe much that is said here. I have followed the climate change debate for many years. The fact the one side says the other side has people who are paid to lie for them, suggests that their hands are clean. However, many of the groups on the side of the debate that call the other side “deniers” receive a lot of funding from my tax dollars. So the “deniers” need to spend their money and the “good guys” get to spend my money.
    The scientists who are “deniers” are reputable in their own right; to smear them with a charge of knowingly lying is a tactic of the Alinsky left.

  2. The facts of the matter is that there is proof that Exxon’s scientists did their best to promote the idea that CO2 emissions will lead to global warming as witnessed by this published quote:

    “The rationale for Exxon’s involvement and commitment of funds and personnel is based on our need to assess the possible impact of the greenhouse effect on Exxon’s business… In addition, the international significance of the proposed programs will enhance the Exxon image in the public domain and provide great public relations value.” (Shaw, 1978)

    It’s also a fact that back in the 1970s there were many scientists who thought that air pollution, most notably sulfate aerosols would lead to global cooling as it would reflect sunlight back into space. Obviously that didn’t happen but it’s important to take the balance view of what was going on inside Exxon back in the 1970s concerning CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

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