Exxon: We knew climate change was a real threat (but we didn't want you to)

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

One of the big complaints about climate change deniers is that they don't fund any genuine primary scientific research into climate change.

We are used to deniers extracting out-of-context passages from existing legitimate climate research and pretending those passages support the denialist position. But wait...we now know, thanks to recent coverage by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, that at least one climate change denier did fund a great deal of legitimate climate research.

And, what did that research show? It showed that climate change is real, is caused in great measure by human activities and has the potential to disrupt human society significantly. To be fair, when Exxon Corp. (now Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company) engaged in this research in the 1970s and 1980s, it was genuinely trying to understand the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. During that time Exxon scientists collaborated openly with prominent academic and government researchers and were even praised for their commitment and professionalism.

But, as we all know, that openness did not last. As the scientific findings became more alarming, the company began to see the findings from climate research as a threat to its business. Exxon launched a public relations offensive to dispute what climate researchers around the world were discovering, an offensive that lasted until 2008 when the company announced that it would end its support for the vast network of climate change denial organizations it had helped to build. (Whether the company did, in fact, end that support is disputed.)

You can read all the gory and disturbing details concerning this turnabout at the sites linked above. Some might consider this old news. Those who keep up on climate news are certainly familiar with the large denialist apparatus of front groups, fake think tanks and public relations firms supported by Exxon and others.

What's new is the revelation about how deeply committed Exxon was to actual legitimate scientific investigation and how much it did to further our understanding of climate change--including creating some of the most sophisticated climate modeling of the time. Those models are similar to models used by climate scientists today. But the company now derides such models as "useless."

Given all this, it is hard to overstate how brazen and cynical Exxon's leaders became. In the early 1990s, even while Exxon spokespersons and Exxon-funded front groups were decrying the inadequacy of climate models and downplaying the threat of climate change, the company was sponsoring a team of scientists to evaluate how a warming planet might affect exploration opportunities in the arctic as the sea ice melted. The prognosis looked good over the long term for turning arctic prospects--then inaccessible and risky--into profitable operations once the ice began to melt (as it has now started to do). The company was also interested in how melting permafrost would affect its pipelines and processing facilities which might be in danger of sinking into a landscape softened by warming.

But here's the real kicker: The team used climate models developed by Environment Canada, the Canadian government's environmental agency, to create its positive assessments about the eventual accessibility of underwater arctic oil and natural gas deposits. So, while the company was disparaging climate models, it was simultaneously salivating over the oil and gas profits that those very models predicted a warming arctic would make possible from the company's arctic leases. And, of course, the main ingredient for the warming represented in those models was the very carbon dioxide produced when Exxon's oil and natural gas was burned by its millions of customers.

Exxon has long used models to predict what it will find underground wherever it is thinking about drilling. It uses them to manage its existing oil and natural gas reservoirs. It uses models to calculate its reserves and implores its investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to believe the numbers its models spit out. For this reason, it is completely obvious that Exxon has no genuine objection to models of the physical world--except when those models might undermine the company's profitability.

Based on the latest revelations, climate action group 350.org is calling for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Just what crime Exxon perpetrated is not specified. But, it's understandable that what the company did feels like a crime.

The closest analogy is the cover-up by tobacco companies of research they did into the harmful health effects of smoking, but which they lied about to the public for many years. Those companies ended up getting sued by individuals, states and the federal government for health costs associated with smoking. But the tobacco companies are still in business and doing quite well.

I think those supporting an investigation of Exxon are hoping for criminal charges. There is a feeling that the company perpetrated a fraud on the public, that it lied about the dangers of its products while insisting on their safety. Fraud is indeed a crime. However, people mostly end up getting sued for it. Only a few actually go to jail.

It seems doubtful that such a prosecution could ever succeed. Exxon makes legal products that work as advertised. And so far, it's not illegal to do things which change the world's climate. It's true that the company has been trying to confuse policymakers and the public about the nature of the scientific research on climate change. But the First Amendment protects even people and companies who lie about matters of public policy--so long as companies don't lie about their products to the people who buy them.

Exxon never explicitly promised that burning oil and natural gas would not affect the world's climate. The company merely adopted the legally safe position of saying that the uncertainties surrounding climate change research were great. And, of course, it funded front groups to make it seem as if this message of uncertainty was coming from many places, not just one. But, none of this appears illegal, even if it is unseemly.

If I worked in the higher echelons of Exxon Mobil today or at any time in the last couple of decades, I'd be much more worried about being brought before some future international court to answer for what are called "crimes against humanity." In such a court, the protections afforded by U.S. law would be irrelevant. And, with the damage inflicted by climate change, say, by 2030, the public appetite for someone to blame might well be insatiable.