Oil Company Exxon Knew About The Scientific Reality Of Climate Change In 1981


“Pope Francis blasts global warming deniers,” the Washington Post wrote last month. The Pope’s climate encyclical focused on the immorality of climate inaction — which makes the immorality of knowingly spreading disinformation for the purpose of delaying action all the more base.

Now the Union of Concerned Scientists has disclosed an email revealing that Exxon understood the scientific reality of climate change as far back as 1981. “Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue,” Exxon’s former in-house climate expert, chemical engineer Leonard S. Bernstein wrote last year. The 30-year veteran of Mobil and Exxon explained:

Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2. That CO2 would have to be separated to make the natural gas usable.

And yet despite a growing understanding of the scientific reality of climate change in the 1980s and 1990s, Exxon became one of the biggest funders of scientists and think tanks and others who do little but deny and cast doubt on the scientific understanding of human-caused global warming.

As recently as February 2015, a New York Times exposé revealed that a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who routinely casts doubt on widely accepted climate science had “accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers.” This included funding from ExxonMobil and “at least $230,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.”

In the book and film “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” historians and journalists show that this misinformation and disinformation campaign goes all the way back to the tobacco industry’s campaign to cast doubt on claims that cigarette smoking is bad for your health — and that in some cases it involves the same exact people.

The Times documented back in 2009 that the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an anti-action lobbying group backed by fossil fuel industries, ignored its own climate scientists during the 1990s while spreading disinformation about global warming. An internal report stating that the human causes of global warming “cannot be denied” was ignored by GCC leaders. The GCC led an “aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.” Yet the final draft of a 1995 “Primer on Climate Change Science” written by the GGC’s own scientific experts revealed that those experts “were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.”

Those experts explained: “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” And after a long analysis of “Are There Alternate Explanations for the Climate Change Which Has Occurred Over the Last 120 Years?” they conclude: “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.”

The Times reported that the GCC “was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others” with a budget totaling nearly $1.7 million in 1997 alone. Ultimately, the Times notes, “The coalition, according to other documents, later requested that the section of the primer endorsing the basics of global warming science be cut.”

The tobacco industry knew of the dangers of smoking and the addictive nature of nicotine for decades, but its CEOs and representatives publicly denied those facts. In the same way, many of those denying the reality of human-caused climate change have long known the actual science.

Over the years, fossil fuel company executives have funneled tens of millions of dollars into this disinformation campaign. The top funder was ExxonMobil for a long time. But the company was overtaken years ago by Koch Industries, run by billionaires Charles and David Koch, who spent more than $48.5 million from 1997 to 2010 to fund disinformation. From 2005 to 2008, the Kochs outspent Exxon-Mobil well over 2-to-1 in funding the climate denial machine.

In February, the New York Times revealed that over the previous ten years, Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon had accepted more than a million dollars from fossil fuel interests, including Exxon-Mobil and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, “while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers.” During this period, Soon advanced a repeatedly debunked theory arguing that humans are not the primary cause of global warming. The Times explained:

Though he has little formal training in climatology, Dr. Soon has for years published papers trying to show that variations in the sun’s energy can explain most recent global warming. His thesis is that human activity has played a relatively small role in causing climate change.

The New York Times then explains that “many experts in the field say that Dr. Soon uses out-of-date data, publishes spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and does not take account of the evidence implicating emissions from human behavior in climate change.” Gavin A. Schmidt, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies explained that solar variability probably is responsible for at most 10 percent of recent global warming, whereas human-caused greenhouse gases are responsible for the overwhelming majority of it. He added, “the science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless.”

In October 2014, the Smithsonian itself put out a climate statement, which makes clear that such a view is simply anti-scientific. The Smithsonian explains, “Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities.” Amazingly, the newly uncovered documents show that “Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money.” The Smithsonian repeatedly signed off on contracts with Southern Company Services — a coal company and long-time funder of science denial — requiring the Smithsonian to provide the coal utility “advanced written copy of proposed publications … for comment and input.”

Yet the fossil fuel industry has known for two decades that the solar variability explanation for recent climate change is untrue. As far back as 1995, the scientific and technical advisers to the Global Climate Coalition wrote in their draft primer:

[The] hypothesis about the role of solar variability and [Pat] Michaels’ questions about the temperature record are not convincing arguments against any conclusion that we are currently experiencing warming as the result of greenhouse gas emissions. However, neither solar variability nor anomalies in the temperature record offer a mechanism for off-setting the much larger rise in temperature which might occur if the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases were to double or quadruple.

So the fossil fuel industry has known for a long, long time that human-caused climate change was a very real threat based on well-documented science. It has callously disregarded that reality to spread falsehoods and thwart action.

The Pope ends his encyclical calling on God to “Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out.”

If indifference to the dangers of climate inaction by the rich and powerful is a sin, what would the Pope say about a company that’s fostering lies in order to spread indifference among the public, the media, and policy-makers?