Exactly When Should Exxon Have Warned The World About Climate Change?

Because climate activists are working from a strategy borrowed wholesale from those who went after Big Tobacco in the latter half of the 20th Century, it is natural that they borrow a tactic that worked against Big Tobacco and try to use it against Big Oil.

During the tobacco wars it was shown that tobacco companies knew of the oft-lethal nature of their product for a long time, during which time they denied its harm and continued to advertise mythical health benefits.

By simple substitution, Big Oil equals Big Tobacco, ergo they must have hid the lethal nature of their product for decades while advertising its benefits.

As Democratic Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley tweeted, “We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let’s do the same for oil companies & climate change.”

Hence we see many stories saying things like, “Exxon has known about climate change for almost 40 years, despite its efforts to continue to promote fossil fuels and deny its existence throughout the 1990s as a leader of the Global Climate Coalition, according to an internal investigation by InsideClimate News.

The reporters reviewed internal records from Exxon and found that the company long knew about the harmful effects of fossil fuels on the environment. Exxon researchers even said in a 1978 internal memo that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels would increase average global temperatures by as much as 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.”

So should Exxon have closed up shop in the 70s due to the harmful nature of its product? When did the consensus form and how strong was it? What was Exxon actually accused of concealing?

Well, remember that in the early 1970s some speculated that the cooling effects of aerosols might dominate over the warming effect of emissions of CO2: see discussion of Rasool and Schneider (1971). And as I wrote yesterday, the EPA actually forced power plants to quit using Exxon’s product in 1974–but that’s because there wasn’t enough of it due to OPEC’s oil embargo. The EPA ordered power plants that could convert to change their fuel to coal, which is even worse for CO2 emissions than oil and gas.

Can you blame Exxon for not trumpeting the evils of CO2 from the rooftops?

Of course, James Lovelock had announced in 1973 that the globe might warm, but his target for elimination was CFCs, not fossil fuels.

Wikipedia reports that “The National Science Board‘s Patterns and Perspectives in Environmental Science report of 1972 discussed the cyclical behavior of climate, and the understanding at the time that the planet was entering a phase of cooling after a warm period. “Judging from the record of the past interglacial ages, the present time of high temperatures should be drawing to an end, to be followed by a long period of considerably colder temperatures leading into the next glacial age some 20,000 years from now.” And in 1975 the National Academy of Science reported “The average surface air temperature in the northern hemisphere increased from the 1880’s until about 1940 and has been decreasing thereafter.”

As late as 1979 scientist F.K. Hare announced at a WMO conference that “1938 was the warmest year. They [temperatures] have since fallen by about 0.4 °C.”

So perhaps we should give Exxon a pass for the 70’s. But surely by the 80s Exxon should have stepped up to the plate (or the hara-kiri chopping block) and sacrificed its corporate self for the good of humanity.

But again, according to Wikipedia, “Concerns about nuclear winter arose in the early 1980s from several reports. Similar speculations have appeared over effects due to catastrophes such as asteroid impacts andmassive volcanic eruptions. A prediction that massive oil well fires in Kuwait would cause significant effects on climate was incorrect.”

However, in 1988, James Hansen, then the leader of the Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, spoke before the U.S. Senate and laid the blame for recent and future global warming on CO2 emissions.

Is that when Exxon should have copped a plea? Well, perhaps they can be forgiven for not jumping up and down about climate change, when there had been widespread news articles about a coming ice age, not just in the 70’s, but in the 1880s. And the 1920s. And the 1930s. And the 1940s. And the 1950s. And the 1960s.

As late as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not definitively attribute global warming to CO2 in their First Assessment Report. What they said was,

  • Our judgement is that: global mean surface air temperature has increased by 0.3 to 0.6 oC over the last 100 years…; The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.

Exxon scientists did publish research in peer-reviewed journals around this time saying pretty much the same thing as the IPCC. What was Exxon doing wrong in 1990?

The IPCC’s Second Assessment Report was a bit more definitive in 1995, saying “these results indicate that the observed trend in global mean temperature over the past 100 years is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin. More importantly, there is evidence of an emerging pattern of climate response to forcings by greenhouse gases and sulphate aerosols in the observed climate record. Taken together, these results point towards a human influence on global climate.”

Exxon began advising investors about climate change and its risks to Exxon’s business in 2006. Their research on climate science was like that of everybody else’s research–uncertain at first, having to deal with decades of contradictory claims about the dominance of aerosols, then gradually coming to the same conclusions as other researchers at about the same time as those researchers. It took them about a decade to come to grips with the latest trends in climate science. It’s taken governments a lot longer–they only agreed en masse to fight climate change last December.

I’m not a fan of Exxon. I won’t forgive them for the Valdez incident. Simple as that.

But this is a witch hunt that completely ignores the real culprits in the CO2 emissions game: Us. We are the ones who use Exxon’s products. We have been warned by hundreds of organizations, governments and scientific bodies about the harm that CO2 will bring. We have chosen for forty years to ignore the available alternatives–we could have built more nuclear power plants, more dams, more wind farms and more solar facilities.

We could have put Exxon out of business the way business is supposed to be done–by buying the competitors’ products. But we were lazy, cheap and not concerned.

That’s not Exxon’s problem. That’s not Exxon’s fault.



4 responses to “Exactly When Should Exxon Have Warned The World About Climate Change?

  1. This morning, I read an interesting article about The Columbia School of Journalism’s role in this campaign. You can find it here

  2. This blame on Exxon is all pre-arranged
    just like the Soviet show trials of the 30s. Rather than address the very real issue that all the alarmist predictions are failing to materialize, they shift the blame to the scapegoats – Iam surprised the Koch brothers aren’t in there as well. is someone going off-script?

  3. The war against “big oil” has nothing to do with tobacco and a lot to do with McCarthyism and Lysenko-ism. And even more to do with shaking down fat scared companies.

  4. If ExxonMobil had been so sure of global warming as projected by Hansen and Mann they would have bought Dome Petroleum, obtained rights to the Canadian Beaufort oil discoveries, competed fiercely with Shell for the Sakhalin II bid round in Russia, and been a lot more aggressive in Chukchi Sea bid rounds.

    As t turns out, they refrained from working offshore Sakhalin, and didn’t move into the Kara until after BP had dropped the deal with Rosneft.

    As you know, I worked in the Arctic for an Exxon competitor, we met quite often to discuss joint data acquisition and research, and I just never saw them move from a fairly orthodox line: the ice and climate had oscillations, and we simply lacked enough data to say conditions would change appreciably over the 30-40 year forward window we used. They didn’t show they thought the global warming issue was that meaningful, neither in the technical nor business arenas.

    On the other hand, I saw companies behave rather stupid mostly because they didn’t understand the Arctic. Shell seems to be the ones who hinted at a more sophisticated approach, and their business moves did seem to be coupled to the belief that global warming was a sure thing. This explains why they moved on Sakhalin II, developed Lunskoye, and spent so much in their Chukchi project (which by the way was wrecked by very poor management decisions, I wasn’t working with them but that was one hell of a clusterf**k (pardon the editing, Fernando) of really lousy personnel promotions and moves).

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