Exxon’s Early Knowledge of Climate Risks, Their Long Campaign of Climate Deception and Why It Matters

, director of science & policy | October 10, 2015, 8:53 am EDT
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Internal Exxon memos recently brought to light through meticulous investigative reporting by Inside Climate News (ICN) show that senior company executives knew by 1978 that emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels posed significant risks of disrupting the climate.

Over the decade before NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony before Congress made the evidence of global warming front page news, Exxon invested in understanding the problem and learned that fossil fuel emissions could drive potentially catastrophic climate impacts. Exxon executives heard advice from their own scientists to take a leadership role in addressing it.

They firmly rejected this advice. Instead, Exxon (later, ExxonMobil, which formed in 1998) financed and engaged in a decades-long industry campaign of doubt-mongering about the scientific evidence of climate change in order to avoid regulation of their products.

In an op-ed published in today’s New York Times, Harvard University historian of science Naomi Oreskes reminds us that Exxon chose a “path of disinformation, denial, and delay” taken from the tobacco industry playbook. For decades, tobacco companies argued that responsibility for the ills of smoking rested with the smoker: individuals made a choice to smoke, and any resulting illness was their responsibility. When internal memos came to light showing that these companies knowingly spread disinformation about the health risks of their products, they ultimately led to the rejection of that argument in the courts of public opinion and law. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the industry was legally culpable for knowingly spreading disinformation, bringing charges against them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act.

ExxonMobil’s climate responsibilities

ICN’s reporting focuses a long-overdue spotlight on ExxonMobil’s responsibilities for climate change. It highlights, for example, growing interest in legal action against ExxonMobil – both for failure to disclose climate risks to shareholders and financial regulators, and for manufacturing doubt to deceive the public. Pressure, they say, could “come from the U.S. Department of Justice, state attorneys general, private plaintiffs in the U.S. or abroad”.

Many of us think about responsibility for climate change as something that falls to each of us individually through the choices we make about energy use, and to governments – what the  international climate negotiations refer to as the “common but differentiated responsibilities” among nations.

In a  paper in the journal Climatic Change geographer Richard Heede (Climate Accountability Institute), Naomi Oreskes and I argue that ExxonMobil and other large investor-owned fossil energy companies also have significant and distinctive responsibilities for climate change.

We emphasize that a relatively small number of large companies, including ExxonMobil, have produced the fossil energy responsible for a large proportion of the total historic emissions. These corporations commanded a high level of internal scientific and technical expertise and they were in a position to understand the available scientific data. In Exxon’s case, we now know that they not only understood the science, they contributed to it.

An alternative was available to them: given what they knew, they could have adjusted their business models to speed a  transition to low-carbon energy by investing in low-carbon energy technologies and carbon capture, constructively engaging in policy design, and helping investors and consumers understand the need to dramatically reduce the adverse impact of their products.

But they did not.

As we note:

“Between 1988 and 2005, ExxonMobil invested over $16 million in a network of front groups that spread misleading claims about climate science, leading to strong public condemnation from the British Royal Society. It also exploited its close relationship with the administration of President George W. Bush to pressure the administration to remove top scientists from leadership roles in the IPCC and the US National Climate Assessment and to promote federal policies driving further reliance on fossil energy.”

Even today, ExxonMobil and others continue to explore for new and increasingly more carbon-polluting sources of fossil fuels. They continue to encourage the expanded use of the products that they know – and, in Exxon’s case, have known for almost forty years – are responsible for disruptive climate change. And, perhaps worst of all, ExxonMobil continues actively sow doubt about the scientific evidence, and to discount the reality and significance of climate change as a problem.

While ExxonMobil’s website acknowledges that “rising greenhouse gas emissions pose significant risks to society and ecosystems,” the company continues to fund climate disinformation through politically influential partners, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group that organizes faux climate science briefings for US state legislators and then lobbies them to repeal state renewable energy policies. ExxonMobil executives have rejected repeated calls to leave ALEC, a step recently taken by BP and Dutch Royal Shell, which Shell acknowledged was due explicitly to their disagreement with ALEC’s misrepresentation of climate science.  (For several other examples, see the recent UCS Climate Deception Dossiers report).

A world of climate damage

What makes ExxonMobil’s deception so noteworthy is the extent to which its failure to act responsibly has contributed to an increase in climate risks and damages on a global scale.

Since 1978, global annual emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement production have nearly doubled, from 5.1 gigatons of carbon (GtC) to almost 10 GtC today. Since 1988, more than half of all industrial carbon pollution since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has been emitted.

Given the company’s enormous scientific and technical capacity, financial resources, and influence on US and international climate policies, it is reasonable to conclude that global emissions would have been lower – perhaps, far lower – had Exxon acknowledged and publicized the risks of their products and supported science-based limits on emissions.

Source: Adapted from Frumhoff, Heede & Oreskes 2015

Source: Adapted from Frumhoff, Heede & Oreskes 2015


According to ExxonMobil’s estimates, global emissions will stay high for decades to come. By 2040, the company estimates that energy-related carbon emissions will be 10 GtC, keeping emissions on a trajectory that will drive temperature increases well above levels needed limit dangerous climate change that company executive first understood nearly forty years ago.

Their projections of future emissions may well be right, of course – but if so, it will be in no small part the due their decades of disinformation and lobbying to avoid sensible climate policies.

What can be done?

Much time has been lost since Exxon first learned of, and could have acted upon, the climate risks of their products. Through concerted efforts it is still be possible for at least some of the major fossil fuel companies to make a transition to responsible energy companies – companies that profitably produce clean, affordable low–carbon energy.

The revelations reported by ICN should help fuel an intensifying public focus on holding these companies accountable for their contributions to the climate problem and reducing their ability to thwart sensible climate policies. Surely, this  will  require scaling up  a broad range  of  efforts – pressure from sustained shareholder actions, divestment campaigns, consumer boycotts of corporate ‘bad actors’ and litigation may all  be needed to effectively change industry behavior.

Heede, Oreskes and I argue that society should hold companies accountable to:

  • Stop disseminating climate disinformation, including through their lobbying groups and trade associations;
  • Unequivocally support policies consistent with keeping warming below the 2 °C global temperature target;
  • Reduce emissions from their operations consistent with and in anticipation of such policy limits; and
  • Pay for a share of the costs of climate damages and of preparing for further, now unavoidable impacts.

UCS is significantly scaling up work to drive these changes, as are many others. The world’s essential transition to low-carbon energy may hinge on the scale and success of our collective efforts.

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  • Bill Bober

    The earth is not some benevolent paradise to be preserved forever. It’s a giant rock covered with a thin layer of biological life. Life that must consume other life in order to survive, often in quite painful/violent ways. The sooner it’s gone the better.

  • David Mark Anderson

    The recommendations by Mr. Frumhoff are all laudable and well-intentioned. The overriding concern for me, however, is the legality of whether any corporation — and particularly those whose primary business is extractive — can be forced to disregard its charter. All corporations, including the behemoths like ExxonMobil, have been held by every U.S. court to have a duty to maximize value for the benefit of their shareholders. This legal requirement not only gives corporations a free pass to thumb their noses at “the greater good” and responsible husbandry of the Earth’s resources, it logically requires that they continue to extract their product at the lowest possible cost and to sell it at the highest possible price and to do so until their raison d’etre becomes economically unviable. In other words, unless shareholders demand otherwise, every fossil fuel extraction company is obligated to pump as much carbon into the environment that it can for as long as it is profitable to do so, consequences be damned.

    • You seem to be claiming that a companies managerial staff are morally and legally obligated to make as much money for their company as they can, even if it results in destruction of other companies, private individual;s property, fouling the environment, ruining forever the beauty and health of this planet, risking the continuity of civilization and even risking human extinction. It may be possible for me to profit by mugging people; I have a hard time imagining that any court would agree that I therefore have a legal requirement to do so, no matter what contract I may have signed.

      Your argument is morally corrupt, legally inept, and generally risible.

      • David Mark Anderson

        Lol. Please don’t kill the messenger. Yes, my argument is as legally corrupt as the Supreme Court of the United States, whose decision in Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., 170 N.W. 668 (Mich. 1919) is still the law of the land. See also, Katz v. Oak Indus., Inc., 508 A.2d 873, 879 (Del. Ch. 1986). That is my point. Corporate power in this country, especially since the decision in Citizens United, is nearly limitless. You should know as well that I practiced law in two AV-rated law firms, so the next time you make an ad hominem attack, en garde.

  • Big Foot

    You call it “doubt-mongering”. I call it “not fear-mongering”. Why is it that environmentalists always make dire predictions that don’t come true? Why do they then just forget those predictions and make new ones? Oil reserves will be depleted by 1932, oil reserves will be depleted by 1954, oil reserves will be depleted by 1976, oil reserves will be depleted by 1996, oil reserves will be depleted by 2015, oil reserves will be depleted by 2031! I mean, come on! Get your facts straight! Fossil fuels will make a new ice age! I mean fossil fuels will make the planet warmer! I mean fossil fuels will make all arctic ice disappear by 2009! I mean by 2017! There will be no forests in 1999! I mean 2016! I mean 2020! Stop publishing false statistics about pollution, and natural resource scarcity and just come out with it! Come out with your real ideals! You hate people and feel a sense of guilt. Go and get a psychologist and stop harassing everyone! No I don’t want to live like cavemen thank you very much! #STOPECOFASCISM

    • Alan

      I personally like the quote from a Saudi oil minister (1970’s): “the stone age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before we run out of oil.”

    • Piquedram

      so I assume you read this website because you like bashing?
      Let’s get a few things straight;
      – “running out of oil”or other resource scarcity predictions have nothing to do with environmentalism. Either way we will probably all be dead by the time we run out of oil. Other resources? Who knows, the rainforest will probably keep disappearing at an alarming rate, but that’s not what this article is about, now is it?
      – Changing from fossil fuels to cleanly produced electricity will not make you a caveman.
      – Global warming is real and humanity’s emission of greenhouse gasses is an important contribution (look up some scientific research, there really is no doubt, anywhere in the world, except in the US, where big oil contributes to every big election)
      – your “eco fascism” sounds terrible, but I haven’t seen any one ecologist try to rule the world as a dictator. If the “eco” part is what you have a problem with, I agree, it’s a terrible idea to stop polluting the world our descendants will live in.

      • Big Foot

        Environmentalism requires a totalitarian dictatorship in order for it’s doctrines to be followed. Consider this: Communism prescribes sacrificing yourself for the good of the human collective; Environmentalism prescribes sacrificing yourself for the good of the non-human collective. In a way, communism is less harmful, however they go hand in hand.

        The idea that environmentalism focuses on the advancement of human interests (cleaning water, air, soil, etc.) is a joke. In fact, pretty much every environmental leader as well as every environmental organization (Greenpeace, Earth First, Sierra Club, NRDC, etc.) has admitted that the advancement of some human interests (like the ones I listed above) are merely a side effect of their agenda. They openly state that environmentalism is about protecting nature’s “intrinsic value” at the expense of man, and that includes some things such as stopping smog.

        Therefore, to support any environmental protection measures is to support the very essence of environmentalism, the fundamentals. I trust that you (and most supporters of environmentalism) are not this evil. I assume you do not pledge yourself to the destruction of mankind. You will be disgusted with what you find.

        Get the book “Return of the Primitive” by Ayn Rand. The main chapters that discuss this topic (with many sources and quotes) are The Age of Envy and the Anti-Industrial Revolution.

      • Bill Bober

        It can’t be a coincidence that nearly every environmentalist is a radical egalitarian. If the wealth of the world were evenly distributed, it would be catastrophic for the environment.

    • I doubt that mainstream science has made all of these claims; do you have cites? In any event, science learns by accumulating data and testing explanatory models, i.e., making predictions. If the models fail, they are modified or replaced. Since the 1980s the climate models have held up pretty well. Their major problem seems to be that global warming is progressing faster than most of the models predicted.

      I know that you think Swedish climate scientists are plotting to steal your lunch money, but this article is about the actual people who have actually gotten rich getting money from you and me, and have lied to us and the government to do so, and laid waste to the planet in the process

      If you don’t want to live like a caveman, you might want to avoid contributing to the collapse of civilization and a formerly healthy biodiversity.

      • Big Foot

        The formulas that well-known institutions such as the U.N. and the U.S. Department of Energy use depend on the proven reserves at a given time, which always increase. These models have never worked but they portray them as facts and then scare everyone into conserving energy.

        You imply that the state of the environment has gotten worse over the course of history. However, this is actually the opposite. We now have shopping centers to provide everyone with everything they want in one place, factories to make everything from cars to pens, abundant and cheap food from all over the world at your local super market, freeways to allow people to get anywhere they want to go. We have sky scrapers, air planes, trains, trucks, oil rigs, hospitals, electricity, internet, cargo ships and huge ports, television and computers and smartphones, amazing scientific accomplishments, technological advancements everyday, people live past 90 much of the time, major diseases have been eradicated or largely stifled and vaccinations have stopped the spread.

        The environmentalists want to take away all the amazing things that we accomplished in the industrial revolution. People like you take for granted things like the fact that a ball-point pen is now so cheap they are given away freely everywhere, whereas a person never heard of such a thing less than a hundred years ago. So when you say that industry is contributing to the degradation of the planet, realize that you probably would not survive very long if you went back in time before 1800. People like you are very stupid because you think that the production of all the things you use will not cease to exist if you restrict people from making them.