Exxon Responds to Revelation that Company Recognized Climate Risks as Early as 1981

July 9, 2015 | 4:25 pm
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

The Union of Concerned Scientists broke the news yesterday that Exxon employees were considering how climate change should factor into decisions about new fossil fuel extraction as early as 1981. The reactions, especially from ExxonMobil, have been as interesting as the original revelation.

1981 is well before most people and policymakers were even aware of risks from climate change. Indeed, we’re talking about the same year that IBM introduced its first personal computer and Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 climbed the charts.

It wasn’t until seven years later that NASA scientist James Hansen famously testified before Congress regarding the link between industrial activities and climate change.

We know that fossil fuel companies pay close attention to climate science. Indeed, the email message that revealed this bit of Exxon’s history was from a chemical engineer who worked at the company for years and who went on to contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark assessment reports.

Interestingly, the email itself had been published online in October 2014, but nobody noticed it until my colleague Jayne Piepenburg found it while doing some additional research related to a new UCS report that chronicles the fossil fuel industry’s history of supporting misinformation campaigns on climate change.

The email – and the juxtaposition with the history of misinformation campaigns – has grabbed global headlines and Exxon had some interesting responses to reporters’ questions about it.

A company spokesperson asserted to The Guardian: “We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change.” The same spokesperson told Inside Climate News that the company “believes the risk of climate change is clear, and warrants action.”

I wish those statements were true.

Indeed, my first thought when I read that quote was that Exxon supports the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that regularly misrepresents climate science to state legislators and attempts to roll-back clean energy laws. BP has already left the group and Shell might be considering it. Will Exxon leave it, too? I hope they do.

Thomas C. Peterson, William M. Connolley, and John Fleck, 2008: The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 89, 1325–1337.

Scientific evidence for global warming grew significantly in the 1970s. From: Thomas C. Peterson, William M. Connolley, and John Fleck, 2008: The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 89, 1325–1337.

The 1981 revelation sheds more light on an important question: What exactly did the fossil fuel companies know about climate change and when did they know it?

Sharon Eubanks, who led the Department of Justice’s racketeering suit against the tobacco companies, reacted to this news this way when the Climate Investigations Center asked her about it:

“It starts to look like a much longer conspiracy. It’s like what we discovered with tobacco – the more you push back the date of knowledge of the harm, the more you delay any remediation, the more people are affected. So your liability can grow exponentially as the timeline gets longer.”

Additionally, I have to wonder how other researchers and scientists who worked at fossil fuel companies viewed these developments over the years. After all, corporate lobbyists and CEOs often respond to scientific evidence that their products are causing harm by launching misinformation campaigns that are inconsistent with what scientists know to be true. Tobacco is the most notorious example, but academics also point to the asbestos industry, sugar refiners, lead producers and – yes – the fossil fuel industry as other notable examples.

We’ll be sure to keep our members and the public updated as more reactions come in and as more news about the major fossil fuel companies – and their misinformation campaigns – comes to light.

In the meantime, you can enjoy the musical stylings of Miss Dolly Parton: