ExxonMobil’s Virtual Reality: A Distorted View of Climate Change

June 7, 2016 | 8:15 am
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

I received a curious goody bag distributed at the ExxonMobil annual shareholders’ meeting in Dallas on May 25. Perhaps predictably, the swag came in a clear petroleum-derived plastic case. It included a plastic water bottle, a pen, a small notebook, and a mini-flashlight.

But in an irony perhaps lost on the ExxonMobil marketing team, the highlight was a cardboard do-it-yourself virtual reality headset.

It made me wonder: Is this someone’s idea of a survival kit for climate change? I decided to try on the virtual reality headset and see what the world looks like from ExxonMobil’s perspective.

Sampling the ironic swag from ExxonMobil's annual meeting. Photo: Jeremy Martin.

Catching a glimpse of ExxonMobil’s virtual reality. Photo: Jeremy Martin.

Virtual reality: emphasizing “uncertainty” in climate science

At the meeting, eminent climate scientist Dr. Michael MacCracken followed up on a comment that ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Rex Tillerson made last year about the uncertainty of climate model results. Dr. MacCracken pointed out that the main reason for the range in model simulations is not uncertainties in the models, but the energy technology choices society will make. He asked Mr. Tillerson what ExxonMobil is doing to address recent scientific findings that the consequences of climate change are likely to be more severe than previously anticipated.

Mr. Tillerson responded that his view on the competencies of the models has really not changed—yet in the next breath, he claimed that, “There is no space between us and the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. We see the science the same way.”

Dr. Michael MacCracken (far right) and I (second from right) joined other concerned shareholders at ExxonMobil's annual meeting in Dallas. Photo: Mollly Rooke.

Dr. Michael MacCracken (far right) and I (second from right) joined other concerned shareholders at ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in Dallas. Photo: Molly Rooke.

In ExxonMobil’s virtual reality, the IPCC agrees with the company’s assessment that climate science remains unsettled. But there is overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is happening and that humans are contributing to it.

Mr. Tillerson’s continued disregard for this consensus, combined with his emphasis on the so-called “uncertainty” of climate models, eerily echoes the American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 “Roadmap” memo, which outlined a multifaceted deception strategy on climate science. According to the API’s plan, “victory” would be achieved when “average citizens” believed that the realities in climate science were uncertain.

One such average citizen, an ExxonMobil shareholder, spoke up during the question-and-answer section of last week’s annual meeting. When the speaker adamantly denied the realities and risks of climate change, Mr. Tillerson missed a golden opportunity to stand up for climate science. Instead, he simply thanked the climate-denying shareholder and moved on to the next speaker.

Virtual reality: clean energy

“There is no alternative energy source known on the planet or available to us today to replace the pervasiveness of fossil fuels in our global economy and our on very quality of life,” said Mr. Tillerson at the meeting, “And I would go beyond that and say our very survival.”

ExxonMobil’s virtual reality goggles apparently render invisible renewable energy resources like wind and solar power. Renewable energy generates electricity with little or no pollution and global warming emissions—and could reliably and affordably provide up to 40 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.

Virtual reality: “free” speech

I was one of several speakers who asked Mr. Tillerson about ExxonMobil’s support of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which peddles disinformation about climate science and tries to roll back clean energy polices.

In response, Mr. Tillerson aggressively defended what he framed as ALEC’s “free speech opinions” on climate change. If I took off those special glasses, my head would be spinning. Only in ExxonMobil’s virtual reality is the challenge to the company’s membership in ALEC an attack on free speech. No company has a First Amendment right to knowingly misinform the public about the harm associated with its product.

Further, ALEC is one of the organizations the API identified years ago to fund and execute its “roadmap.” By Mr. Tillerson’s own admission, ALEC is highly effective at influencing state and local policy. Much of ALEC’s lobbying has focused on dismantling, at the state level, policies that have proven effective in reducing carbon pollution and accelerating the transition to clean energy. ALEC has also been active in recruiting state attorneys general to join legal challenges against the Clean Power Plan, and is pushing proposals that would expedite the use of taxpayer funds to pay for the lawsuits.

The glasses are cracking

It’s no wonder that large numbers of ExxonMobil shareholders voted against management’s recommendations on a variety of stockholder proposals. More than 60% supported so-called “proxy access,” building momentum for shareholders to be able to nominate directors of fossil energy companies after a majority vote on a similar resolution at CONSOL Energy earlier this month. And a resolution filed by the New York State Comptroller and the Church Commissioners for England, which called on ExxonMobil to report on how its business will be affected by worldwide climate policies, received the highest vote ever (38%) for a climate change proposal at the company’s annual meeting.

Is ExxonMobil’s virtual reality a place where companies pay ALEC to express “free speech” opinions on climate change, where fossil fuel companies can mislead shareholders and the public about the risks and realities of climate change without running afoul of the law, and where state attorneys general and the Union of Concerned Scientists can be accused of subverting the First Amendment when we attempt to hold these companies accountable?

Mr. Tillerson and other company decision makers may be content to inhabit ExxonMobil’s virtual reality. But for the rest of us, and for the planet, the consequences are far too dire.