ExxonMobil Execs Care More About Dodging Responsibility for Climate Damages Than Preventing More Harm

Dr. Rick Hammer, Associate Professor Biology, Hardin-Simmons University, , UCS | June 24, 2019, 10:40 am EDT
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I had the privilege of attending the ExxonMobil annual shareholders’ meeting on May 29th in Dallas, Texas. As a scientist focused on urban ecology and biodiversity in the context of the sustainability of urban greenspaces in my home state of Texas, I attended the meeting with a question for ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods.

I wanted to know why the company was so far behind in creating a business plan that protects the Gulf Coast, and the entire planet, from the impacts of fossil fuel-driven global warming. What I heard instead was corporate double-talk: ExxonMobil simultaneously claims that it is doing plenty to curb climate change, and also that it is not the company’s responsibility to act. I disagree. Like the majority of Texans, I believe that global warming is harming my community and that fossil fuel companies are responsible for climate damages (such as the devastation wrought by increasingly destructive hurricanes).

Before the meeting even began, I was able to discuss my concerns with ExxonMobil Board member and climate scientist, Dr. Susan Avery. I was curious to speak with Dr. Avery about her personal and scientific position on climate science, and specifically on the aspect of uncertainty, since ExxonMobil’s public statements have misrepresented climate science by downplaying the connections between its global warming emissions and climate change.

Dr. Avery’s comments were representative of what I observed overall for the day regarding ExxonMobil’s official policy positions and talking points: that despite science that causally links climate impacts to emissions from major fossil fuel producers, neither ExxonMobil  nor the petroleum industry as a whole should be singled out for primary culpability as a major enabler of fossil fuel emissions over other segment of polluters.

This sentiment was again enforced in a second informal discussion among several ExxonMobil employees, Union of Concerned Scientists’ Kathy Mulvey, Edward Mason with the Church of England, and me at the pre-meeting coffee hour.

We were gathered at the ExxonMobil Environment kiosk sign discussing ExxonMobil’s role in promoting disinformation on climate science and its avoidance in adopting strategic corporate polices and goals to bring the company’s emissions in line with the global temperature goals of the Paris climate agreement.

What struck me about the replies from ExxonMobil employees was the insistence—again, in sticking to the corporate talking points— that ExxonMobil is being unfairly singled out for negligence and that we need to look beyond ExxonMobil to other polluters for both blame and solutions.

During the formal shareholder meeting, I must admit that I was very surprised when Mr. Woods pointed to me to take my question. I stated that ExxonMobil has failed to take responsibility for its contribution to climate impacts and failed to help prepare and protect Texans and our neighbors along the Gulf Coast from the impacts of its products.

I illustrated the impacts I’ve seen in my own backyard: urban green spaces threatened by changes in temperature and precipitation trends, extreme weather harming plant and wildlife biodiversity, and of course the toll that climate change-charged storms like Hurricane Harvey have had — and will continue to have – on communities living along the coast.

I also stated that the company claims to support the Paris Agreement, but has not taken any serious actions toward achieving its goals. Finally, I asked why ExxonMobil still fails to lead the way globally on protecting our safety and curbing emissions.

Mr. Woods’ response was a litany of the official corporate talking points of the day. Namely, ExxonMobil believes that it can have its cake and eat it too: we can have continued reliance on fossil fuel exploration, production, and consumption while simultaneously reducing environmental impacts, “including the risks of climate change.”

However, in reality, ExxonMobil is committed to a false dual challenge and solution, one that is non-sustainable and unfortunately encourages and promotes continued reliance on fossil fuels and its heavy carbon footprint, while obstructing policies that would bring us towards renewable energy solutions. It might look good on paper, but it is business as usual.

Rick Hammer is an Associate Professor Biology at HSU and Associate Professor of Restoration Ecology at the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in Mancelona Michigan. He holds a Ph.D in botany and ecology from Texas A&M University.

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