“Exxon knew about climate change half a century ago,” reads the home page of the Greenpeace USA et al. website ExxonKnew. “They deceived the public, misled their shareholders, and robbed humanity of a generation’s worth of time to reverse climate change.” The decades-old deception, it is added, calls for investigation and prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice and state attorney generals.
The website draws upon the investigative journalism of Inside Climate News and the British Broadcasting Corporation, as well as of academics such as Harvard University’s Naomi Oreskes.
Their misinterpretation has been rebutted by myself and another author in six parts. A review of company documents does verify that certain scientist-employees warned about anthropogenic warming from fossil-fuel combustion. But their bosses did not. The company itself was agnostic, with good reason. Climate science was embryonic and in flux, with different participants arguing different things for an opposite net effect.
In the 1970s, global cooling was feared by scientists such as Stephen Schneider, deputy head, Climate Project at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Certainly the threat of another ice age was the topic of much scientific and popular discussion in the 1970s,” stated Harold Bernard, Jr., in The Greenhouse Effect. “Books and articles entitled ‘The Cooling,’ ‘Blizzard,’ ‘Ice,’ and ‘A Mini Ice Age Could Begin in a Decade,’ abounded.”
Moreover, the pressing issue of the day for Exxon was Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas, not distant climate scenarios.
In the early 1980s, with falling prices from a surplus of oil and natural gas, Exxon’s climate foray was an easy scratch amid company-wide budget cuts and layoffs. Later that decade, James Hansen’s declaration that anthropogenic global warming had arrived was greeted poorly by the mainstream. “If many of Hansen’s colleagues find his first point about the warming trend regrettable,” Richard Kerr wrote in Science, “they view his second–that the warming could, with ‘high confidence,’ be linked to the greenhouse effect–as unforgivable.”
In 1990, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change began its research. In 1995, the IPCC controversially declared a “balance-of-evidence” finding of man-made global warming, with important caveats.
Fast forward to a 2014 debate between John Christy and Kerry Emanuel. Both scientists agreed that physical climate science was far from settled. Emanuel, author of the 70-page primer What We Know About Climate Change (MIT Press: 2018), stated: “If I’d written a book called What We Don’t Know about Climate Science, it would have been an encyclopedia.”
So much for settled science. Today, temperature data suggests global lukewarming with (unreliable) climate models running “too hot.” Sensitivity estimates at the upper end have come down, neutering the “runaway warming” hypothesis. Meanwhile, data regarding extreme weather events (hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, droughts, floods, sea level rise) do not support catastrophic scenarios advertised by the climate lobby.
What is more certain than model-derived scares is 1) Global Greening from CO2 enrichment, reflecting plant physiology; and 2) the perils of climate policy for affordable, reliable energies, as shown by current events from Texas to California to the UK to the EU.
A century ago, two scholars wrote:
It seems that oil has fallen into bad odour. It is popularly believed to excite the worst passions, to rouse in business men a greed more consuming than the greed of gold, to move statemen to Machiavellian designs. Even to have served with an oil company suggests having signed on with a pirate crew.
The sins of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust then are today the sins of Exxon (now ExxonMobil), according to the climate muckrakers. But a sober review of the company’s internal documents in the context of what was known at the time, and society’s priorities, support an opposite interpretation.
ExxonKnew is PR and politics in search of a shakedown. The company has accurately described
a coordinated campaign perpetuated by activist groups with the aim of stigmatizing ExxonMobil. Funders of the “#ExxonKnew” campaign have placed “pay to play” news stories, released flawed academic reports and coordinated with public officials to launch investigations and litigation, creating the false appearance that ExxonMobil has misrepresented its company research and investor disclosures on climate change to the public.
Muckraking mistruths—from Ida Tarbell more than a century ago to Naomi Oreskes today—must be corrected. This is particularly urgent as the U.S. Department of Energy, International Energy Agency, and other organizations implore ExxonMobil and other oil producers to increase supply to bring down prices and avoid shortages.
Companies supplying energy for the masses deserve respect, not harassment. It is high time for scholars to clean up the muck and promote public understanding.