What Exxon knew about climate change: Let's get the facts

Eric Pooley

Editor’s note: The New York Attorney General’s Office issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil on Nov. 4, 2015. The state is investigating whether the company misled the public and investors about climate risks documented by its own scientists, media reported.

Before joining Environmental Defense Fund in 2011, I was a journalist covering the politics of climate change. Part of that meant tracking the professional deniers who were paid to spread doubt and confusion on this urgent issue.

You won’t be surprised to learn that one of the corporations that spent millions to support climate-denying think tanks and scientists was ExxonMobil.

But here’s what we didn’t know then: According to a series of blockbuster reports by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News, long before Exxon began its campaign of denial – as far back as the late 1970s – the company employed its own in-house climate scientists to do sophisticated analysis of the issue.

These scientists understood that climate change is real and carefully modeled its likely impacts.

Next, they reportedly briefed Exxon’s top executives, who factored climate change into their business decisions – only to then reverse course, allegedly making the decision to launch their campaign of climate denial even though they knew full well it was real.

As the Dallas Morning News wrote in an Oct. 20 editorial:

“Exxon had the opportunity to lead the world toward a measured, manageable …solution.” Instead, “with profits to protect, Exxon provided climate-change doubters a bully pulpit they didn’t deserve and gave lawmakers the political cover to delay global action…It reminds us of the days when Big Tobacco adamantly insisted that science was inconclusive about the cancer-causing effects of cigarettes.”

Big Tobacco’s massive public fraud was brought to light by a federal investigation.

Today, EDF President Fred Krupp was among 49 leaders from environmental, indigenous and civil rights groups signing a public letter asking U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a probe to determine whether Exxon “knew about the dangers of climate change even as it funded efforts at climate denial and systematically misled the public.”

We don’t have all the facts about what Exxon knew, and we’re not prejudging what happened inside the company. But what several teams of award-winning journalists have reported is detailed, troubling, and clearly deserving of further investigation. A civil investigation can get all the facts out on the table. 

It’s one thing for a company to offer its perspective on matters of global importance. It’s quite another for a company to deploy its resources to intentionally mislead the public and thwart collective action when its own scientists have warned of terrible consequences. And that’s what Exxon Mobil is accused of.

Because EDF sometimes partners with energy companies – working with them, for example, to measure methane emissions from the natural gas system – we feel a special responsibility to speak up for accountability when such serious allegations surface.

We understand that the industry isn’t monolithic. In our experience, some companies have engaged constructively and some have not. We also don’t accept funding from our corporate partners, because our voice must remain independent.

This is why, when it comes to corporate behavior and misbehavior, we will always call ‘em as we see ‘em.

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