The Daily Telegraph
Exxon knew it could be damaging the planet. But the research was never made public
A new study has revealed that scientists at the fossil fuel giant predicted global warming with ‘startling accuracy’. Ben Wright investigates
For years, climate-change activists have marched under placards daubed with the legend: “Exxon knew”. The oil giant, they said, had uncovered proof decades ago that burning fossil fuels was heating up the planet.
Now a paper published last month seems to suggest that the activists were right all along.
Drawing on research from 32 internal documents produced by Exxon’s scientists between 1974 and 2002, together with 72 peer-reviewed publications to which the company’s staff had contributed between 1982 and 2014, the paper showed the fossil fuel giant’s predictions concerning global warming have now proved to be “startlingly accurate”.
Contained within this documentary trove were 16 different temperature projections that had been calculated by the oil giant’s in-house climate models. They show that Exxon forecast global warming could occur at a rate of roughly 0.2C a decade. They were right. In fact, the study concluded that the forecasts made by Exxon’s boffins were more accurate than those made by Nasa’s scientists.
The oil giant, once the world’s largest oil and gas company, until the recent ascent of Chinese and Saudi rivals, had carried out cutting-edge experiments to investigate global warming. One initiative involved installing a state-of-the-art laboratory on a supertanker to sample carbon dioxide levels in the ocean, between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico. Another experiment measured carbon isotopes in dozens of vintage French wines, including a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild 1945.
These experiments, and many others, helped scientists at Exxonmobil reduce the uncertainties that were inherent in climate science.
These findings were in turn fed into highly sophisticated mathematical models designed to forecast the effect that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have on average global temperatures in the coming decades.
Oil and gas companies are facing dozens of lawsuits in the US in which they are accused of deceit and responsibility for climate damages. The attorney general of Massachusetts, for example, has alleged
Exxon possessed “longstanding internal scientific knowledge of the causes and consequences of climate change” and engaged in “public deception campaigns”.
Joe Biden, the US President has pledged to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. Earlier this week, the Texas-based oil supermajor revealed it raked in a record profit of $55.7 billion
(£45 billion) last year, thanks to surging energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which will likely add to the political scrutiny it is facing.
Is this new study the smoking gun that proves Exxon did know about the threat of climate change from burning fossil fuels? The authors of the study claim it does.
“Our findings demonstrate that Exxonmobil didn’t just know ‘something’ about global warming decades ago – they knew as much as academic and government scientists knew,” they write.
The company itself has long denied the claim. A spokesman told the Financial Times: “This issue has come up several times in recent years and, in each case, our answer is the same: those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions.”
According to the author Nathaniel Rich in his book Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change, he argues that the world’s scientists and politicians came close to solving the problem of climate change in the decade that straddled the end of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, before the political impetus dwindled and climate denialism began to take hold.
“It’s important that they did the math and determined the degree to which we’re able to characterise the accuracy of the models that Exxon was using,” he says. “But, frankly, whether or not the models were accurate doesn’t really affect my sense of the culpability of these organisations.
It’s as if they were planning a bank heist and accurately predicting how much money was in the safe.”
The basic science behind our understanding of global warming is certainly not new. John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, was the first to discover carbon dioxide absorbed heat. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, deduced that the burning of coal and petroleum would increase the amount of gas in the atmosphere and could lead to higher global temperatures. And Guy Stewart Callendar, a British engineer wrote that mankind was “able to speed up the processes of Nature” after discovering the previous five years had been the hottest in recorded history. These discoveries were made in 1859, 1896 and 1938 respectively.
However, there remained a number of puzzles to solve if scientists were to improve predictions of how fast climate change might occur. Chief among these were the extent to which deforestation was contributing to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the speed with which the gas could be absorbed by the ocean. The first question was of particular interest to the fossil fuel industry, as it would help establish the extent to which their own products were to blame for global warming. The second, which the tooled-up supertanker was exploring, aimed to determine how quickly the world needed to act.
In 1956, Roger Ravelle, a key scientific advisor to a number of US presidents, told Time magazine, then one of the world’s most influential publications, that time was running out. Burning fossil fuel and adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere may, he argued, “have a violent effect on the earth’s climate” within the next 50 years.
At the time, in the wake of the Manhattan project, scientists were viewed as something akin to public
policy ‘seers’ whose advice was sought on a wide range of topics. Ravelle’s revelation roused not only policymakers, but also the fossil-fuel industry.
In 2015, Inside Climate News, a not-for profit outlet focusing on environmental journalism, was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in the US after it unearthed reams of documents in the Exxon archive. These showed that in 1957, scientists from Humble Oil, which later became part of the company that is today called Exxon, published a study tracking “the enormous quantity of carbon dioxide” that had been added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution “from the combustion of fossil fuels”.
Rich says: “What is striking about those early experiments is that, not only were they studying the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the sophistication of the science was such that they were attempting to determine how much of it Humble was responsible for.”
As Exxon grew to become the biggest oil and gas company in the world it also prided itself on having the leading private laboratory in the world, modelled on the famous Bell Labs, working at the very frontiers of science. By 1978, policymakers at the highest levels of Jimmy Carter’s administration were arguing that climate change needed to be investigated. Around this time Exxon set up its own dedicated carbondioxide research division with an annual budget of $600,000.
The oil industry was also working closely with the US government on the problem. Exxon participated in a series of major symposia held by the Energy Department and its predecessor in 1977 and 1978, a Congressional Investigation in 1980 and formal events at the National Academy of Sciences.
Then, in 1983, a major report commissioned by president Carter, but published during Ronald Reagan’s administration, came out that stopped the political impetus to tackle the issue of climate change in its tracks. Essentially, the document said the science was all correct, the predictions were all true, however, it would be best to kick the can down the road because the world would be more capable of solving the problem in the future. Even Ravelle adopted this position.
The reasons for this were pragmatic and economic – at least in the short- to medium-term – rather than scientific. It was widely noted that economic growth was strongly correlated to energy use – the more fossil fuels mankind burned, the better off everyone was.
The problem started to look too big and the downsides of any solution at that point in time too unpalatable. As a result, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry’s largest trade association, both scaled down their carbon dioxide research departments. Many of the scientists left or were reassigned.
Then, in 1988, James Hansen, a
Nasa scientist testified to Congress that the age of climate change had arrived – global warming could be seen in the temperature record for the first time.
The announcement had an immediate effect on the political establishment. In the middle of a tightly fought presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis, George W Bush vowed to use the “White House effect” to battle the “greenhouse effect”. But, although the topic briefly became a political hot potato again.
While researching his book, Rich unearthed two white papers that no one had reported on before. One was produced by Exxon and the other by the API. They reached very similar conclusions, he says: that the oil industry needed to be a part of every policy discussion, it needed to cast doubt on the science (or, at the very least, on the strength of the certainty), and that it should not support any climate policy that affected the industry’s bottom line.
“That, for me, is the smoking gun,” says Rich. “You have them laying out the strategy at the highest levels of the industry for the behaviour that follows.”
Much of the initial lobbying and PR effort – including running advertisements in national newspapers – went into pointing out the uncertainty around the timing of the predictions about global warming. But very quickly the industry started questioning whether anthropogenic climate change – caused by human beings – was real.
“They were so successful that they got carried away and went into this parallel universe where they’re saying: there’s no problem with carbon dioxide,” says Rich. “Then it kind of snowballed. They became more and more brazen.”
At a Congressional hearing in 2007, James Mccarthy, the Harvard professor of biological oceanography, who had just been elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said: “A network of Exxon-funded organisations [has] sought to distort, manipulate and suppress climate science so as to confuse the American public about the urgency of the global warming problem, and thus, forestall a strong policy response.” When this was reported, Exxon declined to comment.
Nevertheless, Rich places the blame for inaction at the feet of politicians, in particular, John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, who Time magazine dubbed “Bush’s Bad Cop”. He made the president U-turn on his campaign promises, and stopped him from signing a 67-nation commitment to freeze carbon dioxide emissions at the Noordwijk Climate Conference in 1989. Since then there has never been anything approaching bipartisan agreement on how, or even whether, to tackle climate change. In the years since, the US has produced more carbon dioxide than it did in all the years up to that point.
“Of course we should hold the oil and gas industry responsible for what it did,” says Rich. “But it’s also important to be honest about the fact that, even before the industry fully devoted itself to a concerted propaganda effort and denialism, there were major political challenges that had not been solved.”
He adds: “But if you’re an activist filing a lawsuit, there are some parts of the history that you’re going to target. And there’s plenty to point to that supports an argument for reparations against Exxon and the rest of the oil and gas industry.”