ExxonMobil: Humans Cause Global Warming, and it’s Serious
So their scientists said privately. Their PR said something else.
It was previously reported by NYT, LA Times, and others that ExxonMobil knew the science of climate change very well while publicly publishing advertorials to seed doubt among the public. Now, as reported by Wired, two scientists have done a systematic review of ExxonMobil internal documents to show how Exxon’s internal documents don’t match its external posture. Here are the results:
For example, Exxon’s Roger Cohen said the following as reported in Inside Climate News:
“Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged,” Cohen wrote in September 1982, reporting on Exxon’s own analysis of climate models. It was that a doubling of the carbon dioxide blanket in the atmosphere would produce average global warming of 3 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees C (equal to 5 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus 1.7 degrees F).
“There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate,” he wrote, “including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
He warned that publication of the company’s conclusions might attract media attention because of the “connection between Exxon’s major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2.”
Not all oil companies are the same
Of course, it may be too much to expect oil companies to treat this issue honestly. But interestingly, Andy Skuce (an oil industry insider) notes that different oil companies have behaved differently on the issue of climate change:
In his book […] BP geologist Bryan Lovell lays out some of the evidence for climate change and discusses what the industry can do about it (spoiler: CCS). He also describes from the inside of BP how that company, around 1996, came to grips with the fact that climate change was real, man-made and dangerous. They realized that denial was futile, counter-productive and would have ultimately been damaging to the company’s reputation. In 1996, BP was the first oil company to leave the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry group formed in 1989 to oppose action on emissions reductions. Shell followed a year later. Exxon and other American oil companies kept the GCC alive and it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that it folded and every company moved away from simple denial of man-made climate change. Instead, they started alternative misinformation strategies: feeding the uncertainty monster and scaring people with talk of high taxes and low economic growth if the environmentalists ever got their way.
Of course, oil brings in $5 trillion per year, and we could speculate that other oil companies’ support of climate science and mitigation may only be lip service. Serious action will directly harm every oil company, at least in the long run. But it’s interesting that only certain companies like ExxonMobil seem to actively promote climate science denial.
Andy also notes the hypocrisy of treating uncertainty in climate science in a completely different way than uncertainty in the oil industry itself:
Oil companies have to deal with a lot of uncertainty in their business plans. In exploration particularly, there are risks of drilling dry holes and huge uncertainties — even after a discovery has been made — about how big an oil field will turn out to be. Companies like Exxon understand uncertainty and deal with it very well. Oil field sizes are distributed lognormally, with the means of the probability distributions often being much larger than the modes or medians. Not only are the elephant fields found in the fat tail, but the value of those big finds is disproportionate to their size: a field of 500 million barrels of recoverable reserves will have more than ten times the value of a field with 50 million barrels. Uncertainty does not imply inaction, it means that opportunity is lurking.
Similarly, the worst climate outcomes, expressed as global temperature increases, occur in the fat tails of skewed distributions: a six-degree Celsius increase is more than six times as damaging as a one-degree increase. This stuff may be non-intuitive to the layman, but it it is everyday knowledge to business people like Lee Raymond, the CEO of Exxon from 1999–2005. To characterize climate uncertainty as an obstacle, rather than as a spur to action, goes against all of their business experience and is dishonest.
Update: I later learned that Andy passed away three days before I published this post, though I did not find out until Sept. 24.
I was an Exxon-funded climate scientist
ExxonMobil's deliberate attempts to sow doubt on the reality and urgency of climate change and their donations to front…