What Did Exxon Know, & When Did They Know It? The Answers May Surprise You

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Climate scientists Geoffrey Supran, Stefan Rahmstorf, and Naomi Oreskes have published a study in the journal Science which asserts that Exxon privately “predicted global warming correctly and skillfully,” only to then spend decades publicly disparaging their own scientists in order to protect its core business, according to a report by The Guardian.

A foreword to the study says:

“For decades, some members of the fossil fuel industry tried to convince the public that a causative link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made because the models used to project warming were too uncertain. Supran et als. show that one of those fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil, had their own internal models that projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast by the independent academic and government models. What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe.”

Exxon Internal Documents Tell The Story

The authors say that in 2017, they demonstrated that Exxon’s internal documents, as well as peer-reviewed studies published by Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists, overwhelmingly acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. By contrast, the majority of Mobil and ExxonMobil Corp’s public communications promoted doubt on the matter.

“Our results show that in private and academic circles since the late 1970s and early 1980s, ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully. Using established statistical techniques, we find that 63 to 83% of the climate projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists were accurate in predicting subsequent global warming. ExxonMobil’s average projected warming was 0.20° ± 0.04°C per decade, which is, within uncertainty, the same as that of independent academic and government projections published between 1970 and 2007. The average “skill score” and level of uncertainty of ExxonMobil’s climate models (67 to 75% and ±21%, respectively) were also similar to those of the independent models.

“Moreover, we show that ExxonMobil scientists correctly dismissed the possibility of a coming ice age (which was widely predicted by many in that era) in favor of a ‘carbon dioxide induced ‘super-interglacial;’  accurately predicted that human-caused global warming would first be detectable in the year 2000 ± 5; and reasonably estimated how much CO2 would lead to dangerous warming.

“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. But whereas those scientists worked to communicate what they knew, ExxonMobil worked to deny it — including overemphasizing uncertainties, denigrating climate models, mythologizing global cooling, feigning ignorance about the discernibility of human-caused warming, and staying silent about the possibility of stranded fossil fuel assets in a carbon-constrained world.”

Geoffrey Supran, whose previous research of historical industry documents helped shed light on what Exxon and other oil firms knew, told The Guardian it was “breathtaking” to see Exxon’s projections line up so closely with what subsequently happened. “This really does sum up what Exxon knew, years before many of us were born. We now have the smoking gun showing that they accurately predicted warming years before they started attacking the science. These graphs confirm the complicity of what Exxon knew and how they misled.”

The research analyzed more than 100 internal documents and peer-reviewed scientific publications either produced in-house by Exxon scientists and managers, or co-authored by Exxon scientists in independent publications between 1977 and 2014, including charts prepared by Exxon and other fossil fuel industry scientists.

Exxon
Image credit: Supran et al., via Science

Here’s the relevant caption for the above charts. (A) “Proprietary” 1982 Exxon-modeled projections. (B) Summary of projections in seven internal company memos and five peer-reviewed publications between 1977 and 2003 (gray lines). (C) A 1977 internally reported graph of the global warming “effect of CO2 on an interglacial scale.” (A) and (B) display averaged historical temperature observations, whereas the historical temperature record in (C) is a smoothed Earth system model simulation of the last 150,000 years.”

In the abstract to the study, Supran, et al., write, “Climate projections by the fossil fuel industry have never been assessed. On the basis of company records, we quantitatively evaluated all available global warming projections documented by –and in many cases modeled by — Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists between 1977 and 2003. We find that most of their projections accurately forecast warming that is consistent with subsequent observations.

“Their projections were also consistent with, and at least as skillful as, those of independent academic and government models. Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp also correctly rejected the prospect of a coming ice age, accurately predicted when human-caused global warming would first be detected, and reasonably estimated the ‘carbon budget’ for holding warming below 2°C. On each of these points, however, the company’s public statements about climate science contradicted its own scientific data.”

What Exxon Knew

Armed with this knowledge, The Guardian says Exxon embarked upon a lengthy campaign to downplay or discredit what its own scientists had confirmed. As recently as 2013, Rex Tillerson, then chief executive of the oil company, said the climate models were “not competent” and that “there are uncertainties” over the impact of burning fossil fuels.

“What they did was essentially remain silent while doing this work and only when it became strategically necessary to manage the existential threat to their business did they stand up and speak out against the science,” said Supran. “They could have endorsed their science rather than deny it. It would have been a much harder case to deny it if the king of big oil was actually backing the science rather than attacking it.”

Other climate scientists told The Guardian the new study highlighted an important chapter in the struggle to address the climate crisis. “It is very unfortunate that the company not only did not heed the implied risks from this information, but rather chose to endorse non-scientific ideas instead to delay action, likely in an effort to make more money,” said Natalie Mahowald, a climate scientist at Cornell University.

She said the delays in action aided by Exxon had “profound implications” because earlier investments in wind and solar could have averted current and future climate disasters. “If we include impacts from air pollution and climate change, their actions likely impacted thousands to millions of people adversely.”

Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University, said the new study was a “detailed, robust analysis” and that Exxon’s misleading public comments about the climate crisis were “especially brazen” given their scientists’ involvement in work with outside researchers in assessing global heating.

The new work provided “further amplification” of Exxon’s misinformation, said Robert Brulle, an environment policy expert at Brown University who has researched climate disinformation spread by the fossil fuel industry. “I’m sure that the ongoing efforts to hold Exxon accountable will take note of this study,” referring to the multitude of lawsuits filled by cities and state against fossil fuel companies seeking damages for the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels.

The  Takeaway

What can anyone say? Exxon lied. As a result, the Earth is overheating to the point where human civilization is threatened. Will the company suffer any consequences for its actions? Considering the lack of any until know, don’t get your hopes up. Recently we reported on another study that proposed a new method or holding fossil fuel companies responsible for their waste products. Don’t expect that to happen any time soon either.

In fact, based on the observable evidence, nothing significant will get done until it’s too late. Cockroaches, ants, and a few other species will survive just as they have for millions of years. But humans? Our days are numbered, thanks in part to Exxon’s deliberate decision not to tell the truth. You might think that killing your customers would be a poor long term business decision, but you would be wrong. The company is all about making hay while the sun shines. No thoughts of future consequences can be allowed to interfere with current profits.

We are so screwed.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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