Was anyone really surprised last Wednesday when InsideClimateNews (ICN) revealed documents confirming that Exxon Mobil has known for almost 40 years that fossil fuels pose a lethal threat to Earth and all its inhabitants? ICN, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning web-site, published the first installment of an exposé of Exxon’s role in suppressing research on climate change and disseminating disinformation. (Exxon [then Esso] and Mobil merged in 1999.)
In 1977, James Black, a top technical expert at Exxon, informed a group of top-level oilmen at Exxon headquarters that
[T]here is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.
The following year Black persisted. Speaking to a wider audience, he warned that the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continued to increase and would raise temperatures everywhere, but especially at the poles. He also predicted local changes like heavier rain and drought. “Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” he told the oilmen. Moreover, he wrote in 1978,
Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.
Exxon was concerned. It reacted by hiring top scientists to conduct its own research on the impact of carbon dioxide on the environment. It was in the forefront of the research for the next 10 years.
What is shocking, if not surprising, given Exxon’s history, is that the company’s response to the revelation of the potentially catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuels was to deceive the public, influence elected officials and persuade a few pliable scientists to produce studies raising doubt and even deny the validity of what Exxon’s own research had shown to be true. Like the tobacco industry, the oilmen devoted their virtually unlimited resources to denial and obfuscation. Their success ensured that pitifully little action would be taken to curb the burning of fossil fuel and decelerate the escalation of global warming.
Compare, for example, the official (redacted) testimony of Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on climate change before the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Oct. 23, 2007. It was reduced to 1,500 words by the Administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both oilmen. Gerberding’s original testimony was 3,107 words. Everything she had written about the effects of climate change was cut.
Few people heard or read about ICN’s report. Big Oil still rules.