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How Exxon tried to twist climate science for profit
New internal documents reported by the Wall Street Journal illustrate exactly why thousands are taking to the street to protest fossil fuels this week.
It’s already been a historic, anger-filled week in the fight for a livable planet. And things are only about to get angrier.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of peaceful protestors flooded the streets of New York City, calling for an end to the fossil fuel era. The unprecedented showing kicked off a week of 650 climate actions across the world, including a Monday march on Wall Street that resulted in more than 100 arrests; a traffic blockade in The Hague that resulted in more than 600 arrests; a protest blocking the entrance to Citibank’s Manhattan headquarters; and a “die-in” at the Museum of Modern Art.
Protests of a similar ilk took place in Pakistan, Germany, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and beyond. And even more civil disobedience actions are expected, as corporate and government leaders renew their lofty-yet-so-far-unfulfilled climate pledges this week at high-profile events like Climate Week NYC and a special United Nations summit.
So why is everyone so angry, you ask? Great question.
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Two major news items this week illustrate well why people are so fed up with inaction on climate change.
The first is a historic new lawsuit from California, which claims that ExxonMobil and four other oil giants deceived the public by downplaying the climate risks of fossil fuel development, thereby costing the state tens of billions of dollars. The lawsuit, as Amy Westervelt explains masterfully for Drilled, is essentially “a super-case” combining all the arguments of other state lawsuits against Big Oil. It’s a big deal.
The second is a new Wall Street Journal investigation of Exxon, which reveals just how far that cover-up extends. According to never-before-seen documents, the company undermined climate science to protect their bottom line from the 1970s to at least 2015—and specifically tried to twist the science of the IPCC, the world’s leading scientific body on climate change.
Here’s an excerpt of a memo written by Exxon’s head of corporate research in 1988, laying out their strategy (emphasis mine):
“If a worldwide consensus emerges that action is needed to mitigate against Greenhouse gas effects, substantial negative impacts on Exxon could occur…Any additional R&D efforts within Corporate Research on Greenhouse should have two primary purposes: 1. Protect the value of our resources (oil, gas, coal). 2. Preserve Exxon’s business options.”
And here’s how Exxon tried to mitigate those “substantial negative impacts” to its bottom line.
How Exxon tried to influence the IPCC
The evidence that the U.S. oil industry delayed climate action for profit has been building for years. But what is newly shocking in The Wall Street Journal article are the documents revealing that Exxon directed employees to gather info and influence the world’s leading scientific authority on climate change as recently as 2012.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gathers scientists from all over the world to create accurate models to project how rapidly the Earth is heating up, and how to mitigate global warming. The reports are supposed to be objective, unbiased, and in the best interest of humanity’s survival.
But Exxon had scientists in the IPCC meetings from the beginning. “[Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson] may not know this, but his scientists have been inside the IPCC process since it was born,” said Kert Davies, director of special investigations at the Center of Climate Integrity, who published the ExxonSecrets investigation in 2004. “We often skip that in telling this story, but it was unusual for industry scientists to be there.”
During its campaign to influence the IPCC’s conclusions in its favor, Exxon directed the White House to fire the former chair of the IPCC, placed scientists as lead authors and contributors on IPCC reports, and ran media campaigns to undermine the IPCC’s reports and cast doubt on human-caused climate change, Davies said.
Exxon’s strategy was highly effective. The fingerprints of the fossil fuel industry are still on the IPCC’s reports. As of 2021, you couldn’t find the words “fossil fuels” anywhere in the IPCC’s summary for policymakers (which is often used in leiu of their scientific reports that run up to a thousand pages). This year, countries that profit off fossil fuels removed a sentence about fossil fuels being the root cause of climate change from the IPCC’s summary for policymakers.
And while the IPCC’s latest scientific report called for an end to unabated fossil fuel projects, that still allows for fossil fuels used in combination with carbon capture technology. Carbon capture technology isn’t ready or cost-effective, fossil fuel industry groups told the EPA last month.
“Why haven't we acted sooner on climate change? Why didn't we see the train coming and running us over 30 years ago?” said Davies. “Because there was an active campaign of deception and denial and delay that hinged on blocking the science.”
Here’s some of what Exxon did to try to quash climate science it knew was true.
1988: Exxon writes a memo laying out their strategy to “emphasize uncertainty.” The memo laid out the company’s strategy to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the enhanced potential greenhouse effect.”
1990: Exxon scientist tries to undermine the IPCC’s First Assessment Report. During the final drafting, Brian Flannery, Exxon’s chief climate lobbyist and scientific advisor, took issue with the recommendation for 60 to 80 percent cuts in CO2 emissions, suggesting that there are “uncertainties” in the climate models. He ultimately failed to change the report, which concluded that greenhouse gas emissions at present rates would certainly lead to warming.
Flannery continued to serve as a lead author of the IPCC’s Working Group 3 from 1998 to 2004.
1994-1995: Exxon pays to monitor the IPCC. The company founded and sat on the board of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), one of the most powerful industry groups ever to campaign against climate regulations and science. From 1994 to 1995, the GCC spent more than $100,000 on an “IPCC tracker” to monitor the IPCC’s recommendations. They used the budget to send fossil fuel representatives to the IPCC meetings “since the outcome is of vital importance to the GCC.”
1996: Exxon scientist takes credit for IPCC climate models while casting doubt on climate change. In a presentation to Exxon subsidiary Esso Italiano, the company’s lead scientist Brian Flannery said he helped develop the IPCC’s early climate model used to project temperature and sea level change. In the same presentation, he denied human-caused global warming: “Observations do not confirm that human activities have led to any global warming.”
1996: Exxon’s GCC attacks the scientific integrity of the IPCC, news outlets amplify. The GCC sent a letter to media outlets accusing the panel of “scientific cleansing.” It argued that edits to the panel’s latest report “raise very serious questions about whether the IPCC has compromised, or even lost, its scientific integrity.” The edits that upset them? “The highly controversial issue of whether there is human-induced climate change.” Outlets like the Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal amplified the message.
2001: Exxon suggests the Bush administration remove the chair of the IPCC.
Exxon wrote a memo to the brand-new Bush administration, suggesting that they decide who is hired or fired at the IPCC. The memo recommends removing three climate scientists, including Robert T. Watson, the chair of the IPCC since 1996. Watson was “an outspoken advocate of the idea that human actions—mainly burning oil and coal—are contributing to global warming,” wrote The New York Times in 2002. The Bush administration did not renominate Watson to head the panel.
2012: Exxon CEO directs employees to influence the IPCC. Former CEO Rex Tillerson told a top Exxon climate researcher that the IPCC’s climate scenario was “not credible,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The researcher, Haroon Kheshgi, told colleagues in an email that Tillerson wants to engage with IPCC “to influence [the group], in addition to gathering info.”
Haroon Kheshgi contributed to the IPCC’s reports as a lead author, contributing author, and review editor from 1996 to 2014. Despite directives from Exxon’s leadership, Kheshgi is described by fellow scientists as “careful, detailed, methodical.”
April 2015: Exxon publicly supports IPCC climate science, but internally casts doubt. Tillerson didn’t believe his own scientists about the limit for a livable climate, according to The Wall Street Journal:
Following a presentation on climate science to Exxon’s board of directors in April 2015, Tillerson called the 2 degrees target “something magical,” according to a summary of the meeting.
“Who is to say 2.5 is not good enough,” said Tillerson, noting that it was “very expensive” to cut the emissions needed to meet such a target.
June 2015: Exxon asks its scientists to cast doubt on climate science.
An Exxon executive emails climate scientist Haroon Kheshgi, asking him to throw doubt on climate science, according to documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
“Rex [Tillerson] called this afternoon with a couple of pretty detailed questions on climate science: Do climate scientists understand and are they able to quantify the radiative forcing/GHG/climate impacts of events like volcanos and forest fires. If so, how and how well?….Are these types of events/impacts a major or minor source of uncertainty?”
California sues oil giants, saying they downplayed climate change. “Oil and gas companies are already facing dozens of lawsuits from states and localities over their role in causing climate change.” NPR, September 2023.
A strategy memo from Big Oil to Republicans. “Don’t fear climate change. Fear a life without oil.” HEATED, November 2021.
How They Made Us Doubt Everything. “In the battle for public opinion, the scientists were no match for a well-oiled PR machine.” BBC Radio, July 2020.
Exxon’s Climate Denial History: A Timeline. “Exxon had known since the 70s about the causes of climate change and the dangers climate disruption poses.” Greenpeace.
Announcing: A new partnership with NowThis Earth
If you’ve been reading HEATED for a while, you know it’s long been a huge priority of ours to expand our reach beyond the crumbling platform that is Twitter. We really want to get our climate journalism to new audiences—particularly audiences that would rather get their news via video, rather than text.
That’s why we’re so happy to announce that HEATED is teaming up with NowThis News, a progressive news organization with literally millions of followers across Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Facebook, for a 10-episode series on climate accountability.
For the series, we’ll be transforming 10 HEATED articles into highly-produced, 90-second vertical videos. The first episode—our article on Vivek Ramaswamy’s fossil fuel investments—dropped on Friday, and has more than 200,000 views on Instagram alone so far.
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No Catch of the Day today—email length limit won’t allow it. Stay tuned for TWO pet pics next newsletter!