Exxon's u-turn on climate change research and its consequences

Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Exxon's own research confirmed mainstream scientific consensus about the impact of carbon dioxide and climate change on the planet, a report by Inside Climate News shows. In 1979, the company even launched a million-dollar project during which scientists went aboard the company's Esso Atlantic tanker in order to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. Although the results of this research were published, corporate executives were careful about what they told the company's shareholders. When in the late 1980s, the climate change problem began to attract even more attention from various political actors, Exxon started financing research and groups that would work to amplify uncertainty about climate science. The report claims that: “Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world's largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.” In the end, the millions of dollars that the company spent over the years on efforts of climate deniers long surpassed what it had paid for its early research.

Two points come to mind when one reads this story: (1) scientific integrity and unbiased research was (is?) still possible regardless of who paid for it and (2), if scientific research about the threat of climate change does not positively affect the profitability of the industry, the industry will look for strategies that do. Energy corporations have no binding obligation to contribute to good science and can use it instrumentally to further their own interests in much the same way as they do not have an obligation to contribute to communities living in the vicinity of their developments. That is why the question of ethics – so often raised in discussions about the interface between society and industry – may sometimes be completely misguided. In the 1980s, Exxon researchers were advocates of unbiased science not because they felt that the company owed it to society to let people know what the risks were; rather, they understood that it was not a question of ethics and “often repeated that unbiased science would give [Exxon] legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.”

There is a follow-up to this story: in November 2015, New York Attorney General began an investigation about whether Exxon lied to the public as well as its shareholders about possible risks that climate change could pose to its business. Presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also called for the federal Attorney General to investigate. Additionally, the company may be facing class actions by investors as well as criminal charges for securities fraud and racketeering in California, among others.

Banerjee, N., Song, L., & Hasemyer, D. (2015, September 16). Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago. Retrieved 16 December 2015, from http://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming