Authorities and journalists are investigating what could be a 50-year cover-up by fossil fuel companies like Exxon.
Climate Protesters in Washington, DC. Image by Jmcdaid via Wikimedia Commons
If a company knows their products are harming people and negatively impacting the environment, we expect them to do something about it instead of covering up the damaging information and launching a 50-year disinformation campaign to defraud the public. And yet, it’s increasingly looking like fossil fuel companies—Exxon Mobil in particular—have been aware of how their business relates to Earth’s climate since at least the 1960s. And given that relevant industry research began in the ‘40s, possibly even further back.
As The Guardian reported Wednesday, a 1968 paper presented to the fossil-fuels industry group API (the American Petroleum Institute) gave representatives of the oil and gas business a pretty clear warning on what could happen if they didn’t reign in their excesses. The eye-opening report, recently republished by the Center for International Environmental Law, also gave clear precedent for conceptualizing carbon as a pollutant that could seriously impact Earth’s delicate and varied ecosystems.
“Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic change,” read the report, authored by scientists Elmer Robinson and RC Robbins. “It is clear that we are unsure as to what our long-lived pollutants are doing to our environment; however, there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve learned about the industry’s longtime awareness and cover-up of their contributions to climate change. As a result of investigations by Inside Climate News and the Columbia School of Journalism, last October it was revealed that Exxon itself had funded research into the effects of their industry on climate throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, but concealed the findings for decades. A 1977 paper authored by senior Exxon scientist James F. Black put the situation in stark terms:
“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,” wrote Black.
Two polar bears protest Exxon In Washington, DC. Image by A Siegel via Wikimedia Commons
While Exxon has not outright denied their knowledge of this early climate change research (it is their own research, after all), at the time of the October investigation, a company spokesperson waved off the allegations, laughably blaming the negative attention on anti-fuel industry bias on the part of reporters. “I would challenge you to find a single story … that you’d consider a fair and balanced treatment of the industry, the benefits it provides to society and its importance to modern life,” Exxon’s Alan Jeffers told Quartz.
While industry people like Jeffers might prefer the public focused — doe-eyed and dumb — on the short-term benefits of internal combustion, it’s plain to see that if fuel companies’ insider information had been shared with the public and efforts had been made by the industry to mitigate their polluting ways, the world would be a pretty different place right now. Instead, companies like Exxon ignored early warnings, flat out denying what they knew, funding the research of climate-change deniers and opposing any attempts to regulate their industry.
Even though the company has reluctantly admitted that the phenomenon of cliamte change exists, they only want to make adjustments to the way they do business on their own terms and take no responsibilty for what they’ve done in the past. It would seem that, like other businesses that willfully covered up the harmful impact of their products—the tobacco industry comes to mind—Exxon and others should be liable, both legally and financially, to face up to their greed and obfuscation.
That’s why a number of investigations have recently been launched by various authorities into what Exxon knew and when, in an attempt to hold the company accountable for the damage it has done and continues to do to the planet and its people. A team of state-level attorneys general from around the country recently started a group called AGs United for Clean Power, aiming to take the fight to oil companies when the federal government is unable or unwilling to take action.
And even federal-level officials, historically hamstrung by the influence of the powerful fossil fuel lobby, have been feeling the pressure to finally do something. The Department of Justice has requested that the FBI look into whether Exxon’s cover-ups violated federal laws. And politicians like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have strongly urged U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to take steps to finally address the situation. In a letter to Lynch this past October, right after the cover-up was initially revealed, Sanders wrote:
“These reports, if true, raise serious allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry’s actions—conduct that led to federal racketeering convictions. Based on available public information, it appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse. The information that has come to light about Exxon’s past activities raises potentially serious concerns that should be investigated.”