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Exxon Scientists Were Pioneering Climate Change Researchers: Who Knew?

“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.”

Exxon Scientists Were Pioneering Climate Change Researchers: Who Knew?

ExxonMobil Refinery in Baytown, Texas. Image via Flickr user Roy Luck

We know the oil industry has invested “dark money” in climate change denial efforts. Along with auto, coal, and other industries, Big Oil has been part of an anti-climate-change effort that, through 140 foundations, has funneled $558 million in publicly traceable money to nearly 100 climate denial organizations from 2003 to 2010, according to environmental sociologist Robert Brulle.


But a new narrative is emerging, thanks to separate investigative efforts by InsideClimate News and a team of Los Angeles Times and Columbia University Journalism School researchers. What many people don’t know is that ExxonMobil actually did pioneering research into fossil fuel impact on climate—way back in 1977 and into the ’80s. They were, as it turns out, ahead of the curve on climate change research.

In July 1977, at Exxon’s corporate headquarters, the company’s senior scientist, James F. Black, told Exxon’s management committee that mankind was influencing global climate change through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.

According to ICN, a year later Black took this message to a gathering of Exxon scientists and managers, saying that carbon dioxide (CO2) output would double and temperatures would rise 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit (and as much as 18 degrees at the poles), producing deserts in some regions and heavier rainfall in others.

“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,” Black wrote in a 1978 summary of his presentation. This was was part of an effort to understand how environmental factors could, in the future, impact Exxon’s oil business.

But in reading scientific papers, talking to experts, interviewing former Exxon employees, and researching hundreds of documents at archives located at the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada, journalists found that by the late ’80s Exxon had curtailed its research efforts and begun denying climate change.

Exxon didn’t distort climate change research papers written in the ’70s and ’80s, nor did it stop its research into climate change altogether. But Exxon certainly hasn’t highlighted its findings outside the company, a move that would certainly impact its bottom line.

Predictably, ExxonMobil refused to comment when contacted by reporters from the L.A. Times and ICN. Instead, it called InsideClimate News a shill for anti-oil and anti-gas activists.

“InsideClimate News is funded by anti-oil and gas foundations and activists and based on the inaccurate and biased reporting we’ve seen can be considered anti-oil and gas activists,” company spokesman Alan Jeffers said in its e-mail response to Quartz. “I would challenge you to find a single story on their site that you’d consider a fair and balanced treatment of the industry, the benefits it provides to society and its importance to modern life.”

It’s difficult to fathom how ExxonMobil’s own research could be biased, though perhaps Jeffers is alluding to the input given by those scientific experts and former Exxon employees interviewed for the stories. Either way, the L.A. Times and ICN reports have attracted the attention of Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

On October 20, Sanders sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, calling for an investigation into corporate fraud at ExxonMobil.

“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,” Sanders wrote. “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.”

For more details on Exxon’s pioneering climate change research, visit ICN and the Los Angeles Times.

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