The cash behind climate denial

October 7, 2015

A new report proves that oil giant Exxon new about climate change decades ago--but continued to spend millions to downplay the link between fossil fuels and the destruction of the environment, writes James Plested, in an article for the Australian paper Red Flag.

RESEARCH BY the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Inside Climate News has added a disturbing new chapter to the long-established story of corporate-funded climate change denial.

In the first installment of a series of reports, titled "Exxon: The road not taken," Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer document how, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, scientists at global oil and gas giant Exxon conducted extensive research into climate change, concluding that a shift away from fossil fuels was necessary to avoid potentially devastating consequences for humanity.

According to the report, members of Exxon's management committee were briefed on the issue as early as 1977. In a meeting in July of that year, James Black, a senior scientist from the company's research and engineering division, informed the committee that "there 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."

Koch refinery in Minnesota
Koch refinery in Minnesota

In a presentation the following year, Black further elaborated on his findings. Given a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, average temperatures would likely increase by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, radically destabilizing global climate systems with unpredictable and potentially highly-destructive results. There was, he concluded, "a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical."

Exxon scientists continued researching the causes and potential impacts of climate change. In 1982, they circulated an internal briefing, "intended to familiarize Exxon personnel with the subject," which concluded that "major reductions in fossil fuel combustion" would be required to prevent "some potentially catastrophic events" stemming from emissions growth in the coming decades.

In the same year, the head of Exxon's research and engineering division, Edward E. David, spoke at a company-sponsored conference on global warming. "[F]ew people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation," he said.

A RELATIVELY open discussion of the science of climate change appears to have continued inside Exxon until the mid-1980s. At this point, however, the economic imperative took over.

From the perspective of top company executives, the research had been more about potential threats to the company's bottom-line than concern for the environment. At a certain point, it was decided that Exxon's future would be better served by preventing any serious action on climate change.

By 1989, the science had been swept under the carpet. That year, the company played a leading role in the foundation of the Global Climate Coalition--an alliance of major fossil fuel, car and chemical companies. Its main purpose was to sow confusion about climate science and oppose government action on emissions.

According to Greenpeace, over the next two decades, Exxon lavished more than $28.4 million on various climate denial think tanks, researchers and activist groups. Even after pressure by shareholder activists forced them, in 2007, to promise an end to such support, the company continued to fund denialists through less public channels.

Analysis of financial and tax records by the Guardian newspaper shows that since 2007 Exxon (now ExxonMobil) has given more than $2.1 million to climate change denying members of the U.S. Congress and a denialist corporate lobby group.

Exxon may also have been involved in funding conservative foundations that, between 2003 and 2010, funneled an estimated $567.2 million worth of "dark money"--untraceable donations--to almost 100 climate change denial groups.

The toll taken by the burning of fossil fuels is already immense. According to a recent working paper by the International Monetary Fund, "How large are global energy subsidies?," the cost of environmental and other damages associated with the industry amounts to trillions of dollars per year. That's much more than the $1 trillion annual investment that Greenpeace estimates would be necessary for a global transition to 100 percent renewables by 2050.

Taking into account the likelihood of even greater damage to lives and livelihoods as the world continues to warm over coming decades, the failure of companies like Exxon to act on what they knew about climate change, and their continuing attempts to block any serious attempt to address it, should be regarded as nothing less than a crime against humanity.

First published at Red Flag.

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