It may be hard to accept, but a single company may have set back all of humanity.
Had Exxon Mobil listened to its own scientists rather than spread disinformation on climate change, the world might not have wasted three crucial decades during which global warming went from a prediction to a fact.
The corporation’s actions, however, demonstrate something else entirely: An extensive and expensive campaign to deny climate science, deceive the American people about the health and environmental ruin caused by global warming, and stop action by governments to address Earth’s rapidly accelerating climate crisis.
In 1977, Exxon scientists began to discuss the threat of disruptive climate change as a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels. The corporation launched cutting-edge research into the effects that carbon dioxide emissions would have on the climate. Based on that research, Exxon scientists warned corporate leadership that carbon dioxide emissions would warm the planet, with potentially catastrophic repercussions.
Rather than accept what their own scientists were saying, top executives at Exxon started a massive campaign of disinformation. By 1997, the chief executive of Exxon, Lee Raymond, was publicly claiming that the connection between human activities and climate change was inconclusive and uncertain. Forbes magazine wrote that Raymond “used his executive chair as a platform for espousing his disbelief in global warming.”
Exxon created advertisements that contradicted its own research on global warming. The company funded the Global Climate Coalition, an organization of companies dedicated to derailing government efforts to slash emissions from fossil fuels.
Exxon also spent millions of dollars in the form of political campaign donations, lobbying fees and public relations strategies to discredit climate science and disrupt any forceful state or federal action to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The company also supported think tanks that attempted to discredit climate science and scientists.
In 2001, Exxon Mobil lobbyists helped convince President George W. Bush to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. By 2006, the corporation was funneling tens of millions of dollars to at least 43 organizations dedicated to discrediting climate science. Exxon Mobil opposed historic climate and energy legislation such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as the Waxman-Markey Bill. The measure died in the Senate in 2009.
Despite protests to the contrary, Exxon Mobil continues to undermine efforts to combat climate change. Last week, it asserted in a press release: “We will continue to advocate for policies that reduce emissions.” In fact, the company played a major role in stripping provisions in California’s S.B. 350, which would have reduced fossil fuel consumption.
Exxon has profited from climate change even while denying it. The corporation has invested $1.7 billion in drilling rights in more than 1 million acres in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea, drilling that will only be possible as the Arctic ice breaks up and melts away, which scientists say is now virtually certain.
It’s as if tobacco companies, knowing full well that cigarettes were killing millions of people, had invested in vast tracts of land to be developed into cemeteries.
A new word needs to be invented in the English language for what Exxon Mobil has done. The level of corporate hypocrisy and the potential consequences are staggering, as is the company’s blatant denial of the facts of science and of its own shameful history.
That’s why the U.S. Department of Justice must investigate the full extent of the corporation’s actions and determine if any laws have been broken. In the past, the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted tobacco companies for denying science and profiting from it.
The department — and Congress, as needed — should guarantee full immunity for anyone who steps forward with information about Exxon Mobil’s actions or about wrongdoing by other fossil fuel corporations.
The full extent of Exxon Mobil’s deception deserves to be known because that may help the company change its ways. The future health of humankind, of all life on our planet, may well depend upon it.
Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. She is the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt.” Lieu has represented California’s 33rd Congressional District since 2015. He sits on the Budget and the Oversight and Government Reform committees.