It may be hard to accept, but a single company may have set back all of humanity.  Had ExxonMobil 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. 

Rather than apologize, ExxonMobil’s reaction to recent investigations that detail the corporation’s deception on climate science has been both profane and righteously indignant.  ExxonMobil is now denying it denied climate change.    

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The corporation’s actions, however, demonstrate something else entirely: an extensive, 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 Planet 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 CO2 emissions would have on the climate.  Based on that research, Exxon scientists warned corporate leadership that CO2 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 their own research on global warming.  The company funded the Global Climate Coalition, an organization of companies dedicated to derailing government efforts to slash fossil fuel emissions.  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 CO2 emissions.  They also supported think tanks that attempted to discredit climate science and scientists. 

In 2001, ExxonMobil 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.  ExxonMobil opposed historic climate and energy legislation such as the Waxman Markey Bill.  The bill died in the United States Senate in 2009.  

Despite protests to the contrary, ExxonMobil continues to undermine efforts to combat climate change.  Last week, they asserted in a press release: “We will continue to advocate for policies that reduce emissions….”  In fact, they played a major role in stripping provisions in California’s SB 350 law that 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, 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 ExxonMobil has done.  The level of corporate hypocrisy and the potential consequences are staggering, as is their blatant denial of both the facts of science and of their 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 of Justice – and the U.S. Congress as needed – should guarantee full immunity for anyone who steps forward with information about ExxonMobil’s actions or about wrongdoing by other fossil fuel corporations. 

The full extent of ExxonMobil’s deception deserves to be known because that may help ExxonMobil 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.