Energy & Environment

ExxonMobil’s war against climate scientists

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It is time for ExxonMobil to come clean about the war it waged against climate scientists and their work during the George W. Bush presidency, part of its efforts to stop the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions that affect its products.

{mosads}The company is currently under investigation following accusations that its senior management has known for several decades that burning fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change — even while it manufactured doubt about the scientific evidence among policymakers and the public.

Journalists at Inside Climate News, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2013, have recently revealed that Exxon’s scientists may have known as early as the 1970s that the release of carbon dioxide from the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas was causing the Earth to warm.

Yet the company kept the information to itself and refused publicly to accept the evidence, particularly after the rich nations, including the United States, signed up to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Over the following decade, Exxon led a campaign of misinformation about global warming, using both its own lobbying and marketing activities and also funding a network of groups to try to undermine climate scientists and their work.

In 2000, it attacked the first National Climate Assessment that documented the way in which the United States was already suffering the impacts of climate change.

Exxon placed advertisements in newspapers alleging that the assessment was based on “unreliable models” and had been written in a way that made it “easy for key scientific uncertainties to be missed.”

The campaign reached its peak when President George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, just as the world’s leading climate scientists prepared to deliver a devastating assessment of how human activities were altering the climate.

On Jan. 22, 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a “Summary of Policymakers” from its Third Assessment Report, updating the findings of its second report in 1995.

The scientific authors of the IPCC assessment announced at a press conference in Shanghai, China, that “in the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”

They added that “it is very likely that the 20th century warming has contributed significantly to the observed sea level rise, through thermal expansion of sea water and widespread loss of land ice.”

This appears to have set off alarm bells in Exxon’s headquarters in Irving, Texas. Two weeks later, Exxon’s senior environmental adviser in Washington sent a memo to Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality demanding the removal of both Mike MacCracken, who coordinated the first National Climate Assessment, and Bob Watson, the chairman of the IPCC. Both scientists were gone from their positions within a year.

Meanwhile, Exxon launched a huge lobbying campaign in the United States and around the world to cast doubt on the IPCC’s findings. And the company was soon rewarded for their efforts, with Bush announcing in March 2001 that the United States would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, citing “the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change.”

Exxon continued its misinformation campaign over the next five years. In 2006, just before leaving a post at the Royal Society, the U.K.’s national academy of science, I challenged the way in which the company was presenting climate science.

I wrote to its director of public affairs in the U.K. to complain about the claim in its 2005 Corporate Citizenship Report that “gaps in the scientific basis for theoretical climate models and the interplay of significant natural variability make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions.”

The company’s response was furious. Its vice president of public affairs in Irving wrote to the president of the Royal Society to accuse me of misrepresenting their views. And the Royal Society was forced to issue a denial after a senior British politician was given the false impression by an Exxon representative that I had been removed from my post for criticizing the company.

While ExxonMobil has adopted a less extreme public stance on the science of climate change over the past few years, the legacy of its earlier campaign lingers. In 2012, greenhouse gas emissions from the United States were 3.9 per cent higher than in 1990, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, instead of the 7 per cent lower, the pledge made through the Kyoto Protocol.

And its talking points that promote climate change denial and resist greenhouse gas regulations are still used by its allies inside and outside Congress.

Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Tags Bob Watson Exxon ExxonMobil Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC Kyoto Protocol Mike MacCracken National Climate Assessment Royal Society

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