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Corporations are facing the same climate choice as Exxon did in the 1970s


Corporations today are facing the same choice as Exxon did in the 1970s when deciding their response to climate impacts.

Researchers from Harvard and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research assessed the accuracy of the forecasts from Exxon scientists, from 1977 to 2003, who projected “global warming from carbon dioxide emissions over the coming decades.” The researchers’ study was published in the journal Science. They found the industry scientists predictions were frighteningly accurate. What the scientists projected in the 1970s in carbon dioxide (CO2) build up and temperature increases have come to pass. So, it seems we are now living the consequences of Exxon’s failure to acknowledge the science and take right action.

We’re at a critical juncture in climate change: Many companies are having an “Exxon moment.”

Exxon’s investment in understanding their impacts on climate-change was extraordinary and inspiring. They hired great scientists and supported cutting-edge science — done with impressive accuracy, especially considering that we didn’t have the same computing power or data that we have today. Thanks to Exxon’s support, the productivity and outcome of their science team was, as the recent analysis shows, amazing. In fact, the research was good enough that Exxon could have led the way in transitioning to a more sustainable world — making a profit while reducing the likelihood that we would end up where we are today, with a 1.5-degree Celsius global temperature increase — and rapidly fading hope.  

Exxon didn’t use its scientific investment to lead an energy transition, as we know. Instead, they embarked on a public campaign of denial and disinformation, often targeting their own scientists. The entire globe is suffering the consequences. But is Exxon an outlier? 

Today, many companies are facing the very same dilemma that Exxon faced a couple of decades ago: They are aware of how their practices impact climate, environment and communities. It is not just the fossil fuel industries anymore. Today it includes multinational corporate giants, many of which are household names in transportation, fashion, technology and manufacturing. Where Exxon denied their scientists, some companies today use greenwashing to avoid taking action — a recent Harris Poll found that 58 percent of company executives admitted to engaging in corporate greenwashing, a number jumping to 72 percent for North American companies. In essence, they are still “doing an Exxon.” 

Companies have been presented with what not to do: Here are three critical actions that they can do instead:

Invest in expertise and then use their findings

Companies can hire top scientists and engage expertise from the boardroom to the lab and then listen to the findings. The scientific findings may not appear to be good news on the face of it. But they can be used effectively to strategize and develop a blueprint for how the company can be a corporate leader, and be profitable, while transitioning to more environmentally responsible actions. But company leaders will need to engage with the findings and the talent in order to create good solutions. Doing so will not only give the company a return on its investment, but this would build brand loyalty and move the company ahead of competitors — consumers today take note when corporations work to safeguard the planet — while simultaneously positioning the company for a profitable future.

Respect, trust and take care of company employees

Good science is not easy. The punishment the Exxon scientists received for doing good work is devastating. In publicly denying forecasts of the climate crisis, Exxon turned on their scientists — the same ones they had hired, encouraged and who gave Exxon some of the most outstanding science of their time. By betraying their own team, the company incurred the wrath of scientists, the public, congressional inquiries, lawsuits and a breach of the public’s trust. 

Be transparent, honest — and educate

Perfection is not possible — no individual company can solve the whole climate crisis and many will never reach a zero-impact climate footprint. But every entity can shift and transition to better practices profitably and thoughtfully. Be transparent, inclusive and communicate honestly both internally within the company, and externally. Acknowledge the facts. Identify what the company can and is realistically doing. Educate the public and be upfront about what compromises are made and why (and, most certainly, compromises will have to be made). Showcase real progress with data. These actions will garner support and keep the company out of hot water politically, legally and with shareholders. Exxon was neither transparent nor honest about how their product could impact us all. Now as a social pariah, they are trying to make up for what they did. It’s a long road back.

Today’s companies have the advantage that the data exist, analytical tools are available and their consumers are asking — in some cases demonstrating in the streets — for them to take action. Corporate boards are made up of people smart enough to know how to shape transitions and strategies that can maintain — or even increase — profitability while ensuring that communities and the environment are sustained. They need to do so.

By doing the right thing, corporate leaders will ensure that their own children have a thriving future, as well as creating companies that employees are proud to work for and that create meaningful value. Don’t do an Exxon: Be a leader.  

Deborah Brosnan, Ph.D., is an environmental scientist and a marine resilience specialist, working to bolster science in decision-making involving the environment, endangered species, energy development, sea-level rise, climate change and environmental hazards.

Tags Big Oil Climate change climate denial Disinformation Exxon Fossil fuels misinformation oil and gas Pollution

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