When Will They Ever Learn? Clearing The Climate Change Roadblocks

A study from Science magazine has offered a quantitative look at the decades-long disconnect between the fossil fuel industry’s “private understanding of climate science and its public climate denial”.

Climate Change

The largest trade association for the US oil and gas industry, the American Petroleum Institute, has known about the threats posed by anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming since the 1950s; the coal industry has been aware since the 1960s. Investigative reports and leaked internal documents show that ExxonMobil has sowed doubts and fought legislation against predicted climate catastrophe since the 1970s. The Total oil company and automotive firms GM and Ford have known of the risks since at least the ‘70s, Shell Oil since the ‘80s.

Exxon’s own predictions through to the 1990s aligned with observable climate changes. Documents show that company research ran parallel to, or predated, the consensus of academic and government scientists. Rather than publicise the peer-reviewed models predicting global warming, the company chose to cast doubt on them. Instead of leading the vanguard to develop renewable energy, it doubled down.

Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes were instrumental in bringing those documents to light. “We now have the smoking gun showing that they accurately predicted warming years before they started attacking the science,” Supran said. “These graphs confirm the complicity of what Exxon knew, and how they misled.

“They could have endorsed their science rather than deny it. It would have been a much harder case to deny it if the king of big oil was backing the science, rather than attacking it.”

ExxonMobil remained silent until the evidence began to threaten its image and operations. Then it began a campaign to discredit the research and block legislation using “dark money” and political lobbying. Internal documents leaked in 2015 have sparked dozens of lawsuits for “deceptive marketing, misleading shareholders and culpability for climate damages”. Supran and Oreskes provided expert input in some of those cases, but the company has so far managed to dodge responsibility. In 2019, it was subpoenaed to appear before an EU parliament hearing. It ignored the summons — but its lobbying access credentials were not revoked. Other hearings across the country amounted to little more than complaints about efforts to suppress the truth.

In 2021, undercover climate activists posing as head-hunters secretly recorded former ExxonMobil senior lobbyist Keith McCoy bragging about his cosy relationships with congresspeople “across the aisle” and contributions to third-party shadow organisations exploited to fight climate action legislation. “There’s nothing illegal about that,” he insisted. “We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”

Benjamin Franta, founding head of the Climate Litigation Lab and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, hopes the Science exposé will prove useful for the future of litigation, public policy, and corporate accountability. “It reinforces the notion that corporate malfeasance and political obstruction — not a lack of scientific knowledge — have been the main roadblocks to solving climate change,” he said. “And, of course, it implies the need to remove those roadblocks to achieve the action we urgently need today.”

ExxonMobil maintains that it has done no wrong, citing the failure of past litigation attempts as proof of its innocence and blaming detractors for “cherry-picking internal documents to cast the industry in a poor light”.

All of this begs the question: when will big polluters be held accountable for their actions?

By Heather Leah Smith


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