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Climate crisis. Depreciation, mythologizing, silence. How oil giant ExxonMobile downplayed the threat of global warming

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Scientists associated with the oil company Exxon conducted advanced research on global warming in the 1970s and 1980s. Their predictions were largely confirmed in reality. “Science” publishes an extensive analysis – its authors show how the company’s authorities, despite having advanced knowledge about the risks associated with global warming, disregarded the findings of science.

Scientists associated with Exxon already in the 70s predicted how global warming would proceed. Their predictions of the curve of global temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions were surprisingly consistent with what actually happened. Service Science published an analysis Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes from Harvard University’s history of science department, and Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research. The researchers analyzed 32 internal documents of Exxon and ExxonMobil (the company’s name after the merger with Mobil in 1999) from 1977-2002 and scientific publications from 1982-2014 developed or co-edited by people associated with the company.

For example, experts predicted that global warming would progress by about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, driven by greenhouse gas emissions.

They knew, they didn’t say

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The authors of the text in “Science” compared the scientists’ findings with the statements of company managers or press releases. The managers of the company, although they had high-quality knowledge about the negative consequences of man-made climate warming, publicly depreciated this knowledge. “We now have a smoking gun showing that they accurately predicted warming years before they started attacking science” – commented for the Guardian Geoffrey Supran.

Supran argues that the silence of ExxonMobil bosses and speaking out against science had an impact on how we understand climate change. “They could have supported science instead of denying it. It would have been much harder to deny science if the great oil king was actually supporting it, not attacking it,” Supran told the Guardian.

A spokesman for ExxonMobil, asked for a comment by the Guardian, emphasized that similar allegations have appeared several times in recent years, and the company’s response has always been the same – those accusing the company of inaction and disregarding scientific findings make erroneous assessments. The Ombudsman refers to the statement of a judge from the Supreme Court of the State of New York, who decided in a related case. The judge assessed that ExxonMobil’s management and employees performed their duties comprehensively and meticulously.

The company’s position is also quoted by the website NewScientist“Some have sought to misrepresent the facts and ExxonMobil’s stance on climate science and its support for effective policy solutions by misrepresenting bona fide internal debates as attempts at disinformation campaigns.” A spokesperson for the company, quoted by NewScientist, also stated: “ExxonMobil is actively engaged in efforts to reduce emissions while providing affordable energy to communities that need it.”

They knew what exactly

Press reports about the silence strategy adopted by ExxonMobil came to light in 2015. Investigative journalists for the first time analyzed the company’s internal documents. Their content proved that already in the late 1970s Exxon knew that fossil fuel products could lead to global warming and its dramatic environmental effects. Journalists also revealed other documents – they showed that other companies associated with the fossil fuel industry – Total, GM and Ford – knew that the consequence of burning fuels would be rising temperatures.

The authors of the study in “Science” estimated that from 63 to 80 percent of the predictions of scientists associated with Exxon accurately predicted how global warming will proceed. Findings of an increase in temperatures of around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade were consistent with independent projections published between 1970 and 2007. The chart below shows historically observed changes in temperature (red) and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (blue) compared to Exxon scientists’ 1982 prediction.

Historically observed changes in temperature (red) and carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere (blue) compared to forecasts provided by ExxonMobil scientists.G. Supran, S. Rahmstorf, N. Oreskes: “Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections”; science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abk0063

Exxon experts correctly assessed that the forecasts of global cooling formulated in the 1970s will not come true. They also determined that the effects of man-made global warming would be noticeable from around the year 2000 – with a tolerance of five years. They also calculated a “carbon budget” – how much carbon dioxide could be emitted into the atmosphere to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era.

They knew but denied it

The authors of the text in “Science” emphasize that the actions taken by ExxonMobil were contrary to its knowledge about the threats associated with global warming. They list five types of activities that may have been aimed at diverting public attention from climate-related challenges.

Our findings show that decades ago, ExxonMobil didn’t just know “something” about global warming – it knew as much as academic and government scientists knew. But while these scientists worked to impart what they knew, ExxonMobil worked to deny it.

1. Emphasizing uncertainty

As scientists from Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research point out, ExxonMobil’s long-term strategy has been to emphasize that there is no firm evidence of man-made warming. In a 1988 internal memo, a strategy was formulated to “emphasize the uncertainty of scientific conclusions regarding the potential for increased greenhouse effect.”

Meanwhile, according to the findings of the authors of the article in Science, scientists working for the oil giant did not report any extraordinary uncertainty in their reports to management. Their level of analysis uncertainty was similar to that reported by independent scientists.

Scientists working for Exxon also had no doubt that humans are responsible for global warming. They did not talk about the controversy over the prevalence of anthropogenic causes. Despite this, Exxon publicly argued that doubts existed – at least until the beginning of the second decade of this century.

The authors of the text refer to several statements of senior ExxonMobil managers or information sent out to the public. “It is very difficult to objectively determine the extent to which recent climate change may be the result of human activities,” it was announced in 2007 at website ExxonMobil. In 2013, its president, Rex Tillerson spoke in a TV interview about the existence of uncertainty around the main drivers of climate change.

2. Depreciation of climate models

In the statements of company representatives, there were suggestions that models predicting climate change were “unreliable”. The authors of the text in “Science” refer, for example, to advertising text published by ExxonMobil in 2000 in the Washington Post. It highlighted the slogan: “Climate models are currently unsuitable for national-level analyses.”

They also cite statement then-chairman Lee Raymond in 1999, who assessed that climate projections “are based on completely unproven climate models or more often on pure speculation.” In 2013, his successor Rex Tillerson called climate models “incompetent”.

3. Mythologizing global cooling

Further, the authors of the analysis from “Science” prove that Mobil in the 90s and ExxonMobil in the early 21st century pushed the narrative about the alleged popularity of forecasts of the arrival of global cooling in the 70s. This is a myth that had little to do with reality. According to a study by American scientists from 2008, only about 14 percent. scientific literature from 1965 to 1977 predicted global cooling.

“In the 1970s, some of today’s global warming doomsday prophets predicted a new ice age” – he spoke in 1997, Exxon president Lee Raymond during the World Oil Congress. In 2004, a report published by the Cato Institute, funded by ExxonMobil, found that thirty years earlier, supporters of the thesis of the coming cooling of the globe had an advantage over supporters of the thesis of warming.

Meanwhile, the authors of the text in “Science” argue that ExxonMobil’s management was informed by the company’s scientists that the prospect of global cooling was unlikely. The authors of the text publish a graph of temperature changes in the interglacial scale, i.e. in the period between the glaciations.

A model showing the change in temperature in the period between the 1977 glaciations. The red line represents the temperatures simulated by the modern model.G. Supran, S. Rahmstorf, N. Oreskes: “Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections”; science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abk0063

The chart in March 1977 was first published by climatologist J. Murray Mitchell Jr. Four months later, James Black, a scientist working for Exxon, included it in a private briefing for the company’s management committee. The authors of the text in “Science” estimate that this graph proves that scientists warned their superiors about the prospect of a link between carbon dioxide emissions and significant global warming – the greatest in 150,000 years. years.

4. Emphasizing the alleged ignorance of when we will actually begin to see man-made climate change

ExxonMobil has publicly argued that science is too uncertain to know when — or if — man-made global warming can be measured. In this context, they recall a statement from an ExxonMobil publicity article published in 2004: “Scientific uncertainties continue to limit our ability to make objective, quantitative determinations about the human role in recent climate change.”

Meanwhile, between 1979 and 1985, ten internal Exxon reports and one scientific publication included estimates pointing to around the year 2000 as a point in time when anthropogenic global warming would be noticeable against the backdrop of natural temperature fluctuations. It actually happened. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that human influence on global temperatures had been detected. This conclusion was repeated in 2000 and in all subsequent IPCC reports.

5. Silence on carbon dioxide

Another objection of the authors of the article in “Science” concerns the “carbon budget”. It is about the amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere, keeping anthropogenic global warming below two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times. The concept of the carbon budget is discussed in detail in the article of the website “Climate Science” from 2020.

Five ExxonMobil studies published between 1982 and 2005 address this issue. According to the authors of the text from “Science”, these studies determined how much carbon dioxide (expressed in gigatons of carbon GtC) can be emitted into the atmosphere to stabilize the CO2 concentration below 550 ppm (parts per million). million – ed.) and/or limit global warming to two degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era. This budget has been set at between 251 and 716 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) for the period 2015-2100.

The authors of the analysis from “Science” note that ExxonMobil’s estimates were in line with today’s best estimates. However, to our knowledge, ExxonMobil has not warned investors, consumers or the public of this restriction.

Author:ed. Krzysztof Jablonowski

Main photo source: Shutterstock

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