Editorial: Exxon’s damaging denial on climate change

Recently published reports show that Exxon oil company's staff scientists have been aware of climate change and its human causes for decades. Above, a polar bear in the Beaufort Sea region of Alaska in 2009.

Recently published reports show that Exxon oil company’s staff scientists have been aware of climate change and its human causes for decades. Above, a polar bear in the Beaufort Sea region of Alaska in 2009.

(Mike Lockhart / Associated Press)

Before most Americans were even aware of global warming, Exxon was investing in high-quality research on the subject. According to reports in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, the oil company’s scientists concluded in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s that climate change was real, would transform the Earth’s landscape and was driven by human activity — especially the burning of fossil fuels.

As the debate over climate change began in earnest, however, Exxon didn’t use its wealth of scientific findings to issue an alarm to the world, or even to add a supportive, attention-grabbing voice to those of the climatologists who were trying to convince policymakers and the public. Instead, company officials publicly cast doubt on the very existence of global warming, arguing that the science was just too murky to draw a conclusion.

Meanwhile, the company was using that supposedly murky science to sketch out plans to take advantage of global warming by expanding drilling operations in Arctic seas, where there would be reduced ice and longer drilling seasons, and to adapt its activities on the region’s land, where the permafrost would certainly thaw and soften. Since those early reports were produced, the drilling season in the Arctic has indeed grown longer and, in some areas of Alaska, roads and houses are buckling from permafrost thaw.


The disconnect between what Exxon knew and what it said was detailed in a report last week that was a joint project of Columbia University’s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and The Times, as well as in recent articles by the website InsideClimate News.

Exxon had the foresight and commitment to invest in understanding the problem back when few were mentioning it. And if it had given its weighty endorsement to the warnings of academics, this nation and the world might have started taking action in the 1990s that would have made the battle against global warming less daunting.

Instead, Exxon — now ExxonMobil — used its research to figure out how to pull yet more fossil fuels from the earth to be burned. The company now acknowledges — just as most Americans do — that the problem of climate change is real (though only half of Americans understand that it is largely caused by human activity). Governments will soon head to the climate summit in Paris, finally bringing plans to take meaningful action. But at this point it will be very difficult to avoid the serious, if not catastrophic, effects of warming. It didn’t have to be this way.

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