Here’s the story so far. We have the chief legal representatives of the eighth- and 16th-largest economies on Earth (California and New York) probing the biggest fossil-fuel company on Earth (ExxonMobil), while both Democratic presidential candidates are demanding that the federal Department of Justice join the investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history. And that’s just the beginning. As bad as Exxon has been in the past, what it’s doing now—entirely legally—is helping push the planet over the edge and into the biggest crisis in the entire span of the human story.
Back in the fall, you might have heard something about how Exxon had covered up what it knew early on about climate change. Maybe you even thought to yourself: that doesn’t surprise me. But it should have. Even as someone who has spent his life engaged in the bottomless pit of greed that is global warming, the news and its meaning came as a shock: We could have avoided, it turns out, the last quarter-century of pointless climate debate.
As a start, investigations by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Inside Climate News, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism School revealed in extraordinary detail that Exxon’s top officials had known everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s. Even earlier, actually. Here’s what senior company scientist James Black told Exxon’s management committee in 1977: “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” To determine if this was so, the company outfitted an oil tanker with carbon-dioxide sensors to measure concentrations of the gas over the ocean, and then funded elaborate computer models to help predict what temperatures would do in the future.
The results of all that work were unequivocal. By 1982, in an internal “corporate primer,” Exxon’s leaders were told that, despite lingering unknowns, dealing with climate change “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” Unless that happened, the primer said, citing independent experts, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered…. Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.” But that document, “given wide circulation” within Exxon, was also stamped “Not to be distributed externally.”
So here’s what happened. Exxon used its knowledge of climate change to plan its own future. The company, for instance, leased large tracts of the Arctic for oil exploration, territory where, as a company scientist pointed out in 1990, “potential global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs.” Not only that, but, “from the North Sea to the Canadian Arctic,” Exxon and its affiliates set about “raising the decks of offshore platforms, protecting pipelines from increasing coastal erosion, and designing helipads, pipelines, and roads in a warming and buckling Arctic.” In other words, the company started climate-proofing its facilities to head off a future its own scientists knew was inevitable.