A few weeks before the last great international climate conference—2009, in Copenhagen—the e-mail accounts of a few climate scientists were hacked and reviewed for incriminating evidence suggesting that global warming was a charade. Eight separate investigations later concluded that there was literally nothing to “Climategate,” save a few sentences taken completely out of context—but by that time, endless, breathless media accounts about the “scandal” had damaged the prospects for any progress at the conference.
Now, on the eve of the next global gathering in Paris this December, there’s a new scandal. But this one doesn’t come from an anonymous hacker taking a few sentences out of context. This one comes from months of careful reporting by two separate teams, one at the Pulitzer Prize–winning website Inside Climate News, and the other at the Los Angeles Times (with an assist from the Columbia Journalism School). Following separate lines of evidence and document trails, they’ve reached the same bombshell conclusion: ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most powerful oil company, knew everything there was to know about climate change by the mid-1980s, and then spent the next few decades systematically funding climate denial and lying about the state of the science.
This scandal—traveling under the hashtag #exxonknew—is just beginning to build. The Inside Climate News series of six pieces is set to conclude this week and be published as a book, but the LA Times apparently has far more reporting waiting to be released. Already members of Congress—Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier of California—and presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have called on the Department of Justice to investigate, comparing it to the predations of the tobacco industry.
Should the DOJ muster its courage to go after this most profitable and connected of companies, the roadmap is already well laid out by the two investigations.
ICN has demonstrated that as early as the late 1970s, Exxon scientists were briefing top executives that climate change was real, dangerous, and caused by their product. By the early 1980s, their own climate models were predicting—with great accuracy—the track the global temperature has taken ever since.
The LA Times reporting is at least as important. It demonstrated that Exxon clearly believed their own climate models and used them to guide their efforts in the newly melting Arctic, where as their senior researcher said “warming will clearly affect sea ice, icebergs, permafrost and sea levels.” (Indeed, he added, climate change “can only help lower exploration and development costs,” thus making their bids for Arctic lease rights more profitable).