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).
But though we know now that behind the scenes Exxon understood precisely what was going on, in public they feigned ignorance or worse. CEO Lee Raymond described global warming as “projections are based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation,” and insisted—in a key presentation to China’s leading officials in 1997—that the globe was probably cooling.
This scandal will not go away easily. The insider Washington Monthly came out with language as strong as you’re likely to hear:
A fossil fuel company intentionally and knowingly obfuscating research into climate change constitutes criminal negligence and malicious intent at best, and a crime against humanity at worst. The Department of Justice has a moral obligation to prosecute Exxon and its co-conspirators accordingly.
And on Sunday the investigation truly came home, when the The Dallas Morning News—read across the oil patch and hometown paper for Exxon—put the ICN investigation on its front page. The whole business angered me so much that I sat down in front of a Mobil gas pump near my home, shutting it down for the few minutes before I was arrested in an effort to draw more attention to the story. (It’s possible that this is the first time anyone’s gone to jail to encourage newspaper readership.)
A few observers, especially on the professionally jaded left, have treated the story as old news—as something that even if we didn’t know, we knew. “Of course they lied,” someone told me. That cynicism, however, serves as the most effective kind of cover for Exxon (right alongside the tired argument that it’s “not the fault of the companies—they’re just meeting demand from all of us”). What’s beginning to sink in is the horrible impact of their lies: Exxon, had its leaders merely stated directly what they knew to be true, could have ended the pretend debate over climate change as early as the 1980s. When scientists like NASA’s Jim Hansen first raised public awareness of climate change, think of what would have happened if Exxon’s CEO had gone to Congress, too, and said that their internal scientific efforts show precisely the same thing. Instead, they funded every climate-denial outfit that asked for cash and worked with veterans of the tobacco wars to help raise the same kind of doubt about climate science.
When Hansen testified before a Congressional committee in 1988, the atmospheric level of CO2 was just passing 350 parts per million. Now we’ve gone beyond 400 ppm, we’ve seen the rapid melt of the Arctic, the acidification of the planet’s oceans, and the rapid rise in extreme weather events. (Just lately: “thousand-year-rainfalls” in South Carolina and Southern California so far this month, and now a typhoon dropping a meter or more of rain on the Philippines.) Thanks to Exxon’s willingness to sucker the world, that world is now a chaotic mess. We’ve finally begun to see the rise of a movement large enough to challenge the power of the oil companies, and that means that Paris will come out better than Copenhagen, but the quarter-century wasted will never be made up.
And count on the fossil-fuel industry to continue trying to delay progress and obfuscate reality. Exxon is clearly flustered (its PR guy called the LA Times story “complete bullshit”) but unrepentant. They continue to demand favors from government, most recently a lifting of the longstanding ban on exporting American crude (“The sooner this happens, the better for us,” said Kenneth P. Cohen, Exxon Mobil’s vice president for public and governmental affairs informed The New York Times.) It remains to be seen if the world’s media will overcome their tendency to truckle and give this true scandal anything like the oxygen it poured on those few hapless e-mails.
If they do, then more rapid progress on climate will be possible. The evidence of Exxon’s bad faith is so overpowering that this debacle will only deepen on further investigation; think about what a prosecutor with deposition power could accomplish. If the media and the authorities don’t shirk their jobs, then someday, when the world thinks back on this greatest of crises, those climate scientists whose e-mails were hacked will be remembered as heroes, and Exxon will be the great object lesson for the damage unfettered greed can do.