Click the link to read the post on the Substack website (Bill McKibben):
An important new study that came out a few minutes ago makes painfully clear precisely how much (and precisely how precisely) Exxon understood climate change, back in the days when it could have made a huge difference if they’d simply been honest. [ed. emphasis mine]
It’s not, of course, as if we didn’t know a lot of this story already, and in some depth. In 2015, the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Inside Climate News published a landmark series of reports drawing on archives and whistleblowers to demonstrate that Exxon had set its scientists to work studying what we then called the greenhouse effect back in the 1970s, and that those scientists had reached the same conclusion as researchers working at NASA and elsewhere: the carbon dioxide coming from the fossil fuel industry was about to heat the earth in dramatic fashion. That was huge news—and it explains the picture above, when I staged a one-man sit-in at an Exxon station near me till the police took me away in handcuffs. I was desperate that this story not go away—and it didn’t. It helped fuel the massive fossil fuel divestment campaign, as well as a score of lawsuits aimed at making Exxon pay up.
But this new study—from Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research—actually looks at the specific results that Exxon’s scientists predicted back in those years, and sees how well they panned out. Remarkably well: their temperature projections had an average “skill score” of roughly 75%, which is higher than many government researchers.
“‘These findings corroborate and and add quantitative precision to assertions by scholars, journalists, lawyers, politicians and others that ExxonMobil accurately foresaw the threat of human-caused global warming, both prior to and parallel to orchestrating lobbying and propaganda campaigns to delay climate action action,’ the authors write.”
As lead author Geoffery Supran (who has just taken up a new post at the University of Miami) put it,
“‘This is the nail-in-the-coffin of Exxon Mobil’s claims that it has been fasely accused of climate malfeasance. Our analysis shows that ExxonMobil’s own data contradicted its public statements, which included exaggerating uncertainties, critizing climate models, mythologizing global cooling, and feigning ignorance about when—or if—human-caused global would be measurable.'”
What Supran is referring to is the decades-long effort, organized by Exxon and others, to minimize and obfuscate the reality of climate change; its high point may have come when then CEO Lee Raymond went to the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing, just weeks before the Kyoto climate talks, and insisted that the world was cooling, and that even if it wasn’t it would make no difference if people delayed action for a few decades. We now know in greater detail just how precisely Exxon’s scientists had been saying the opposite.
It makes me think, once more, of what may be the greatest climate counterfactual of all. What if, on the night in 1988 that NASA’s Jim Hansen had told Congress about global warming, Exxon’s CEO had gone on the nightly news (which was still a thing then) and said: “That’s what our scientists have been telling us too. It’s a real problem.” That seems the minimum any religious or ethical system would require, and it would have had enormous impact—no one was going to accuse Exxon of climate alarmism. We could have gotten down to work as a society.
They chose another course instead, and in certain ways it worked for them: in some of the years that followed, Exxon set the record for highest annual corporate profit. But that’s not what history is going to remember about them.