The news has changed the game on fossil fuel companies and their role in climate denial. But Exxon’s track record on climate science denial and climate double talk has been growing for some time. Check the timeline below for a rundown. Along the way, note how global atmospheric carbon levels continue to rise past 350 parts per million (ppm), the level scientists say is safe for human civilization as we know it, while Exxon’s profits (in nominal dollars) continue to rise.
Scientists working at Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) publish a paper on the dilution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean. The paper notes: “Although appreciable amounts of carbon dioxide have undoubtedly been added from soils by tilling of land, apparently a much greater amount has resulted from the combustion of fossil fuels”–indicating company scientists understood the link between fossil fuel use and rising CO2. (Source: Center for International Environmental Law)
1968 (Global CO2 level: 323 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $1.2 billion)
In a report produced for the American Petroleum Institute, scientists Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins note that, among the possible sources of rising CO2 in the atmosphere, “none seems to fit the presently observed situation as well as the fossil fuel emanation theory.” The paper warns that significant rises in CO2 could melt icecaps, increase sea levels, change fish distributions and increase plant photosynthesis. (Source: Center for International Environmental Law)
1978 (Global CO2 level: 335 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $2.4 billion)
James Black, working under Exxon’s Products Research Division, writes an internal briefing paper called “The Greenhouse Effect” following from a 1977 presentation to Exxon’s management committee. The paper warns that human-caused emissions could raise global temperatures and result in serious consequences. “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,” Black writes in his summary of the presentation. (Source:InsideClimate News)
At the urging of an Exxon scientist, Henry Shaw, Exxon begins analyzing the absorption rate of carbon dioxide in the oceans, considered one of the key questions of climate science at the time. “Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation,”Shaw wrote in a letter to Exxon research executives. (Source: InsideClimate News)
Major fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio and Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil (two companies that became Chevron) meet regularly as part of a task force to discuss the science and implications of climate change. The meetings are organized with the help of the American Petroleum Institute. A minutes document from one of the meetings suggests that oil companies knew that climate change was occurring, and that they would bear some responsibility for managing it. (Source: InsideClimate News)
1982 (Global CO2 level: 341 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $4.2 billion)
Exxon’s Environmental Affairs Programs manager M.B. Glaser sends Exxon management a primer on climate change. The primer is “restricted to Exxon personnel and not distributed externally.” It describes “potentially catastrophic events” if fossil fuel use is not reduced. (Source: InsideClimate News)
Roger Cohen, director of the Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory at Exxon, writes a memo summarizing Exxon’s climate modeling research. The memo states: “The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C [equal to 5.4 ± 1.7°F]…There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.” Cohen would later become a lead climate science denier at an Exxon-funded front group.
1983 (Global CO2 level: 343 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $5 billion)
Exxon cuts funding for climate research from $900,000 per year to $150,000. Exxon’s total research budget at the time was more than $600 million.
An Exxon report on the Natuna gas field in Indonesia warns that the project would be “the world’s largest point source emitter of CO2 and raises concern for the possible incremental impact of Natuna on the CO2 greenhouse problem.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is formed.
Shell announces that it will redesign one of its natural gas platforms, raising it a meter or two to account for sea level rises resulting from climate change.
1989 (Global CO2 level: 353 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $3.5 billion)
Exxon and other fossil fuel companies create the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). The GCC is created to oppose mandatory reductions in carbon emissions by obscuring the scientific understanding of fossil fuels’ impact on the climate. The GCC created a scientific “backgrounder” for lawmakers and journalists that claimed “The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood.”
Dr. Brian Flannery, “representing the International Petroleum Industries’ Environmental Conservation Association, but on the payroll of Exxon,” argues strongly against wording in the IPCC’s first report, which states that global carbon emissions must be reduced 60 to 80 percent. Flannery argues that too much “scientific uncertainty” exists to recommend such reductions. IPCC scientists agree that enough certainty exists to justify the reductions, and the report moves forward. (The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett, cited in 2002 Greenpeace report, “Denial and Deception”).
1992 (Global CO2 level: 356 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $4.8 billion)
By 1992 Exxon has become a member of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which actively undermines action on climate change at the federal and state levels. (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)
Lee Raymond becomes CEO of Exxon.
1995 (Global CO2 level: 361 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $6.5 billion)
The Global Climate Coalition distributes an internal memo, organized by Mobil chemical engineer and climate expert Leonard Bernstein, warning that the “greenhouse effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” Members of the coalition included BP, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell. (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)
In a speech to the Economic Club of Detroit, Lee Raymond denies the scientific consensus on climate change. Raymond claims that “Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”
Mobil engineers, as a part of a project jointly owned by Mobil, Shell and a subsidiary of Exxon, note that “An estimated rise in water level, due to global warming, of 0.5 meters may be assumed” in their planning for exploration and production facilities along the coast of Nova Scotia.
October 1997 (Global CO2 level: 364 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $8.5 billion)
Exxon CEO Lee Raymond tells the 15th World Petroleum Congress in Beijing that the world’s climate isn’t changing, and that even if it was, fossil fuels would play no part.
The New York Times, with documents leaked to the National Environmental Trust, reveals that the American Petroleum Institute is organizing a $5-million plan to challenge the science of climate change. Representatives of Exxon and Chevron are listed as participating in the plan. One line item of the plan is to “Identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach. These will be individuals who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate. Rather, this team will consist of new faces who will add their voices to those recognized scientists who are already vocal” (p. 6 of Greenpeace report appendix).
ExxonMobil-funded think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute, co-publishes the “Oregon petition,” a petition challenging the consensus around climate change. The petition comes with a “research paper” made in the style of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confusing some legitimate scientists into signing the petition. Other petition signatories, suspiciously, include fictional characters from the TV show M.A.S.H. and Spice Girl “Dr.” Geri Halliwell.
In its proxy statement to shareholders, Exxon reports that shareholders have requested the creation of an outside directors committee to independently review and publish “a full report about the impact on climate change on our company’s present policies and practices…[including] anticipated liabilities our company may incur from its possible contribution to the problem…” Exxon’s board recommends against the proposal, citing, among other things, that the science around climate change remains uncertain.
Exxon and Mobil merge.
2000 (Global CO2 level: 370 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $17.7 billion)
ExxonMobil publishes an ad, titled “Unsettled science,” highlighting a study showing a historical decrease in temperatures in the Sargasso Sea. CEO Lee Raymond presents the study at that year’s shareholder meeting as evidence that fossil fuels may not be causing global warming. The author of the study, Lloyd Keigwin, later complains that Exxon misused the data: “I believe ExxonMobil has been misleading in its use of the Sargasso Sea data. There’s really no way these results bear on the question of human-induced climate warming…I think the sad thing is that a company with the resources of ExxonMobil is exploiting the data for political purposes…”
George W. Bush inaugurated as US president, with $100,000 in inaugural funding from ExxonMobil. Just days before Bush’s inauguration, Exxon’s publishes an advertisement titled “An energy policy for the new administration.” The ad argues that “the unrealistic and economically damaging Kyoto process needs to be rethought.”
The Bush White House receives a letter from Exxon asking if the administration can oust climate scientist Robert Watson from his position as chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Under Watson’s chairmanship, the IPCC had released a number of reports linking climate change to human activity.
Bush administration announces withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.
The UK Stop Esso campaign is launched. The campaign is aimed at Exxon’s subsidy Esso, and is a coalition effort that includes Greenpeace UK, People and Planet, and Friends of the Earth.
2002 (Global CO2 level: 373 ppm, Exxon annual profit: $11.5 billion)
The GCC announces it is disbanding, explaining that the group “has served its purpose by contributing to a new national approach to global warming. The Bush administration will soon announce a climate policy that is expected to rely on the development of new technologies to reduce greenhouse emissions, a concept strongly supported by the GCC.”