Exxon Is Trying To Whitewash Its Climate Change Deception, And Some Media Are Lending A Hand

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Amid a newly-announced investigation of ExxonMobil by the attorney general of New York and calls from all three Democratic presidential candidates for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal probe of the oil giant, Exxon is feeling heat over evidence that it deceived the public for decades about the science of climate change. So the company is lashing out at the media organizations that compiled that evidence, and recent opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are assisting Exxon's disinformation campaign.

Following an eight-month investigation that included interviews with former Exxon employees and an extenstive examination of primary sources, including internal Exxon documents dating back to the 1970's, InsideClimate News published a six-part series in September and October detailing “how Exxon conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial.” The Los Angeles Times conducted its own investigation with Columbia University's Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and reached a similar conclusion: in the 1980's Exxon “earned a public reputation as a pioneer in climate change research,” but by 1990 the company began “pour[ing] millions into a campaign that questioned climate change.” The Times reported that the documents, along with “the recollections of former employees,” indicate that ExxonMobil changed its stance on the issue because it “feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies.”

Exxon initially responded by seeking to dismiss the InsideClimate News investigation as the work of “anti-oil and gas activists” (never mind that InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning media organization). But now Exxon has adopted a new strategy: seek to discredit the Los Angeles Times' characterization of a single Exxon document in order to undermine the mountains of evidence that Exxon purposefully deceived the public about climate change.

Exxon put this strategy into action in a November 5 blog post, in which Exxon Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Ken Cohen claimed that the Times was “deliberating hiding” a 1989 Exxon presentation it cited against Exxon because the document supposedly “undercuts the paper's claims that ExxonMobil knew with certainty everything there is to know about global warming back in the 1980s yet failed to sound alarms.” The Exxon complaint was quickly picked up by a November 8 Wall Street Journal editorial, which claimed that the 1989 document proves that the InsideClimate News and Times investigations “selectively quote from internal Exxon documents,” and a November 8 column by The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson, who repeated Cohen's claim that the 1989 document shows how the media investigations "'cherry-pick' their evidence."

Exxon is attacking the Times for reporting that the 1989 presentation, by Exxon scientist Duane LeVine, showed Exxon recognized that “scientists generally agreed gases released by burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly by the middle of the 21st century.” In particular, Exxon objects to the Times not mentioning that LeVine said in the same document, “I do not believe” that “the science has demonstrated the existence of [potential enhanced greenhouse] today,” and “enhanced greenhouse is still deeply imbedded in scientific uncertainty.” (LeVine defined “potential enhanced greenhouse” as the “enhancement of [the greenhouse effect] due to human activities.”)

But the Times is correct in pointing out that LeVine acknowledged the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels was projected to lead to significant warming. From page 20 of LeVine's 1989 presentation (emphasis added):

[The Department of Energy's] CO2 projections are used in current climate models to predict important changes over the next 100 years. This set of results is taken from the National Research Council (NRC) report “Changing Climate”.

Consensus predictions call for warming 1.5-4.5 [degrees Celsius] for doubled CO2 with greater warming at the poles. Note that these numbers reflect the range produced by available models. No one knows how to evaluate the absolute uncertainty in the numbers.

The extent and thickness of glaciers are predicted to decrease, leading to sea level rise. The NRC report chose a most likely value of 70 cm sea level rise. Other predictions suggest a broader range from 30-200 cm. The rise occurs both from a larger amount of water in the oceans, and from thermal expansion.

Finally, climate change and higher levels of atmospheric CO2 affect agriculture and ecosystems.

The Times is also correct when it says that LeVine urged Exxon to "[t]ell the public that more science is needed before regulatory action is taken ... and emphasize the 'costs and economics' of restricting carbon dioxide emissions." From page 33 of the presentation (emphasis added, ellipses original):

To be a responsible participant and part of the solution to [potential enhanced greenhouse], Exxon's position should recognize and support 2 basic societal needs. First ... to improve understanding of the problem ... not just the science ... but the costs and economics tempered by the sociopolitical realities. That's going to take years (probably decades). But there are measures already underway that will improve our environment in various ways ... and in addition reduce the growth in greenhouse gases. That's the second need including things like energy conservation, restriction of CFC emissions, and efforts to increase the global ratio of re/de forestation. Of course, we'll need to develop other response options...implementing measures when they are cost effective in the near term and pursuing new technologies for the future.

In the presentation, LeVine drew a distinction between historical warming up to that point -- which he claimed is “not enough to confirm enhanced greenhouse” (page 22) -- and projections, which he said “suggest ... significant climate change with a variety of regional impacts” and “sea level rise with generally negative consequences” (page 22). Then, after identifying the “key players” that were likely to increasingly call for action to address climate change (page 23), LeVine claimed there is a “misconception” that “enough research on the basic problem has been done,” and argued that “failure to understand” the need for scientific advances and uncertainty in the climate models could “lead to premature limitations on fossil fuels” (page 31).

So LeVine acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change while simultaneously arguing that he personally did not believe anthropogenic global warming was fully proven and that more research was necessary before restricting fossil fuel use. In that sense, LeVine's presentation is indicative of Exxon's shift towards attempting to “emphasize [the] doubt,” just as the Times described it.

The year of LeVine's presentation also fits with the timeline for Exxon's shift on climate science that was identified in the InsideClimate News investigation (emphasis added):

Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming's risks.

Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as the models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began to erode as it campaigned internationally to cast doubt on the science.

With this full context, it's clear that the Times' characterization of LeVine's presentation is justified and Exxon's response is a deceptive smokescreen.

But it's also important to remember that LeVine's presentation is just one of many primary source documents examined by the Times and InsideClimate News. Here is a sampling of other documents showing that Exxon scientists and officials recognized by the early-to-mid-eighties that there was broad scientific consensus continuing to burn fossil fuels would lead to climate change, even if the amount of warming was still unclear:

  • Exxon Senior Scientist James F. Black (1978): 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. A doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from 1 [degree] to 3 [degrees Celsius], with a 10 [degrees Celsius] rise predicted at the poles. More research is needed, however, to establish the validity and significance of predictions with respect to the Greenhouse Effect. It is currently estimated that mankind has a 5-10 yr. time window to obtain the necessary information.
  • Exxon Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory Director Roger W. Cohen (1982): [O]ver the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2. 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 [plus-or-minus] 1.5) [degrees Celsius]. The uncertainty in this figure is a result of the inability of even the most elaborate models to simulate climate in a totally realistic manner. ... [T]he results of our research are in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate.
  • Exxon Environmental Affairs Programs Manager M.B. Glaser (1982): Predictions of the climatological impact of a carbon dioxide induced “greenhouse effect” draw upon various mathematical models to gauge the temperature increase. The scientific community generally discussed the impact in terms of doubling of the current carbon dioxide content in order to get beyond the noise level of the data. We estimate doubling could occur around the year 2090 based upon fossil fuel requirements projected in Exxon's long range energy outlook. The question of which predictions and which models best simulate a carbon dioxide-induced climate change is still being debated by the scientific community. Our best estimate is that doubling of the current concentration could increase average global temperature by about 1.3 [degrees Celsius] to 3.1 [degrees Celsius].
  • Exxon Climate Modeler Brian Flannery And New York University Professor Martin Hoffert (1985): Consensus CO2 Warming: Transient climate models currently available, when run with standard scenarios of fossil fuel CO2 emissions, indicate a global warming of the order of 1 [degree Celsius] by the year 2000, relative to the year 1850, and an additional 2-5 [degrees Celsius] warming over the next century. However, the sensitivity of such predictions to known uncertainties of the models -- that is, the robustness of CO2 warming predictions -- has not yet been extensively explored.

Image at top via Flickr user Mike Mozart using a Creative Commons license.