ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm’s own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial.
The email from Exxon’s in-house climate expert provides evidence the company was aware of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and the potential for carbon-cutting regulations that could hurt its bottom line, over a generation ago – factoring that knowledge into its decision about an enormous gas field in south-east Asia. The field, off the coast of Indonesia, would have been the single largest source of global warming pollution at the time.
“Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia,” Lenny Bernstein, a 30-year industry veteran and Exxon’s former in-house climate expert, wrote in the email. “This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2,” or carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
However, Exxon’s public position was marked by continued refusal to acknowledge the dangers of climate change, even in response to appeals from the Rockefellers, its founding family, and its continued financial support for climate denial. Over the years, Exxon spent more than $30m on thinktanks and researchers that promoted climate denial, according to Greenpeace.
Exxon said on Wednesday that it now acknowledges the risk of climate change and does not fund climate change denial groups.
Some climate campaigners have likened the industry to the conduct of the tobacco industry which for decades resisted the evidence that smoking causes cancer.
In the email Bernstein, a chemical engineer and climate expert who spent 30 years at Exxon and Mobil and was a lead author on two of the United Nations’ blockbuster IPCC climate science reports, said climate change first emerged on the company’s radar in 1981, when the company was considering the development of south-east Asia’s biggest gas field, off Indonesia.
That was seven years ahead of other oil companies and the public, according to Bernstein’s account.
Climate change was largely confined to the realm of science until 1988, when the climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels.
By that time, it was clear that developing the Natuna site would set off a huge amount of climate change pollution – effectively a “carbon bomb”, according to Bernstein.
“When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I’m sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions,” Bernstein wrote.
The email was written in response to an inquiry on business ethics from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University.
“What it shows is that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation,” the director of the institute, Alyssa Bernstein (no relation), told the Guardian.
“One thing that occurs to me is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offence, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilisation, not to be melodramatic.”….
“Shell and Exxon’s secret 1980s climate change warnings Newly found documents from the 1980s show that fossil fuel companies privately predicted the global damage that would be caused by their products”
Benjamin Franta, 9/19/2018, The Guardian
One day in 1961, an American economist named Daniel Ellsberg stumbled across a piece of paper with apocalyptic implications. Ellsberg, who was advising the US government on its secret nuclear war plans, had discovered a document that contained an official estimate of the death toll in a preemptive “first strike” on China and the Soviet Union: 300 million in those countries, and double that globally.
Ellsberg was troubled that such a plan existed; years later, he tried to leak the details of nuclear annihilation to the public. Although his attempt failed, Ellsberg would become famous instead for leaking what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers – the US government’s secret history of its military intervention in Vietnam.
America’s amoral military planning during the Cold War echoes the hubris exhibited by another cast of characters gambling with the fate of humanity. Recently, secret documents have been unearthed detailing what the energy industry knew about the links between their products and global warming. But, unlike the government’s nuclear plans, what the industry detailed was put into action.
In the 1980s, oil companies like Exxon and Shell carried out internal assessments of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, and forecast the planetary consequences of these emissions. In 1982, for example, Exxon predicted that by about 2060, CO2 levels would reach around 560 parts per million – double the preindustrial level – and that this would push the planet’s average temperatures up by about 2°C over then-current levels (and even more compared to pre-industrial levels).
Later that decade, in 1988, an internal report by Shell projected similar effects but also found that CO2 could double even earlier, by 2030. Privately, these companies did not dispute the links between their products, global warming, and ecological calamity. On the contrary, their research confirmed the connections.
Shell’s assessment foresaw a one-meter sea-level rise, and noted that warming could also fuel disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, resulting in a worldwide rise in sea level of “five to six meters.” That would be enough to inundate entire low-lying countries.
Shell’s analysts also warned of the “disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction,” predicted an increase in “runoff, destructive floods, and inundation of low-lying farmland,” and said that “new sources of freshwater would be required” to compensate for changes in precipitation. Global changes in air temperature would also “drastically change the way people live and work.” All told, Shell concluded, “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.”
For its part, Exxon warned of “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.” Like Shell’s experts, Exxon’s scientists predicted devastating sea-level rise, and warned that the American Midwest and other parts of the world could become desert-like. Looking on the bright side, the company expressed its confidence that “this problem is not as significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine.”
The documents make for frightening reading. And the effect is all the more chilling in view of the oil giants’ refusal to warn the public about the damage that their own researchers predicted. Shell’s report, marked “confidential,” was first disclosed by a Dutch news organization earlier this year. Exxon’s study was not intended for external distribution, either; it was leaked in 2015.
Nor did the companies ever take responsibility for their products. In Shell’s study, the firm argued that the “main burden” of addressing climate change rests not with the energy industry, but with governments and consumers. That argument might have made sense if oil executives, including those from Exxon and Shell, had not later lied about climate change and actively prevented governments from enacting clean-energy policies.
Although the details of global warming were foreign to most people in the 1980s, among the few who had a better idea than most were the companies contributing the most to it. Despite scientific uncertainties, the bottom line was this: oil firms recognized that their products added CO2 to the atmosphere, understood that this would lead to warming, and calculated the likely consequences. And then they chose to accept those risks on our behalf, at our expense, and without our knowledge.
The catastrophic nuclear war plans that Ellsberg saw in the 1960s were a Sword of Damocles that fortunately never fell. But the oil industry’s secret climate change predictions are becoming reality, and not by accident. Fossil-fuel producers willfully drove us toward the grim future they feared by promoting their products, lying about the effects, and aggressively defending their share of the energy market.
As the world warms, the building blocks of our planet – its ice sheets, forests, and atmospheric and ocean currents – are being altered beyond repair. Who has the right to foresee such damage and then choose to fulfill the prophecy? Although war planners and fossil-fuel companies had the arrogance to decide what level of devastation was appropriate for humanity, only Big Oil had the temerity to follow through. That, of course, is one time too many.
Benjamin Franta, a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, where his research focuses on the history of climate science and politics.
Grades 6–8: Overview of Science and Engineering Practices
Examine and interpret data to describe the role human activities have played in the rise of global temperatures over time; construct, analyze, and/or interpret graphical displays of data and/or large data sets to identify linear and nonlinear relationships; distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in data; consider limitations of data analysis.
8.MS-ESS3-5. Examine and interpret data to describe the role that human activities have played in causing the rise in global temperatures over the past century.
High School. HS-ESS3-5. Analyze results from global climate models to describe how forecasts are made of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.
Clarification: Climate model outputs include both climate changes (such as precipitation and temperature) and associated impacts (such as on sea level, glacial ice volumes, and atmosphere and ocean composition).
Disciplinary Core Ideas
LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience
A complex set of interactions within an ecosystem can keep its numbers and types of organisms relatively constant over long periods of time under stable conditions. If a modest biological or physical disturbance to an ecosystem occurs, it may return to its more or less original status (i.e., the ecosystem is resilient), as opposed to becoming a very different ecosystem. Extreme fluctuations in conditions or the size of any population, however, can challenge the functioning of ecosystems in terms of resources and habitat availability. (HS-LS2-2),(HS-LS2-6)
Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species. (HS-LS2-7)
Cross Cutting Concepts
Cause and Effect: Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects. (HS-LS2-8),(HS-LS4-6)
Scale, Proportion, and Quantity: The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs. (HS-LS2-1)
Using the concept of orders of magnitude allows one to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale. (HS-LS2-2)
Stability and Change: Much of science deals with constructing explanations of how things change and how they remain stable. (HS-LS2-6),(HS-LS2-7)
HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
HS-ESS3-5. Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth’s systems.
[Clarification: Examples of evidence, for both data and climate model outputs, are for climate changes (such as precipitation and temperature) and their associated impacts (such as on sea level, glacial ice volumes, or atmosphere and ocean composition).]
[Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one example of a climate change and its associated impacts.]
HS-ESS3-6. Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.