Judgment Day

Those of us who feared that the mainstream press would ignore the blockbuster report from InsideClimate News about ExxonMobil’s 1970s-era recognition of the threat posed by human-caused climate change, and the powerful polluter’s later efforts to attack climate science and climate scientists, were somewhat relieved when the Los Angeles Times recently followed up with its own comprehensive report on the company’s mendacity:

Back in 1990, as the debate over climate change was heating up, a dissident shareholder petitioned the board of Exxon, one of the world’s largest oil companies, imploring it to develop a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its production plants and facilities.

The board’s response: Exxon had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company’s “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”

Yet in the far northern regions of Canada’s Arctic frontier, researchers and engineers at Exxon and Imperial Oil were quietly incorporating climate change projections into the company’s planning and closely studying how to adapt the company’s Arctic operations to a warming planet…

The gulf between Exxon’s internal and external approach to climate change from the 1980s through the early 2000s was evident in a review of hundreds of internal documents, decades of peer-reviewed published material and dozens of interviews conducted by Columbia University’s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and the Los Angeles Times.

Documents were obtained from the Imperial Oil collection at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and the Exxon Mobil Historical Collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History.

“We considered climate change in a number of operational and planning issues,” said Brian Flannery, who was Exxon’s in-house climate science advisor from 1980 to 2011. In a recent interview, he described the company’s internal effort to study the effects of global warming as a competitive necessity: “If you don’t do it, and your competitors do, you’re at a loss.”

The revelations of InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times make it clear that ExxonMobil perpetrated a fraud upon the American people, just as the tobacco industry did decades ago, and that the Justice Department, which held the tobacco industry accountable for its actions, must likewise hold ExxonMobil accountable for its actions.

ExxonMobil’s deceit continues to this very day. The company still insists that it supports federal revenue-neutral carbon tax legislation. How can we possibly take their word for it, after the company spent years attacking the abundant scientific evidence pointing to the critical need for such legislation?

ExxonMobil’s depraved decision to abandon the cutting-edge climate research they performed in the 1970s and 1980s and embrace a strategy of hoodwinking and bamboozling the American public into believing that global warming was a hoax is one of the greatest moral and legal scandals of all-time. The Justice Department has an undisputed moral and legal obligation to hold ExxonMobil fully accountable for what it did. The American people–especially the ones victimized the most by the climate crisis–should demand nothing less.

UPDATE: More from The Guardian, Rebecca Leber, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Steve Benen and Bill McKibben.

SECOND UPDATE: More from Brad Johnson, Chris Hayes, the Los Angeles Times, the Burlington Free Press, Kate Sheppard and Bill McKibben. Plus, more on the mendacity of the fossil-fuel industry.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.