The world's biggest oil company, ExxonMobil, supposedly knew about the link between fossil fuels and climate change at least seven years before the public was made aware of the issue, and, knowing that carbon-cutting regulations could hurt its bottom line, the company launched a campaign to deliberately spread misinformation, according to a new report.
The "Climate Deception Dossiers" report was released Wednesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It revealed a coordinated campaign of climate deception found in internal company and trade association documents that were leaked, disclosed through Freedom of Information Act requests, or came to light via lawsuits. Included are communications from companies like Exxon, BP, Shell, Chevron and Peabody Energy.
One particularly interesting email included in the dossier was written by Lenny Bernstein, Exxon's top climate scientist who worked at the company for 30 years, The Guardian reported. Bernstein is a chemical engineer and climate expert who was the lead author of two United Nations IPCC climate science reports.
"Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia," Bernstein wrote, according to The Guardian. "This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2," or carbon dioxide, which is widely believed to be the main cause of climate change."
"In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue," Bernstein wrote. "Natural resource companies - oil, coal, minerals - have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations."
According to Greenpeace, Exxon went on to spend more than $30 million on research and think tanks that promoted climate denial.
It wasn't until 1988 when climate change entered into the public spotlight in full force, after climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that the burning of fossil fuels was causing global warming due to a buildup of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
Burnstein's email, sent in response to a business ethics inquiry from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, shows "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," Alyssa Bernstein, director of the institute, told the Guardian.
She compared Exxon's behavior to how tobacco companies denied the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits.
"But this is an order of magnitude greater moral offense, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilization, not to be melodramatic," Bernstein said.
Exxon spokesman Richard Keil told The Guardian that in 1981, climate experts at Exxon were still divided on how serious a threat climate change was.
"The science in 1981 on this subject was in the very, very early days and there was considerable division of opinion. There was nobody you could have gone to in 1981 or 1984 who would have said whether it was real or not. Nobody could provide a definitive answer," he said.
Keil rejected the idea that the company had funded groups promoting climate denial.
"I am here to talk to you about the present," he said. "We have been factoring the likelihood of some kind of carbon tax into our business planning since 2007. We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change."
Harvard professor and climate researcher Naomi Oreskes told The Guardian that Bernstein is likely wrong regarding his suggestion that other companies were not aware of climate change in the 1980s. She also questioned Exxon's claim that climate science was uncertain in the '80s, pointing to reports issued in the 1970s from the White House and the National Academy of Sciences that described a consensus on climate change.