In 1977, an internal memo at Exxon, the United States oil giant, made clear that carbon emissions from its product were causing climate change. But not only that – time was running out to act.
“CO2 release most likely source of inadvertent climate modification,” said the shorthand document. “5-10 yr time window to get necessary information.”
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But over the coming years, rather than dropping fossil fuels to avert the dangers outlined in its own research, Exxon and other oil corporations chose a different path. The industry orchestrated a systematic campaign of disinformation to dupe the public, impede political action, and protect profits.
“Emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect,” said an Exxon paper in 1988, one of many published in the America Misled report on the fossil fuel industry.
“Stress environmentally sound adaptive efforts,” said another internal memo the following year. “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science,” added one more in 1998.
Two years later, Exxon – styled by then as ExxonMobil after a multibillion-dollar merger – secured an advertorial in The New York Times as part of a media blitz to bolster climate denial. Under the headline “Unsettled Science”, it argued that scientists faced “fundamental gaps in knowledge”, despite the overwhelming and ever-increasing consensus that fossil fuels were causing the planet to heat.
Humanity’s worst threat
Against this decades-long backdrop of deception and denial, oil industry insiders will appear before the US Congress as some of the most powerful energy companies in the world face a reckoning for their role in creating – and attempting to cover up – the climate crisis.
Board members at BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell will be questioned under oath by a House panel on Tuesday. The aim is to illuminate the industry’s contribution to humanity’s worst existential threat – and how, at the same time, it spread disinformation to cast doubt over the catastrophic impact of burning its products.
Although the hearings cannot bring criminal prosecutions, experts see them as a crucial means of shifting public opinion. And that could spur consumers to shun carbon-based fuels and encourage investors to strip big polluters of capital, while empowering environmental activists and lawyers to take on powerful industrial interests.
“This could be a watershed moment,” said Richard J Rogers, executive director of Climate Counsel, a non-profit law firm specialising in environmental destruction and crimes against humanity. “This whole story is about the greed of a tiny number of men who were prepared to threaten the stability of their own, and our own, civilisation in order to get very rich.”
The stakes could not be higher. In the wake of the disappointing United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), where crucial new targets were stymied by oil and coal-producing countries, current commitments to cut emissions put the world on track for a disastrous 2.4C increase in global temperatures by the end of this century.
That ruinous rise will cause major sea-level rise from melting ice sheets, devastating coastal cities and island nations. Ecosystems will collapse while storms, droughts, floods and wildfires increase in number and intensity, fuelling famine, fighting, and the displacement of millions as equatorial regions become unliveable and unprecedented heatwaves lacerate northern latitudes.
And that’s if current pledges are even met. Every degree higher scales up the level of cataclysm. “We need an avalanche of action,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month.
ExxonMobil spokesperson Casey Norton told Al Jazeera the company has long acknowledged that climate change is real and poses serious risks.
“In addition to our substantial investments in next-generation technologies, ExxonMobil also advocates for responsible climate-related policies. Our public statements about climate change are, and have been, truthful, fact-based, transparent, and consistent with the views of the broader, mainstream scientific community at the time,” said Norton.
“ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work publicly available. And as the scientific community’s understanding of climate change developed, ExxonMobil responded accordingly.”
‘Setting the future on fire’
This week’s high-profile hearings in Washington, DC will target board members who were elected to galvanise change at oil companies. It is the second part of an ongoing investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the first of which saw leaders of the four major oil and gas corporations grilled by lawmakers last October.
“Some of us actually have to live the future that you are all setting on fire for us,” Democrat Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told them.
The congressional panel has issued subpoenas for company documents to expose what oil firms have known about the harm caused by fossil fuels – and how they failed to act.
The next appearances are scheduled amid an unprecedented wave of court cases across the US as communities nationwide sue oil companies, not only for causing but also exacerbating environmental destruction by suppressing warnings from their own scientists.
In an audacious bid to hold the industry to account, cities and states threatened by extreme weather and rising sea levels are demanding these powerful conglomerates overhaul their destructive operations and pay compensation to cover the cost of building defences or repairing the damage.
However, because much of environmental law is underdeveloped and rarely carries a criminal penalty, claimants have had to get creative.
From Hawaii to California to Rhode Island, some have accused oil companies of creating a “public nuisance”. Deploying that legal term has proven successful elsewhere, for example in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies that fuelled the US’s opioid epidemic with powerful prescription painkillers.
Others have sued on the basis of fraud. Blighted by blistering temperatures and devastating floods, Minnesota’s attorney general has accused ExxonMobil and others of breaching state law through false advertising and deceptive trade practices as part of a campaign to deny climate change.
The legacy of these lawsuits may depend less on the final rulings and more on damaging information that emerges in the process.
“If the plaintiffs are successful in forcing the secrets and conduct of the oil companies into the public eye, they will potentially create a tide of negative publicity that could permanently weaken these companies, similar to what happened with the tobacco industry,” said Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
While oil giants enjoy vast resources to fund these legal battles, the tide of lawsuits poses a grave threat to the industry.
“Unless the oil companies can get these cases dismissed quickly, they will have the sword of Damocles hanging over them for years,” added Farber. “[They] cannot afford to lose.”
Disregarding their own scientists
A mounting body of evidence shows that scientists working for the fossil fuel industry knew about CO2’s warming effects as early as the 1950s. For example, a Shell executive called Charles Jones wrote a paper in 1958 showing the industry was already concerned about levels of carbon emissions in car exhaust amid worries “the oil industry would continue to be blamed for the bulk of air pollution”.
In 1979, an Exxon study described the “dramatic environmental effects” caused by burning fossil fuels. Another study the following decade accurately predicted the trajectory of rising temperatures alongside increasing levels of atmospheric CO2, before that report was also buried.
Despite these clear warnings year after year, oil executives chose to disregard their own scientists, instead spinning a dangerous counternarrative. The disingenuous ploy of “greenwashing” also helped them create a false aura of environmental credibility that distracts from the dirty reality of burning and drilling for oil.
Whether cherry-picking facts or relying on fake experts, the techniques used by fossil fuel interests came straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook for impeding controls on cigarettes, mimicking similar tactics of the asbestos and lead industries, too.
Billions of dollars have poured into political lobbying, whether to derail stricter legislation or to fund aggressive front organisations. Last July, damning footage emerged of a senior ExxonMobil lobbyist saying the energy giant had fought climate science through “shadow groups” and had targeted senators to weaken President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, all to maximise shareholder profit.
“There’s nothing illegal about that,” said Keith McCoy, the lobbyist. “We were looking out for our investments.”
‘Flawed academic reports’
Back on Capitol Hill, those due to appear at Tuesday’s hearing include two figures on ExxonMobil’s board: Alexander Karsner, a renewable energy proponent and a strategist at Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc who won a seat at the Texan crude colossus for an activist hedge fund; and Susan Avery, an atmospheric scientist and former president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Other board members scheduled to testify include Shell’s Jane Holl Lute, who also works as a UN special envoy; BP’s Melody Meyer, an oil industry veteran; and Chevron’s Enrique Hernandez, a lawyer and business executive who also runs a multinational security company.
Exxon’s spokesperson Norton said the company had handed over more than 200,000 pages of documents, “including board materials and internal communications”.
ExxonMobil claims it is the victim of “a coordinated campaign perpetuated by activist groups”, and accuses their backers of releasing “flawed academic reports” and coordinating with public officials to launch investigations and litigation, creating “the false appearance that ExxonMobil has misrepresented its company research and investor disclosures on climate change to the public”.
BP, Chevron, and Shell did not reply to requests for comment.
Whatever testimony is given this week, one fact is certain – Big Oil’s cover-up of the climate crisis has brought Earth to the brink.
“With their power and resources, these companies could have changed the trajectory of our planet’s health,” said Rogers. “They simply needed to be honest.”