Almost 100 climate activists gathered together outside of ExxonMobil’s annual general meeting in Irving, Texas on May 29 with a message for the fossil fuel company: Climate Crisis //#ExxonKnew//Make Them Pay. The activists emblazoned the message on a 100-foot banner. The aim of the activists is to point out the hand Exxon executives had in the climate crisis.
“It’s time Exxon pay for its destruction,” said Molly Rooke, an activist with 350 Dallas. “The era of fossil fuels must end. In many ways, it’s already started.”
Exxon’s funding of climate change doubt campaigns
Investigations by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times found that Exxon knew about climate change in the 1950s, conducted extensive research on it in the 1970s and 1980s and yet funded campaigns that planted doubt.
From 1979 to 1982, Exxon funded a project which measured levels of the ocean and the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide. In 1977, one of the company’s senior scientists, James F. Black spoke to a room of “powerful oilmen,” as Inside Climate News puts it, about climate change. In a written version Black later recorded, he told Exxon’s Management Committee:
“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.”
Black presented his findings a year later to Exxon scientists and managers about carbon dioxide emissions increasing average global temperatures and causing other catastrophic impacts. Months later, Exxon began extensively researching the impacts of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. “It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company's understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business,” an Inside Climate News report stated.
Exxon published the findings of its research in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph. But the company did not include its concerns about carbon emissions in annual reports with securities regulators while it conducted the research. Instead, the company began to fund doubt campaigns, and even founded and lead the Global Climate Coalition, which DeSmogBlog describes as “an outspoken industry group based in the U.S. opposing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” As the world moved to take steps to reduce emissions through the Kyoto Protocol, then CEO Lee Raymond said, “Let's agree there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond.”
There was a big gap between Exxon’s research and its funding of doubt campaigns. As an LA Times investigation concluded, “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.”
A 2017 study supported by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and by the Rockefeller Family Fund found that Exxon “misled the public.” The study’s authors discovered that 83 percent of the company’s peer-reviewed papers and 80 percent of its internal documents acknowledged that climate change is both real and caused by humans. However, only 12 percent of its advertorials acknowledged either reality, and 81 percent expressed doubt. “We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists' academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials,” the study’s authors wrote.
Making Exxon pay where it hurts
Climate activists are not the only ones taking Exxon to task for its past funding of climate change doubt campaigns. Cities and states across the U.S. are launching investigations and suing the company. Lawsuits include one by New York Attorney General Tish James. And over 1,050 institutions representing over $8 trillion in assets committed to divesting from Exxon.
“To funders of ExxonMobil: start selling your stocks. The lawsuits are coming. It’s time to make Exxon pay,” said Hadi Jawad with Dallas Peace & Justice Center.