Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977 when its senior scientist James Black 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." A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees—a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." In other words, Exxon needed to act.
In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon even spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time, meaning that Exxon was truly conducting unprecedented research.
This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public. In June 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen told a congressional hearing that the planet was already warming, Exxon remained publicly convinced that the science was still controversial. Furthermore, experts agree that Exxon became a leader in campaigns of confusion. By 1989 the company had helped create the Global Climate Coalition (disbanded in 2002) to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change. It also helped to prevent the U.S. from signing the international treaty on climate known as the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 to control greenhouse gases. Exxon’s tactic not only worked on the U.S. but also stopped other countries, such as China and India, from signing the treaty. Exxon has spent more than $30 million on think tanks that promote climate denial, according to Greenpeace. Although experts will never be able to quantify the damage Exxon’s misinformation has caused, “one thing for certain is we’ve lost a lot of ground,” Kimmell says. Half of the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere were released after 1988. “I have to think if the fossil-fuel companies had been upfront about this and had been part of the solution instead of the problem, we would have made a lot of progress [today] instead of doubling our greenhouse gas emissions.”
Corporations are interested in profits, and will do anything to prevent laws restraining their profits.