ExxonMobil’s Great Global Warming Coverup

By David L. Brown

According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, oil giant ExxonMobil has invested millions in a deliberate program aimed at casting doubt on the reality of global warming and with the goal of preventing or delaying action that could help mitigate the effects.

The organization of independent scientists broke the story in a news release issued today:

WASHINGTON, DC, Jan. 3–A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists offers the most comprehensive documentation to date of how ExxonMobil has adopted the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue. According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer,” said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Strategy & Policy. “A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years.”

The organization describes itself as the “leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world. UCS combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices.” Begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, the Union is now an alliance of more than 200,000 citizens and scientists, according to the UCS website.

The news release refers to a paper, Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to “Manufacture Uncertainty” on Climate Change, which the release says details how the oil company has:

  1. raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence;
  2. funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings;
  3. attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for “sound science” rather than business self-interest;
  4. used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.

This story is of such great importance that the rest of the news report deserves to be quoted at length:

ExxonMobil-funded organizations consist of an overlapping collection of individuals serving as staff, board members, and scientific advisors that publish and re-publish the works of a small group of climate change contrarians. The George C. Marshall Institute, for instance, which has received $630,000 from ExxonMobil, recently touted a book edited by Patrick Michaels, a long-time climate change contrarian who is affiliated with at least 11 organizations funded by ExxonMobil. Similarly, ExxonMobil funds a number of lesser-known groups such as the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. Both groups promote the work of several climate change contrarians, including Sallie Baliunas, an astrophysicist who is affiliated with at least nine ExxonMobil-funded groups.

Baliunas is best known for a 2003 paper alleging the climate had not changed significantly in the past millennia that was rebutted by 13 scientists who stated she had misrepresented their work in her paper. This renunciation did not stop ExxonMobil-funded groups from continuing to promote the paper. Through methods such as these, ExxonMobil has been able to amplify and prop up work that has been discredited by reputable climate scientists.

“When one looks closely, ExxonMobil’s underhanded strategy is as clear and indisputable as the scientific research it’s meant to discredit,” said Seth Shulman, an investigative journalist who wrote the UCS report. “The paper trail shows that, to serve its corporate interests, ExxonMobil has built a vast echo chamber of seemingly independent groups with the express purpose of spreading disinformation about global warming.”

ExxonMobil has used the laudable goal of improving scientific understanding of global warming—under the guise of “sound science”—for the pernicious ends of delaying action to reduce heat-trapping emissions indefinitely. ExxonMobil also exerted unprecedented influence over U.S. policy on global warming, from successfully recommending the appointment of key personnel in the Bush administration to funding climate change deniers in Congress.

“As a scientist, I like to think that facts will prevail, and they do eventually,” said Dr. James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s working group on climate change impacts. “It’s shameful that ExxonMobil has sought to obscure the facts for so long when the future of our planet depends on the steps we take now and in the coming years.”

The burning of oil and other fossil fuels results in additional atmospheric carbon dioxide that blankets the Earth and traps heat. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased greatly over the last century and global temperatures are rising as a result. Though solutions are available now that will cut global warming emissions while creating jobs, saving consumers money, and protecting our national security, ExxonMobil has manufactured confusion around climate change science, and these actions have helped to forestall meaningful action that could minimize the impacts of future climate change.

“ExxonMobil needs to be held accountable for its cynical disinformation campaign on global warming,” said Meyer. “Consumers, shareholders and Congress should let the company know loud and clear that its behavior on this issue is unacceptable and must change.”

Needless to say, the actions of ExxonMobil are unforgivable and deserve the most serious censure. That this petro-behemoth, a descendant of the ruthless Standard Oil Company, would place the future of the world in jeopardy for the purpose of continuing to be able to sell its fossil fuels is almost beyond comprehension. And yet, such an action is entirely within the tradition of the founder, John D. Rockefeller, the arch-robber baron who built the world’s richest and most powerful company.

If not for the profit motive, what other possible excuse could there be for this behavior? One might consider whether perhaps the managers of ExxonMobil were acting in good faith, that they sincerely believed that global warming was a myth. One might consider that possibility, but not for very long because it is certain that this giant corporation has at its fingertips all manner of detail and knowledge about the effects of greenhouse gas on our planet. It is inconceivable that the officers, directors, and key staff of ExxonMobil were naive and ignorant. Quite unlikely.

What should be the consequences of corporate irresponsibility on this scale? Compared with what happened at Enron, this is far worse. Enron played a game that ended up costing its pensioners and shareholders their wealth, and the key players probably believed they could pull the company’s fortunes out of the fire.

In ExxonMobil’s case, the strategy was to gamble the future of the entire planet against the company’s bottom line. And it has gotten a surprisingly large return for its investment in a few nay-sayers, successfully providing cover for the lack of action against global warming that has characterized political “leadership” around the world.

We recently saw Saddam Hussein paying the price for his evil deeds. What similar fate do the leaders of ExxonMobil deserve? Well, perhaps deserve, but almost certainly will not receive. In fact, my guess is that this whole thing will just be shrugged off and no action will be taken by our Justice Department or Congress. And in the meanwhile, what terrible damage has been done? What decisions that could have been made 8 or 9 years ago could have made a difference.

But perhaps, just possibly, some enterprising lawyers somewhere will whiff the sweet smell of vast potential wealth and file a civil action against the oil company on behalf of the entire human population of the Earth.

Now that would be a class action group to give pause to even the most rapacious defense attorneys, and perhaps even leave the descendants of John D. quaking in their wingtip shoes.

Well, probably not. Those people are far above the level at which they have to worry about such petty things as the fate of humanity. Profit trumps the future, every time, and in their evangelical view the Earth was given to humankind to be plundered and they and all their ilk are making a tremendous job of it.

I will end with this cartoon I found on Google. The caption is in some incomprehensible (to me at least) language, but the image speaks volumes about the subject at hand. Perhaps our readers would like to try their hand at providing the words for Mr. Bush’s cartoon balloon. Winning entry gets a free tankcar of Arab Extra Light Crude and an autographed picture of John D. Rockefeller (just kidding; you will have to settle for the fame).

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