An investigative series from InsideClimate News details how the oil giant Exxon was at the forefront of climate change research before funding climate denial groups. The website has found documents showing the company was aware of global warming as early as 1977, and also funded a cutting-edge research division to improve predictive modeling. Bob speaks with Neela Banerjee, a reporter with InsideClimate News, about finding the story and how the company later created an "infrastructure of doubt" about climate change.
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BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. It may not surprise you to learn that ExxonMobil -- formerly Exxon, formerly Esso -- directed millions of dollars between 1989 and 2007, to dozens of front groups that worked to seed public doubt about the atmospheric impact of burning fossil fuels. And it may not surprise you to learn that Exxon and other oil companies helped found the group called Global Climate Coalition in 1989, that lobbied against emission restrictions until 2002. You’ve no doubt heard that language of denial and doubt from them and other Exxon-funded groups too:
TAYLOR: They’re pushing an alarmist agenda that says that humans are the major cause of global warming.
MILLOY: I’m not quite so sure what’s so wrong with the environment. I think the environment is fine considering all the wealth and everything we have. The air is clean, the water is clean. Everything is basically okay .
BOB: But this may be a bit of a shock: For a decade in the 70s and 80s, Exxon was at the forefront of scientific research of climate change and its own scientists were sounding alarms.
GARVEY: There was no questioning that the atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing, that atmospheric carbon dioxide was going to change the climate in some fashion. The question was how fast, how much, and what kind of impacts would it have?
BOB: That was Edward Garvey, a former Exxon climate researcher, in a video produced by Frontline with the Pulitzer-prize winning website InsideClimate News. This week that website launched a series documenting Exxon’s white-hat scientific research, and then its sudden shift toward trivializing the growing scientific consensus on climate change. Neela Banerjee, one of the reporters who produced the series for “InsideClimate News” describes her ‘aha’ moment.
BANERJEE: One day on a listserv, I got a transcript of a congressional hearing from 1979 that was about climate change. And I thought: oh, isn’t this surprising. And just on a lark, maybe I was procrastinating or something, I looked up Exxon to see if anybody from Exxon was there. And I found the name of a man. His name was Henry Shaw.
BOB: Shaw was leading the company’s early efforts into carbon dioxide research. Before this, InsideClimate News believed the earliest Exxon had looked at the effects of CO2 was in the 1980s.
BANERJEE: And that was the sort of thread that started to unravel this. As I start to google Henry, I found a study that had been done about Exxon outfitting a supertanker with equipment to measure carbon dioxide concentrations in the ocean and in the atmosphere along the supertanker route from the gulf of Mexico to the Persian gulf, and the paper came out in 1982, but the work had been done in the late 70s. We started to pull together names, started to look to places where documents might be, archives and so on, and that's how it all came together.
BOB: How far back does the company's interest in CO2 build up go?
BANERJEE: There is a scientists named Jim Black who made a report to Exxon's management committee in July 1977, and the management committee is the top leadership of the company. And he told him about the prevailing science of the time about carbon dioxide, that scientists think it's mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels and if it keeps up at this rate, that it will lead to a warming of the planet and that could have very grave consequences for human society, things like drought and floods and so on.
BOB: To put that in perspective, it wasn't until 1988 that James Hansen of NASA alerted the world in testimony before Congress about the seriousness of this issue. So, Exxon...
BANERJEE: Right! We were stunned. There's this public Exxon that we know from 1990 onward sort of skeptical about how certain the science is, calling for delays, and yet the documents that we've seen and the people we've talked to, describe a company where the approach to carbon dioxide and climate change was very neutral, very measured. When one reads Jim Black's text, and you can do it on our website because we upload data tdocument to our first story, it's like any other scientist of the day.
BOB: And while the company didn't at the time issue press releases and write in it s annual report about its gathering suspicions and fears about CO2, it also wasn't operating in secret. Its scientists were publishing peer reviewed papers publicly.
BANERJEE: Right. I think a lot of people want to make this appear to be an energy industry parallel of what happened in the tobacco industry. I'm not sure how far the parallel goes because Exxon at the time that this research was being done did not suppress an of this. that was actually part of their strategy. They understood that farther down the road if the science was accurate, which you know they thought it would be, that there would be limits placed on emissions from fossil fuels. So their strategy at that time was that we want to have a say in what those limits look like, we want to be taken seriously. And the best way to do that is to do peer reviewed, irreproachable science. And so they backed conferences on greenhouses gas emissions and climate change, they published in peer reviewed papers. They in fact ended up shelving a major natural gas project, which is still mothballed today because the natural gas was mixed in with a lot of carbon dioxide, and they couldn't find a way to get rid of the carbon dioxide and they weren't going to vent it into the atmosphere.
BOB: This project off the coast of Indonesia came at a time when they actually were concerned that supplies were running dangerously low and they still opted not to pursue the Indonesian project on CO2 grounds. It's hard to imagine we're speaking of a major oil company.
BANERJEE: I know.
BOB: And then something changed.
BANERJEE: The documentary evidence and interviews we have so far only extend to 1986 and part of the reason is that Exxon was involved in major lay offs through the 80s because the oil price sank, and a lot of the scientists who were involved in climate research either left or were let go by the mid 80s. And then in 1989 the global climate coalition is formed by fossil fuel companies, and Exxon is one of the leading figures in this effort. So something happened between 86 and 89, and we don't have that information. What we can surmise, though, is that there was a change in management and the management through the 70s and mid 80s had been looking at alternatives to crude oil. Some of them were carbon based like tar sands, but some of them were not, and then you had management come in that were more focused on the core business and thought that Exxon should stick to oil, that was people like Lee Raymond, who went on to become chairman of Exxon --
BOB: And Lee Raymond notoriously argued against the Kyoto protocol, and prevailed, with the argument that, well he said, quote, Let's agree that there's actually a lot we don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond. Which I guess is nominally true, there is a lot we don't know. But by the time he uttered those words, there was absolute scientific consensus that temperatures was going up, that ice was melting, that sea levels were rising and so forth.
BANERJEE: Yes. What Exxon did from the late 80s onward was that they hammered away at the uncertainty around various aspects of climate science, and they did not partake in arguments that a lot of deniers use, such as it's natural cycles or sun spots or anything like that. But instead they just kept saying, you know, the science is too uncertain for us to make enormous and possibly very expensive shifts in the economy. So, the uncertainty became this break on climate action. The interesting thing is that in the late 70s early 80s, Exxon scientists saw uncertainty as perfectly normal in evolving science and as an opportunity for research. They actually rebutted climate models that showed that climate change would not be as bad as the prevailing models predicted. And then Exxon basically decided to take an entirely different path and that's why we call the series the Road not taken, if they had stayed on that road, things might be a bit different now. But they didn't.
BOB: You went to Exxonmobil, and concerning that original expedition on a supertanker, the spokesman, Richard Keil, told you that that expedition had nothing to do with trying to figure out the absorption rates of carbon dioxide in the ocean --
BANERJEE: You know, people who participated in the project and the documents said otherwise. We tried to get him to square that and they declined to do so. I mean, Exxon's approach now is basically not to talk to us. They will not answer questions going forward, though we told them the door's open anytime you want to talk.
BOB: Neela, thank you very much.
BANERJEE: You're welcome.
BOB: Neela Banerjee is one of the reporters on the Exxon story for the Pulitzer prize winning Insideclimate news.