Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Exxon's own scientists confirmed the truth about climate change


Beginning in the mid to late 1970s and continuing for more than a decade, a team of top scientists employed by Exxon investigated the question of man-made climate change and reached the following conclusions:


  • The burning of fossil fuels was leading to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;
  • The buildup of CO2 would act as a blanket and inevitably lead to a warmer planet;
  • The effects of that warming could be catastrophic, and could be prevented only by a swift move away from fossil fuels.

Throughout that era, top leaders at Exxon were kept fully apprised of the research team's work, which included research into how much CO2 the oceans could absorb as well as construction of its own climate models. Those internal models confirmed the warnings that were already coming out of climate models built at universities.

"Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2" one top Exxon scientist wrote in an internal company report way back in 1982 that is just now coming to light. "The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-Industrial Revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C." (Equal to 5.4 ± 2.7°F)."

"There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth's climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere."

Again, that was in 1982. And note words such as "clear scientific consensus" and "unanimous agreement."

That and many other memos have been uncovered in a lengthy and remarkable investigation by reporters at InsideClimateNews. Based on company documents and interviews with former employees, Exxon was deeply interested in the research question because it feared climate change might curtail the use of fossil fuels, forcing a global switch to renewable or alternative fuels. As an act of due diligence, company executives wanted to know where the science was headed, and what better way than to do its own work.

In another memo uncovered by ICN reporters, an Exxon scientist had prepared a report to a senior vice president in 1981 in which he concluded that at least in the early decades of the 21st century, the consequences of warming would be "well short of catastrophic."  A more senior Exxon scientist took issue with that slightly reassuring conclusion:

ICN has yet to publish the final chapter of its six-part series, this one documenting how, beginning in 1989, Exxon decided to reject and bury the findings of its own scientists and instead begin funding front groups that would deny the existence of global warming and "muddy the waters" so that no effective action could be taken.

But that didn't mean that the company took its own advice.

The Los Angeles Times has documented that while Exxon was publicly arguing that the science behind climate change was too unsettled to justify taking action, it was taking a much different attitude internally. For example, it was trying to figure out how to deal with the impact of a warming planet on its own drilling and pipeline operations in the Arctic Ocean, where rising sea levels, melting icecaps and the collapse of permafrost all would have an impact.

As the L.A. Times reports:

"Using the models and data from a climate change report issued by Environment Canada, Canada’s environmental agency, the (Exxon) team concluded (in 1991) that the Beaufort Sea’s open water season — when drilling and exploration occurred — would lengthen from two months to three and possibly five months.

They were spot on....

Today, as Exxon’s scientists predicted 25 years ago, Canada’s Northwest Territories has experienced some of the most dramatic effects of global warming. While the rest of the planet has seen an average increase of roughly 1.5 degrees in the last 100 years, the northern reaches of the province have warmed by 5.4 degrees and temperatures in central regions have increased by 3.6 degrees."

For years now, Exxon and other corporate skeptics of climate science have been accused by critics of following the example set by the tobacco industry in trying to deny and obscure what the science was telling us. Internal industry documents have revealed that tobacco officials knew full well that their products kill people, but they were willing to lie about and hide that evidence for decades to protect their profits.

And now we have definitive evidence that ExxonMobil, the largest refiner in the world and the world's largest private-sector oil company, was doing the exact same thing.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.