4 Priceless Moments in ExxonMobil’s History of Climate Denial

by Naomi Ages

November 25, 2015

A brief history lesson reveals how ExxonMobil fabricated doubt and circulated misinformation on climate change for years, and it knew the consequences all along.

Petition Filing at Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in Quezon City

Protesters hold a banner reading, "Hold the Big Polluters Accountable." Civil society groups in the Philippines delivered a complaint to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines earlier this year calling for an investigation into the responsibility of big fossil fuel companies for climate-related humans rights violations.

© Vincent Go / Greenpeace

In the last few months, exposé after exposé has uncovered how Exxon knew about the dangerous reality of climate change before the media, politicians and just about everyone else. But instead of doing the right thing, or even just sitting on its evidence, Exxon did something much more insidious. It tried to hide the truth from all of us.

As people around the world are demanding Exxon be held accountable for it’s (in)actions, let’s take a look back on four examples of how far Exxon has gone to block climate progress.

1. That time in 1982 when Exxon learned that climate change would lead to environmental catastrophe.

As early as 1977, Exxon’s own scientists were researching human-caused global warming. Exxon dedicated a substantial research budget to studying carbon emissions, developed sophisticated models and published its findings in peer reviewed journals. By 1982, an internal company report told Exxon management “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered … Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

So Exxon knew. But instead of acting to protect the planet, Exxon acted to protect its profits. It spent the next three decades funding and spreading climate denial. Exxon funded groups like ALEC, the Heartland Institute and the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition all of which ran successful public climate denial campaigns. The Advancement of Sound Science got its start challenging the dangers of secondhand smoke, so climate denial wasn’t a big stretch. And ALEC — a front group that peddles pro-corporate policies to U.S. legislators — has such an egregious history of denialism that even Shell’s investors forced it to leave.

Now, the catastrophic events Exxon predicted are here. But Exxon continues to fund climate denial to this day.

Hurricane Sandy Aftermath in NJ

A New Jersey pier during Hurricane Sandy. Scientists predict a rise in the strength and frequency of extreme weather events as the climate change worsens.

2. That time Exxon paid for a PR strategy to convince the world climate change wasn’t real.

Of course, Exxon isn’t alone in funding and spreading climate denial. In 1988, Exxon joined a group of fossil fuel companies and industry front groups organized by the American Petroleum Institute to create the Global Climate Science Communications Plan. The group spent $2 million dollars on a plan to get average citizens and the media to “understand uncertainties” in climate science and for these uncertainties become part of the “conventional wisdom.”

That “uncertainty” set the planet back decades in terms of climate change policy and it’s one reason people who don’t believe in science can run for president in the United States.

3. That time ExxonMobil got the U.S. to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

For decades, Mobil and then ExxonMobil ran a weekly advertorial on the opinion page of the New York Times. After the 2000 election, these advertorials practically became a guidebook for the Bush administration.

In January 2001, an Exxon advertorial called the Kyoto Protocol “unrealistic” and “economically damaging” because of its “fundamental flaws.” When President Bush gave his now-infamous June 2001 speech on climate change, he echoed Exxon calling the policy “unrealistic”, “fatally flawed in fundamental ways” and said it would have had a “negative economic impact.”

The harm this caused to the planet as a result of this inaction is undeniable.

Sandbagging Action against Mobil in New Zealand

Greenpeace activists build a sandbag wall in front of the entrance to Mobil Head Office in Wellington, New Zealand in 2001.

4. That time Exxon called the current New York Attorney General investigation into its deception a “distraction.”

“I really don’t want this to be a distraction.” That’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson talking about the New York Attorney General’s investigation into Exxon’s “possible climate change lies.” Then there’s Exxon flack Dick Keil calling Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s suggestion that Exxon be investigated for corruption “complete bullshit.”

Tillerson sounds a lot like Tony “I’d like my life back” Hayward in the midst of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. I’m sure we can all sympathize with beleaguered CEOs in the middle of a corporate PR disaster, but the Exxon investigation is more than a distraction. The state Attorney General is looking into Exxon’s history of misleading statements on climate change to both investors and the public. California and the Philippines might be next, and the public is clamoring for a federal Department of Justice investigation.

Rex Tillerson and Dick Keil might be in denial, but Exxon’s woes aren’t going anywhere.

Thyphoon Haiyan

Satellite image of Typhoon Nari via NASA.

The truth is that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies stoked the fires of climate debate for years knowing the harm it was causing. #ExxonKnew — let’s hold them accountable. 

Sign the petition demanding an investigation into Exxon’s climate denial and deceit. 

Naomi Ages

By Naomi Ages

Naomi Ages is the Climate Liability Project Lead at Greenpeace USA. She focuses on establishing legal, political, and financial accountability for climate change, and achieving justice for climate-impacted and vulnerable communities.

We Need Your Voice Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.