Twenty Years Later, This GOP Congressman Is Still Using Exxon’s Talking Points

by Tim Donaghy

August 18, 2016

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) — the climate-denying chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — has rushed forward to defend ExxonMobil from its critics.

Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, delivers opening remarks during a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology event on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

In recent months, the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts announced investigations into whether ExxonMobil has defrauded the public and their investors over the issue of climate change. In response, Rep. Smith has subpoenaed the state attorneys general and a number of environmental and philanthropic groups — including Greenpeace USA. (Don’t worry, we’re not backing down.)

Reading through Rep. Smith’s long history of denying climate change, it is obvious that he has assimilated Exxon’s own decades-long campaign to cast doubt on climate science as his own. If you compare Smith’s words with the talking points and arguments made decades ago by Exxon and its allies, you can see the same zombie arguments recycled, no matter how many times they’ve been refuted.

Exxon’s Zombies From the 1990s Attack

In 1998, Celine Dion was warbling her way to the top of the musical charts and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 366 parts per million (already about 30 percent higher than pre-industrial levels and rising steadily each year).

That year, an internal document from the American Petroleum Institute (API) was leaked to the public. Titled the “Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,” the document laid out a cynical strategy to manipulate public opinion on climate change by highlighting “scientific uncertainty.” The document even states that “victory will be achieved” when “average citizens understand” uncertainties in climate science and they become part of the conventional wisdom.


Excerpt from the American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan.

The document was created by an API task force spearheaded by Exxon’s chief lobbyist, Randy Randol. Exxon itself had been pushing the “uncertainty” line for several years after ending its ground-breaking climate science research program in the 1980s and reversing its position on the importance of climate action.

A 1996 Exxon publication sought to confuse and muddy the emerging scientific consensus by claiming that:

“Clearly, considerable uncertainty exists about future climate change. We are faced with more questions than answers on almost every aspect of this issue […] There is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty about how the climate will change in the 21st century.”

Amazingly, fifteen years later we find Rep. Lamar Smith saying the exact same thing in the Washington Post:

“[T]here is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science. These uncertainties undermine our ability to accurately determine how carbon dioxide has affected the climate in the past. They also limit our understanding of how anthropogenic emissions will affect future warming trends.”

The difference is that now the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has soared over 400 parts per million (now almost 50 percent higher than pre-industrial levels), making it that much more difficult to curb global warming. Exxon and its allies put their plan into action and successfully stalled meaningful action on climate for years. In the meantime, ExxonMobil racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in profits.

Decades Later, Doubt Is Still ExxonMobil’s Product

Pushing “scientific uncertainty” was a self-serving spin-job back in 1998 — especially given the depth and quality of Exxon’s in-house climate research — but it is pure nonsense to keep repeating it today as global temperatures smash records. The fact that Rep. Smith and his colleagues on the Science Committee are still pushing this false narrative is a testament to the enduring legacy of the colossal denial scheme that Exxon devised.

Digging deeper into Rep. Smith’s statements, Exxon’s fingerprints are everywhere.

He likes to cast doubt on the reliability of climate models, claiming that such models have “greatly overestimated warming” and that any predictions “looking 50 to a 100 years into the future […] have close to no chance of being correct.”

In the early 1980s, Exxon was one of the world leaders in climate modeling and its scientists published results in peer-reviewed journals. But by 1997, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond was calling the models “notoriously inaccurate” and mocking them in public speeches. (For the record, climate models have a pretty good track record.)

Elsewhere, Smith attributes climate change to an uncertain “combination of factors, including natural cycles, sunspots and human activity.” Once again, Exxon was there first, publishing several pamphlets in the 1990s that tried to deflect blame for climate change away from fossil fuels and onto the solar cycle or “natural changes.” In fact, climate scientists have concluded that human-caused emissions are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause” of observed global warming.

ExxonMobil claims that they have turned over a new leaf and that they accept the science of climate change. They claim to have stopped funding climate deniers (though their latest giving report still shows funding going to several groups that spread misinformation or oppose action on climate change). But it is clear that the damage caused by years of denial and political lobbying is still blocking progress today.

Rep. Smith may still be peddling “doubt” and “uncertainty,” but the public deserves to know the truth about ExxonMobil’s campaign of delay and denial.

Demand the U.S. Department of Justice open an investigation into whether ExxonMobil misled the public about the science of climate change.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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