Exxon and other fossil fuel companies may have committed a crime of enormous proportions, and more and more elected officials and others are demanding an investigation.
The charge is that Exxon scientists and management knew since the late 1970s that the company’s product was helping cause our planet to warm “catastrophically,” but management responded by covering this up and disseminating disinformation – joining with other companies to commit an enormous fraud on the public for profit.
For some time, environmentalists have been warning that oil and coal companies were behind a broad campaign to deceive the public and block the government from regulating or taxing carbon pollution. Sites like ExxonSecrets, the Union of Concerned Scientists,SourceWatch and their Coal Issues portal, CoalSwarm and many others have been exposing, warning, documenting and working to get the word out.
This campaign is said to have included strategic use of misinformation, propaganda disseminated through front groups disguised as ideological organizations and purchased political influence to turn a substantial portion of the public against their own government. This was so that the companies could continue to profit from selling a dangerous, destructive product.
Recent investigative reporting has been able to access internal Exxon documents and statements from company scientists that confirms what the environmentalists have been telling us.
In September Inside Climate News (ICN) broke a story they called “Exxon: The Road Not Taken.” Using internal Exxon documents, Climate News showed how “Exxon conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago” that its executives suppressed as it went about “manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.” The report begins:
At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.
According to the reporting, beginning in the late 1970s Exxon scientists repeatedly warned management that their product was contributing to warming the planet, and that this could be “catastrophic.” A senior Exxon scientist, for example, warned in 1977 that “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
That was in 1977. Exxon scientists continued sounding the alarm and at first the company responded responsibly by launching an ambitious carbon/climate research effort.
Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.
The Los Angeles Times looked at that research effort, in “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic,” part of a year-long project “researching the gap between Exxon Mobil’s public position and its internal planning on the issue of climate change.” The Times’ investigation was extensive, with broad access to documents and experts:
As part of that effort, reporters reviewed hundreds of documents housed in archives in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and at the University of Texas. They also reviewed scientific journals and interviewed dozens of experts, including former Exxon Mobil employees.” The LA Times report found that Exxon scientists – and management – understood clearly that carbon was contributing to climate change and that the effects were real and severe.
From the ICN report:
Exxon’s research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked “not to be distributed externally,” it contained information that “has been given wide circulation to Exxon management.” In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.
Unless that happened, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” the primer said, citing independent experts. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
Exxon knew. The company was part of an industry that was profiting from a product that was polluting the planet with potentially “catastrophic” consequences that “endangered humanity.”
So what did Exxon do with that knowledge?
What Exxon Did
What did Exxon do after company scientists provided indisputable evidence of the risks their product posed to the planet and humanity? The ICN report continued:
Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.
Exxon hid its corporate lobbying effort using a network of front groups disguised as ideological organizations and “think tanks” to disseminate disinformation and anti-government propaganda. They worked to sow doubt about the science – including smearing scientists and environmental activists – and to delegitimize potential efforts by governments to regulate its product. They also funded politicians who would help block efforts to regulate them. The ICN report explains:
Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world’s largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
Exxon and other companies utilized a network of front groups to push what has come to be called “climate denial.” The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) looked at what they call Global Warming Skeptic Organizations and warned,
These organizations play a key role in the fossil fuel industry’s “disinformation playbook,” a strategy designed to confuse the public about global warming and delay action on climate change. Why? Because the fossil fuel industry wants to sell more coal, oil, and gas — even though the science clearly shows that the resulting carbon emissions threaten our planet.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ “Climate Deception Dossiers” examine a “coordinated campaign of deception” that is “underwritten by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy, and other members of the fossil fuel industry.” ExxonSecrets has mapped the networking of many of these organizations. And from 2007, New report from Union of Concerned Scientists documents ExxonMobil’s disinformation campaign:
Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to “Manufacture Uncertainty” on Climate Change, a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, details 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. The section of the report on “Buying Government Access” includes discussion of documentation we made available in 2005 and issues we have raised since then.
The Tobacco Model
The Exxon/industry campaign strategies and tactics did not come out of nowhere. Tobacco companies had paved, refined and perfected the way.
After scientists and doctors began to warn that tobacco was causing cancer in people, tobacco companies came up with a plan to block the government from regulating their product. They created a campaign to convince the public that the science was not certain. They pioneered the use of organizations disguised as political and ideological organizations to disseminate anti-government propaganda aimed at preventing regulation of their product.
More than 480,000 Americans still die every year because of what the tobacco industry did. But their campaign to keep the profits rolling in didn’t just kill people; it turned a substantial portion of the American public against their own government. They disguised their propaganda as “limited government” ideology, but it was really just a plan to limit the government from regulating them.
The tobacco campaign worked for decades – bringing billions more in profits after the dangers of the product were known. Now that strategy serves as a model for other corporations that push products that injure, kill, scam, cheat or otherwise hurt people and worry that the government might try to do something about them.
In 2008 Chris Mooney wrote at The American Prospect about companies using the tobacco industry’s model in, “The Manufacture of Uncertainty,” reviewing the book “Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health” by David Michaels. Mooney wrote:
The sabotage of science is now a routine part of American politics. The same corporate strategy of bombarding the courts and regulatory agencies with a barrage of dubious scientific information has been tried on innumerable occasions – and it has nearly always worked, at least for a time. Tobacco. Asbestos. Lead. Vinyl chloride. Chromium. Formaldehyde. Arsenic. Atrazine. Benzene. Beryllium. Mercury. Vioxx. And on and on. In battles over regulating these and many other dangerous substances, money has bought science, and then science – or, more precisely, artificially exaggerated uncertainty about scientific findings – has greatly delayed action to protect public and worker safety. And in many cases, people have died.
Tobacco companies perfected the ruse, which was later copycatted by other polluting or health-endangering industries. One tobacco executive was even dumb enough to write it down in 1969. “Doubt is our product,” reads the infamous memo, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
A Wider Conspiracy?
This may be a wider corporate conspiracy that involves more than just one company. The massive campaign to block carbon regulation by turning Americans against their own government was not just an effort by Exxon. Meteor Blades explains at DailyKos, in “Former DOJ attorney beat Big Tobacco, wants probe of Exxon and others who buried climate change info“:
One of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies’ efforts included helping to establish the Global Climate Coalition in 1989 shortly after the first meeting of the U.N.-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Among GCC’s efforts was a tendentious video it provided to journalists at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in which it claimed, among other things, that more CO2 in the atmosphere would boost crop yields. So, something to cheer rather than worry about.
Until 1997, according to SourceWatch, GCC operated out of the offices of the National Association of Manufacturers. Among its members besides Exxon: the American Forest & Paper Association, American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Ford, General Motors, Shell Oil, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization was disbanded in 2002, although neither Exxon nor other former members gave up their propaganda war against climate science.
That organization was disbanded, but the funding of these anti-government, science-denial front groups continues.
Demands Grow For An Investigation
Last week, representatives Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, who serve on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, requested a Department of Justice investigation into Exxon.
“In this case, Exxon scientists knew about fossil fuels causing global warming and Exxon took internal actions based on its knowledge of climate change,” Lieu and DeSaulnier wrote. “Yet Exxon funded and publicly engaged in a campaign to deceive the American people about the known risks of fossil fuels in causing climate change.”
“If these allegations against Exxon are true then Exxon’s actions were immoral,” they added. “We request the DOJ to investigate whether ExxonMobil’s actions were also illegal.”
On Friday presidential candidate Martin O’Malley joined in, tweeting “We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let’s do the same for oil companies & climate change.” The tweet linked to a New Republic report on the Lieu/DeSaulnier letter.
Climate Progress wrote Tuesday that Sharon Eubanks, a “former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who prosecuted and won the massive racketeering case against Big Tobacco thinks the agency should consider investigating Big Oil for similar claims: engaging in a cover-up to mislead the public about the risks of its product.”
Sharon Eubanks, who now works for the firm Bordas & Bordas, told ThinkProgress that ExxonMobil and other members of the fossil fuel industry could be held liable for violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) if it’s discovered that the companies worked together to suppress knowledge about the reality of human-caused climate change. She said that, considering recent revelations regarding ExxonMobil, the DOJ should consider launching an investigation into big fossil fuel companies.
“I think a RICO action is plausible and should be considered,” she said.
Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders brought more attention to the charges this week, sending a letter to the Justice Department asking for a probe of Exxon, bringing attention to an issue that has been bubbling up for some time. Sanders’ press release explains the reason a probe is in order:
“Exxon Mobil knew the truth about fossil fuels and climate change and lied to protect their business model at the expense of the planet,” Sanders said. He likened Exxon Mobil’s conduct to claims by the tobacco industry about the health risks associated with smoking.
From Sanders’ letter:
“These reports, if true, raise serious allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry’s actions — conduct that led to federal racketeering convictions.”
Polluting Democracy, Too
This propaganda and the money that propelled it has polluted our entire political system. Look into almost any organization (or political party) promoting “limited government” and complaining about “burdensome government regulation” and you will find oil money. This is not ideology; this is corruption. This is giant corporations trying to keep the government from doing something about their dangerous, destructive products.
This is a crime against our country and the world. It is a crime against our democratic system. The companies behind this enormous fraud on the public must be investigated for possible criminal activity. The front groups that disseminate anti-government, anti-regulation propaganda at their behest should be exposed as frauds and brought under control.
Now we have to move forward as quickly as possible to limit the burning of fossil fuels. Because of these companies and their fraud and disinformation, it is too late to stop the climate from changing – but it might not be too late to ward off the worst effects.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. It also appeared on October 22, 2015 on Seeing the Forest, a website featuring commentary by Dave Johnson, frequent public speaker and talk-radio guest and a leading participant in the progressive blogging community. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Johnson.