The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon
David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman
December 8, 2016 Issue
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Bloomsbury, 355 pp., $18.00 (paper)
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power
by Steve Coll
Penguin, 685 pp., $19.00 (paper)
Exxon: The Road Not Taken
by Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr., David Hasemyer, and Lisa Song
InsideClimate News, 88 pp., $5.99 (paper)
What Exxon Knew About the Earth’s Melting Arctic
an article by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch, and Susanne Rust
Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2015
How Exxon Went from Leader to Skeptic on Climate Change Research
an article by Katie Jennings, Dino Grandoni, and Susanne Rust
Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2015
Big Oil Braced for Global Warming While It Fought Regulations
an article by Amy Lieberman and Susanne Rust
Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2015
Archival Documents on Exxon’s Climate History
available at www.climatefiles.com
Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science
a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2007, available at www.ucsusa.org
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, at the World Gas Conference, Paris, June 2015
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, at the World Gas Conference, Paris, June 2015
Earlier this year our organization, the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF), announced that it would divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. We mean to do this gradually, but in a public statement we singled out ExxonMobil for immediate divestment because of its “morally reprehensible conduct.”1 For over a quarter-century the company tried to deceive policymakers and the public about the realities of climate change, protecting its profits at the cost of immense damage to life on this planet.
Our criticism carries a certain historical irony. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, and ExxonMobil is Standard Oil’s largest direct descendant. In a sense we were turning against the company where most of the Rockefeller family’s wealth was created. (Other members of the Rockefeller family have been trying to get ExxonMobil to change its behavior for over a decade.) Approached by some reporters for comment, an ExxonMobil spokesman replied, “It’s not surprising that they’re divesting from the company since they’re already funding a conspiracy against us.”2
What we had funded was an investigative journalism project. With help from other public charities and foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), we paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to try to determine what Exxon and other US oil companies had really known about climate science, and when. Such an investigation seemed promising because Exxon, in particular, has been a leader of the movement to deny the facts of climate change.3 Often working indirectly through front groups, it sponsored many of the scientists and think tanks that have sought to obfuscate the scientific consensus about the changing climate, and it participated in those efforts through its paid advertisements and the statements of its executives.
It seemed to us, however, that for business reasons, a company as sophisticated and successful as Exxon would have needed to know the difference between its own propaganda and scientific reality. If it turned out that Exxon and other oil companies had recognized the validity of climate science even while they were funding the climate denial movement, that would, we thought, help the public understand how artificially manufactured and disingenuous the “debate” over climate change has always been. In turn, we hoped this understanding would build support for strong policies addressing the crisis of global warming.
Indeed, the Columbia reporters learned that Exxon had understood and accepted the validity of climate science long before embarking on its denial campaign, and in the fall of 2015 they published their discoveries in The Los Angeles Timess.4 Around the same time, another team of reporters from the website InsideClimate News began publishing the results of similar research.5 (The RFF has made grants to InsideClimate News, and the RBF has been one of its most significant funders, but we didn’t know they were engaged in this project.) The reporting by these two different groups was complementary, each confirming and adding to the other’s findings.
Following publication of these articles, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began investigating whether ExxonMobil had committed fraud by failing to disclose many of the business risks of climate change to its shareholders despite evidence that it understood those risks internally. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey soon followed Schneiderman with her own investigation, as did the AGs of California and the Virgin Islands, and thirteen more state AGs announced that they were considering investigations.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton each called for a federal investigation of ExxonMobil by the Department of Justice. Secretary of State John Kerry compared Exxon’s deceptions to the tobacco industry’s long denial of the danger of smoking, predicting that, if the allegations were true, Exxon might eventually have to pay billions of dollars in damages “in what I would imagine would be one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history.”6 Most recently, in August, the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating the way ExxonMobil values its assets, given the world’s growing commitment to reducing carbon emissions. An article in The Wall Street Journal observed that this “could have far-reaching consequences for the oil and gas industry.”7
We didn’t expect ExxonMobil to admit that it had been at fault. It is one of the largest companies in the world—indeed, if its revenues are compared to the gross domestic products of nations, it has one of the world’s larger economies, bigger than Austria’s, for example, or Thailand’s8—and it has a reputation for unusual determination in promoting its self-interest.9 One way or another, we expected it to fight back—most likely, we thought, by proxy, through its surrogates in the right-wing press and in Congress.
Sure enough, various bloggers have been calling for “the Rockefellers”10 to be prosecuted by the government for “conspiracy” against Exxon under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.11 (Such lines of attack are being tested and refined, and we expect they will soon be repeated in journals with broader readership.) And in May, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sent a letter to the RFF and seven other NGOs (including the RBF, 350.org, Greenpeace, and the Union of Concerned Scientists),12 as well as all seventeen AGs who said they might investigate ExxonMobil. He accused us of engaging in “a coordinated effort to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution,” and demanded that we turn over to him all private correspondence between any of the recipients of his letter relating to any potential climate change investigation. When we all refused, twice, to surrender any such correspondence, Smith subpoenaed Schneiderman, Healey, and all eight NGOs for the same documents.
We will answer Smith’s accusations against us presently. In order to explain ourselves, however, we first have to explain what Exxon knew about climate change, and when—and what, despite that knowledge, Exxon did: the morally reprehensible conduct that prompted our actions in the first place.
Large oil companies must possess considerable scientific expertise. In that respect as in others, Exxon has always been an industry leader: the company today says it employs about 16,000 scientists and engineers.13 And the basic mechanism of climate change is relatively straightforward, long-established science. In the 1850s, John Tyndall discovered that atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as a “greenhouse gas,” meaning that it reflects heat rising from the earth back to the planet’s surface. The Swedish geochemist Svante Arrhenius realized at the beginning of the twentieth century that people were burning fossil fuels in quantities great enough to warm the entire planet with the CO2 they released. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson told Congress, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”14 So it is no surprise that by the late 1970s and early 1980s, Exxon scientists largely understood climate change—not only its basic mechanism but many of its implications, including its potential implications for the oil business—and had explained it to the company’s leaders.
In 1977, for example, an Exxon scientist named James Black gave a presentation to the company’s Management Committee. He explained, accurately, what the “greenhouse effect” is and how measurements of atmospheric CO2 that had been taken since 1957 showed it was steadily increasing. And, although emphasizing that climate science still had to deal with untested assumptions and uncertainties, he said that “current opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric CO2 increase to fossil fuel combustion.”15 “Present thinking,” Black added a year later, “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.”16
By 1980, a report written by Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary and distributed to Exxon managers around the world stated matter-of-factly, “It is assumed that the major contributors of CO2 are the burning of fossil fuels…and oxidation of carbon stored in trees and soil humus…. There is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage and decreases in forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.”17 The next year Roger Cohen, director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory, wrote in an internal memo that by 2030, projected cumulative carbon emissions could, after a delay, “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”18
In 1982, Cohen added that “over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged”: atmospheric CO2 would double from its preindustrial quantity sometime in the second half of the twenty-first century, producing an average increase in global temperature of three degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees. “There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community,” he went on, “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.”19
It was clear, too, what a problem these conclusions posed for the oil industry. As a 1979 Exxon memo reported,
Models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climatic changes within the next 75 years…. Should it be deemed necessary to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels to prevent significant climatic changes, dramatic changes in patterns of energy use would be required.20
In other words, the world would have to curtail its use of fossil fuels substantially. Senior Exxon scientist Henry Shaw warned management that according to the predictions of the National Academy of Sciences, global warming, not any lack of supply, would force humankind to stop burning fossil fuels.21
In 1982, an Exxon environmental affairs manager named Marvin Glaser wrote a thirty-nine-page primer on climate change that he distributed widely among management.22 It confirmed that, despite remaining points of scientific uncertainty, “mitigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” If these weren’t achieved, Glaser warned, “all biological systems are likely to be affected” and “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” including an expected “dramatic impact on soil moisture, and in turn, on agriculture,” and, eventually, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, which would flood “much of the US East Coast, including the State of Florida and Washington D.C.” He believed that “potentially serious climate problems are not likely to occur until the late 21st century,” but added, “once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
Climate scientist James Hansen at a mock gravestone declaring ‘Climate Change: A Matter of Life and Death,’ Coventry, England, March 2009
Climate scientist James Hansen at a mock gravestone declaring ‘Climate Change: A Matter of Life and Death,’ Coventry, England, March 2009
If much was already understood about climate change, however, there were still points of uncertainty. Scientists knew that the ocean, for example, would absorb some fraction of the CO2 being added to the atmosphere (and become more acidic in the process), but just how much was unclear. They also knew that the ocean acted as a thermal reservoir—that it would absorb a great deal of the additional heat reflected back to the planet’s surface from increased atmospheric CO2, beginning to release it only after a considerable delay, perhaps of decades. But just how long that delay would be depended on how much mixing there was between the ocean’s upper and lower depths, and that wasn’t well understood either.
Cohen’s “clear scientific consensus” notwithstanding, such lingering questions meant that scientists still disagreed about precisely how much the climate would change, and how quickly. The computerized models they were building to forecast those effects were also considered much more reliable in predicting average global changes than specific regional ones (except near the poles, where almost everyone agreed that warming would be particularly severe). None of these legitimate uncertainties in climate science, however, implied any doubt about its main conclusions: that the changing climate would soon have dramatic impacts on the earth, and that it was primarily caused by humans burning fossil fuels.23
Many Exxon scientists and executives wanted to be able to predict how severe climate change would be and when, to better anticipate changes in energy policy. They wanted not only to understand the science thoroughly, but to earn a reputation as trusted leaders in it so they could better defend the company’s interests against “conclusions drawn from the [international research] program which might be biased for political or other reasons.”24 As Henry Shaw put it, “We should determine how Exxon can best participate in [climate research] and influence possible legislation on environmental controls. It is important to begin to anticipate the strong intervention of environmental groups and be prepared to respond with reliable and credible data.”25
So, with its extraordinary resources, Exxon became a corporate leader in climate science. It equipped its largest supertanker as a research vessel, measuring CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and at different depths of the ocean all along the ship’s route.26 It also became expert in computerized climate modeling, not only to evaluate the predictions of others but to help improve such models. Ultimately, one of its scientists published nearly fifty peer-reviewed papers about various technical aspects of climate change.27
The company’s early findings may not have been quite what management was looking for, however. In 1985, for example, Exxon astrophysicist Brian Flannery and NYU physicist Martin Hoffert wrote a chapter for a US Department of Energy report using their own climate models to predict global warming of as much as six degrees Celsius by the end of the twenty-first century unless greenhouse gas emissions were reduced.28 As Roger Cohen had written three years earlier, “The results of our research are in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate.” Cohen believed that “our ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature; indeed to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”29
Then, however, in 1988, the United States was struck by the costliest drought in its history. Widespread heat waves were blamed for more than five thousand deaths; fires swept over the West, engulfing much of Yellowstone National Park. That June, the NASA scientist James Hansen told Congress that “the greenhouse effect is real, it is coming soon, and it will have major effects on all peoples.”30 Suddenly the notion of global warming was everywhere—Time named “Endangered Earth” its “Planet of the Year.” And Exxon’s public position changed dramatically.
In August 1988, an Exxon public affairs manager drafted a memo called “The Greenhouse Effect.” He acknowledged that “the principal greenhouse gases are by-products of fossil fuel combustion.” However, he wrote, the “Exxon Position” would now be to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”31
What did that mean? In 1989 Duane LeVine, Exxon’s manager of science and strategy development, told the company’s board of directors that the scientific consensus was now that global temperatures would rise by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the middle of the twenty-first century, with “enormous potential global impacts.” But, he added, “arguments that we can’t tolerate delay and must act now can lead to irreversible and costly Draconian steps.” So Exxon would “extend the science,” convincing policymakers and the public that climate change was still insufficiently understood and that more research needed to be done before significant action could be warranted. Meanwhile, it would emphasize the cost of reducing carbon emissions.32
This strategy recalled to us the conclusions of the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, in which the historians of science Naomi Oreskes (Harvard) and Erik Conway (California Institute of Technology) tell the story of what they call the “Tobacco Strategy.” Tobacco industry scientists and executives knew by 1953 that smoking caused cancer. Rather than see sales diminish, however, they decided to deceive the public. Since the proof of smoking’s danger was established by science, they resolved on a long-term effort to create doubt about that science. And they realized that the best, most credible messengers in a campaign to discredit established science would be other scientists.33
The tobacco industry found and funded scientists who, “cherry-picking data and focusing on unexplained or anomalous details,” would argue that the causal link between smoking and cancer had not been proven. (Since there are lingering uncertainties around any settled point of science—why some smokers get lung cancer and others don’t, for example—this is always an easy argument to make, even when it is a specious one.) By this time, the scientific consensus was that smoking’s danger had been proven; those who denied it were dramatically outnumbered. But the industry also funded a network of “free-market,” antiregulatory think tanks to repeat and amplify the claims of its scientists. (It tried to hide the fact that it was paying these scientists and think tanks, often routing its payments through front groups like law firms or right-wing foundations.)
Then the industry manufactured an artificial “‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it.” The industry didn’t need to win this debate, its leaders realized; only to keep it going. “Doubt is our product,” explained a tobacco executive’s 1969 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.”34
As we know, this campaign ultimately failed, but it succeeded for an astonishingly long time. The tobacco industry didn’t begin losing court cases until the 1990s, some four decades after realizing that its product killed its customers.35 In the meantime, it made enormous profits. Other industrial leaders took note, and when they found themselves in similar situations—when scientists had shown that their businesses were causing acid rain, depleting the ozone layer, or harming human health, and when, in consequence, they faced the prospect of governmental regulation—they began copying the tobacco strategy. In doing so they often relied on the same small group of scientists and think tanks that the tobacco industry had used.36
When Exxon began to “emphasize the uncertainty” of climate science, the scientists who espoused its positions were often veterans of those earlier denial campaigns. Among them were Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and Bill Nierenberg. They had all been reputable, prominent physicists during the cold war, but they eventually became, essentially, professional deniers of science, arguing on one issue after another that findings harmful to industry were “unproven,” “junk science.” Oreskes and Conway believe that their motivation was less mercenary than ideological, although they were often paid by the organizations they directed or worked with, which in turn were supported by the industries they defended. They were all fervent anti-Communists and ardent free-market purists. Especially after the cold war ended, they saw environmentalists as the next great threat to capitalism, since, by pointing out the damage industry sometimes does to the environment and human health, defenders of the environment are implicitly criticizing the workings of free markets and bolstering the case for regulation.37
These men were not experts in climate science, and the reports they wrote, though adorned with “the trappings of scientific argumentation—graphs, charts, references, and the like,” were not “subject to independent peer review—the most basic requirement of any truly scientific work.”38 It seems quite clear that they sometimes consciously misrepresented real science in their arguments, persisting even after their fallacies and distortions were revealed publicly.39 Sometimes Seitz and Singer and others simply tried to smear the legitimate climate scientists whose work seemed most threatening to them.40 Either way, their claims were echoed, promoted, and “validated” by the same free-market think tanks that had previously fought the scientific consensus on issues like smoking, acid rain, and the ozone layer—think tanks that Exxon funded.41 Then the fake debate they created was broadcast further and given an additional veneer of credibility by journalists, some of whom were persuaded by spurious arguments about the need for “balanced” reporting, even on issues the scientific community considered settled, and some of whom, it turned out, were simply in Exxon’s pay.42
Exxon didn’t always rely on the writings of such scientists. For decades it published frequent “advertorials” on the editorial page of The New York Times, questioning the reality of climate change or its human cause, or arguing that predictions about global warming were too unreliable to justify efforts to prevent it.43 And in 1997, for example, at the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond gave a speech in which he claimed, falsely, that “the earth is cooler today than it was twenty years ago.” (1997 would be the hottest year ever measured; that record has been broken repeatedly since then.)44 Raymond went on to disparage the climate models his own scientists had helped develop, and concluded by saying:
Let’s agree there’s a lot we really don’t know about how climate will change in the twenty-first century and beyond. That means we need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time. It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or twenty years from now.45
In 1998 Exxon participated in a $6 million public relations campaign by the American Petroleum Institute (a trade association which Exxon heavily influenced and supported) to prevent the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The “action plan” for this campaign stated:
Victory will be achieved when: average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”…[and] those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.
But, it cautioned, “unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts.”46 The campaign was highly successful: the US never did join the Kyoto Protocol.
Still, ExxonMobil (as it became in 1999) continued to spend extraordinary sums on lobbying, directly and through trade associations: $240 million since 1998.47 And in 2001, soon after President George W. Bush was inaugurated, the company’s chief lobbyist sent a memo to the White House making several requests. He asked the new administration to get rid of the scientist who chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that is the world’s leading authority on the subject. He also asked that a number of other scientists and officials be fired from their jobs in the White House and the State Department, to be replaced by known climate skeptics.48 Exxon CEO Raymond and Vice President Dick Cheney were old friends, and Cheney had already taken practical control of the administration’s energy policy.49 ExxonMobil got its wishes.50 As Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said around the same time to the Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, when she told him that Cheney had convinced Bush to repudiate his campaign promises about limiting carbon emissions, “We just gave away the environment.”51
ExxonMobil and its allies are still standing in the way of effective action to address climate change, as we will show in a second article.
—This is the first of two articles.
See rffund.org/divestment. ↩
See Rupert Neate, “Rockefeller Family Charity to Withdraw All Investments in Fossil Fuel Companies,” The Guardian, March 23, 2016; Joe Carroll, “Rockefellers Dump Exxon Holdings That Made Family’s Fortune,” Bloomberg, March 23, 2016. ↩
See, e.g., Justin Farrell, “Corporate Funding and Ideological Polarization About Climate Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, January 5, 2016; Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Penguin, 2012), pp. 184–185, 619–620; Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science,” January 2007, pp. 1–3. ↩
Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch, and Susanne Rust, “What Exxon Knew about the Earth’s Melting Arctic,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2015; Katie Jennings, Dino Grandoni, and Susanne Rust, “How Exxon Went from Leader to Skeptic on Climate Change Research,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2015 (graphics.latimes.com/exxon-research/); Amy Lieberman and Susanne Rust, “Big Oil Braced for Global Warming While It Fought Regulations,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2015 (graphics.latimes.com/oil-operations/). ↩
See Exxon-The-Road-Not-Taken, reviewed in these pages by Tim Flannery, “Fury Over Fracking,” April 21, 2016. ↩
See Lisa Song, “Sanders Calls for Investigation of ‘Potential Corporate Fraud’ by Exxon,” InsideClimate News, October 20, 2015; Timothy Cama, “Hillary Joins Call for Federal Probe of Exxon Climate Change Research,” The Hill, October 29, 2015; Jeff Goodell, “John Kerry on Climate Change: The Fight of Our Time,” Rolling Stone, December 1, 2015. ↩
See Bradley Olson and Aruna Viswanatha, “SEC Probes Exxon Over Accounting for Climate Change,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2016. ↩
See Ken Cohen’s “So How Did ExxonMobil Do in 2014?” February 3, 2015 for the company’s most recent self-reported yearly global revenues. See Knoema’s “World GDP ranking,” 2016, for GDP data. ↩
See, e.g., Steve Coll, Private Empire, pp. 77, 135, 406, 541. ↩
Both as long-term shareholders in ExxonMobil and as environmentalists, many members of the Rockefeller family have been concerned about the company’s behavior and its business model for a long time. In an effort that lasted for more than ten years, family members met repeatedly with senior ExxonMobil executives, including CEO Rex Tillerson, urging them to acknowledge what a grave threat climate change poses and to move more seriously into the field of clean energy. (See Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, “A Rockefeller Explains: Why I Lost Faith in Exxon Mobil and Donated My Shares,” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2016.) When those discussions proved fruitless, the same family members began introducing resolutions at ExxonMobil’s annual shareholder meetings, most of which were meant to force the company to recognize the danger of remaining so committed to fossil fuels in the age of climate change. The company fought and defeated all those resolutions. (See Leslie Eaton and Russell Gold, “Rockefeller Rebellion Turns Up Heat on Exxon,” The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2008; Suzanne Goldenberg, “Rockefeller Family Tried and Failed to Get ExxonMobil to Accept Climate Change,” The Guardian, March 27, 2015.)
When Tillerson succeeded Lee Raymond as CEO of ExxonMobil at the start of 2006, Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe wrote him a letter accusing ExxonMobil of having contributed to the climate denial campaign by joining other corporations in sponsoring a “pseudo-scientific, non-peer reviewed echo chamber. The goal has not been to prevail in the scientific debate, but to obscure it,” employing “strategies all-too reminiscent of those used by the tobacco industry for so many years.” “We are convinced,” the senators said, “that ExxonMobil’s longstanding support of a small cadre of global climate change skeptics, and those skeptics’ access to and influence on governmental policymakers, have made it increasingly difficult for the United States to demonstrate the moral clarity it needs across all facets of its diplomacy,” and they asked Tillerson to end ExxonMobil’s support of “climate change denial front groups.” The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has been an early leader in the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies.
The ExxonMobil shareholder resolutions sponsored by Rockefellers were supported by a majority of adult family members, but, counting only descendants of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and their spouses and step-children, there are now over 270 living members of the family with different interests and different political perspectives; they rarely do anything unanimously, and it makes little sense to speak of “the Rockefellers” as some sort of monolithic entity. Although the boards of the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are still led by members of the family, they are independent, distinct institutions. In these articles we are speaking only for the Rockefeller Family Fund. ↩
See, e.g., Tom Shepstone, “Is It Now Time for a Rockefeller RICO Lawsuit?” Natural Gas Now, April 16, 2016. ↩
The other three subpoenaed groups are the Climate Reality Project, the Climate Accountability Institute, and the Global Warming Legal Action Project. The RFF has made grants to the Union of Concerned Scientists and to 350.org for their climate work in recent years, including one $50,000 grant to 350.org in 2012 supporting its work to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for blocking efforts to mitigate climate change. ↩
See “ExxonMobil’s commitment to climate science.” ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, pp. 170–171. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1978-exxon-memo-on-greenhouse-effect-for-exxon-corporation-management-committee/. Black’s comments in 1977 were made without a prepared text. The quotation is taken from a version of the same talk that he dictated in 1978. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1978-exxon-memo-on-greenhouse-effect-for-exxon-corporation-management-committee/. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/imperial-oil-1980-review-of-environmental-protection-activities/. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1981-exxon-memo-on-possible-emission-consequences-of-fossil-fuel-consumption/. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1982-exxon-memo-summarizing-climate-modeling-and-co2-greenhouse-effect-research/. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1979-exxon-memo-on-potential-impact-of-fossil-fuel-combustion/. This memo discussed the work of a “summer employee.” However, the work was taken seriously within Exxon, and the memo was sent to a number of the senior scientists who were leading the company’s efforts to understand climate change and its likely implications, including James Black, quoted above, and Henry Shaw, below. ↩
See John H. Cushman, Jr., “Highlighting the Allure of Synfuels, Exxon Played Down the Climate Risks,” InsideClimate News, October 8, 2015. ↩
See insideclimatenews.org/sites/default/files/documents/1982%20Exxon%20Primer%20on%20CO2%20Greenhouse%20Effect.pdf, quoted in Banerjee, Song, and Hasemyer, “Exxon’s Own Research,” InsideClimate News, September 16, 2015; Lisa Song, Neela Banerjee, and David Hasemyer, “Exxon Confirmed Global Warming Consensus in 1982 with In-House Climate Models,” InsideClimate News, September 22, 2015. ↩
See Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer, “Exxon Believed Deep Dive Into Climate Research Would Protect Its Business,” InsideClimate News, September 17, 2015; Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, p. 173. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1980-memo-on-exxons-view-and-position-on-the-greenhouse-effect/. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1979-exxon-memo-on-atmospheric-science-research-to-influence-legislation/. ↩
More recently, when ExxonMobil realized that people were trying to learn what it had known about climate science and when, a company spokesman denied that the ship’s research pertained to climate change. This is contradicted, however, by the company’s own records and the recollections of the scientists involved. (See Banerjee et al., “Deep Dive Into Climate Research.”) ↩
See cdn.exxonmobil.com/~/media/global/files/energy-and-environment/climate_peer_reviewed_publications_1980s_forward.pdf. ExxonMobil has sometimes argued in the last year that its publication of these peer-reviewed papers on climate change means it could not have been engaged in climate denial. “This is complete bullshit,” company spokesman Richard Keil told The Guardian. “We have a 30 year continuous uninterrupted history of researching climate change and the LA Times for whatever reason chose to ignore that fact.” (Suzanne Goldenberg, “Exxon’s Climate Change Denial Warrants Federal Inquiry, Congressmen Say,” The Guardian, October 16, 2015.) In fact, however, the company’s understanding of climate science is essential to our contention that it tried to deceive the public about the reality of global warming even while acknowledging that reality internally. Its peer-reviewed scientific papers are written in highly technical language, all but inaccessible to the layman; most of them were published in highly specialized journals, and many can now be found only in libraries, or online behind pay walls. Almost no members of the general public would ever have been aware of these papers or their contributions to science. In contrast, as we will explain, the company’s efforts to confuse the public about climate change reached a much, much wider audience. It seems likely that Exxon hoped its publication of legitimate climate research would help it defend itself in case its denial campaign were ever discovered. ↩
See Song, Banerjee, and Hasemyer, “Exxon Confirmed Global Warming”; David Hasemyer and John H. Cushman Jr., “Exxon Sowed Doubt About Climate Science for Decades by Stressing Uncertainty,” InsideClimate News, October 22, 2015. ↩
See Song, Banerjee, and Hasemyer, “Exxon Confirmed Global Warming”. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, p. 128. ↩
See Jennings, Grandoni, and Rust, “How Exxon Went from Leader to Skeptic”; www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/566/. Exxon used the phrase “enhanced greenhouse effect” to distinguish between the effect that has always been present, because there has always naturally been a certain amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the additional effect caused by human activity. “The natural greenhouse effect,” Exxon liked to say, “is unquestionably real and definitely a good thing. It’s what makes the earth’s atmosphere livable,” because the planet would be largely frozen without it. (See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/global-warming-who-is-right-1996/.) ↩
See Jennings, Grandoni, and Rust, “How Exxon Went from Leader to Skeptic”, pp. 20, 27, 31–32. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 14–16. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 6, 13, 15, 16, 34; Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air,” p. 7. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, p. 33. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 5–6. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 65, 125. ↩
See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, p. 244. For a recent example of ExxonMobil’s funding of climate denial, see Justin Gillis and John Schwartz, “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher,” The New York Times, February 21, 2015. ↩
See, e.g., Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 186–190 ↩
See, e.g., Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 1–5, 198–213, 264. ↩
See exxonsecrets.org for a list of these organizations. Although it is impossible to say what every dollar was used for, according to Greenpeace ExxonMobil has spent about $30 million supporting climate-denying think tanks since 1981, including contributions from Exxon, the Exxon Foundation, and the ExxonMobil Foundation. (Suzanne Goldenberg, “ExxonMobil Gave Millions to Climate-Denying Lawmakers Despite Pledge,” The Guardian, July 15, 2015.) However, that figure is based only on expenditures that can be confirmed through publicly available information. The company could easily have provided additional support to these think tanks and other climate denying organizations in ways more difficult to trace. As Greenpeace has said, “accurate figures may never be known.” (Greenpeace, “Denial and Deception: A Chronicle of ExxonMobil’s Efforts to Corrupt the Debate on Global Warming,” May 2002, p. 24.)
A 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists adds detail and explanation to the part these think tanks played in ExxonMobil’s denial campaign. “First, ExxonMobil underwrites well-established groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute that actively oppose mandatory action on global warming as well as many other environmental standards. But the funding doesn’t stop there. ExxonMobil also supports a number of lesser-known organizations that help to market and distribute global warming disinformation…. A close look at the work of these organizations exposes ExxonMobil’s strategy. Virtually all of them publish and publicize the work of a nearly identical group of spokespeople, including scientists who misrepresent peer-reviewed climate findings and confuse the public’s understanding of global warming. Most of these organizations also include these same individuals as board members or scientific advisers.
“Why would ExxonMobil opt to fund so many groups with overlapping spokespeople and programs? By generously funding a web of organizations with redundant personnel, advisors, or spokespeople, ExxonMobil can quietly and effectively provide the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate science contrarians. The seeming diversity of the organizations creates an ‘echo chamber’ that amplifies and sustains scientific disinformation even though many of the assertions have been repeatedly debunked by the scientific community.” (See Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air,” pp. 10–11.) ↩
For example, Steven Milloy was a veteran of the tobacco industry’s long disinformation campaign about smoking who became a columnist for FoxNews.com, as well as a contributor to the Exxon-funded journalistic website Tech Central Station and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He wrote a column for FoxNews.com criticizing a study’s conclusion that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. “The Washington Times reprinted Milloy’s column, and neither Fox News nor the Washington Times disclosed that Milloy had received money from ExxonMobil: $40,000 to The Advancement of Sound Science Center and $50,000 to the Free Enterprise Action Institute—both of which are registered to Milloy’s home address.” (See Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, pp. 242–243, 246–247; Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air,” pp. 10, 17–19.) ↩
See, e.g., www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/2000-exxon-global-climate-change-op-ed-series/. ↩
See Hasemyer and Cushman, “Exxon Sowed Doubt”. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/october-13-1997-exxon-lee-raymond-speech-at-world-petroleum-congress/. ↩
See www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1998-global-climate-science-communications-team-action-plan/. ↩
See www.opensecrets.org. According to Steve Coll in Private Empire, “In the years after the Mobil merger, [CEOs] Raymond and Tillerson oversaw more spending on direct lobbying…than all but two other American companies, General Electric and Pacific Gas and Electric. ExxonMobil had evolved into the most profitable corporation headquartered in the United States—and one of the most politically active—in an era of corporate ascendancy” (pp. 623–624). ↩
See Hasemyer and Cushman, “Exxon Sowed Doubt”. ↩
See Coll, Private Empire, pp. 69–71, 89–91, 247–248, 320–321. ↩
See Greenpeace, “Denial and Deception,” p. 14. ↩
Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 123. Quoted in Coll, Private Empire, p. 91. ↩