Internal documents released by the US media in 2015 already showed that the giant ExxonMobil had known for decades about the danger of climate change caused by fossil fuels, although it later publicly denied that this was a problem. A review now published in the journal Science, which analyzes the scientific knowledge that this oil and gas company really had about the consequences of its products on the climate, concludes that its projections accurately anticipated how the planet was going to warm up since the late 1970s. “This is the first quantitative and systematic evaluation of the climate projections of the fossil fuel industry,” says Naomi Oreskes, a professor at Harvard University and one of the authors of the paper, who states: “Between 1977 and 2003, the Exxon scientists modeled and predicted global warming with impressive skill and precision. But in public the company spent decades denying that same climate science.”
In this review, developed by researchers at Harvard University (USA), in collaboration with the Potsdam Institute for Research on the Impact of Climate Change (Germany), 32 internal documents produced by ExxonMobil scientists between 1977 and 2002 were analyzed. and 72 peer-reviewed scientific publications written by ExxonMobil scientists between 1982 and 2014, which makes up the set of available climate information known to have been handled behind closed doors by the US company, one of the world’s largest in income, thanks to the sale of fossil fuels. After verifying what they calculated was going to happen in the climate and what has actually happened, this work suggests that ExxonMobil scientists arrived early, and with high-quality science, at the same conclusions that other researchers warned about. and academics, despite the company’s efforts to sow uncertainty and doubt.
“Their projections were consistent and at least as good as those of independent academic and government models, in some cases they were even better,” Oreskes details by email. “The company’s subsequent public statements contradicted not only the general scientific consensus at the time, but also its own data. We believe this conclusively rules out any claim that ExxonMobil simply had a different interpretation of the data than conventional scientists.”
In 2019, ExxonMobil emerged successful from a first lawsuit for fraud by reporting the impact on climate change to its shareholders, after the State of New York sat the oil giant on the bench. A judge found that the prosecution failed to present irrefutable evidence that the company had violated state law. Yet today dozens of US cities, counties and states are suing fossil fuel companies for hiding what they really knew about the climate consequences of their products.
The Harvard researchers say their findings show that ExxonMobil not only knew “something” about global warming decades ago, but knew “as much” as the other scientists whose findings it was publicly trying to discredit. In addition, they emphasize that this is by no means the only company that has tried to misinform or hide information to minimize the threat of climate change.
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“I think it’s fair to say that we have evidence that all fossil fuel companies were aware of the threat of disruptive climate change from greenhouse gases produced by normal use of their products since the 1970s and even 1960s.” Oreskes says. This researcher in the history of environmental sciences at Harvard is also the author with Erik M. Conway of the book Merchants of Doubta work in which the work of scientists and high-level scientific advisers to hide the truth of climate change for decades is denounced.
“We also have evidence that other sectors related to fossil fuels, such as car manufacturers, were aware of the problem as early as the 1960s. And we know that other companies funded academic research on the subject, at leading universities like Columbia University in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.”
A fossil fuel giant
The fact that ExxonMobil is the company whose internal climate information has been put under the microscope is explained by the relevance of this fossil fuel giant and by the special efforts it has made in the past to discredit warnings against climate change, but also by to be one of the companies that has had the best climate scientists. “Only ExxonMobil seems to have engaged in the level of high-quality science that we are discussing here,” says Oreskes, noting the “reputation” of the scientists who have worked at the company and the fact that they have published peer-reviewed studies. “If anyone has evidence that other companies were doing high-level internal science, we’d be happy to look at that as well,” he says.
As the Harvard professor points out, although for decades they denied that it could be achieved, the review published in Science shows that ExxonMobil “had a very sophisticated and quantitatively accurate risk assessment” of climate change. Specifically, he stresses that the US company actively defended that the scientific uncertainties were too great to justify political action to stop an alleged warming of the planet (and that it would inevitably mean reducing the consumption of fossil fuels). Just the opposite of what their own data proves. “They knew that the uncertainties were not that great”, highlights the researcher, who in the case of the company’s work they have quantified in a percentage of +/-20%. “I would say it’s actually quite small given what was (and still is) at stake,” says Oreskes. “None of their models suggested that climate change would not occur.”
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