In just over a week we have learned that the last eight years have been the warmest since temperature records exist, and also that the Exxon Mobil oil company had enough scientific information before anyone else to predict this warming and to determine its cause. In 1980, nobody was still talking about climate change. There were even predictions about the imminence of a new ice age. But that’s when an Exxon-owned supertanker running between California and the Persian Gulf was secretly fitted for the first time with sensors that would measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and seawater. Year after year, it has just become known, teams of scientists at the company’s service accumulated data and created mathematical models with a predictive capacity as amazing as the cynicism of executives who have spent four decades denying what they knew before anyone else.
Exxon Mobil, like the other oil companies that dominate the world, have continued to amass profits that no one can calculate with the full knowledge that they fueled a catastrophe on a planetary scale, and at the same time, without the slightest qualms, they have invested colossal amounts of money —tiny for them— not only in hiding the information they had, but also in denying their evidence, sowing confusion and doubt, and buying politicians and influential figures and financing propaganda and manipulation campaigns, sabotaging legislation to protect the environment. environment, discrediting renewable energies, fueling climate denialism or, more subtly, the supposed scientific uncertainty about the causes of global warming and even its reality.
In a devastating book merchants of doubt published in Spain by Captain Swing, Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes reveal the network of cunning and shamelessness and the enormity of the resources invested in the construction of a lie that is insidiously presented as a sign of skepticism and rational caution, even incorruptible scientific rigor. Governments are weak, environmental transformation policies are always difficult and can be unpopular, public resources limited: the money and power accumulated by companies like Exxon Mobil can buy and manipulate everything, and hide the evidence of their own manipulation. In the 1990s, when its own reports were already warning, in literal words, of “potentially catastrophic change,” Exxon ran full-page ads in the New York Times denying that there was evidence of the negative influence of burning fossil fuels, and suggesting that warming, if it exists, could have beneficial effects.
The merchants of doubt applied a model of methodical deception that had proven its effectiveness for at least half a century, that of the tobacco companies. Fostering throat and lung cancer is as profitable a business as poisoning the atmosphere and ruining the biosphere. Long before the public health services, the tobacco businessmen had had proof of the lethality of their merchandise, but the bottom line depended so much on the increase in addiction and death that it was worth investing anything in it. hide the truth and sow confusion and doubt when that concealment was no longer possible. The hulking cowboy who rode in the Marlboro ad had died of tobacco-induced lung cancer, but there were still venal pundits and fancy law firms willing to thwart anti-smoking legal action, and even tough souls whose misplaced sense of rebellion led them to vindicate as an exercise of personal freedom what is not and has never been more than a destructive captivity.
They are always the first to know. Tech moguls are so aware of the damage their products can do that screens are not allowed in elite Silicon Valley schools. A former Facebook executive recently declared: “We don’t know what we’re doing to our children’s brains.” The owners of the Purdue Pharma company were also certain that the opioid OxyContin was more addictive than cocaine and that the more people hooked on it and the more devastating its personal and social effects, the greater the dividends it would give them.
I’m not sure that the oil companies are afraid of being subjected, like the tobacco companies in the United States in the 1990s or like the owners of Purdue Pharma, to lawsuits that cost them billions. They make so much money that even the largest fine that a State or a court can impose on them will seem laughable. There is no power in the world comparable to yours. There is no calamity that does not favor them or crisis from which they do not come out stronger. In a time of impoverishment for the vast majority, I read in this newspaper: “Repsol’s refineries multiplied their profit margin by six.” The legitimacy of capitalism is based on the doctrine that the enrichment of private companies favors the general well-being, but that logic is broken by the obscene spectacle of a prosperity that feeds directly on poverty, war, disease, etc. of death. “Repsol, like the rest of the world’s oil giants, lived in 2022 a year of wine and roses,” says the newspaper. “The recent phase of gasoline and, above all, diesel shortages in the West as a result of the war has led to a drastic increase in profits at refineries.” States do not have the means to support public health. Even having decent work contracts, many people cannot afford to rent a home. There are children who arrive at school without having had breakfast. In the first nine months of last year, as I keep reading in the newspaper, Repsol made a profit of 3.2 billion euros, “66% more than in the same period of 2021.”
The poorest countries, which are already hit the hardest by climate change and are least to blame for its causes, demand in vain economic aid that would be barely a fraction of the profits that these companies continue to accumulate at the expense of accelerating the disaster. Now we all know what the scientists at ExxonMobil discovered in the early 1980s, and what its executives have worked so hard to hide throughout these four decades, while the curve of its profits traced an upward trajectory parallel to the accumulation in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. These have also been the 40 years in which States and international institutions have been weakening, submitting to the pressures of formidable economic forces that have imposed everywhere the elimination of legal guarantees and regulations that in the United States during the New Deal and then in post-war Europe served to set limits to greed and abuse by the most powerful and favor a certain degree of social justice. The lords of finance also knew before 2008 that the speculation bubble that was enriching them was unsustainable, and they also managed to be the only ones who did not pay the consequences of their own delirium. Millions of people were left homeless, but no banker went to jail. Only a massive progressive push in a supranational democratic institution like the European Union would have some of the force to stop these people. It is a poor hope, but I am afraid there is no other.
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