Climate change? What’s that?

Oh well, it’s only the planet.

ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm’s own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial.

Well, look at it from their point of view. The climate would be ok for their lifetimes, so why should they pay any attention to climate change when they could make good money flogging oil instead?

From that angle it makes perfect sense.

In the email Bernstein, a chemical engineer and climate expert who spent 30 years at Exxon and Mobil and was a lead author on two of the United Nations’ blockbuster IPCC climate science reports, said climate change first emerged on the company’s radar in 1981, when the company was considering the development of south-east Asia’s biggest gas field, off Indonesia.

That was seven years ahead of other oil companies and the public, according to Bernstein’s account.

Climate change was largely confined to the realm of science until 1988, when the climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels.

Bernstein’s response, first posted on the institute’s website last October, was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on Wednesday as part of a report on climate disinformation promoted by companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Peabody Energy, called the Climate Deception Dossiers.

That sounds worth reading.

Exxon, unlike other companies and the public at large in the early 1980s, was already aware of climate change – and the prospect of regulations to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, according to Bernstein’s account.

“In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue,” he wrote.

“Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations,” Bernstein wrote in the email.

Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor who researches the history of climate science, said it was unsurprising Exxon would have factored climate change in its plans in the early 1980s – but she disputed Bernstein’s suggestion that other companies were not. She also took issue with Exxon’s assertion of uncertainty about the science in the 1980s, noting the National Academy of Science describing a consensus on climate change from the 1970s.

The Guardian provides the whole email at the end.

British Columbia is burning to the ground at the moment, but Exxon has its profits.


  1. iknklast says

    They were taking their lead from the cigarette companies. Good role models, right?

  2. Jean says

    Speaking of role models, can someone sue the oil companies like was done for the tobacco companies? That wouldn’t fix the problem but at least it would hurt them the only that counts for them.

    One problem would be that they own so many politicians in different countries that it would never result in anything significant.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    1981? Then I agree with Oreskes–they weren’t as ahead of the curve as they’re being made to sound. We were talking about global warming in my elementary school class in the 1970’s. It was around the time that Omni (or some such mag) had published material about how we’re overdue for an ice age, and the class laughed because one kid (pretty sure it was me, but memory fades) said something about an ice age coming, and another kid came back that no, it’s global warming we should be concerned about now.

    To my knowledge, none of us had parents working for Exxon Mobile, and none of us were scientists, so I would classify us as “general public.”

  4. A Masked Avenger says

    Note: for years I was a denier precisely because of that experience. The claim resonated with me that “first it’s global cooling, then it’s global warming–make up your minds, scare-mongers!”

  5. anat says

    Indeed in 1977 my 5th grade class was discussing potential changes in climate in the future, and I found an article about how CO2 rise should cause warming. And 7 years later I watched the original Cosmos in which Carl Sagan warned us that earth might become another Venus if we are not careful.

  6. rjw1 says

    Is anyone surprised?

    Corporations have been playing that game since the start of the Industrial Revolution, it’s essentially a rear guard action to deny or to transfer the costs of externalities to production to the taxpayers and they will continue with the same tactics until individuals are prosecuted and imprisoned.

  7. StevoR says

    Actually Global Warming has been known and taken seriously from the 1950’s as this excellent ytoutibe clip shows :

    ‘Climate Science 1956: A Blast from the Past’ by Greenman3610 /Peter Sinclair – superb series.

    Svante Arrhenius first proposed the theory back in 1896 – yes eighteen ninety six.

    Based on information from his colleague Arvid Högbom (sv), Arrhenius was the first person to predict that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other combustion processes were large enough to cause global warming. In his calculation Arrhenius included the feedback from changes in water vapor as well as latitudinal effects, but he omitted clouds, convection of heat upward in the atmosphere, and other essential factors. His work is currently seen less as an accurate prediction of global warming than as the first demonstration that it should be taken as a serious possibility.

    Source : Svante Arrhenius wikipedia page.

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