Did the Fossil Fuel Industry Bring Us to the Point of No Return?
As runaway climate change continues to wreak havoc on the planet, it’s getting harder and harder to disagree with the idea that we’re in the middle of a potentially massive extinction event. It’s also getting harder and harder to ignore the potentially criminal liability of at least some fossil fuel companies for causing this mess.
The evidence against them just keeps mounting up.
According to a new story in The Guardian, executives from Exxon Mobil contacted the communications director of a popular congressional lecture series in early 2001 and, for all intents and purposes, asked him turn it into an outlet for fossil fuel industry propaganda.
That lecture series was set up by the US Global Change Research Program or USGCRP, and it was doing great work explaining the dangers of runaway global warming.
But Exxon couldn’t let that happen, so it demanded that the lectures be “less agenda-driven” and more “balanced,” which, just in case you don’t know corporate double-speak, means less honest about the threat of global warming and more in line with Big Oil talking points.
Nichy Sundt, the USGCRP communications person who received the call from Exxon, says he never personally heard from the company again, but the whole incident still struck a chord.
As he told the Guardian, “I thought it was very… inappropriate, for a fossil fuel lobbyist to be calling me directly, days after the administration was sworn in, only directly to instruct me on how we would be communicating to the Congress on climate change. This is ExxonMobil reaching into the federal government science apparatus and seeking to influence the communication of science.”
In the grand scheme of the fossil fuel industry and its influence over the government, this incident with the congressional lecture series isn’t all that significant.
It’s just one of many examples of how Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Gas, try to write the rules regarding climate change.
But in the context of Exxon itself and the question of whether or not it is criminally liable for climate change, this story of a 15-year-old telephone call between a corporate executive and a government official is a really big deal.
Thanks to some great reporting from the Guardian and Inside Climate News, we now know that Exxon knew about climate change as far back as 1977, eleven years before James Hansen gave his famous speech to Congress warning us about global warming.
We also now know that Exxon first took this knowledge as a sign that it needed to change its business model, but the company then changed its mind and tried to sow confusion and doubt about the science around climate change.
This mostly involved funding climate denial groups, but it also involved lobbying the government to tow the Exxon line on global warming, as today’s report from the Guardian shows.
The big picture narrative here is stunning.
Not only did Exxon know about climate change long before everyone else did, it did everything in its power to prevent that knowledge from getting out. And when that knowledge did get out, Exxon lied about it or pretended that it wasn’t real.
This is exactly, and I repeat EXACTLY, what the tobacco industry did with the science connecting cigarette smoke to cancer and other diseases, and it deserves, at the very least, the same punishment.
Which is exactly why 17 attorneys general are now trying to do to the fossil fuel industry what the government did to the tobacco industry. Led by Eric Schneiderman of New York, these attorneys general have launched a probe of Exxon to see if it committed criminal fraud by lying to the American people about global warming.
A major lawsuit is definitely in the cards.
This is good news and it’s long overdue, but we shouldn’t stop with Exxon.
If Exxon knew about climate change back in the 1970s, other fossil fuel companies probably did, too.
In fact, they almost certainly did. Last month - the D.C. based Center for International Environmental Law - released a report that the American Petroleum Institute commissioned way back in the 1960s.
That report - which was conducted with the help of scientists from Stanford University - is shockingly accurate in its conclusions and predictions.
It argues that by using fossil fuels: “…man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth… [And as a result] significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000.”
The report - again, this is from the 1960s! - then goes on to say that: “If the Earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans and an increase in photosynthesis.”
In other words - the senior executives in the fossil fuel industry knew over 40 years ago exactly what was going to happen if they kept pumping fossil fuels into our atmosphere.
Time may be running out to stop global warming, but there is still time left to hold the people responsible for it accountable for their crimes.
They should all be investigated, and, if possible, pursued to the fullest extent of the law.