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.


timallard's picture
timallard 8 years 3 weeks ago

A geophysical solution not dependent on emissions control to succeed restoring sea-ice for a longer season to delay melt-out north into the Chukchi & Beaufort Seas.

Restoring Arctic sea-ice in the Beaufort Sea, it was 4-9 year-old ice now mainly fast-ice, first year so weak and salty and easy to break up, there were no big storms and it melted out last month a new early record: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=88065

The albedo heat is now equal to 20-years of heating from emissions of CO2 because it's so efficient, that's implies Paris commitments need to be halved or 1/3rd the timelines proposed to accommodate how much heat this is and how fast it's growing.

So with global scale in mind a forum thread on creating a dam with a large weir section to allow a much reduced volume in from the Pacific south of Bering Strait at St. Lawrence Island, the proposal: http://forum.arctic-sea-ice.net/index.php?topic=1545.0

Image of the proposed route: http://www.mallard-design.com/mdc2010/media/aleutian-currents3.jpg

Ocean Pete's picture
Ocean Pete 8 years 3 weeks ago

Mind you, it is not the fossil fuel industry that is culpable, but ourselves for using that energy, and above all our unwillingness to curb our consumption to a sutainable level.

The U.S. could cut its energy consumption in half overnight without too much of a hardship, my carbon foot print is under half of the average and life perfectly confortable. But, no kids, no flying or uneeded driving and keeping A/C high and heat low etc...

Two most inflential books I read in my youth were Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and Limits to Growth (1972) which both described and predicted our present dilemma.

Again "man's destiny is to drown in his own feces"

The Glenn Beck Review's picture
The Glenn Beck ... 8 years 3 weeks ago

This is the reason Thom ought to embrace Bernie or bust. Hillary, like Trump, wants to fracking accelerate climate change; and she will!

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 8 years 3 weeks ago

Well Thom... glad to see you finally are considering that we have already passed the point of no return. But why the fingerpointing?

Surely it is not the industry who is trying to sway the government that is responsible, it is that government and all the citizenry too lazy and self centered to ever find out what was really going on.

We have met the enemy and it is US.. but that aside, IF the world is trending toward extinction.. at THIS point, does it really matter who is at fault? It won't change anything and jailing or fines is paltry and moot at this time.

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 8 years 3 weeks ago

According to many climate change experts, there is a lag time between our consumption and any negative environment impacts we can see. That lag time is about 35-40 years later . This means what we see now is the result of actions of our country around 1976 or so.

Based on this lag time, we will be well above the upperlimits of 6.0 degrees C (life is generally believed to be unsustainable above 4.0 degrees C increase) by the time we reap the fallout from our usagein the early part of the 2000s.

According to Bill Mckibben(in the book "eaarth") even if we had stopped ALL carbon emissions all over the world in 2009, it would take about 1000 years to get the planet back to around 350ppm which is what the planet needs in order to be a home to the plants, animals and humans that inhabit it now.

We don't have 1000 years, we may not even have 10 years. More and more Guy McPhersons, "the sky is falling" rhetoric rings ominously true...

In other words, it is too late and we did not stop or even slow consumption in 2009, we accelerated it.

The IPCC stated in their last analysis of climate change (after the NASA discovery of a 150km wide methane vent in 2013) that as early as 2020 up to 90% of all species of plants and animals would be extinct and up to 60% of all humans now on the planet may very well be dead. The game changers? The usual, drought, famine, disease and pestilence and wars as countries and people fight over resources and these 4 horsemen would not be limiting their rides to Africa and Asia. America will be hit, as will parts of Europe and Micronesia and elsewhere.

Now what were you saying about your carbon foot print and having no kids? Toothpaste goes poorly back into the tube.

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 8 years 3 weeks ago


mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 8 years 3 weeks ago
Quote Queenbeethatsme:The IPCC stated in their last analysis of climate change (after the NASA discovery of a 150km wide methane vent in 2013) that as early as 2020 up to 90% of all species of plants and animals would be extinct and up to 60% of all humans now on the planet may very well be dead. ...
Do you have a direct link to this statement?

c-gull's picture
c-gull 8 years 3 weeks ago

Check out researchgate.net publication 46490716. There is a published study there by the Institute of Social Ecology (Erb & Zika) from Austria which shows how much net primary productivity (NPP) has fallen in major geographic regions on the planet. NPP is essentially the "currency" of ecosystems. If it goes down and it is, then everything above it in food chain goes down as well. For example, the Russian Federation and Central Asian area has lost 26% of its NPP since the 70's. This means that, that area will have more hungry people and that the vegetation/land complex will not fix as much carbon as it once did in a time when we need as much photosynthesis as we can get. A kind of double "whammy" force upon us by the corporate sector.

The poorer, hungrier people are being forced to use up the resources even faster which causes soil damage and over-grazing etc. so that the NPP will just continue to drop. Not to mention social unrest which is also occurring in thoses areas.

I think all the CEO's of the major petroleum corporations should be put on a chain gang and made to plant trees by hand for the rest of their lifes.

sandlewould's picture
sandlewould 8 years 3 weeks ago

Wow... ponderring Thom's news makes it hard to see a silver lining.

Since the dawn of agriculture, non-natives have had a growth mentality and growth economies.

There is one thing completely absent from debate, even in Bernie’s campaign. We are at the absolute maxed out phase of an infinite growth economy. Even w/out climate change, we need to move an egalitarian resource based economy to survive as a species, and be capable of having a rational discussion of how to limit the growth of human population.

Ok, here goes..Since it’s anything goes Fri, I wanted to discuss a podcast from Guy McPherson’s show ‘Nature Bats Last’ as it may relate to Zika. There was a story a few weeks back that I believe Thom also commented on to the effect that Zika was very prevalent all over So./Central America. w/ little to no consequence and that the microcephaly epidemic unique to Brazil was possibly caused by chemicals dumped in the water to kill mosquitoes ahead of the summer olympics. I’d like to remind people that before 9/11, conspiracy theorists were considered critical thinkers, as long as they didn’t promote their theory as fact. Here is a link to Guy McPherson’s podcast in which Mark Austin, former homeland security scientist turned whistle blower discusses what the Gov. plans to do in the event of financial, climate, nuclear or civil collapse. 25 min. into the broadcast, he begins to discuss a pandemic potentially planned for North America this summer. I live on the OH river. usually we have lots of mosquitoes. We have had a very wet spring… and yet, not one mosquito, not a single one. What have they dumped in the river?

Kpax's picture
Kpax 8 years 3 weeks ago

Your opening question is absurd! Of course fossil fuels have reeked devastating impacts on this planet. It isn't a question worth asking. The science has proven this and it's past time for people to accept facts and make the appropriate changes in our behavior. This has been an issue all of my life and yet we make very little adjustments because of our own fear of not having the leasure/luxury we are use too and the lobbying that goes on with OUR government that deceives us all.

It just isn't a worthy question. It's already been answered.

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