A protester holding a sign about the climate change denial of ExxonMobil at the protest Our Generation, Our Choice in Washington, D.C., on November 10th 2015. Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud
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This story was first published in the Documented newsletter on Substack
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Last month, the Washington Post obtained a recording of top Exxon lobbyist Erik Oswald telling a gathering of industry peers that he doesn’t believe climate change poses "catastrophic, inevitable risk.”
But Exxon’s own internal documents from the 1970s and 1980s acknowledge that climate change poses catastrophic risks, and climate scientists say catastrophic risks are inevitable if humans don’t rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, a joint investigation from HEATED and Documented has found.
Our findings show that one of the world’s top fossil fuel companies is still publicly downplaying the certainty of environmental and economic catastrophe if its core product isn’t rapidly wound down. They also add fuel to the ongoing House Oversight Committee investigation of Exxon and other oil majors over their role in spreading climate disinformation to the public.
“This is very disappointing,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who is leading the investigation, said in an e-mailed statement. “Exxon owes a clear, public explanation for this.”
The audio recording of Erik Oswald’s comments represents Exxon’s second lobbyist debacle of the year. The first came in June, when secretly recorded footage showed now-former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy admitting the oil giant “aggressively” fought climate science and funded “shadow groups” to confuse the public.
Exxon responded by disavowing McCoy’s statements and firing him. After that, Oswald became the company’s go-to spokesperson about the incident. The Vice President of Advocacy and the head of the company’s “Low Carbon Solutions” wing and a top lobbyist who has worked for Exxon for 30 years, Oswald called the McCoy tapes “gutting” and “a mischaracterization.” Now he finds himself the subject of tapes of his own.
In the recording, which was originally obtained by Documented and reported on by the Post the day before Thanksgiving, Oswald explained to a group of gathered oil industry executives and state-level oil regulators that Exxon’s policy strategy hinges on prioritizing shareholder profits, not preventing climate catastrophe—a catastrophe which, Oswald said, was not certain to happen at all.
“The way we think about this is, not as the crusaders for the climate fix,” Oswald said. “The way I look at it as a scientist is, all I need to think about is, is there risk? Yes, there’s risk. Is it a catastrophic inevitable risk? Not to my mind.”
But Exxon has privately acknowledged catastrophic climate risk for decades. In a memo from 1981, Roger Cohen, a top Exxon scientist, cautioned that climate change could "produce effects which will, indeed, be catastrophic, at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth's population."
Cohen’s memo was meant to rebut those within Exxon that, like Oswald decades later, refused to acknowledge the reality that climate catastrophe could occur.
In a memo the next year, Cohen expounded on the existing scientific consensus that CO2 emissions would result in dangerous climate disruptions. “In summary, the results of our research are in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate.” In closing, Cohen added “our ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature; indeed to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”
A month after Cohen’s memo, M.B. Glaser, Exxon’s manager of environmental affairs, wrote in a memo that "There are some potentially catastrophic events that should be considered."
“For example, if the Antarctic ice sheet which is anchored on land should melt, then this could cause a rise in sea level on the order of 5 meters. Such a rise would cause flooding on much of the U.S. East Coast, including the State of Florida and Washington, D.C.”
Glaser, however, warned that the report “should be restricted…and not distributed externally.”
Exxon and its lobbying partners have also understood for decades that the risk of catastrophic impacts is high, if not completely certain. In a report created by the American Petroleum Institute for an industry working group which included Exxon, API scientists found “Uncertainty in Estimates” for carbon cycle modeling to be “minor.” “Physical facts agree on the probability of large effects 50 years away” the report reads.
In a statement to the Post, Exxon disputed that it had ever mischaracterized the science. “ExxonMobil has long acknowledged that climate change is real and poses serious risks,” spokesman Casey Norton said in an email. Norton also said Oswald’s statements “lack appropriate context and are not representative of the company’s positions on important issues, including climate change and carbon capture.”
But climate scientists and disinformation experts tell HEATED and Documented that Exxon is still downplaying the severity of climate change—just as the company has done for many, many years.
Exxon has a history of making public statements that downplay the scientific certainty of climate change. In 1977, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond said “Many people, politicians and the public alike, believe that global warming is a rock-solid certainty…But it’s not.” Just last month, during a Congressional hearing on climate misinformation, current CEO Darren Woods would only say “greenhouse gasses can contribute to climate change.”
But global warming is a rock-solid certainty, and greenhouse gases are the indisputable cause. Exxon has known this for decades. A 1995 report by Lenny Bernstein of the Mobil Corporation, which would merge with Exxon three years later, says it best: “[The] scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” Bernstein wrote.
But now, Exxon is finding trickier ways to downplay the science. In interviews with HEATED and Documented, scientists noted that Oswald’s claim that climate change doesn’t pose “catastrophic, inevitable risk” is tough to scientifically assess.
“There is no scientific definition of the term ‘catastrophe,’” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “Saying climate change is not a catastrophic, inevitable risk is an opinion, not a scientific fact.”
Jane Zelikova, a soil carbon scientist at the University of Wyoming, agreed that “catastrophe” is a value judgment, and depends on your personal perspective and place in society. “‘Catastrophic and inevitable risk’ is in the eye of the beholder and some people have the privilege to not experience most of the impacts, while others will bear the brunt,” she said.
But do climate scientists believe the risk is catastrophic? “Yes, because I am not a sociopath and consider millions of preventable deaths to be a catastrophe,” said Kate Marvel, a research scientist at GISS and Columbia University.
Zelikova, too, said catastrophe would be an appropriate word for climate effects that have already occurred. “Extreme weather events are already more frequent and severe and they already bring catastrophic consequences and tons of personal, societal, and economic risk,” she said.
Zelikova also noted a recent paper showing climate change will lead to decreases in maize and soy crop productivity in many agricultural regions across the world. “Are these changes catastrophic? Probably for the farmers and likely consumers will feel the effects as prices for these major commodities increase,” she said. “Are they inevitable? Probably, since the effects of heat and drought can only be overcome with irrigation and most of these areas do not have access to irrigation during the summer months.”
Oswald and Exxon, however, may not consider these impacts catastrophic because they don’t affect the oil giant’s bottom line, said Jessica Green, a University of Toronto political scientist whose research focuses on how oil companies are responding to climate change.
“It's pretty obvious that the science is clear on ‘catastrophic, inevitable risk,” she said. “The issue for fossil fuel companies is that they are going to lose a lot of money, and so are slow walking climate policy any way they can.”
Indeed, Oswald’s comments are “straight out of the inactivist playbook,” said Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and author of The New Climate War, a book about “how fossil fuel companies have waged a thirty-year campaign to deflect blame and responsibility for climate change.” That playbook, he said, allows industry representatives to appear like concerned climate activists, while not actually advocating for anything that would meaningfully address climate change.
And climate scientists all over the world have made it abundantly clear: the only way to meaningfully address climate change, and reduce catastrophic inevitable risk, is to eliminate greenhouse gas pollution—the majority of which comes from fossil fuels.
The Exxon recording and revelations from it come amid multiple lawsuits against Exxon and other oil majors over their role worsening the climate crisis. The House Oversight Committee has also subpoenaed Exxon, API, and other oil majors over their role spreading climate disinformation and policy delay.
The goal of the Oversight Committee’s hearing and subsequent subpoenas is to “examine the fossil fuel industry’s long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming.” The committee believes Exxon “took public stances in support of climate actions while privately continuing to block reforms.”
The glaring dichotomy between Exxon’s current public position on climate change and Oswald’s flippant denial of climate threats underscores the legitimacy of the Committee's concern, said Rep. Khanna.
“In the hearing, [Exxon CEO Darren Woods] said ‘our position . . . has been consistent with the general consensus in the scientific community,’” he recalled. But the new recording of Oswald “shows that Exxon continues to downplay the threat posed by climate change and contradicts the science,” Khanna said.
So far, the oil industry’s response to the Congressional investigation has been a familiar one. During the hearing, Exxon denied funding anti-science propaganda to mislead the public. The companies involved have also delayed turning over evidence to the Committee, and the documents that have been released seem to be purposefully confusing and inadequate.
All the while, Republicans on the Oversight Committee have vociferously defended their funders. Last week, they sent a letter to the Democratic majority, asking them to stop the investigation altogether. Calling the investigation “an abuse of Congress’ oversight authority,” the Republicans’ letter read, “This Committee needs to act now and use its authority to address the most pressing issues facing the country.” It appears they do not consider climate change catastrophic either.
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