In 2015, digging journalists found revealing internal documents from Exxon: The petroleum company already knew in the late 70s that fossil fuels will lead to dramatic climate changes before 2050.
Now, for the first time, researchers have made a systematic review of what Exxon’s researchers had actually found out. The analysis has been published in the science journal Science.
The study concludes that Exxon’s research was very close to the developments we actually see, and to the climate models of independent researchers.
Exxon predicted that climate change would only be felt from the start of the 2000s. The company estimated with great accuracy how much CO₂ will cause dangerous warming. They also predicted the carbon budget for a temperature increase below 2 degrees above pre-industrial times.
“Most of their projections predicted a warming that is consistent with recent observations,” the researchers write in the analysis.
Geoffrey Supran at Harvard University is one of the researchers behind the analysis. He says to The Guardian that “it took my breath away” to see how accurately Exxon’s predictions matched reality.
– Now we have the smoking gun that shows how accurately they predicted global warming years before they started attacking climate research. These graphs show what Exxon knew and how they still misinformed, says Supran.
Denied the knowledge
Armed with the knowledge of the climate crisis, Exxon began a year-long campaign to downplay and discredit what their own scientists had found.
As recently as 2013, then Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson said climate models were incompetent and uncertain about the impact of fossil fuels.
– They kept quiet about their research and only used it when it became strategically necessary to deal with the existential threat to their business, and to counter climate research, says Supran.
Natalie Mahowald is a climate scientist at Cornell University. She believes that Exxon has contributed to the fact that investments in wind and solar have started far too late to avoid climate catastrophe.
– If we include impacts from air pollution and climate change, their actions have probably affected thousands to millions of people negatively, says Mahowald.
Can be used in lawsuits
– I am sure that the ongoing efforts to hold Exxon accountable will benefit from this study.
That’s what Robert Brulle tells The Guardian. He researches climate disinformation from the fossil fuel industry at Brown University. Brulle refers to a number of different lawsuits which aim to make oil companies pay for climate damage.
An Exxon spokesperson says those who claim “Exxon knew” are wrong. Exxon points to a 2019 finding by a New York Supreme Court judge in a related case:
“What the evidence at trial revealed is that Exxon’s executives and employees were united in their commitment to strictly carry out their duties as comprehensively and scrupulously as possible. (…) The testimony of these witnesses shows that Exxon has a culture of disciplined analysis, planning, accounting and reporting.”