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Revoke ExxonMobil's Corporate Charter: Their Scientists Discovered the Connection Between Fuel Emissions and Global Warming in the 1980's - The Company Hid the Facts

Capitalism is Not Patriotism: Not only did the Exxon Corporation know that fuel combustion effects on climate change could lead to "catastrophic events" — it made a concerted effort to convince the public that climate change wasn't even real.

Exxon's own research in the 1980s indicated that without major reductions in fossil fuel combustion, "[t]here are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered." (Photo: Luc B / Flickr)
Exxon's own research in the 1980s indicated that without major reductions in fossil fuel combustion, "[t]here are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered." (Photo: Luc B / Flickr)

By Marjorie Cohn
More than 50,000 people from around the world came together in Paris in December 2015 to address the single biggest threat to the survival of the natural world - the climate crisis. There is virtual unanimity among scientists that the burning of fossil fuels is causing the warming of the planet, and if critical steps are not taken, a habitable world will cease to exist.
RELATED STORY: Exxon's Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too
But there are entities that stand to lose if alternative sources of energy overtake coal, oil and natural gas. They are huge corporations, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and Texaco.

Indeed, from 1990 to 2005, Exxon - now called ExxonMobil - spent millions of dollars in a sophisticated campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change. The oil giant knew better.

Exxon's Scientists Confirm Climate Change

In 1977, James Black, an Exxon senior scientist, told a meeting of powerful oil company executives, "There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from burning of fossil fuels." The following year, Black wrote: "Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical."

During much of the 1980s, Exxon conducted cutting-edge research on climate change. In 1982, its environmental affairs office prepared a corporate primer labeled "not to be distributed externally." It said that preventing global warming "would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion." If that didn't happen, the primer read, "There are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered." It added: "Once the effects are measurable, they may not be reversible."

RELATED STORY: Big Oil Braced for Global Warming While it Fought Regulations

In 1989, Duane Levine, Exxon's manager of science and strategy development, told the board of directors that scientists largely agreed that the burning of fossil fuels would release gases that could raise temperatures between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of the 21st century. Glaciers would melt and sea levels would rise, Levine declared, "with generally negative consequences."

When James Hansen, a prominent NASA climate scientist, testified before Congress in 1988 that global warming had begun, Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colorado) said, "Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend."

As calls for reductions in carbon dioxide from fossil fuels increased in the United States and around the world, Exxon realized the severity of the threat to its bottom line. Brian Flannery, Exxon's climate expert, wrote in an internal newsletter that such regulations would "alter profoundly the strategic direction of the energy industry."

Exxon Begins to Sow Doubt About Climate Change

Exxon made a strategic decision to publicly sow seeds of doubt about climate change while internally confirming it. A far-reaching investigation by Columbia University's Energy and Environmental Fellowship Project and the Los Angeles Times, and another by InsideClimate News, revealed Exxon's fateful shift.

An internal draft memo dated August 1988, called "The Greenhouse Effect," set forth the "Exxon position." It advised that the corporation should "emphasize the uncertainty."

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