ExxonMobil’s internal climate science research, which began as soon as the 1970s, accurately and regularly predicted the pace and severity of global warming, even as executives publicly said the data wasn’t accurate or relevant enough to change the course of further oil and gas development, a new study finds.
The study published Thursday in the journal Science found that over the next decades, Exxon’s scientists made projections that proved even more accurate than those of independent academic and government models, including from NASA.
Media reviews of ExxonMobil
data and the historical commentary of Big Oil executives have already been leveraged for environmental campaigns in recent years, such as #ExxonKnew. But where Thursday’s report differs is its look at how thorough and accurate the internal data and modeling proved to be when compared to the actual changes in Earth’s temperature.
The new research, dismissed in part by the oil concern’s representatives as fueling the #ExxonKnew claims, may play a role in legal action against the company for allegedly misleading investors and the public about the dangers of global warming.
The study examined 32 internal documents containing scientific research produced by in-house Exxon scientists between 1977 and 2002, and 72 peer-reviewed studies from company scientists between 1982 and 2014. The findings were pursued by researchers at Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
“What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe,” the research authors said.
For certain, public rhetoric seldom relayed those findings, which fueled a whole generation of climate-change deniers on Capitol Hill and in private-sector boardrooms.
Global warming projections “are based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation,” Lee Raymond, chief executive of the newly-merged ExxonMobil Corp, said at a company annual meeting in 1999.
“We do not now have a sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and/or justify drastic measures,” he wrote in a company brochure the following year.
As Exxon and other scientific data show, the burning of oil
and coal puts off emissions that raise Earth’s temperature, creating acidic oceans and higher sea levels. That in turn brings intensifying storms, worsening drought and deadlier wildfires and it hurts the biodiversity that will be key to feeding a growing planet.
While oil and gas concerns have also diversified into wind
solar, hydrogen, nuclear and carbon capture, many have said fossil fuels must remain for now, and they used the recent energy shortages sparked by Russia’s war in Ukraine as fodder for their case.
The United Nations, calling out rich nations and the private sector, has been critical of the slow early movement toward halving global emissions by 2030 and flipping to net-zero emissions by 2050. The U.N. and others have said it will take a broad effort to slow global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and thwart the worst of deadly and expensive climate disasters.
Last year, a House committee grilled oil chiefs, including current Exxon chief executive Darren Woods, on whether companies misled the public about climate change. Woods testified that company positions were “entirely consistent” with the scientific consensus of the time.
In response to the journal article this week, Exxon officials again emphasized that its own knowledge on climate change has evolved with the scientific community.
As the Oversight committee was about to lose its Democratic leadership after the midterm elections, that party signed off on its own report accusing the oil industry, including Exxon rivals Chevron
of making major investments recently in projects that would “protect and entrench the use of fossil fuels long past the timeline that scientists say would be safe to prevent catastrophic climate change,” action that came despite making climate pledges to boost reputations.
For the most part, the companies have been transparent in detailing production plans, which can take years to finance and permit.
The committee’s Democratic members all signed on to the report, which followed a year-plus investigation, but no Republicans put their name on it.
At an October hearing on the matter, Rep. James Comer, a Republican of Kentucky, said the investigation was “to deliver partisan theater for prime-time news.”
Republicans generally have said that U.S. oil independence remains an important consideration even as the industry works toward bringing more alternative energy on line.
Thursday’s report from Harvard and team found that Exxon’s research also led to an accurate estimate of how much carbon dioxide could be emitted before the world would warm by more than 2°C.
This implied that some of the company’s oil and gas holdings could become stranded assets, but such risks were not communicated to the company’s investors or the public, the study says.
The new study involves researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, who have published multiple studies that qualitatively examined what Exxon knew internally and told the public about climate change.
“In essence, Exxon didn’t just know, they knew precisely,” Supran said. He is starting the Climate Accountability Lab at the University of Miami, which “will investigate climate disinformation & propaganda by fossil fuel interests,” he said on Twitter.
Exxon shares are up more than 60% over the past year and have started 2023 in the green.