Exxon’s inconvenient truth

This Guest Opinion first appeared in the Times-Call (FRL)

Back in the day when Exxon was just a gigantic oil company, before its merger with Mobil, Exxon had its own inconvenient truth. Based on investigation by Inside Climate News (ICN) as well as research by the Los Angeles Times in conjunction with a project at Columbia University, in the late 1970s and early 1980s Exxon scientists conducted pioneering research on climate change.

The ICN article is the basis for the following. In July 1977, James Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, gave a sobering report. From a written version he recorded later, Black said: “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”

In 1978, Black gave an updated report to a larger audience of Exxon scientists and managers. According to a written summary of his talk, Black warned: “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.” Among other things, Black also predicted that rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert. In the written summary of his 1978 talk Black said: “Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed.”

In 1982, Exxon developed a primer on climate change and carbon dioxide. Again, from ICN: Marked “not to be distributed externally,” it contained information that “has been given wide circulation to Exxon management.” In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” The ICN article continued: Unless that happened, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” the primer said, citing independent experts. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

Exxon continued with its climate change research, an issue that posed an existential threat to its oil business, until the late 1980s. Exxon scientists even were permitted to publish at least three peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals on their ground breaking research.

Unfortunately, in the late 1980s Exxon shifted tactics to stressing the uncertainty of research into the greenhouse effect. This change apparently was due to financial considerations and was not based on any research challenging its previous findings. Since then, Exxon and climate-change deniers have been successful in preventing effective action on this issue. We have lost 20 to 25 years when steps could have been taken, and now the window for alleviating the worse effects is much smaller. Every year we delay taking effective action means that future actions will have to be much more draconian or the effects of climate change will be far worse.

It appears as if nothing very constructive will be achieved during the current talks in Paris. The fossil fuel industry still has sufficient clout to stop effective action. Distressingly, the U.S. is pushing voluntary national reductions. There would be no requirements since each nation does what it wants when it wants. On top of that, there would be no enforcement mechanism to hold a nation to its commitment.

Talk about perversion— the worse climate change impacts will initially be experienced by those nations that had little to do with causing climate change. The U.S., a key contributor to the increase in greenhouse gases, will generally initially suffer lesser impacts. Coming generations, including the young children and grandchildren of today, who have had no role in causing climate change, will face the greatest suffering. Those generations aren’t going to think kindly towards us and our lack of action.

Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics who lives in Longmont.

Ron Forthofer

Ron Forthofer Ph.D. is retired Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston, Texas; former Green Party candidate for Congress and for Governor of Colorado rforthofer@comcast.net 

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