Exxon Mobil investigated for climate change cover-up

07 November 2015 6:56 am

New York officials are investigating allegations that Exxon Mobil perpetrated a climate change cover up, sponsoring and then suppressing research confirming the risks of climate change decades ago.

According to the New York Times, the probe seeks to determine whether the company failed to disclose the climate change risks to investors as well as the public. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has issued a subpoena to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.

The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.

The probe was triggered after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News published a report alleging that Exxon Mobil "turned ordinary scientific uncertainties into weapons of mass confusion."

According to the report, scientists warned Exxon as far back as 1977 about a possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect. The company then suppressed the news. Toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day. We also learn that Exxon Mobil allegedly pressured the White House under President George W. Bush to hire scientists who disputed climate change research to work with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The company also allegedly pressured the Bush administration to fire scientists who supported research that climate change is caused by human activity, such as burning fossil fuels. The report also cited statements from Exxon senior scientists who said the research was clear that burning fossil fuels was linked to global climate change, as opposed to public statements from executives such as former CEO Lee Raymond, who said the evidence was "inconclusive."

The bottom line to the allegations is that ExxonMobil deliberately lied about the dangers of using its products. Similar behaviour led attorneys general of 46 states in the US to sue the tobacco industry’s four biggest companies in 1997 for the costs of providing health care for smokers and secondhand-smoke victims. In the end, the tobacco companies had to pay damages in perpetuity, with at least $206 billion due to the states over the first 25 years.

How long will the investigation take? We don’t know. The tobacco industry lawsuits, for instance, spanned years, with Philip Morris in 2000 ordered to pay $51.5 million to a California smoker with lung cancer.

Writing in the Daily Beast, Mark Hertsgaard says Exxon Mobil was using the tobacco industry strategy.

“Big Tobacco’s lies imposed grievous losses on smokers and their loved ones, but that damage is dwarfed by ExxonMobil’s alleged deceptions. If it helped to keep carbon emissions rising for decades beyond when the company’s own scientists knew that this invited disaster, ExxonMobil helped destabilize the climate that every person and business enterprise on earth relies upon.”