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Despite public denials, Exxon predicted global warming 50 years ago – can it be held accountable?

White Exxon gas sign with red logo sits behind power lines against a cloudy blue sky
Image credit: Unsplash

Hypocritical climate denialism by the world’s biggest oil company, ExxonMobil is nothing new.

While Exxon, like many other major oil and gas corporations, have in recent years attempted to rebrand itself as a long-time supporter of climate action, investigations by journalists show again and again that Exxon, early on, knew “something” about climate change and its role in it.

Now in 2023, for the first time, researchers found that Exxon didn’t just know “something.” Much less vague, they knew as much as academic and government scientists knew throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But while those scientists worked to communicate the dangers and anthropogenic roots of climate change, ExxonMobil orchestrated denialism, a research study published on January 13 in the journal Science found.

However, another study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, on January 12, outlines one way we may hold Exxon and other complicit producers accountable, by allowing them to bear the costs of carbon capture.

In 2015, journalists uncovered internal company documents indicating Exxon knew, since at least the late 1970s, that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”

Later documents revealed that the largest U.S. oil and gas trade association knew since at least the 1950s, just as the coal industry knew since the ‘60s and Total oil company and GM and Ford motor companies since at least the ‘70s.

In 2017, journalists again revealed that via Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp’s internal peer-reviewed documents, company scientists overwhelmingly acknowledged the validity of climate change, along with the fact that it is human-caused.

The company called the study that revealed their documents “disappointing” and “flawed.” They painted the New York Times, one of several publications that reported on the study, as a distortionist, in a blog post that has since been deleted.

These reports brought about the #ExxonKnew grassroots movement, calling for the oil giant to be held accountable for knowingly endangering communities with pollution and endangering the world with climate change, “making hundreds of billions at the cost of people’s lives.”

This campaign was followed by similar movements like #ShellKnew and #TotalKnew, calling for widespread fossil fuel accountability. Exxon responded by touting the billions the company poured into renewables and the decades they spent trying to “understand the risks” of climate change.

However, with decades of research in their arsenal, they continued to participate in climate denialism, by “overemphasizing uncertainties, denigrating climate models, mythologizing global cooling, feigning ignorance about the discernibility of human-caused warming, and staying silent about the possibility of stranded fossil fuel assets in a carbon-constrained world,” the authors of the 2023 paper poignantly write.

In the study, the researchers analyzed more than 100 internal documents dating between 1977 and 2014. The documents were either produced in-house at Exxon or authored/co-authored by Exxon scientists and published in independent publications.

Despite the overwhelming evidence Exxon knew the present and future effects of climate change, it underwent a campaign to paint scientists as fear-mongers, as recently as 2013, when Rex Tillerson, then chief executive of the oil company, said climate models were “not competent” and that “there are uncertainties” over the impact of burning fossil fuels.

All the while, the company continued to develop projects around the world, like one in Natuna, Indonesia, which Exxon’s former in-house climate expert, Lenny Bernstein, referred to as a “carbon bomb,” setting off vicious levels of pollution and making Natuna, in 1981, the largest source of CO2 in the world.

The authors of the paper highlight mounting attempts to hold Exxon and other companies accountable for their actions, such as the dozens of lawsuits filed against ExxonMobil, on the part of cities, councils, and states; political mobilizations like the 2019 hearings by the European Parliament and U.S. House, Senate, and Congress on Exxon’s climate denialism and dark money; and civil society campaigns like #ExxonKnew, Pay Up Climate Polluters, and international calls for divestment.

More recently, President Joe Biden issued environmental justice commitments to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. This includes his 2020 debate statement calling to sue fossil fuel companies: “​​We should go after” the fossil fuel industry “just like we did the drug companies, just like we did the tobacco companies.” It also includes the administration’s 2021 Executive Order to “hold polluters accountable.”

Still, what does the word “accountable” even mean?

In the Executive Order, it means new proposed regulations of emissions and air quality standards. It means protected wildlife refuges in the Arctic and environmental impact assessment of oil and gas leasing in the area. It means accounting for the benefits of reducing climate pollution, especially in low-income and communities of color.

The Executive Order revisits federal complicity in fossil fuel companies’ actions, but many continue to question if the government is going far enough. Exxon was more than aware of the long-lasting planetary effects of its emissions for almost 50 years. Regulation like that in the Executive Order only targets new emissions, and doesn’t, for example, account for the “carbon bomb” Exxon set off in Natuna 40 years ago.

Thus, scientists behind the Environmental Research Letters paper say that to account for past emissions and denial, a policy must be introduced requiring polluters like Exxon to “take back” the carbon put into the atmosphere.

Direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are technologies that remove CO2 from the air and store it underground. These negative emissions technologies are different, as DAC captures from ambient air, while CCS offsets industrial polluters. 2022 was the year of negative emissions advancement, with milestones for feasibility made by both methods.

But while the technology exists, “what has always been lacking is effective policy,” Myles Allen, a professor of geosystems science at the University of Oxford and co-author of the paper via The Guardian. “The failure has been policy, not technology — we know how to do this.”

Allen argues that because companies like Exxon profit from extracting fossil fuels, historically and now, they should pay for an equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide to be stored geologically as a condition of being allowed to operate.

This type of policy, which the researchers refer to as “extended producer responsibility” could add teeth to Biden’s ambitions of “holding polluters accountable.”

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, limiting global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels (the requirement of avoiding total climate disaster) will likely require the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as the phasing out of fossil fuels and the rapid deployment of renewable energy.

As the cost of DAC is quite expensive, and CCS less, Allen and the other authors believe fossil fuel companies should not only foot the bill but do it in a way that offsets their emissions through a “carbon takeback obligation.” Plus, within a few decades, the paper predicts geologic storage will come down in price.

By combining the extended producer responsibility (EPR) with nature-based solutions to climate change, the researchers’ models show that overtime emissions will decrease because “like any effective climate policy” EPR will increase the costs of fossil fuels, by imposing the cost of capture on the industry and its customers at the time.

They emphasize that EPR would not be a replacement for existing energy efficiency and renewable energy policies, but instead would act as a “backdrop” to catch residual CO2 which would otherwise be emitted.

It would engage the fossil fuel industry itself to develop geologic storage, an industry that is still being carved out. But, the scale required is mammoth-sized. In order to clean up the mess made by fossil fuels, we will need 25% to 50% of the scale of the oil and gas industry today for carbon capture and storage. “EPR legislation offers one mechanism to achieve this,” they write.

Of course, there are risks associated with such a policy. For one, there may be an over-supply of fossil fuels due to present extraction commitments, which could drive a price decrease. Still, this type of risk is consistent with models made by the Paris Climate Agreement, showing that around one-quarter of CO2 produced from fossil sources in 2020 will still be produced at the time of net-zero.

The authors also highlight the pollution risks fossil fuels pose to nature-based solutions like natural carbon sinks found in Earth’s forests and oceans. Hence, the restoration of millions of hectares of ecosystems must come as a package deal with EPR.

Lastly, there are risks of overburdening an EPR policy, as questions remain over whether or not carbon storage can scale in a way that’s economically viable, and if carbon capture reduces the need for actual fossil fuel reduction.

However, the authors say that it's up to policymakers to manage this risk because unlike other policies (such as renewable energy mandates) EPR’s goal is not to immediately reduce the use of fossil fuels, though that may come as a side effect.

Instead, EPR’s goal would be to stop the continued use of fossil fuels, allow companies like Exxon to truly account for their harms, scale geologic storage, and halt carbon emissions from plaguing our planet for generations to come.

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