An enlightening example of when corporate self-interest trumps global interest.
In the late 1970s, scientists and government agencies were beginning to study climate change more seriously.
ExxonMobil, a major fossil fuel company, saw the potential disaster this could play for their oil and gas business, and subsequently formed a skilled research department, spending millions of dollars to answer those questions for themselves.
The company believed that having a solid understanding of the potential impact fossil fuels could have on climate would only help their business, and by understanding the science behind climate change they could find new opportunities that could help them in the long run.
At the time, Exxon scientists were genuinely interested in understanding climate change and saw themselves at the center of a global climate research project “aimed at benefiting mankind.” A top company scientist envisioned this project as a crucial collaboration among the scientific community, industry, and governments. However, they also saw what had happened to the chemical industry a few years prior, when the world became anxious about the vanishing ozone layer.
Chemicals found in aerosol sprays and refrigerators were damaging the part of the atmosphere that protects earth from the sun’s harmful rays. When the government decided to ban spray cans that used those chemicals, the chemical industry was caught unprepared. The impact on the industry was catastrophic and Exxon believed that if they anticipated problems related to climate change, they could find solutions or create substitutes that would benefit their business.
Assembling a team of atmospheric scientists, the oil and gas giant built a high-tech climate lab on one of their oil tankers to help study CO2 in the ocean, and invested in cutting-edge computer models to predict future global temperatures. The company’s first climate models were published privately in 1982, years before the general public was aware of climate change. At the time, Exxon predicted that the climate would warm just under half a degree Celsius between 1980 and 2000, and by the early 2000s the Earth could be warm enough to objectively detect climate change.
By the late 1980s, climate change was starting to enter the public conversation, and NASA scientist James Hansen famously warned Congress about climate change in 1988. Almost immediately, Exxon changed course.
Less than two months after James Hansen’s testimony, Exxon laid out its strategy in an internal memo, instructing its staff to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect” to prevent the “noneconomic development of non-fossil fuel resources.”
For the next two decades, Exxon stuck to that strategy of emphasising climate uncertainty. All the while, internal scientists at the company continued to quietly study and predict climate change trends in academic journals. They simultaneously called climate science “sheer speculation” and publishing peer-reviewed climate models showing an increasingly warmer world.
Recently, a group of outside researchers compared each Exxon climate model to real-world climate records, scoring them from 0 to 100. They found that, on average, Exxon’s predictions were 72 percent accurate, with their best prediction, published in 1985, being 99 percent accurate — far more on-point than predictions from the world’s top independent and government scientists at that time.
This research adds to a compelling story: one of the best climate models in the world came from an oil company.
However, Exxon spent the next several decades discrediting its own research and casting doubt on the consensus around climate change. Even though their predictions were consistently accurate, Exxon did not take responsibility for the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis, which we continue to experience today — underscoring how private interests and profits can clash with the public good and highlights the importance of governments and independent actors in addressing global challenges.