Gaius Publius: They Knew – Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

Reporter Neela Banerjee on Exxon and climate change | FRONTLINE

An explosive story reported by Inside Climate News, an award-winning climate organization, and Frontline, reveals that Exxon knew as early as 1977 that earth’s climate was being seriously disrupted, and would continue to be disrupted, by carbon dioxide emissions, and yet in the 1980s they pivoted to financing an aggressive climate denial effort anyway.

That denial effort continues to this day, financed through the American Petroleum Institute and fronted by actress Brooke Alexander (whom I’ve called “Lying Pantsuit Lady“).


Actress Brooke Alexander, API’s iconic spokesperson. Here she proudly says the U.S. is the number one producer of methane, a greenhouse gas that, when burned, converts to CO2, another greenhouse gas (commercial here).

The report, the first of a series, is described this way by Inside Climate News:

After eight months of investigation, InsideClimate News presents this multi-part history of Exxon’s engagement with the emerging science of climate change. The story spans four decades, and is based on primary sources including internal company files dating back to the late 1970s, interviews with former company employees, and other evidence, much of which is being published here for the first time.

Here’s just a bit from that lead report at ICN (my emphasis):

Exxon: The Road Not Taken

Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago

Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions.

By Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

“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,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

If you think this adds up to “They knew,” you’d be right. They knew back in 1977, in fact. And they acted like they knew:

Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.

At the time, they saw a business reason, as well as an “ethical” one, for the proactive and pro-science stance they were taking:

In the early 1980s Exxon researchers often repeated that unbiased science would give it legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.

But that came to an end:

Then, 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.

As noted, the number of documents the reporters accessed was very large. More on those files:

This untold chapter in Exxon’s history, when one of the world’s largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN’s reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon’s innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The documents record budget requests, research priorities, and debates over findings, and reveal the arc of Exxon’s internal attitudes and work on climate and how much attention the results received.

Many of those documents are available here.

As I said, this is explosive and detailed. I haven’t touched on the degree to which Exxon financed its own research, including the outfitting of a state-of-the-art supertanker to take air and sea temperature measurements, or the assembly of “a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate’s sensitivity to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the air.”

I want to send you instead to ICN for the full piece. It’s well written, detailed and easy to grasp. If you’re at all concerned about climate change, this is a must-read, and it will get you set up for the follow-up reports.

For more from the report, watch the brief Frontline video below:

Are Lawsuits a Possibility?

If they knew, they still know. They’ve certainly knowingly misled the public, lied and done harm for financial gain. Do you think this has lawsuit written all over it? After all, this worked:

Climate win: Appeals court in Oregon rules state court must decide if atmosphere is a “public trust”

If they misled the public, have they misled, and perhaps defrauded, their investors as well? I’ve privately heard of at least one well-placed and climate-aware congressperson who wondered if federal RICO prosecutions might be an option, though the (next) President would have to be very aggressive-minded to consider them — or the next Attorney General, in case we return to the pre-Bush era of independent attorneys general.

I’ll have more on this story, including Exxon’s response. I’ve said it’s going to take force. This opportunity, if it’s taken, counts as force.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Jef

    They knew – Pharmaceutical industry….
    They knew – Nuclear power industry…
    They knew – Petrochemical industry…
    They knew – Monsanto….
    They knew – The Banking/Finance industry…
    They knew – The Mining industry…

    I could go on and on… its getting hard to conjure up surprise.

      1. sufferinsuccotash

        That’s peanuts compared to the front-office types who also knew and who almost certainly aren’t winding up in the slammer. Can you imagine VW execs getting perp-walked?

  2. EmilianoZ

    Exxon has a fiduciary duty to maximize revenue for its shareholders. It doesn’t have a fiduciary duty to save the world.

    1. Vatch

      True, but they also have both legal and moral obligations to avoid committing fraud. Despite this, they made a conscious decision to commit fraud on a vast scale.

    2. Oguk

      I don’t think that’s correct. A fiduciary duty is a legal responsibility to care for an asset on behalf of someone else, like caring for a trust fund for a minor child. Yves has pointed out many times that maximizing revenue for its shareholders is the last in a series of responsibilities a corporation has, which include: break no laws, comply with existing regulations, pay taxes and fees, stay in business, maintain the value of the business… etc. A corporation makes a choice to invest in itself vs deliver payouts to shareholders.

      1. rusti

        Here is a link to one of the many NC articles debunking this “duty to maximize shareholder value” myth. I suspect that whopper will follow just about every comment section on the internet discussing the Exxon case.

      2. washunate

        Oil companies have done what their shareholders have tasked them with doing.

        You know, expert investors, like CalPERS.

    3. Berial

      I always here people say that a corporation has a ‘duty to maximize revenue for it’s shareholders’ but I think this is untrue. They have a lot of duties, to follow applicable laws, to try and keep the company solvent, but I don’t think they actually have the ‘maximize revenue’ duty. If that were an actual duty they’d be breaking laws all the time. Hell of a lot cheaper to dump chemicals in farmer Jones’s pond and hope to not get caught than to actually set up cleaners and collectors for example.

      1. ben

        Exactly. It’s part of the “USA business cult”, where it’s ok to literally end the world because you had to make the figures better for the next quarter.

      2. digi_owl

        They may not actually have, but it is a convenient “just following orders” excuse for “externalizing” civic duty.

    4. usually quiet

      Can you identify the source of this duty? In short, please cite a statute, regulation, or case establishing it. If you can’t, please stop using phrases you don’t understand.

    5. PQS

      But wouldn’t “maximizing shareholder value” (assuming such a duty exists), also include not killing the golden goose that CREATES shareholder value – i.e., the entire planet?

      I mean, if they knew what they were doing was ultimately going to doom the planet (and all the money on it), they seemingly had two choices: take the lead on inventing new ways of doing business, OR they could take the low (the Tabacco?) road of immediate profits and suppression of evidence. It’s clear which one they picked.

    6. Sam Adams

      With A single phrase and a shift in focus of fiduciary duty, rape of Gia is a ‘good.’ The Chicago School was successful. Nobody seems to remember that immortal corporations were legally authorized by a governing body in order for it to act for the greater good of that society.

  3. Chauncey Gardiner

    Wow!… 38 years ago they knew! Think of the progress in resolving the underlying causal factors that could have taken place over the ensuing time period given a different decision, public education and awareness of the scope and complexity of the problem, and intensive R&D and implementation efforts.

    Exxon’s dainty pirouette leads me to believe that the decision wasn’t made unilaterally by management and the board of that corporation. Wonder who else was complicit in that decision, and what pressures were placed and assurances given?

    More importantly, all this is in the rear view mirror. What we do going forward will be key in how we are regarded by history. Unlike tobacco, this issue affects everything and everyone.

    1. susan the other

      I was just thinking about the accomplice too. The Cold War was the engine of our economy. There was a recent article (sorry, can’t cite) about the actual timing of Russia going into Afghanistan – it was after, not before, we stirred up the fundamentalists. And that was the beginning of ME turmoil. So it was therefore a defensive action by Russia; offensive by us. We were up to all our tricks; Nixon was determined to make South America safe for looting, er democracy; we had just admitted fiscal defeat and gone off the gold standard (good riddance); our beloved capitalism was twisting in the wind. Not a good time for Exxon to say, Oh by the way, burning fossil fuels is going to kill the planet within the next century.

        1. Synoia

          USA became a demon

          Really, after the 19th century expansion into the west, or before?

          Might check the timeline with the Native Americans…

    2. Gaius Publius

      More importantly, all this is in the rear view mirror. What we do going forward will be key in how we are regarded by history. Unlike tobacco, this issue affects everything and everyone.

      Perhaps you’re saying the same thing I’m saying, Chauncey, in which case, great! But just in case … the purpose of a RICO trial (if we get one) isn’t to punish past deeds. It’s to use past deeds to stop current ones. We have to kill this industry, period.

      If they want, they can all go into a different, non-destructive business. But extracting fossil fuel, as an industry, has to die, or we’ll cross the line we can’t, as a species, ever go back from.


  4. FluffytheObeseCat

    Exxon, like any other American corporation, has legal obligations beyond that of fiduciary duty to their shareholders. If they are negligent in regards to those obligations, or actively work against them…… they act against the long term interests of their owners.
    Funding a climate denial propaganda campaign was in the quarter-by-quarter interest of upper management, c. 1989, not in the interest of today’s shareholders.

  5. Steve H.

    The science is to determine the winners and losers.

    “ExxonMobil has had a continuous business presence in Russia for more than 20 years across upstream, downstream and chemical operations.”


    “Exxon Mobil Corp. has continued to buy rights to develop Russian oil deposits despite sanctions, increasing the area from 11.4 million acres to 63.7 million acres in 2014. It’s an area larger than the UK.”

    And Russia is happy to oblige.


  6. Eric Patton

    As long as capitalism persists, so will these types of situations. Capitalism, ultimately, cannot be reformed. it must ultimately be replaced.

    1. optimader

      Will society organized with socialist economic model explore, process and consume hydrocarbon? Or are you thinking about some other economic model?

    2. Lambert Strether

      I don’t think the USSR, or the People’s Republic of China, have stellar environmental records. So it would be helpful to specify what would replace capitalism, if not the version of socialism practiced in both those countries.

      1. Brian M

        maybe after The Big Die, 100 million survivors living as hunter-gatherers or at best like the post Roman Empire feudal village mode?

      2. Vatch

        “I don’t think the USSR, or the People’s Republic of China, have stellar environmental records.”

        That’s quite an understatement. Those countries have/had terrible environmental records. It isn’t capitalism that causes pollution or other environmental problems; it’s people who choose to cut corners, and some of those people are capitalists. What kind of system would limit pollution? Probably some kind of hybrid, in which no single organization or individual is too powerful. When a person or group oversteps the bounds of propriety, others need to be able to stop them. There mustn’t be an all powerful government, and there mustn’t be Ayn Rand style mega-entrepreneurs who do whatever they want to do. Whether it’s called capitalism, communism, socialism, or something else, if 0.01% of the population has nearly all of the power, we can expect horrible abuses.

        And whatever the economic model is, people need to be willing to limit their numbers. No gargantuan Duggar families.

  7. rjs

    this wasnt something that Exxon knew that was otherwise unknown to those who were paying attention…i have congressional committtee prints from 1976 (back when you could get them free) discussing the potential for global warming from CO2 and N2O emissions, and recall conversations with my congressman about greenhouse gases later in the same decade..

    1. washunate

      Yeah, this seems so obvious it’s bizarre it has to be pointed out. The author is acting like it’s some big reveal that oil companies know that burning oil creates pollution. Everybody knows that.

      That’s why the real scandal are Democrats who mouth platitudes about science and the public good while in practice supporting the oil-based development sprawl destroying our communities and the environment.

  8. Alex morfesis

    The lawsuit is for simple trespass…if you drove your garbage to the home of an Exxon board of directors member and dumped it on his front lawn…you would get charged with a trespass at a minimum…Exxon hurled out a product which by design trespasses into my body through the process of living called breathing…a simple trespass is a solid win…any attempts much beyond that feeds into the skill base of the tall building law firms that will fight back for Exxon, et al

    1. optimader

      Good luck with that legal argument. By definition Garbage has no economic value in a society or is would no longer be classified as garbage. Oil and its refined products have value in our society, hence it is not garbage.

      1. Lambert Strether

        I don’t agree. The same corporation that manages our state landfill makes money on garbage collection through tipping fees, and also makes money by sorting out what can be sold from what can’t in the garbage it collects.

        1. Optimader

          More parlance than diagreement. What you describe in the trade is called Post Consumer Waste which is a mixture of recycleable materials and Garbage: “that which has no value” by definition

          . Wont drill in this on my iphone but in the idealized case PCW can be sorted into recycleables with positive values( for example ferrous, non ferrous, plastic possibly celluolosic scrap, rendering down to garbage that has a negative value .
          Back in the 1980s-90s there was an effort to organize municipal solid waste recovery (SWR) programs that included on the backend solid waste to energy (SWE) plants to produce electricity and steam. Wont go into it but the “garbage” that was percieved to have a residual value as a waste fuel inreality had in many cases a very substaintial negative value.
          Combustion Engineering -ABB were notable big hitters in this market. Ahead of the times in many ways

      2. JTMcPhee

        Interesting that “petroleum and petroleum products” are not considered to be “pollutants or contaminants” under the federal Clean Water Act, as variously amended, or as “hazardous substances” under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, “Superfund,” also as regulatory-captured amended from time to time, or as bad juju in the fracking, pipeline and transport context. Insurers get to discount reserves onaccounta the various bars to and limitations on liability. A lot of that “value” is created out of often industry-drafted “law” that excuses the costs of those silly externalities… And of course where the Fokking buccaneers swash, where corruption thrives and extractable are still near the surface, there ain’t no stinkin’ “health and safety laws” worth a bucket of warm spit.

        Waste Management Inc. and the analysts that track that corp. would dispute the notion that “Garbage” by definition has no economic value… Added to, again, by liberation from the cost of externalities like methane releases covered in an earlier post today. Of course, “society,” aided by the flood of buccaneer bullshit we are fed by all the corps and their minions about, oh, say, “without chemicals there would be no life,” and Easy! Convenient! Luxury! and all those other BS words that George Carlin so masterfully strung together for us to titter at and promptly forget

  9. Berial

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, these are the same guys that fought tooth and nail to prevent leaded gasoline from going away, even though they knew it was literally poisoning everyone and everything that breathed air.

  10. guest

    I find this unbelievable and bought by many in the gullible public. Oh yes, and today taught as fact in public schools!
    Why was it that we’d all freeze to death in the late 80’s & 90’s and called “Global Cooling”? Oh and today it’s referred to as “Climate change”.
    Why are the scientists that are on board with the fabrications here the ones who work for the government and ones who are teaching in colleges & universities and getting grants–provided the word–climate change–is mentioned in the application?
    Remember, temperatures in the water and air have hardly moved for over 40 years. Further–records weren’t even kept regarding temperatures on this planet except for the last 125 years! Is that really sufficient time to determine all these pseudo “facts”?
    What’s going on with the sky spraying? Is this weather manipulation at it’s finest? Oh yes, HAARP was closed in Alaska; however, smaller units are located at strategic locations.
    Please people–THINK for yourselves!

    1. JTMcPhee

      Hi, guest- “We hope you will enjoy your stay in the Motel Idiocracy Motel”…

      You do know that there are smart, cynical people who are actually paid by the Fokkers to patroll the ‘net, inserting these kinds of comments. Why do it for free?

    2. different clue

      The heat has certainly increased in the last 40 years. Glaciers, icefields and icepacks/caps have been shrinking/retreating/thinning all over the world. Arctic/subarctic/Tibetan permafrost has been thawing in many places. It takes increased and increasing heat-energy inputs to melt that much ice. Where has that heat been coming from?

      1. different clue

        I think we need a new word or words to describe increased heat-energy in a system as against “hot” which describes strictly the sensible temperature in a system ( or locality).

        I would suggest the word “heaty” and words derived therefrom. Increasing heatiness has driven huge heat energy into ice at 32 degrees to provide the necessary “heat of fusion” to turn that same ice into water at 32 degrees. Water at 32 degrees isn’t any “hotter” than ice at 32 degrees, but it sure is “heatier”.

  11. JTMcPhee

    Just a reminder of another “of course the Fokkers knew/ know and the Evil Individuals hiding behind the smoke, mirrors and corporate veil have all retired, untouched and wealthy, to die from diseases of indulgence or plain old age, cared for by kind and loving nurses who don’t judge or don’t know the depth of their patient’s evil” story, there’s of course


    “Asbestos: Think Again: Industry hid dangers for decades
    SOMETHING IN THE AIR: The asbestos document story”

    And :

    BOSTON (Reuters) – As anyone in the United States with a TV or Internet connection probably knows, lawyers want you if you’ve been exposed to asbestos, and they’re paying to get you.

    At one point earlier this year, 15 of the 100 most expensive keyword search phrases for click-through ads on Google contained the word “mesothelioma,” the deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure. The single most expensive phrase, online marketing firm SpyFu reported, was “Florida mesothelioma lawyers,” at $177.74 per click.

    The hard sell reflects a troubling truth: Half a century after the first wave of lawsuits were filed for illnesses linked to exposure to asbestos and 40 years after new regulation sharply curtailed use of the insulating and fire-resistant mineral, the asbestos-litigation business is booming.

    Some of the country’s biggest and best-known law firms — many of them handling asbestos cases almost exclusively — say the number of lawsuits filed annually, after falling off from a peak, has picked up in recent years. More important, they say, is that payouts for plaintiffs who win their cases have soared.

    “It’s easy to see why they’re buying time on CNN and the like. All you need to get is a couple of claims in to make that commercial buy worth the money,” says Marc Mayerson, a litigator with the Orrick law firm in Washington and a professor of insurance law at George Washington University, who has represented defendants in asbestos-related cases since the 1980s.

    No central registry keeps track of asbestos lawsuits filed yearly or their outcomes. A tabulation of jury verdicts and settlements, based on an average of all asbestos-related lawsuits reported in Westlaw Journal Asbestos, a Thomson Reuters publication, found that the average award was $6.3 million in 2009, $17.6 million in 2010 and $10.5 million in 2011 — amounts much greater than what lawyers say was the norm more than a decade earlier.

    Clearly, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related payouts persist at levels companies and their insurers never expected. Insurers have been adding hundreds of millions of dollars to their asbestos-claim reserves. Travelers Cos, in its annual report for 2011, echoed its peers when it cited a “high degree of uncertainty with respect to future exposure from asbestos claims.”

    In that situation, at least, the tort bar clambered all over the Fokkers. Of course, Johns Manville and WR Grace had a fiduciary duty to “the blessed shareholders…” Yeah, sure, what-everrr… Asshats…

    *As Seen On Late Night Cable TV…

  12. gaylord

    These energy corporation executives, along with the nuclear industry execs (including the current top economic adviser to Obama), should be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

    1. JTMcPhee

      For maybe the same conversational-tic-convention reason that “we” say so glibly that “Russia did thus and so,” or “Israel did the other thing,” or that “Greece” or “Germany” or the sainted “US” held agency for various destructive or murderous “policies” (another bland pathogen of a word)… “The text scans better, and it’s too difficult, and confusing for the 5th grade level reader to keep all those complexities and kñown-knowns and so very likely unknown unknowns in mind…” And after all, the Narrative has enormous momentum and inertia…

  13. RBHoughton

    The reason big business does these frauds is they can get away with it and so long as they do so its money in the bank. They think “why try something new when we have a profitable biz running.” Remember leaded gas?

    This talk about duty to shareholders is what kept the slave trade going so long. Its the argument the China-trade adduced to make war for opium.

    How long are we going to tolerate legislators who fail to regulate the community properly. We need a new offence specifically for incompetent representatives and, as the bad effects are global, the awards should be substantial.

  14. EmilianoZ

    Everybody fulfill his fiduciary duties, the Invisible Hand will do the rest. Is your faith so shallow? Can you, for one second, believe that the Invisible Hand will let us drown in a sea of mounting waters? The Invisible Hand will perpetuate Itself for eternity. And It will perpetuate us, Its faithful handmaidens. The Invisible Hand works in mysterious ways. It is often too complex for us to comprehend. Its workings are more complex than the 10,000 galaxies of the Milky Way. But, he, who believe in the Invisible Hand, will be saved from climate change, including permafrost emissions.

Comments are closed.