Amid a newly-announced investigation of ExxonMobil by the attorney general of New York and calls from all three Democratic presidential candidates for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal probe of the oil giant, Exxon is feeling heat over evidence that it deceived the public for decades about the science of climate change. So the company is lashing out at the media organizations that compiled that evidence, and recent opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are assisting Exxon's disinformation campaign.
Following an eight-month investigation that included interviews with former Exxon employees and an extenstive examination of primary sources, including internal Exxon documents dating back to the 1970's, InsideClimate News published a six-part series in September and October detailing "how Exxon conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial." The Los Angeles Times conducted its own investigation with Columbia University's Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and reached a similar conclusion: in the 1980's Exxon "earned a public reputation as a pioneer in climate change research," but by 1990 the company began "pour[ing] millions into a campaign that questioned climate change." The Times reported that the documents, along with "the recollections of former employees," indicate that ExxonMobil changed its stance on the issue because it "feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies."
Exxon initially responded by seeking to dismiss the InsideClimate News investigation as the work of "anti-oil and gas activists" (never mind that InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning media organization). But now Exxon has adopted a new strategy: seek to discredit the Los Angeles Times' characterization of a single Exxon document in order to undermine the mountains of evidence that Exxon purposefully deceived the public about climate change.
Exxon put this strategy into action in a November 5 blog post, in which Exxon Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Ken Cohen claimed that the Times was "deliberating hiding" a 1989 Exxon presentation it cited against Exxon because the document supposedly "undercuts the paper's claims that ExxonMobil knew with certainty everything there is to know about global warming back in the 1980s yet failed to sound alarms." The Exxon complaint was quickly picked up by a November 8 Wall Street Journal editorial, which claimed that the 1989 document proves that the InsideClimate News and Times investigations "selectively quote from internal Exxon documents," and a November 8 column by The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson, who repeated Cohen's claim that the 1989 document shows how the media investigations "'cherry-pick' their evidence."
Exxon is attacking the Times for reporting that the 1989 presentation, by Exxon scientist Duane LeVine, showed Exxon recognized that "scientists generally agreed gases released by burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly by the middle of the 21st century." In particular, Exxon objects to the Times not mentioning that LeVine said in the same document, "I do not believe" that "the science has demonstrated the existence of [potential enhanced greenhouse] today," and "enhanced greenhouse is still deeply imbedded in scientific uncertainty." (LeVine defined "potential enhanced greenhouse" as the "enhancement of [the greenhouse effect] due to human activities.")
But the Times is correct in pointing out that LeVine acknowledged the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels was projected to lead to significant warming. From page 20 of LeVine's 1989 presentation (emphasis added):
[The Department of Energy's] CO2 projections are used in current climate models to predict important changes over the next 100 years. This set of results is taken from the National Research Council (NRC) report "Changing Climate".
Consensus predictions call for warming 1.5-4.5 [degrees Celsius] for doubled CO2 with greater warming at the poles. Note that these numbers reflect the range produced by available models. No one knows how to evaluate the absolute uncertainty in the numbers.
The extent and thickness of glaciers are predicted to decrease, leading to sea level rise. The NRC report chose a most likely value of 70 cm sea level rise. Other predictions suggest a broader range from 30-200 cm. The rise occurs both from a larger amount of water in the oceans, and from thermal expansion.
Finally, climate change and higher levels of atmospheric CO2 affect agriculture and ecosystems.
The Times is also correct when it says that LeVine urged Exxon to "[t]ell the public that more science is needed before regulatory action is taken ... and emphasize the 'costs and economics' of restricting carbon dioxide emissions." From page 33 of the presentation (emphasis added, ellipses original):
To be a responsible participant and part of the solution to [potential enhanced greenhouse], Exxon's position should recognize and support 2 basic societal needs. First ... to improve understanding of the problem ... not just the science ... but the costs and economics tempered by the sociopolitical realities. That's going to take years (probably decades). But there are measures already underway that will improve our environment in various ways ... and in addition reduce the growth in greenhouse gases. That's the second need including things like energy conservation, restriction of CFC emissions, and efforts to increase the global ratio of re/de forestation. Of course, we'll need to develop other response options...implementing measures when they are cost effective in the near term and pursuing new technologies for the future.
In the presentation, LeVine drew a distinction between historical warming up to that point -- which he claimed is "not enough to confirm enhanced greenhouse" (page 22) -- and projections, which he said "suggest ... significant climate change with a variety of regional impacts" and "sea level rise with generally negative consequences" (page 22). Then, after identifying the "key players" that were likely to increasingly call for action to address climate change (page 23), LeVine claimed there is a "misconception" that "enough research on the basic problem has been done," and argued that "failure to understand" the need for scientific advances and uncertainty in the climate models could "lead to premature limitations on fossil fuels" (page 31).
So LeVine acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change while simultaneously arguing that he personally did not believe anthropogenic global warming was fully proven and that more research was necessary before restricting fossil fuel use. In that sense, LeVine's presentation is indicative of Exxon's shift towards attempting to "emphasize [the] doubt," just as the Times described it.
The year of LeVine's presentation also fits with the timeline for Exxon's shift on climate science that was identified in the InsideClimate News investigation (emphasis added):
Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming's risks.
Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as the models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began to erode as it campaigned internationally to cast doubt on the science.
With this full context, it's clear that the Times' characterization of LeVine's presentation is justified and Exxon's response is a deceptive smokescreen.
But it's also important to remember that LeVine's presentation is just one of many primary source documents examined by the Times and InsideClimate News. Here is a sampling of other documents showing that Exxon scientists and officials recognized by the early-to-mid-eighties that there was broad scientific consensus continuing to burn fossil fuels would lead to climate change, even if the amount of warming was still unclear:
Image at top via Flickr user Mike Mozart using a Creative Commons license.
The Environmental Protection Agency's forthcoming regulations on greenhouse gas emissions will provide legally required protection for the health and welfare of Americans at a cheap cost, while allowing states flexibility -- contrary to media fearmongering about the landmark standards.
A Washington Post columnist claimed that there is "no solution" to global warming in an op-ed that itself included -- and buried -- a possible solution to mitigate climate change. The damage done by advancing the defeatist claim that nothing can be done about climate change may make it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This year has brought one landmark climate report after another, each stating with more certainty than ever that the cost of inaction against climate change will be far greater than the cost of mitigating catastrophe. The National Climate Assessment found that unchecked global warming will affect every region of the country and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars. The report also found that it's not too late to implement greenhouse gas reduction policies to avoid this scenario. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the findings that climate change is having "sweeping effects" on every continent, and made the case for "immediate mitigation" in a subsequent report, providing hundreds of different pathways for countries to take in order to avoid the worst effects. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published an explainer on the current state of climate science, stating that "The sooner we act [on climate change], the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do."
Yet in a May 12 op-ed, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson brazenly declared that "we have no solution" to climate disruption. He suggested for every report on global warming to come with a "disclaimer" that "we now lack the technologies to stop it," despite the fact that the reports he detailed in his op-ed actually found that these resources already exist.
The "reality" Samuelson provides, that global emissions are currently projected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2040, mostly from fossil fuels, should warrant an even stronger case for action. The longer the world waits to take action on climate change, the costlier it will be -- up to $1.9 trillion in the U.S. alone, according to an analysis by Tufts University. In other words, Samuelson's "solution" -- to do nothing -- would end up costing the economy more in the long-run.
Just because one U.S. policy may not be sufficient to negate global climate change does not make an action "futile." Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist and writer for The Guardian and Skeptical Science, analogized Samuelson's argument to "saying that somebody who's obese shouldn't stop eating deep fried Twinkies, because by itself that's not sufficient to lose 100 pounds" in an email to Media Matters. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman has also spoken out against this logic in the New York Times:
What about the argument that unilateral U.S. action won't work, because China is the real problem? It's true that we're no longer No. 1 in greenhouse gases -- but we're still a strong No. 2. Furthermore, U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement, which will surely include sanctions on countries that don't participate.
The most obvious idea is a carbon tax to help finance government and stimulate energy-saving technologies and new forms of non-carbon energy. If these technologies went global, the gap between rich and poor countries would narrow.
So why is Samuelson claiming that a "central truth for public policy" is that "we have no solution?" Solutions exist, as he himself admitted later in the column. But the longer they are delayed, the worse the problem will become, especially if global warming worsens past a potential tipping point. Providing solutions to global warming in the media is essential for closing the "science-action gap" and creating change. Without knowing the solutions, the Washington Post's readers are more likely to reject the threat of climate disruption. Framing climate change as a solution-less problem may create a scenario where that's true.
Photo at top via Flickr user Takver with a Creative Commons license.
In today's Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson misrepresented President Obama's approach to fixing our nation's deficit, which includes spending cuts in addition to tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.
Samuelson claimed that Obama has misled the country "by implying that making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share will solve much of" the deficit problem. He then attempted to discredit the argument that raising taxes on the rich would close the deficit.
But Samuelson is misrepresenting Obama's proposal for balancing the budget. Far from proposing tax increases alone, "Obama's plan for reducing the deficit would cut $2.50 in spending allowances for every $1 of increased tax revenue," as CBS reported on September 9. Republicans, however, have rejected that proposal.