Exxon Predicted Climate Change Decades Ago
Author: Harvard University | Contact: harvard.edu
Peer-Reviewed Publication: Yes | DOI: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abk0063
Additional References: Disability and Climate Change Publications
Synopsis: Climate projections reported by ExxonMobil between 1977 and 2003 were accurate and skillful in predicting subsequent global warming and contradicted the company's public claims. Analysis shows that ExxonMobil's own data contradicted its public statements, which included exaggerating uncertainties, criticizing climate models, mythologizing global cooling, and feigning ignorance about when - or if - human-caused global warming would be measurable, all while staying silent on the threat of stranded fossil fuel assets. "This is the nail in the coffin of ExxonMobil's claims that it has been falsely accused of climate malfeasance," commented lead author and Harvard University Research Associate Geoffrey Supran.
- ExxonMobil Corporation (Exxon)
ExxonMobil Corporation (Exxon) (In official SEC filings, the company is split into two words and phrased as Exxon Mobil Corporation.) is an American multinational oil and gas corporation incorporated in New Jersey and headquartered in Irving, Texas. It is the largest direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil and was formed on November 30, 1999, by the merger of Exxon and Mobil, both of which are used as retail brands, alongside Esso, for fueling stations and downstream products today.
The company is vertically integrated across the entire oil and gas industry, and within it is also a chemicals division that produces plastic, synthetic rubber, and other chemical products. ExxonMobil's environmental record has faced much criticism for its stance and impact on global warming. In 2018, the Political Economy Research Institute ranked ExxonMobil tenth among American corporations emitting airborne pollutants, thirteenth by emitting greenhouse gases, and sixteenth by emitting water pollutants. A 2017 report places ExxonMobil as the fifth most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015. The company's activities gained international notoriety from many incidents, most notably the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. As of 2020, ExxonMobil has been responsible for more than 3,000 oil spills and leakages, which resulted in a loss of more than one barrel of oil, with the most in a single year being 484 spills in 2011. Additionally, since 1965, ExxonMobil has released more than 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution. ExxonMobil's activities in Louisiana, specifically its Baton Rouge Refinery, have given the area the nickname Cancer Alley. The company's activities and other operations and refineries in the area have been the source of increased cancer infections, lower air quality, and, as seen by some, potential environmental racism committed by the company. Between the 1980s and 2014, ExxonMobil was a notable denier of climate change, though the company officially changed its position in 2014 to acknowledge the existence of climate change. ExxonMobil's prolonged response incited the creation of the Exxon Knew movement, which aims to hold the company accountable for various climate-related incidents. ExxonMobil has used its website to attack Exxon Knew, claiming it is a coordinated effort to defame the company ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ExxonMobil#Controversies.
Assessing ExxonMobil’s Global Warming Projections
New Harvard study puts a number on what 'Exxon knew' decades ago about climate science. Climate projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists between 1977 and 2003 were accurate and skillful in predicting subsequent global warming and contradicted the company's public claims, the Harvard study shows.
In the first-ever systematic assessment of the fossil fuel industry's climate projections, researchers at Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have put a number on what 'Exxon knew' decades ago about climate science: that fossil fuel burning would lead to 0.20 ± 0.04 degrees Celsius of global warming per decade.
The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science and summarized by a single chart displaying every global warming projection reported by Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists between 1977 and 2003, are based on statistical analyses of never-previously reported data buried in the company's own documents.
Although it has been widely reported that Exxon has known about the threat of global warming since the 1970s, this study is the first quantitative review of the company's early climate science. Previous research focused on Exxon's inconsistent internal and external rhetoric on climate change. This report dives into company data revealing that the company knew how much warming would occur with startling accuracy.
"We find that most of their projections accurately forecast warming consistent with subsequent observations," the report concludes. "Their projections were also consistent with, and at least as skillful as, those of independent academic and government models."
Using established IPCC statistical techniques, the study finds that 63-83% of global warming projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists were consistent with subsequently observed temperatures. Moreover, projections modeled by ExxonMobil scientists had an average 'skill score' of 72 ± 6 %, with the highest scoring, 99%. For comparison, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen's global warming predictions presented to the U.S. Congress in 1988 had skill scores ranging from 38% to 66%. (When we account for differences between forecast and observed atmospheric CO2 levels, the 'skill score' of projections modeled by ExxonMobil scientists was 75 ± 5%, with seven projections scoring 85% or above. Again, for comparison, Hansen's 1988 projections had corresponding skill scores of 28 to 81%.)
The study finds that:
"Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp also correctly rejected the prospect of a coming ice age, accurately predicted when human-caused global warming would first be detected, and reasonably estimated the 'carbon budget' for holding warming below 2°C. On each of these points, however, the company's public statements about climate science contradicted its own scientific data."
The study adds weight to ongoing legal and political investigations into ExxonMobil.
"These findings corroborate and add quantitative precision," the authors write, "to assertions by scholars, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and others that ExxonMobil accurately foresaw the threat of human-caused global warming, both prior and parallel to orchestrating lobbying and propaganda campaigns to delay climate action, and refute claims by ExxonMobil Corp and its defenders that these assertions are incorrect."
"This is the nail in the coffin of ExxonMobil's claims that it has been falsely accused of climate malfeasance," commented lead author and Harvard University Research Associate Geoffrey Supran (Supran began as an Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science Jan 2023). "Our analysis shows that ExxonMobil's own data contradicted its public statements, which included exaggerating uncertainties, criticizing climate models, mythologizing global cooling, and feigning ignorance about when - or if - human-caused global warming would be measurable, all while staying silent on the threat of stranded fossil fuel assets."
The paper's Acknowledgments state that this research was supported by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and by the Rockefeller Family Fund.
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