Nearly 40 years ago Exxon’s internal study predicted today’s climate impacts with chilling precision…then they wove a false narrative to protect profits
A.L. O’Quinn Professor and Professor of Law
University of Houston Law Center
Exxon knew their product was harming the climate system, and purposefully misled the public about the risks. This information is not new by any means, but it is a stark reminder of the importance of environmental narratives, and just how much human well-being can be shaped by them—for good or for ill.
The planet just crossed over the 415 ppm threshold of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere for the first time in human history—indeed, for the first time in 2-3 million years. This is almost exactly the concentration of carbon dioxide that Exxon projected would be in the atmosphere in 2020 given rates of fossil fuel production and consumption (Exxon’s internal report can be viewed here; see also Figure 1, below). Exxon also correctly projected that earth’s temperature would rise between 0.8 and 1.2° C as a result, and it has.
Figure 1 – Exxon’s Internal Projection of CO2 Concentrations and Temperature
Below are two charts that put this amount of atmospheric greenhouse gas into perspective.
And here is another chart showing how global warming initially tracked normal climate fluctuations, but rapidly begin to diverge and leading to where we are today: a climate warming due almost entirely to man-made activities and consumption of fossil fuels. As one commentator stated, climate science has greatly improved, but Exxon’s scientific modelling was pretty darn good even in 1982.
And just this past week a heatwave hit the South, with many high records broken:
Not that long ago I thought that climate change was something that would affect my great great grandchildren. But it is affecting us now. My children, and especially my grandchildren, will suffer as a result if we do not take action now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and then to reverse much of what has been added to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
Heat related deaths will increase dramatically by 2050 and flooding and other severe weather events will increasingly do harm to people. We just witnessed the wettest 12 months ever on record in the US. When it is warmer, more water evaporates from land and ecosystems into the atmosphere. For every 1° Fahrenheit rise in temperature, the atmosphere holds 4% more water. This means that it will be drier when it is dry (drought) and wetter when it is wet (flooding). In fact, heavy precipitation events have increased dramatically in the last few decades. So too have calamitous, record setting wildfires, such as those devastating California last summer. Sea levels are rising faster than scientists had previously predicted (too conservatively), threatening to inundate coastal cities by the end of the century.
And these are just a few of the natural calamities. The social calamities will be tremendous. As people are displaced from areas too hot to live or that are inundated by rising seas, they will attempt to migrate elsewhere. This is something that has US military and intelligence officials very concerned, notwithstanding the rampant denial by many in Congress and the administration. And the economic impacts will be severe. How will the economy fair when most people cannot afford insurance—as one recent insurance company predicted could happen—unless we take drastic action now? The free market knows what is happening, and the free market doesn’t lie, or engage in conspiracies. If we think changing course will impact the economy today, it is pennies compared to the projected future economic impacts of climate change (not to mention that investing in and transitioning to a carbon-free world economy would actually spur innovation and economic growth).
I could go on and on. And again, none of this information is new, and we all are to blame—especially if we do not take what Exxon knew then and what we know now and change course. But it is worth remembering in a time where people still deny the basic science of climate change, and with a U.S. administration seemingly determined to threaten the future for our children, that 40 years ago one of the biggest producers of fossil fuels in the history of the planet predicted the events unfolding around us now. But their short-term economic interests were more important to them than the future of the planet. There is a word for that: greed. And we fell for their false narrative, and are still falling for it. Without a change of course, before long we will hit the ground.
– Blake Hudson
Here’s an interesting update on how Exxon and others are handling the issue, faced with activist shareholders such as the Church of England: https://www.economist.com/business/2019/05/30/oil-majors-face-shareholder-resolutions-on-climate-change
Thanks Shona! Yes, this has been encouraging to see. Of course, so much damage has been done due to the delay. But at least the narrative is changing (even if the behavior is changing far too slowly, from both producers and us as consumers).
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