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Yes, you heard that right. According to InsideClimate News, in July of 1977, a scientist working for Exxon told powerful oil executives at Exxon’s headquarters that the planet was warming – and that it was caused by burning fossil fuels. James F. Black told the audience, “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.”
A year later, he put a fine point to his conclusions when he wrote, “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
That was a decade before Congress heard James Hansen – as Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies – testified about man-made climate change.
Exxon knew about how its entire business model threatened humanity a full decade before Congress – and what did Exxon do about it? Well, believe it or not, the company took serious action. Exxon launched new research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and how it impacts the earth. It worked with university scientists and the Department of Energy, and they were early leaders in the field of climate and energy research.
Based on that, you’d think that by 1988, when James Hansen gave his congressional testimony, scientists from Exxon would be next in line to testify about the realities and dangers of global warming. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, in the late 1980s, Exxon made an about-face. The company fired most of its climate scientists and started doing everything it could to cast doubt on the scientific consensus about the causes and dangers of man-made climate change. Exxon helped to organize the “Global Climate Coalition,” which fights to block any efforts to address global climate change. And the company worked with groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to get fossil-fuel-friendly climate deniers into every level of government.
In 1997, Exxon chairman and CEO Lee Raymond argued against the Kyoto Protocol, using the logic that we don’t really know what’s going to happen with the climate, so why bother? That pattern of denial and deception has continued to this day.
Even though the company claims that it accepts climate science today, it’s still supporting climate denial as a member of climate denying groups like ALEC. That’s because Exxon knows – and has known known for almost 40 years – that the basis of its business model is a threat to humanity. And so the company lied and blew a whole lot of smoke to make the science seem less clear than it is, in order to protect its bottom line.
Fortunately, our legal system has dealt with this sort of corporate deception and corruption before.
In 1999, the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to investigate and prosecute Big Tobacco for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. For nearly 50 years, the tobacco industry had promoted phony science and created deceptive labels to make cigarettes attractive and to make them appear “safe” – if not outright “healthy.” Twenty-one years ago, tobacco executives were still testifying that nicotine wasn’t addictive.
But in 2006, when US District Judge Gladys Kessler finally ruled on the case, she wrote, “In short, defendants have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
And that’s exactly what Exxon and the other oil companies have been doing for nearly 40 years.
And that’s why Sharon Eubanks, the former US Department of Justice attorney who prosecuted and won the racketeering case against Big Tobacco – is calling for the Department of Justice to look into whether Exxon violated the RICO Act.
She’s not alone. Representatives Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier from California urged Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Friday to launch an investigation into Exxon.
It’s definitely time for this to happen, but the investigation shouldn’t stop with Exxon. We need a full investigation into every part of Big Oil’s decades-long disinformation campaign, particularly the role Koch Industries may be playing in it all.
When the DOJ took down Big Tobacco, it wasn’t just Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, the agency went after the lobbying groups and the research shills too.
Today’s investigation of climate deniers should include the oil companies like Exxon and Koch Industries, but should also include the organizations that manufacture and push phony research, like the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Because at the end of the day, these companies and organizations have acted with a single-minded focus on the bottom line of their fossil-fuel donors, without regard to human tragedy, social costs or the threat to life on Earth as we know it. It’s time they’re all held accountable.