Lawmakers Seek Probe of Exxon for Hiding Knowledge of Climate Change

For decades, Exxon has publicly questioned the science of global warming, contradicting internal findings by the company’s own scientists. Recent exposés by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times reveal that Exxon concealed for decades its own conclusions that fossil fuels cause global warming, alter the climate and melt the Arctic. Exxon’s climate deception is now sparking calls for a federal probe similar to that which yielded a racketeering conviction of Big Tobacco for hiding the dangers of smoking. We are joined by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California), who is calling for a Justice Department investigation of Exxon, as well as co-founder Bill McKibben, who was just arrested for a one-man protest shutting down his local Exxon gas station. “It’s difficult to think of a company that could have set back humanity for decades, and perhaps permanently,” Rep. Lieu says. “But that’s what happened here.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin with the latest in the Exxon climate change cover-up that some compare to the deceptions of Big Tobacco. Recent exposés by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that for decades Exxon concealed its own findings that fossil fuels cause global warming, alter the climate and melt the Arctic ice. Exxon scientists’ earliest known warnings on climate change date as far back as 1977. Toward the end of the 1980s, the company radically changed course and openly embraced climate denial. Since then, it has spent millions of dollars funding efforts to reject the climate science its own experts once advanced. Still, even as it spread climate doubt and lobbied against environmental regulation, Exxon’s denial wasn’t across the board. In internal planning kept from the public, the oil giant’s researchers and engineers incorporated climate change projections to determine how best to adapt their operations to a warming planet.

AMY GOODMAN: The bombshell news of Exxon’s climate deception is now sparking calls for a federal investigation. On Tuesday, presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders wrote to Attorney General Loretta Lynch urging a Department of Justice probe of Exxon. Another Democratic hopeful, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, tweeted, quote, “We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let’s do the same for oil companies & climate change.” Two House Democrats from California, Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, also want a DOJ probe. In a letter to Lynch, they write, quote, “If these allegations against Exxon are true, then Exxon’s actions were immoral. We request the DOJ investigate whether ExxonMobil’s actions were also illegal.”

On Tuesday, the prosecutor who won the massive 2006 racketeering case against Big Tobacco for hiding the dangers of smoking agreed. Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department attorney now in private practice, told ThinkProgress, quote, “It appears to me … that there was a concerted effort by Exxon and others to confuse the public on climate change. They were actively denying the impact of human-caused carbon emissions, even when their own research showed otherwise. … I think a RICO action is plausible and should be considered.”

We’re joined now by two guests: Democratic Congressmember Ted Lieu of California, who co-signed that letter calling for a federal probe of Exxon, and Bill McKibben, co-founder of, one of the nation’s leading environmental activist groups. His recent piece for The Nation is “Exxon Knew Everything There Was to Know About Climate Change by the Mid-1980s – and Denied It.” McKibben was just arrested last week after staging a one-man protest at a local Exxon station, in protest of Exxon’s climate denial. He held a sign reading, “This pump temporarily closed because ExxonMobil lied about climate.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Congressmember Lieu, we’ll start with you. Talk about what you’re calling for right now.

REP. TED LIEU: If the facts are true, I believe Exxon’s actions are shocking and outrageous. And it’s difficult to think of a company that could have set back humanity for decades, and perhaps permanently, but that’s what happened here. In this case, Exxon scientists knew that climate change was happening, that fossil fuels were causing climate change, and not only did they deny that and spread uncertainty and confusion about the science, they then took actions to plan and take advantage of global warming. This is beyond hypocrisy. I’m not even sure what to call it. But I do believe there should be investigation under the RICO racketeering statutes of the federal government to see if they should be prosecuted for their actions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressman Lieu, what most stunned you in terms of the information that’s come out now in the recent exposés?

REP. TED LIEU: That their scientists were on the cutting edge of research on climate science, that they had done tremendous work, that they confirmed global warming was happening, and then top executives essentially shut that down and embarked on a disinformation and confusion campaign simply for profits, at the same time knowing that this could really damage all of humanity. And to me, just how shocking this was really was what stood out to me.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent investigative series by the Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization, [], has uncovered that decades ago Exxon was actually on the cutting edge of climate research. This is a clip from the PBS series Frontline, which partnered with InsideClimate News on the project.

NEELA BANERJEE: We found the trail of documents that go back to 1977. Exxon knew carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere, that combustion of fossil fuel is driving it, and that this posed a threat to Exxon. At that time, Exxon understood very quickly that governments would probably take action to reduce fossil fuel consumption. They’re smart people, great scientists, and they saw the writing on the wall.

NARRATION: One Exxon research project outfitted an oil tanker with equipment to measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the ocean.

ED GARVEY: We were collecting data, the southern Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the western Indian Ocean. Basically every hour, we would get several measurements. So we had – I called it a data monster.

NARRATION: Today Exxon says the study had nothing to do with CO2 emissions. But scientists involved remember it differently.

ED GARVEY: We were committed. We were doing some serious science. It was a significant budget, I would say on the scale of a million dollars a year. I mean, that was a lot of money in 1979.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ed Garvey. From 1978 to 1983, he was a researcher at Exxon, where he helped start the company’s greenhouse gas research program. Last month, he appeared on Democracy Now! and talked about how he felt when Exxon started funding climate deniers.

ED GARVEY: I just think it was an opportunity that was missed, that having developed this knowledge in-house, Exxon was in position to lead the discussion as how to deal with the problem, and instead they really chose to deny the problem. And I think that was really a missed opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was Exxon scientist Ed Garvey, which brings us to Bill McKibben, who – well, Bill, it’s nice that you’re back home after your arrest at your local Exxon station for protesting the information – protesting what you’ve learned from the information that’s come out in both the Los Angeles Times series as well as InsideClimate [News]. Talk about what has most surprised you. I mean, you’re hard to surprise. You’ve been working on this issue for years now. What is most chilling, if you will, in these documents that have been released?

BILL McKIBBEN: For me, Amy, the thing that really gets me is the kind of realization that Exxon is probably the one institution on Earth that could have short-circuited this 25 years of pretend, faux debate that we’ve been having about climate change. If in 1989, when Jim Hansen from NASA had stood up before Congress and said, “Yeah, the planet is warming,” if Exxon at that point had said, “You know what? He’s right. Our internal science, which is very strong in this field, confirms everything that he’s saying. The world has a terrific problem,” well, we wouldn’t have solved global warming by now, but we’d be well on the way. We would not have engaged in a quarter-century of denial and debate. Instead, that’s precisely what Exxon funded and underwrote. The most compelling moment of that probably came in, I think, 1997, when the CEO of Exxon stood up before the most powerful people in China and told them that the planet was probably cooling and that the computer models, which Exxon was using at that very moment to guide their own investments – he told them the computer models didn’t work. This was tragic. And the results we now –

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, if I can interrupt a second, we have a clip from 1996, around that time, of the Exxon CEO, Lee Raymond, speaking about global warming. Let’s hear that.

LEE RAYMOND: Proponents of the global warming theory say that higher levels of greenhouse gases are causing world temperatures to rise and that burning fossil fuels is the reason. The scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate. … Many scientists agree there’s ample time to better understand climate systems and consider policy options. So there’s simply no reason to take drastic action now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to Bill McKibben for his response, as well as Congressmember Ted Lieu. This is Democracy Now! We’ll go to them in a minute.