In the last two months, February and March 2018, multiple climate change accountability lawsuits moved forward:
- the New York Attorney General’s argument against Exxon was bolstered by the Second Circuit Citizen’s United decision,
- the Federal Government’s writ of mandamus was rejected in favor of the children plaintiffs in the Juliana case,
- and in The People of the State of California v. BP, et. al, the Court highlighted two primary documents related to industry-funded climate denial in anticipation of a ‘climate tutorial.’
While the cases progress in court, Climate Investigations Center, Climate Files, and others continue to contextualize and clarify the climate denial timeline by discovering new, and illuminating old, “hard-to-find” documents. Last week, we posted four documents from Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute written from 1981 to 1996 that capture the friction between industry arguments on science and economics.
These four documents are a sliver of information pertaining to industry-funded climate delay and denial. ClimateFiles will continue to update and build the timeline of the decades-long effort to stifle scientific consensus. In the coming months, new internal speeches, briefing documents, and much more will demonstrate the genesis from corporate scientific awareness to front groups’ concerted efforts to maintain the status quo.
The first two pieces reflect Exxon’s substantial, largely secret research that documented the atmospheric build-up of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, and projected climate effects. Exxon’s research program was on the cutting edge of climate change science, but the company maintained a tone of delay and denial regardless. As public consensus grew, however, Exxon’s research program’s budget was cut, then the whole program was scrapped, and the denial campaign redoubled.
The first document is a 1981 “inter-office correspondence” outlining Exxon’s “current position on the CO2 Greenhouse effect” in preparation for a business symposium. Building on the selection of early 1980’s Exxon documents previously posted on ClimateFiles, this further demonstrates Exxon’s knowledge and understanding of the causes and effects of fossil fuel use and combustion.
Reporting their findings to their peers, the authors clarify their consensus on what they do and do not know. For instance, they cite a global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius in the event of a CO2 doubling and warn of “major shifts in rainfall/agriculture” and melting of polar ice. The authors posit that this doubling could happen within 100 years with measurable, “above normal climatic fluctuations,” observed by 2000. Recognizing the consequences of CO2 emissions, the authors acknowledge “an orderly transition to non-fossil fuel technologies” as a realistic solution while remaining committed to fossil fuel-oriented technology and scientific complacency: “should restrictions on fossil fuel use be deemed necessary,” the timeline of 100 years is “sufficient time to study the problem before corrective action is required.”
The second Exxon post is “Inventing the Future: Energy and the CO2 ‘Greenhouse’ Effect” in its previously undiscovered original form. “Inventing the Future” is a 1982 speech to climate scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Geophysical Observatory by Dr. E. E. David, Jr., president of the Exxon Research and Engineering Company. Similarly, to the 1981 position document, “Inventing the Future” shows the tension between climate science and Exxon’s business model.
David states that it would take some 50 years for society to switch to a new energy source, and that at current rates, CO2 levels could double by the late 21st century, with “climatic changes” occurring by the middle of the century. Acknowledging that fossil fuels are at “the heart of the energy and CO2 problem,” David stresses avoiding “fatal Malthusian limits” of regulation. Seemingly convinced by consensus, David states the irony that climate uncertainty is related to “what people will do” rather than “what the climate will do.” Concluding, David lauds the “remarkable” cooperation that has already taken place, hopeful that the future will provide the necessary solutions to “the profound issues posed by the CO2 buildup.”
Taking these two documents together, it would appear as if Exxon, at the least, was ready to accept the science and take proactive steps to mitigate potential climate impacts. Comparing these documents with American Petroleum Institute (“API”) writings from more than a decade later, it is clear that complacency and denial took hold as carbon-reliant companies emphasized climate uncertainty and obfuscated their contributory role.
II. API carries its members’ water, echoes sentiment of delay and denial
The pair of recently posted 1996 API documents closely reflect Exxon’s from the early 1980s. The first is an otherwise unpublished letter from API’s William O’Keefe to President Clinton’s Assistant for Economic Policy reflecting API’s “Actions to Address Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”
Outlining a number of policy and economic recommendations, O’Keefe “recognizes the legitimate concerns about the potential long-term effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions on the Earth’s climate system.” Despite the admission of risk, O’Keefe stresses the importance of “flexible voluntary programs” as near-term emission reductions are “inconsistent with the current state of climate science.” Diminishing the existing scientific consensus, O’Keefe focuses on “funding of policy-relevant research on reducing major uncertainties about the climate system and on improving the accuracy of climate models, particularly with respect to possible regional impacts, and the role of oceans, clouds and water vapor” (emphasis added).
The second API document can be seen as the extended version of O’Keefe’s letter. “Reinventing Energy: Making the Right Choices,” also published in 1996, employs an interdepartmental team of economists, government affairs staffers, and “strategic communications” experts to diminish peer-reviewed scientific studies, distort environmental impacts of fossil fuel combustion, and discount the value of environmental law.
API’s stance on the global impacts of climate change is dismissive and American-centric. Recognizing that climate change “would seriously affect some regions of the world,” the authors heedlessly assume “[m]ost societies (even without government policies) would likely adapt.” Equating “historical patterns” with mundane examples, such as dike construction and warmer temperatures at night, to the more alarming, like large population migrations and societies seeking “higher ground,” API remains steadfast that “we have no need to worry if the global climate becomes somewhat warmer over a 100-year period” (emphasis added). In the case of agriculture, API targets the “dumb-farmer scenario,” supposing “if farmers are smart enough to change their crop plans, climate change could have a positive impact on U.S. agriculture” (emphasis added).
When the authors do acknowledge the greenhouse effect, its environmental and societal impacts are minimized despite the organization’s earlier statements and its own findings to the contrary (1968, 1980, and 1982). For instance, “were atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to double,” they began, “‘we might expect a warming of .5 to 1.5 degrees Celsius…present[ing] few if any problems.”
“Reinventing Energy” highlights inventions of the past, not ideas for the future. Payed to delay, API preferred a path of regulatory inaction for 10 to 20 years over any change that would “undermin[e] rather than heighten…human health and safety.” As “[t]he future is uncertain,” API favors the markets for social and technological progress, not the government. “By its very nature,” the authors reason, “an economy that is evolving…cannot be planned, and the entire rationale for centralized decision-making collapses.” With the utmost faith in free markets, API concludes with a dramatic ode to uncertainty: “The element of uncertainty is anathema to some. Yet, the essence of liberty is taking risks and embracing uncertainties.”
 Global Climate Science Communications Team’s 1998 planning document and a 1996 Global Climate Coalition presentation.