Big oil’s big deception: Exxon hid truth of climate change from 1981


Exxon executives knew in 1981 that carbon dioxide emissions caused climate change, seven years before it was public knowledge, yet funded deniers for 27 more years – and possibly even longer. The news comes in an email from ExxonMobil’s former climate expert, revealed as part of research from the Union of Concerned Scientists highlighting decades of disinformation by fossil fuel majors on climate change. Yet despite being aware of the impacts earlier than others, ExxonMobil continued to pump millions of dollars into climate change denial efforts for years, ignoring calls from shareholders and members of its founding family, the Rockefellers, to change its ways. Even today the company is still pushing for highly polluting fossil fuel projects against a ticking clock.

Key Points

  • Exxon kept a dirty secret for seven years. The email from its former chief climate expert shows Exxon knew earlier than anyone else about the dangers of climate change, and decided not to exploit a major Indonesian gas field due to the emissions it would cause. Yet the company helped fund a whole web of lies and spin that painted global warming as a fallacy for nearly three decades.
  • Fossil fuel companies did everything they could to keep carbon-burning business as usual. The full report on fossil fuels companies’ climate change deception campaigns from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how far the oil majors went to prevent carbon curbing action that would hurt their profit margins. Their tactics included funding “independent” researchers to dispute established climate science, forging letters to US Congress and faking “grassroots” organisations.
  • The game is up and the clock is ticking. With the big energy players’ tactics out in the open, institutions from churches to universities getting rid of their fossil fuel assets, leaders – including those from politics, business and the faith community – calling for an end to dirty energy and major countries thinking big in their climate action plans, Exxon and its brethren are in a race against time to find another revenue stream or watch their fortunes crumble.



Tools and Resources

Key Quotes

“Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2”, or carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.” – Lenny Bernstein, Exxon’s former in-house climate expert

“The deception simply must stop,” she said. “It’s time for major carbon companies to become part of the solution.” – Nancy Cole, UCS’s campaign director for climate and energy

“It starts to look like a much longer conspiracy. It’s like what we discovered with tobacco – the more you push back the date of knowledge of the harm, the more you delay any remediation, the more people are affected. So your liability can grow exponentially as the timeline gets longer.” – former US Department of Justice lawyer Sharon Eubanks (who led DOJ’s successful lawsuit against the tobacco companies)

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MT @UCSUSA NEW REPORT: Internal #fossil fuel industry memos reveal deliberate, ongoing campaign to deceive public

RT @IYCM Decades of climate deception must stop. Tell major #fossilfuelcompanies to stop distorting science

MT @AnnaPerezCatala Decades of deception: Holding #carbonmajors accountable for disinformation on climate science

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MT @ClimateJusticeP Exxon knew of #climate change in 1981, email says – but funded deniers for 27 more years @UCSUSA

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Decades of deception: Holding #carbonmajors accountable for disinformation campaigns against climate #science

Decades of climate deception must stop. Tell major #fossilfuelcompanies to stop distorting the science and blocking action