Revealed: Exxon made ‘incredibly’ accurate climate predictions in 1970s and ’80s | ExxonMobil

Oil giant Exxon privately “correctly and skillfully predicted global warming” only to spend decades publicly discrediting such science to protect its core business, new research has found.

A trove of internal documents and research papers previously established that Exxon had known about the dangers of global warming since at least the 1970s, while other oil industry bodies knew about the risk even earlier, from around the 1950s. They have mobilized strongly and successfully against the science to prevent any action to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

The new study, however, made it clear that Exxon scientists were incredibly accurate in their projections from the 1970s onwards, predicting an upward curve in global temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions close to what actually happened as the world warmed at a rate not seen for millions of years .

Exxon scientists have predicted that global warming will be about 0.2C per decade due to emissions of planet-warming gases from the burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels. The new analysis, published in Science, finds that Exxon’s science was very skillful and that “the projections were also consistent, and at least as skillful as those of independent academic and government models.”

Geoffrey Supran, whose previous research into historical industry documents helped shed light on what Exxon and other oil companies knew, said it was “breathtaking” to see Exxon’s projections so closely match what happened later.

“This really sums up what Exxon knew, years before many of us were born,” said Supran, who led the analysis by researchers at Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Now we have a smoking gun showing that they correctly predicted warming years before they started attacking the science. These charts confirm the complicity of what Exxon knew and how they cheated.”

The research analyzed more than 100 internal documents and peer-reviewed scientific publications produced by Exxon scientists and managers or co-authored by Exxon scientists in independent publications between 1977 and 2014.

1982 Exxon modeled climate projections with observed data overlaid
Photo: Supran, et al., 2023, “Evaluating ExxonMobil’s Global Warming Projections”

The analysis found that Exxon correctly rejected the idea that the world was heading for an inevitable ice age, a possibility mooted in the 1970s, predicting instead that the planet was facing a “carbon dioxide-induced ‘super-interglacial'”. The company’s scientists also found that global warming was human-influenced and would be detected around the year 2000, and predicted a “carbon budget” to keep warming below 2C compared to pre-industrial times.

Armed with this knowledge, Exxon embarked on a long-running campaign to downplay or discredit what its own scientists had confirmed. Back in 2013, Rex Tillerson, the oil company’s CEO at the time, said climate models were “not competent” and that “there are uncertainties” about the impact of burning fossil fuels.

“What they did was stay silent while doing this work and only when it became strategically necessary to manage an existential threat to their business did they stand up and speak out against the science,” Supran said.

“They could support their science rather than deny it. It would be much harder to deny that if the king of big oil was actually supporting science rather than attacking it.”

Climatologists say the new study has highlighted an important chapter in the battle to solve the climate crisis. “It is very unfortunate that the company not only ignored the implied risks from this information, but chose to support non-scientific ideas instead of delaying action, possibly in an attempt to make more money,” said Natalie Mahowald, a climate scientist at the University Cornell.

Mahowald said the delays in action with Exxon’s help had “profound implications” because earlier investments in wind and solar could have averted current and future climate disasters. “If we include the impacts of air pollution and climate change, their actions have likely adversely affected thousands to millions of people,” she added.

Drew Shindell, a climatologist at Duke University, said the new study was a “detailed, robust analysis” and that Exxon’s misguided public comments about the climate crisis were “particularly brazen” given the involvement of their scientists in working with outside researchers to estimate global warming. Shindell said it is difficult to conclude that Exxon scientists were better at this than outside scientists.

The new paper provided “further reinforcement” of Exxon’s misinformation, said Robert Brulle, an environmental policy expert at Brown University who has researched climate misinformation spread by the fossil fuel industry.

“I’m sure the ongoing effort to hold Exxon accountable will take this study into account,” Brulle said, referring to the various lawsuits aimed at forcing oil companies to pay for climate damages.

An Exxon spokesman said: “This question has come up several times in recent years and, in each case, our answer is the same: Those who talk about how ‘Exxon knew’ are wrong in their conclusions. In 2019, Judge Barry Ostrager of the New York State Supreme Court heard all the facts of the related case before him and wrote: “The evidence at trial revealed that ExxonMobil executives and employees were uniquely committed to the rigorous performance of their duties to the fullest extent possible. comprehensive and meticulous manner possible…. The testimony of these witnesses demonstrated that ExxonMobil has a culture of disciplined analysis, planning, accounting and reporting.”

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