Exxon and Climate Change: Reasonable Doubt?
In our previous post, we examined the Inside Climate News (ICN) claims about Exxon’s research goals and processes with regard to climate change. Exxon had real doubts about the state of the science, and it supported reasonable public policies based on the science. From computer models of the earth’s climate to the Kyoto Protocol, today’s perspective does not contradict the company’s early impressions.
ICN documents instances in which Exxon officials, advertisements, and lobbyists expressed doubt about the reliability of computer climate models even though company scientists used such models. In fact, however, climate modeling has always been problematic. Consulting for Enron, climatologist Gerald North of Texas A&M University stated in the late 1990s:
The Economist in 2019 reported that “predicting the climate future is riddled with uncertainty” because “crude” modeling “misses much detail.”
ICN offered a single defense of early modeling by quoting Martin Hoffert, a former Exxon modeling consultant:
Hoffert’s “proof” is oddly specific. Did the model predictions apply to more than just the poles? If the embryonic models were in some predictive sense “correct,” was it for the right reasons? ICN doesn’t say.
Several ICN articles note that Exxon Mobil opposed the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, a failed international global-climate agreement. Yet nowhere does ICN discuss the political problems with the agreement that existed from the beginning: limited participation and large pain for insignificant gain (a temperature reduction of 0.05° by 2050). As one scientist stated:
Prudence vs. ‘Denialism’
In one article, ICN accuses company lobbyists of being “denialist,” without defining the term. Richard Mueller, a physicist and philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley, has helpfully identified six categories in “The Classifications of Climate Change Thinkers”: Alarmists, Exaggerators, Warmists, Lukewarmists, Skeptics, and Deniers.
The operative words are “may” and “responsible.” May means “possible,” not “probable.” The possibility of risk does not equate to catastrophe, and the risk of overreaching must be considered as well. “Responsible actions” certainly do not include compromising affordable, plentiful, reliable energy sources, much less subjecting U.S. policy to global governance.
In its fifth article, ICN notes that in a speech by “Exxon chief executive Clifton Garvin… in April 1981, global warming was never mentioned among the environmental risks that he said the industry would be ‘held primarily responsible for solving.’” ICN insinuates that Exxon Mobil should have adopted a monolithic, alarmist view of climate science, leading the company to move away from carbon-based energies to … what? Exxon, in fact, invested in renewables—unsuccessfully. ICN never mentions Exxon’s 15-year foray in solar energy, which ended in 1984.
Exxon entered solar in 1969 (wind power was not a business yet) and became the market leader with sales in 35 countries. Wholly-owned subsidiaries Solar Power Corporation and Daystar called it quits because of high costs and financial losses. “Solar power might eventually become price competitive and have an important long-term role as a major renewable energy source,” Joseph Pratt and William Hale wrote, “but Exxon’s core competencies in oil and natural gas had little direct application to solar power’s operation or development.”
Beginning in 1969, Exxon invested heavily in uranium mining and enrichment operations. Headed for a time by up-and-coming Lee Raymond, Exxon Nuclear Corporation was never profitable and was sold in 1986.
In recent years, the company has bankrolled research into biofuels derived from algae, so far with little success. Business profits matter, and the renewables industry has always been risky and government-dependent.
ICN’s insinuation that Exxon should have abandoned oil and gas production is fanciful given the state of the climate science and the fiduciary responsibilities of the company—not to mention injury to consumers and to the nation. Billions of lives currently depend upon fossil fuels. Replacing them will require vast scientific, technological, infrastructure, political, regulatory, and diplomatic breakthroughs – breakthroughs that are far beyond Exxon’s capabilities or even those of the entire oil industry.
Nor does the Biden Administration, if we can take them at their word, believe we can abandon fossil fuels. President Biden himself declared, “… no one has anticipated that this year we’d be in a position, or even next year, that we’re not going to use any more oil or gas.” Late last year, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm admonished U.S. drillers: “Get your rig count up.” And as even John Kerry admitted, “But you can’t just shut down everybody’s economy across the planet and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to use oil’ or whatever.”
After reviewing thousands of internal documents, ICN did not find a “smoking gun” – that is, a document that said something like: “Even though we know global warming is an imminent threat, we’re going to obfuscate to protect our core business.” Instead, the authors, on a mission to incriminate, found documents written by different employees with different beliefs at different times. That the beliefs of Exxon’s leaders differed from those of ICN’s journalists is hardly damning, much less criminal.
 T. M. L. Wigley, “The Kyoto Protocol: CO2, CH4 and Climate Implications,” Geophysical Research Letters 25, no. 13 (July 1, 1998), pp. 2285–88.
 Martin Parry, Nigel Arnell, Robert Nichols, and Matthew Livermore, “Adapting to the Inevitable,” Nature 395 (October 22, 1998), p. 741.
 Pratt and Hale, p. 189.
 Pratt and Hale, pp. 185–89.
Robert Bradley Jr and Richard Fulmer are coauthors of the primer Energy: The Master Resource (2004) and other writings on free-market energy and climate policy.