They Knew: Inside Climate/Frontline Investigation Reveals Exxon Studied Climate Change in the 70s

September 16, 2015

The tobacco industry, we now know, knew about the toxic effects of their products decades before they were finally forced by courts to begin making reparations for their actions, in promoting a toxic, addictive product.

Likewise, a new investigation documents how Exxon, the fossil fuel giant, actually conducted research on the climate effects of burning fossil fuels in the 1970s, and was clear on the science, and the potential effects of continued CO2 release at least that far back.

Inside Climate News:

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.  Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

More from this investigation below.

Inside Climate News:

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.

This untold chapter in Exxon’s history, when one of the world’s largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN’s reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon’s innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Here’s my video interview with Mike MaCracken, who lead the Department of Energy’s task force on climate change in the late 70s, talking about what we knew then, vs now. It includes clips from a speech MacCracken gave at Sandia Labs in 1982.

UPDATE: Some of the documents released from the Inside Climate/Frontline investigation show Exxon internally working with the same data that Department of Energy scientists like Dr. MacCracken were using. Below, screen shot from MacCracken’s Sandia talk.

1982mcCrackand page from Exxon internal documents:

exxon_doc1This particular figure, as MacCracken explains in the video at 4:16, identifies the “fingerprint” of human caused climate warming, in the pattern of warming in the troposphere (lower) atmosphere, and cooling in the stratosphere (upper) layer.

UPDATED UPDATE:

You can search the Exxon documents here. http://insideclimatenews.org/search_documents?field_related_project=41124

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33 Responses to “They Knew: Inside Climate/Frontline Investigation Reveals Exxon Studied Climate Change in the 70s”


  1. […] so did Chevron, Amoco, Phillips, Shell, Sunoco and Sohio.  Newest installment in the incredible and tragic saga of what the oil industry knew about climate change, and when they knew it – the most underreported story of […]


  2. […] so did Chevron, Amoco, Phillips, Shell, Sunoco and Sohio.  Newest installment in the incredible and tragic saga of what the oil industry knew about climate change, and when they knew it – the most under-reported story of […]


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