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. Karl Wirth Says:

    Unfortunately, the first video seems to blocked – marked ‘Private’…

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    So, have I got this straight? Exxon knew 40 years ago and COULD have been a leader in discussing AGW due to burning carbon fuels, but instead backed away so as to not impact their bottom line? Then they even moved on to giving monetary support to deniers like Heartland, Willie Soon, and Idso to further confuse the issue and delay action?

    Does this sound like what big tobacco did? Merchants of Doubt redux, and Naomi was right. I wonder if we can start suing Exxon and have some settlements like we got from big tobacco. Hope so, because somebody needs to pay the costs of fixing AGW, and Exxon sure as heck has made things much worse by their failure to do the right thing back when.

    • Sandy Porter Says:

      Dear dumboldguy. Since you nailed it in your comment, I think you could probably go by ‘smartoldguy.’

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Thank you for the flattery, but the older I get and the more I study things, the dumber I seem to get. It’s a very complicated world we live in.

        It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what I saw in Exxon’s behavior. It would be presumptuous of me to change my handle just because I got one mostly right. (And you can throw in some “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn on occasion” effect as well).

    • greenman3610 Says:

      this will be a rich trove for attorneys, and fodder for additional discovery in coming lawsuits.

      • skeptictmac57 Says:

        Now would be a good time to be in the mass document shredding business.


        • I’m sure they shredded most of the evidence a long time ago, before they launched their campaign to confuse the public.

          • skeptictmac57 Says:

            Yeah, you would think so, but it always amazes me how often bad corporate actors and others get caught by their damning emails and office memos.
            Where I worked records retention was considered quite important, so there will always be some stray copies of something floating around that gets missed once the panic sets in. Then there are the disgruntled people on the inside that secrets stuff like that away for some rainy day.


    • You’d probably enjoy Bad Acts by Sharon Eubanks and Stanton Glantz, a detailed account of the Justice Department’s successful lawsuit against the Tobacco Industry which began during the Clinton administration. Overcoming the obstacles faced by the government’s Tobacco Litigation Team under the less than cooperative Bush administration is an intriguing political page turner.


  3. Exxon used to be the corporate sponsor for EPCOT Center’s Universe of Energy, a ride about the history of energy, the development of fossil fuels, and the human ingenuity needed to fuel the future using alternative sources. Many remember it as ‘the dinosaur ride’, for its journey through the primeval world when our fossil fuels of today were laid down eons ago.

    Exxon’s sponsorship ran from opening day, October 1, 1982, until 2004. During that time the ride changed from the ‘Universe of Energy’ to ‘Ellen’s Energy Crisis’ (and suddenly to Ellen’s Energy Adventure) starring Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye. Yes, Climate Change is briefly touched upon, but the overall mood of the ride is about positive solutions to energy challenges.

    The dropped sponsorship occurred not long after Exxon’s change to ExxonMobil. EPCOT Center was developed in the 1970s, when a feeling of techno-optimism was beginning to pervade the country. Most of EPCOT Center’s sponsored attractions were developed in partnership with the sponsors – Kodak for the Journey into Imagination, GM for the World of Motion, GE for Horizons, a look at future living on earth, sea, and even out in space.

    But as the mood of the country shifted away from techno-optimism of the 70s and 80s to the grungy angst of the 90s, corporate sponsors pulled away from Epcot and the park began a change from Future hope and Global community to Disney characters and attractions modified to reflect Disney’s films and characters.

    Just a footnote on Exxon’s involvement with a hopeful, positive future, not a dystopian denialist nightmare.

    • jimbills Says:

      I remember it as well. I think I must have seen it in the late 90’s:

      Bill Nye and Ellen on renewables at 21:15. Bill Nye and Ellen on climate change and fossil carbon at 23:45. Not good.

      BTW, apparently Disney still has the same “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” up and running. It just doesn’t have Exxon’s name on it now. I wonder if the renewables and fossil carbon sections are the same today as they were when the program started in 1994.

  4. earlosatrun Says:

    In case any of you are wondering, the people who made those decisions have long been retired. The ones who are still alive would be in their late 80s, early 90s.

    The corporate structure that made them rich also let them have a very nice retirement.

    Their grandkids, not so much.


  5. […] said, this week’s revelations that Exxon knew about global warming impacts as far back as the 70s certainly adds to the likelihood that Tobacco style lawsuits will eventually catch up with the […]


  6. […] Rather tough interviewer is not buying Exxon’s response to the new revelations about new revelations that the oil giant’s own internal research verified the causes and at least some of the most […]


  7. […] More astounding documents dumped as part of Inside Climate News’ incredible investigation of Exxon’s internal climate science program. […]


  8. […] VIDEO: They Knew: Inside Climate/Frontline Investigation Reveals Exxon Studied Climate Change in the… (Climate Crocks): 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. […]


  9. […] Newly revealed documents show that Exxon’s own scientists were aware of and studying the dangerous impacts of greenhouse gases in the 1970s and 1980s — until Exxon’s leadership decided to shut down the research and promote climate denial instead, in order to protect the company’s unfathomably large profits. […]


  10. […] Now we know, Oil companies knew the truth of climate change for 25 years while they funded misinformation, distortions and lies to decieve the public. […]


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