Tobacco Road: Exxon’s Growing Denial Dilemma

October 27, 2015


For years, ExxonMobil has been running away from the environmental politics of former CEO Lee Raymond, a salty-tongued chemist who spent millions of company money to fund writers and foundations to sow scientific doubt about climate change.

Although Raymond retired a decade ago, his hand remains visible in the undercurrent of US skepticism toward climate change that began in the 1990s and has flowed through US politics ever since. But new reports suggest an even more complex legacy—that Raymond, while he was leading the charge to undermine near-consensus climate science, had access to pioneering, Exxon-produced studies that meticulously documented the potential perils of climate change.

raymondBeginning in 1977, Exxon scientists began to produce a decade of papers that described a general scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels was changing global climate. It was not yet knowable whether the planet was undergoing a heating trend, but if it was, temperatures could rise by three to 10 degrees Celsius, one early paper said. In the late 1980s, however, Exxon abruptly embraced a message that scientists were exaggerating how much they knew, and that the risk was that they were utterly wrong. In full-throated public statements, Raymond himself said he did not believe the planet was warming.

The possible legal ramifications of the Exxon paper trail are that the company could potentially be shown in a court to have deliberately squelched scientifically based evidence that effectively accepted the consensus view. Science is rarely incontrovertible, but, as the tobacco industry was fined a decade ago for having lied about the dangers of cigarettes, Exxon could be liable for stiff penalties should it be shown to have purposely misled the public for corporate gain.

If it looks like a mess, if not a corporate crisis, ExxonMobil appears to think it is, too, judging by how it is responding.tobaccoroad

One subject that particularly riled Raymond was the evolving science of climate change—he simply did not believe the increasing number of forecasts of a heating planet, less a human role in any such ongoing phenomenon. The most pressing environmental problem on the planet is “poverty, not global climate change,” he said in 1997.

But he went further than mere skepticism. Numerous reports detail Raymond’s expenditure of millions of corporate dollars on a campaign, sometimes surruptitiously through front groups, to discredit climate researchers, including this 2007 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With the campaign, Coll wrote, the company “self-consciously invested in the dissemination of doubt about climate change,” in a pattern that “crossed into disinformation.” (In response, company spokesman Jeffers told Quartz: “We reject long-discredited conspiracy theories that labeled legitimate scientific observations as climate denial.”)

Proof that tobacco companies knew cigarettes were unhealthy, yet financed studies and gave testimony saying the opposite, was the smoking gun that doomed the industry. But Exxon under Raymond had not previously been seen to have “maliciously distorted in-house scientific research,” Coll wrote.

But now, the news reports, relying on previously little-known papers and documents, many of them housed in an ExxonMobil archive at the University of Texas, allege that the company knew much more than it owned up to.

As far as mainstream outside researchers knew, there had been no ExxonMobil examination of climate change prior to Raymond himself initiating it. But in an eight-month investigation, InsideClimate News reporters studied a trove of serious internal Exxon studies of climate change going back as early as 1977, long before the subject had surfaced in national public or political discourse. There is no immediately apparent record of anyone previously examining the studies, which are archived at the university’s Briscoe Center for American History.


A former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who prosecuted and won the massive racketeering case against Big Tobacco thinks the agency should consider investigating Big Oil for similar claims: engaging in a cover-up to mislead the public about the risks of its product.

Sharon Eubanks, who now works for the firm Bordas & Bordas, told ThinkProgress that ExxonMobil and other members of the fossil fuel industry could be held liable for violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) if it’s discovered that the companies worked together to suppress knowledge about the reality of human-caused climate change. She said that, considering recent revelations regarding ExxonMobil, the DOJ should consider launching an investigation into big fossil fuel companies.

“I think a RICO action is plausible and should be considered,” she said.


4 Responses to “Tobacco Road: Exxon’s Growing Denial Dilemma”

  1. The “shift” in attitude is taking place…..and it is accelerating. That is what happens when people learn the truth.

    It happened with tobacco….and now it is happening with global warming. People like Joe Barton, George Will, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, FOX News, Joe Bastardi, and others…..are now “on the run”. The sand that they were standing on for their arguments is now turning into quicksand and beginning to swallow them.

    This is the begging of what will be a very ugly 5 years or so for those who have denied the science behind global warming.

    If is up to US to make sure we (1) turn away from fossil fuels as quickly as we can, and (2) hold those who lied accountable.

    • petermogensen Says:

      Who has done evil “enough” outside the cooperate misinformation system (like Exxon) is of course something you can’t help wonder.
      … setting an objective criteria and finding any penalty which would do anything to help solve problem they’ve helped cause I fear would be impossible.
      But the names you mentioned seem to leave out some very qualified contenders.

  2. Lionel Smith Says:

    I figure this old UK hit from 1964 by the Nashville Teens chimes with heading. Another golden oldie from ‘The Spencer Davies Group’ follows.

  3. […] this scandal is reminiscent of a similar controversy regarding cigarettes. The tobacco companies had conducted much research into cigarettes, their health effects, their […]

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