October 27, 2015

Time to Wake Up: What Exxon Knew About Climate Change

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr./Madam President, it is time for this body to wake up, not just to climate change, but to the decades-long, purposeful corporate smokescreen of misleading public statements from the fossil fuel industry and its allies on the dangers of carbon pollution.  I am here for the 116th time, seeking an open, honest and factual debate in Congress about global climate change.

The energy industry’s top dog, ExxonMobil—number two for both revenue and profits among the Fortune 500—has been getting some bad press lately.  Two independent investigative reports, from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, revealed that Exxon’s own scientists understood as far back at the late 1970s the effects of carbon pollution on the climate and warned company executives of the potential outcomes for the planet and human society.  But Exxon’s own internal report recognizing heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”  So rather than behave responsibly, reveal that truth, and lead the effort to stave off catastrophic changes to the climate, Exxon ultimately chose to fund and participate in a massive misinformation campaign to protect their business model and their bottom line. 

This starts at the top.  Exxon’s former chairman and CEO, Lee Raymond, repeatedly and publically questioned the science behind climate change.  “Currently,” Raymond claimed in a 1996 speech before the Economic Club of Detroit, “the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”  Never mind the already emerging international consensus that unchecked carbon emissions were warming the planet.  The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

The current ExxonMobil chief executive, Rex Tillerson, however, emphasizes uncertainty, and overestimates the costs of action.  In 2013, he asked “what good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Someone needs to explain to me how, if we fail to save the planet, humanity does not suffer – they only suffer if we try?

At this year’s annual shareholders meeting, Tillerson argued the world needs to wait for the science to improve and look for solutions to the effects of climate change as they become more clear. 

More clear? Our oceans are clearly warming and acidifying, and this has been clearly measured. Atmospheric carbon is clearly higher than ever in our species’s history, and this has been clearly measured.  In Rhode Island, we’ve measured nearly 10 inches of sea level rise since the 1930s.  What’s not clear?

And while they were peddling climate denial here in Washington, the LA Times reports, they were using climate models to plan for operations in the warming Arctic.   Between 1986 and 1992, Exxon’s senior ice researcher Ken Croasdale and others studied the effects that global warming would have on Arctic oil operations and reported back to Exxon brass.  They knew that melting ice would lower exploration and development costs.  They also knew that higher seas and thawing permafrost would threaten the company’s ships, drilling platforms, processing plants, and pipelines.  They were challenging the climate models publicly while they were using them privately to guide their investment decisions. 

Exxon understood the dangers.  But instead of sounding the alarm, they chose to sow doubt. 

Then there’s the front groups.  A study out just last month in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change says that  ExxonMobil paid over $16 million between 1988 and 2005 to a network of phony-baloney think tanks and pseudo-science groups that spread misleading claims about climate science.

The company’s network includes organizations named after John Locke, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and George C. Marshall.  It includes the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which peddles conservative legislation in state legislatures.  ALEC denies the human contribution to climate change by calling it a “historical phenomenon,” asserting that “the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions.”  The climate denial coming out of ALEC is so egregious, even Shell Oil left the group this summer.    

And don’t forget the paid-for scientists!  The Exxon network includes Willie Soon, whose work consistently downplayed the role of carbon pollution in climate change. Dr. Soon received—get this—more than $1.2 million from oil and coal interests, including ExxonMobil, over the last decade. 

But the cat’s out of the bag now.  And all the bad press has got Exxon a little jumpy.

Exxon’s VP of Public Affairs, Ken Cohen, took to Exxon’s blog to claim that his company has a legitimate history when it comes to climate.  “Our scientists have been involved in climate research and related policy analysis for more than 30 years, yielding more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed publications.”  He goes on to say that Exxon has been involved with the UN IPCC and the National Academy of Science’s National Climate Assessment.  And that Exxon funds legitimate scientists at major universities as they research energy and climate.

Right.  But that’s only half the story.

What does he leave out?  Decades of funding to a network of front groups that led a PR campaign designed to undercut climate science and prevent legitimate action on climate change. For decades, Exxon invested in legitimate climate research, you say? That’s the proof of actual knowledge.  That makes the route of denial and delay they chose all the more culpable. As Paul Harvey says, “now you know the rest of the story.”

What are Tillerson and ExxonMobil waiting for? Why this campaign of deceit, denial and delay? Sadly, Mr./Madam President, in our American system of big business and paid-for politics, just follow the money. Exxon foists the costs of its carbon pollution on the rest of us – on our children and grandchildren – and all the while they make staggering amounts of money.  And Congress, funded by their lobbyists, sleeps placidly at the switch. 

Exxon even fights to protect the status quo with their shareholders.  The Institute for Policy Studies reports shareholders of ExxonMobil have introduced 62 climate-related resolutions over the past 25 years, and all of them have been opposed by management. Rex Tillerson, who made $21.4 million in stock-based pay in 2014, once openly mocked a shareholder who asked about investing in renewables.

Tillerson responded that renewable energy “only survives on the backs of enormous government mandates that are not sustainable. We on purpose choose not to lose money.” ExxonMobil spends huge amounts on the big complex PR machine to churn out doubt about the real science, and to protect the enormous market failure that ignores the costs of Exxon’s carbon pollution, and makes clean energy face an uphill battle.

Things could have been different. Exxon could have heeded the warnings of its own scientists and helped us make the transition to clean energy.  It’s happening now without them.  The International Energy Agency found the cost of generating electricity from renewable sources dropped from $500 a megawatt-hour in 2010 to $200 in 2015.  Imagine if we’d rolled up our sleeves and gotten to work way back when Exxon first learned of the dangers of carbon pollution.  Imagine the leadership that company could have shown.  Imagine how much of the coming climate and ocean changes we could have avoided.

But the time of reckoning may be upon the likes of Exxon and others in the fossil fuel industry.  That PR machine may end up costing the company a lot.  Look at what happened to Big Tobacco.

Two weeks ago, Congressmen Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch regarding these newly reported allegations that ExxonMobil intentionally hid the truth about the role of fossil fuels in influencing climate change. “The apparent tactics employed by Exxon are reminiscent of the actions employed by big tobacco companies to deceive the American people about the known risks of tobacco,” they wrote.

Last week, my friend the junior Senator from Vermont, joined in the call for the Attorney General to bring a civil RICO investigation into big fossil fuel. “These reports, if true,” reads Senator Sanders’s letter to Attorney General Lynch, “raise serious allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry’s actions – conduct that led to federal racketeering convictions.”

Also last week, Sharon Eubanks, the former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who prosecuted and won the civil RICO case against the tobacco industry, said that, considering recent revelations regarding ExxonMobil, the Department of Justice should consider launching an investigation into big fossil fuel companies.

The investigative journalism from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times is damning.  The calls for greater scrutiny of ExxonMobil and the fossil fuel industry are mounting.  And the phoney-baloney denial network is up in arms, trying to shovel this campaign under the protection of the First Amendment. Sorry, guys, the First Amendment doesn’t protect fraud.

Describing Caesar at the Battle of Munda, Napoleon said, “There is a moment in combat when the slightest maneuver is decisive and gives superiority; it is the drop of water that starts the overflow.”

Is the tide turning, Mr./Madam President?

Despite documented warnings from their own scientists dating from the 1970s, ExxonMobil pursued a campaign of deceit, denial, and delay. They may soon have to face the consequences.

History will not look kindly on their choice.

I yield the floor.