Exxon Mobil takes first steps to accept climate change science and cut funding of the denial machine

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Exxon Mobil, beginning to reposition itself on climate change policy, acknowledged that climate science has identified risks that call for action and confirmed that it has stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute and several other groups that have pushed global warming denialism.

See our multiple earlier posts on the problem of Exxon Mobil’s funding of the global warming denial machine.

For far too long, Exxon and other corporate-funded denialist front groups carried on their political war against mainstream climate science without successful challenge.  But more recently, the shifting post-election political situation in Washington, combined with pushback from Exxon’s public accountability critics, appears to be getting some results.  

The Wall Street Journal reported (full text publicly available here):   

Exxon Mobil softens its climate-change stance

In one of the strongest signs yet that the U.S. industry anticipates government curbs on global-warming emissions, Exxon Mobil Corp., long a leading opponent of such rules, is starting to talk about how it would like them to be structured. Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company by market value, long has been a lightning rod in the global-warming debate. Its top executives openly have questioned the scientific validity of claims that fossil-fuel emissions are warming the planet, and it has funded outside groups that have challenged such claims in language sometimes stronger than the company itself has used.

Those actions have prompted criticism of the company by environmentalists and by Democrats, who recently gained control of the Congress.

Now, Exxon has cut off funding to a handful of those outside groups. It says climate-science models that link greenhouse-gas concentrations to global warmi ng are getting more reliable. And it is meeting in Washington with officials of other large corporations to discuss what form the companies would prefer possible U.S. carbon regulations to take.

The changes in Exxon’s words and actions are nuanced. The oil giant continues to note uncertainties in climate science. It continues to oppose the Kyoto Protocol, the international global-warming treaty that limits emissions from industrialized countries that have ratified it. It also stresses that any future carbon policy should include developing countries, where emissions are rising fastest.

Still, the company’s subtle softening is significant and reflects a gathering trend among much of U.S. industry, from utilities to automakers. While many continue to oppose caps, these companies expect the country will impose mandatory global-warming-emission constraints at some point, so they are lining up to try to shape any mandate so they escape with minimum economic pain.

In the article, spokesmen for Exxon and CEI essentially acknowledge, though not in quite these words, that Exxon is coming to regard it as bad for its corporate image to be seen as associated with groups that misrepresent climate science by denying the seriousness of the global warming problem.  

Think-tank funding

Exxon has stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank that last year ran television ads saying carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is helpful.

After funding them previously, Exxon decided in late 2005 not to fund for 2006 CEI and “five or six” other groups active in the global-warming debate, Kenneth Cohen, Exxon’s vice president for public affairs, confirmed recently in an interview at Exxon’s headquarters in Irving, Texas. He declined to identify the groups beyond CEI; their names are expected to become public in the spring, when Exxon releases its annual list of donations to nonprofit groups.

Myron Ebell, director of CEI’s energy and global-warming program, declined to comment about why Exxon didn’t fund CEI last year. But he added: “Like any company, they are concerned about both policies and image.

“We’re not at the mercy of our funders for what we believe. But we are dependent on them for funding to help promote our programs,” he said. “Obviously, we would like to find a lot more funding on energy and global warming than we’ve had.”

…Exxon says important questions remain about the degree to which fossil-fuel emissions are contributing to global warming. But “the modeling has gotten better” analyzing the probabilities of how rising greenhouse-gas emissions will affect global temperatures, Cohen said.

Exxon continues to stress the modeling is imperfect; it is “helpful to an analysis, but it’s not a predictor,” Cohen said. But he added, “We know enough now — or, society knows enough now — that the risk is serious and action should be taken.”…

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