The latest newsflash is that Exxon scientists researched man-made global warming as early as the 1970s, found it to be a likely threat, and told management. But Exxon’s management responded by keeping the science under wraps and spending tens of millions on a science-denial PR campaign that spanned decades. All the while, Exxon was using its scientists’ predictions of global warming to guide its own business decisions in places like the Arctic, and denying that it was funding climate-change denial.
Now a long battle over scientific truth — and the corporate right to lie — may eventually be moving from the politicized halls of the Capitol to criminal court. Some experienced prosecutors, members of Congress, and presidential candidates are calling for probes into whether Exxon should be prosecuted.
Such was the impact of a major investigative series by the Pulitzer-winning publication InsideClimate News, entitled “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” published beginning September 15, 2015. It was based on eight months of work by journalists Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, along with other staff.
InsideClimate’s probe of Exxon was quickly followed on October 9 by a quadruple-byline investigative piece in the Los Angeles Times that piled up additional evidence of Exxon’s suppression of climate science.
A few headlines have toyed with the notion of placing Exxon executives in jail — that seems a long shot. But the idea of prosecuting Exxon under a key organized crime law known as RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) is no longer far-fetched, even if it was originally meant for prosecuting mobsters. Tobacco companies agreed to a 1998 settlement with state attorneys general worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The Justice Department in 1999 lodged a RICO prosecution that led to a 2006 verdict against tobacco companies for knowing that smoking harmed health but publicly denied it. No tobacco executives went to jail.
As far back as May 29, 2015, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) had written an op-ed in the Washington Post proposing RICO action. Whitehouse wrote: “Fossil fuel companies and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.”
Whitehouse’s RICO op-ed cited a substantial body of journalism and published academic research documenting “the coordinated tactics of the climate denial network.” “The parallels between what the tobacco industry did and what the fossil fuel industry is doing now are striking,” Whitehouse wrote.
On September 1, 2015, even before the InsideClimate series ran, 21 scientists wrote a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch endorsing Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation. Atop the list of scientists signing it was Jagadish Shukla, who chairs the Climate Dynamics Department of George Mason University.
As damning as the InsideClimate series was, it was really a capstone on a much larger body of evidence on the organized climate denial enterprise that had been undertaken by the fossil fuel industry and anti-regulatory ideologues and think tanks.
Some examples include scholarly books: Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and Doubt Is Their Product, by David Michaels, among others. Another was a February 2014 article by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, enumerating a vast network of funding, some of it hidden, for climate change denial. Still more evidence came from journalists like Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian. For years, the network was tracked by Kert Davies, formerly with Greenpeace USA and now with the Climate Investigations Center.
Over the years, Rick Piltz — founder and first Director of Climate Science & Policy Watch, who blew the whistle on the George W. Bush Administration’s political interference with climate change communication — chronicled many of these science denial efforts, almost always with an eye to how they affected scientists. And many of those scientists — former GAP client and NASA lab director James Hansen being just one example — suffered attacks from the denial network and efforts to silence them. Hansen, incidentally, called for prosecution of some fossil-energy CEOs back in 2008.
It might not have been surprising then that one response to the September 1, 2015, letter from Shukla and others was indignation and reprisal from the denial lobby. On October 1, Shukla heard from the House Science Committee, who announced they were investigating whether his research entity, the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES), had improperly used government funds. The IGES has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA. The House Science Committee is chaired by Lamar Smith (R-TX), who himself is a climate-science denier.
Smith’s letter drew a sharp response from Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Scientists have the same right as anyone to engage in the political process and express their beliefs without fear of being hauled before Congress for their views,” Halpern told InsideClimate News.
Turns out Lamar Smith did not shut anybody up. In fact, the din seems to be getting louder.
On October 14, two California Democratic House members, Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), wrote their own letter to Attorney General Lynch asking for a RICO investigation. Both are members of the House Oversight and Investigations Committee.
Also on October 14, Bill McKibben got himself arrested. McKibben, an environmental writer and organizer of the climate-action group 350.org, blocked a pump at an Exxon gas station in Burlington, Vermont, and waited patiently for the police to come. He was holding a sign that said “This pump temporarily closed because ExxonMobil lied about climate.” After being booked by police, he was booked to appear on a number of talk shows.
Then on October 20, Former Department of Justice lawyer Sharon Eubanks, who ran the department’s tobacco litigation team, said she thought a RICO action against Exxon had a plausible chance of success if it could be shown that it and other companies worked together to suppress scientific knowledge about the reality of human-induced climate change.
On the same day, October 20, Senator Whitehouse gave a speech on the Senate floor once again urging a RICO investigation of Exxon. To be sure, Whitehouse had given such speeches and made such points many times before — but this time he had the InsideClimate investigation to point to. His speech cited many of the nasty names climate deniers had called him, saying they showed he had touched a nerve.
The thing that finally got the Exxon RICO story into the mainstream media headlines — wouldn’t you know it — came when on October 20 presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) added his voice to the calls for a RICO investigation. He wrote his own letter to the Attorney General asking the Justice Department to investigate “a potential instance of corporate fraud.” Sanders asked Lynch to set up a task force by December 19. Fellow presidential candidate and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, via Twitter, also supported such a probe.
The story is hardly over. Nobody knows what the Justice Department will do. But the Democrats may draw GOP presidential candidates into the fray. If the House Science Committee holds hearings, it will be a television spectacle. Certainly, the Constitution protects speech by members of Congress and the media, but eventually the discussion may escalate to a point questioning their roles, if any, in the denial machine. Regardless of whether any of it ever reaches a courtroom, there is still a good chance it will reach the cable network talk shows – and we will be watching closely. Stay tuned for CSPW’s analysis on this development as it continues to unfold.
Joseph A. Davis, Ph.D., is a CSPW Contributor and independent journalist who has written about the environment for more than three decades. His work over the years spans covering all events related to the environment, energy, and natural resources on the Hill for CQ Weekly Report, to authoring a book on climate for journalists originally funded by NOAA that went into three printings.