The United States is Dangerously Unprepared for Risks Imposed by Climate Change Impacts — Is Exxon Mobil Corporation Much to Blame?

Exxon Knew PIC2

Excerpt of internal Exxon memo from August 1988 titled “The Greenhouse Effect.” Available at:

As we immediately posted on CSPW’s social media sites late yesterday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon — signaling the beginning of what The New York Times reports to be “a sweeping investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how those risks might hurt the oil business.” This has been long in coming and joins the chorus of what has been a nascent, but rapidly growing movement calling for at least two separate, but related, federal investigations into oil giant Exxon Mobil Corporation.

Climate Science & Policy Watch is launching a set of articles that will complement and strengthen this movement. CSPW will do so by providing the narrative, disclosing details of material damage inflicted on taxpayer-funded US climate science and communications programs, and concrete examples of instances in which Exxon engaged in obstructing the Executive branch from fulfilling obligations under the law to assess the likelihood of potential climate change impacts and to communicate those impacts to Congress and the American people.

From 1995-2005, CSPW Founder and Former Director Rick Piltz held senior positions in the Coordination Office of the US Global Change Research Program — an interagency program under legal obligation to conduct periodic assessments of the full range of climate change impacts occurring and predicted in regions across the United States, and to inform the Congress and the public. A host of missed deadlines and an outright suppression of the first major U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts completed in 2000 by the George W. Bush Administration are in part the result of tampering with government science by special interests. On the CSPW blog and in the media (see here, here and here for just three examples), as well as in testimony at a hearing on Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Piltz repeatedly referred to the suppression of this assessment as the “central climate science scandal of the Bush Administration” — both for its attack on scientific integrity in relationship to policymaking, and for the failure of national climate preparedness to which it contributed.

The placement of Philip Cooney at the US Council on Environmental Quality in 2000 from his previous position as a corporate attorney at the American Petroleum Institute, and his rapid move to Exxon Mobil mere days after Piltz blew the whistle and exposed Cooney’s deliberate, politically-motivated revisions of official government reports on climate science are yet even more concrete examples of censorship intended to prevent — or at the very least delay — the adoption of public policies designed to mitigate the climate threat by curtailing carbon dioxide emissions (for more information, see this interview of Piltz back in 2005 by GAP President Louis Clark).

According to The New York Times, Schneiderman’s investigation began a year ago, “focusing initially on what the company had told investors about the risks that climate change might pose to its business.” News reporting since that time “added impetus to the investigation” which hit its peak with the recent explosive investigations by The Los Angeles Times and Pulitzer-prize winning publication Inside Climate News, which as CSPW recently blogged about, independently reported that Exxon scientists researched man-made global warming as early as the 1970s, found it to be a likely threat, and told management which 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 allegedly used its scientists’ predictions of global warming to guide its own business decisions in places like the Arctic, and denied that it was funding climate-change denial.

The similarities of the basis for the NYAG’s subpoena Wednesday evening are striking — and with good reason — when compared with the two investigations into Exxon which were recently being called for while Schniederman was building his case. Those two calls for investigations are as follows:

1) The urging of the Justice Department to determine whether Big Oil (namely, Exxon) engaged in a pattern of misconduct intended to deceive the American public on the dangers of fossil fuel emissions to planetary health and well-being, much like Big Tobacco was prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for deceiving consumers regarding the health risks of cigarette smoking; and

2) The urging of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to determine whether or not Exxon Mobil has in the past purposely failed to properly disclose — in its mandated federal filings — material risks to its business operations as a result of climate change impacts.

Presidential candidates, Members of Congress, and a former federal prosecutor have all endorsed the need for these formal investigations — both of which, when taken together, echo the scope of the investigation now formally underway in New York under Schniederman. Again, this is with good reason, and is no accident.

Last week CSPW contributor Joe Davis asked, “Should Exxon Be Prosecuted for Suppressing Climate Science?” In classic “what did they know and when did they know it?” journalistic style, InsideClimate, The Los Angeles Times, and others have presented compelling cases that not only has Exxon been fully aware for decades of the full extent of potential deleterious consequences of global climate change caused in large part by fossil fuel combustion, but also that they took active steps to prevent the American people from sharing this level of awareness.

Our current overall lack of adequate preparedness for extreme weather, intense hurricanes, devastating forest fires, prolonged droughts, extensive flooding, and so on, can be, in no small part, attributed to a systematic, premeditated disinformation and deception campaign CSPW has long exposed and challenged, and of which Exxon was a key player.

The simple premise of our argument has been and remains the following: If one is not accurately and truthfully informed of actual risks to life and property, one cannot properly prepare for and manage those risks.

After extensive flooding in South Carolina (see our recent post) and Texas this year (both states require federal disaster assistance, billions of dollars in federal outlays, use of the National Guard, and other federal search-and-rescue efforts), extensive wildfires in western states and Alaska, prolonged drought in California requiring water rationing, and so on, the costs of these weather and climate-related damages escalate — placing a heavy toll on the federal budget, and on state and local governments and service companies coping with the crises while struggling to maintain basic services such as potable water and electric power.

Faced with the prospect of having to address these charges, Exxon Mobil has chosen to release statements and regularly post messages in social media, which only perpetuate the deception and offer revisionist history that simply cannot stand the scrutiny of the evidence. Writing under the Twitter handle @KenPCohen, Exxon’s current mouthpiece, Kenneth P. Cohen, tweets several times a day doing his best at Orwellian spin. We will be watching Cohen’s rhetoric closely in the coming days now that Exxon has been officially served. Communities across the nation have been intentionally kept in the dark on a range of climate change impacts that are now being painfully and unavoidably endured, with no relief in sight. While others are surely to blame as well, Exxon allegedly conspired with the oil industry at large and the US government to censor official government scientific findings, suppress the flow of information from elected officials and civil servants, and thus impede the ability of state and local governments and the private sector to adequately prepare for a host of climate change impacts, including: heat waves, intense hurricanes, prolonged drought, sea level rise, devastating forest fires, and still other threats to the public at large from extreme weather. That is the charge that needs to be leveled, and must be answered to.

And that is the charge that could actually help pave the way to the meaningful public policy initiatives needed to finally turn things around. A carbon tax, for example, imposed upstream on oil, gas, and coal producers, could help fund the necessary reparations after extreme weather has taken a toll.

In addition to “What did Exxon know and when did they know it?” against this background we are now prepared to ask more direct, corollary questions, such as:

“What exactly did Exxon prevent the American people from knowing?”

“When is Exxon going to start admitting their role and culpability in handicapping our nation’s ability to stand ready against the deluge of harmful and dangerous climate-related impacts that now threaten our national security?”

Stay tuned as we keep asking these difficult questions.

And yes, #ExxonKnew. We all knew.

The real question is: “Now what?”


Senior CSPW Contributor Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy.

This entry was posted in Assessments of Climate Impacts and Adaptation, Climate Change Education and Communication, Climate Change Mitigation, Climate Change Preparedness, Climate Science Censorship, Climate Science Watch, Global Climate Disruption and Impacts, Global Warming Denial Machine, National Security, Science Communication, Science-Policy Interaction, Scientific Integrity, U.S. Global Change Research Program. Bookmark the permalink.