What Exxon Knew and When, round three?

12039355_10153631174427350_5677412059475476462_n If you’re feeling cheated out of round 2, its because it didn’t seem terribly exciting. Round 1 refers, naturally.

Round 3 is called Exxon Confirmed Global Warming Consensus in 1982 with In-House Climate Models to which the obvious answer is “so what?” Confirming publically available information with other publically information available is hardly the stuff of deep dark secrets.

There’s an attempt right at the start to establish that Exxon “knew” what was going on: “The potential problem is great and urgent,” Knisely wrote. Sounds serious? But Knisely was a summer intern. I mention this because putting a summer intern so prominently into the article makes me think that insideclimatenews are not being straight forward: they are spinning this. You have to read not just what they say, but the documents that back up what they say. Another example: the title …with In-House Climate Models appears to be an attempt to create a false impression that Exxon were hiding stuff; as far as I can tell, the “In-House” models weren’t.

The next bit is odd (my bold):

The report… reflected Exxon’s growing need to understand when the climate implications of increased CO2 emissions would begin to spur policy changes. So Exxon (now ExxonMobil) shelved an ambitious but costly program that sampled carbon dioxide in the oceans—the centerpiece of its climate research in the 1970s—as it created its own computerized climate models.

That bit isn’t important, but it is weird. Round 2 was about the tanker work (note that many people have misunderstood that stuff). Why would Knisely’s report lead Exxon to shelve the tanker stuff? If ICN know something that justifies the “So”, I’d like to know what it is. For now, I’ll treat it as a mere oddity. Next.

Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming’s risks.

Damn! There’s those sneaky Exxon people again: hiding things in plain sight in the last place anyone would think to look: the peer-reviewed literature. How cunning is that? And yes, people have been accusing Exxon of burying this stuff – evidently, without actually thinking.

The article contrasts the science with Exxon exec’s behaviour:

Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions.

How unreasonable was that? The 1990 IPCC report SPM says

Our judgement is that: Global – mean surface air temperature has increased by 0 3°C to 0 6°C over the last 100 years… The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability, alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more

Well, OK, no: the IPCC didn’t say that made them useless for policy decisions. But then again, neither did Exxon(or at least, ICN don’t quote them saying so); don’t mistake ICN’s words for Exxon’s. Exxon did, IMO to an unreasonable degree, emphasise uncertainty (as I’ve said before: under Lee Raymond Exxon really were naughty and Lee Raymond really was doing his best to mislead people, probably without actively lying. I think that about 2005 they switched to preferring silence).

The kind of models ICN are talking about Exxon using are things like a latitude-resolved, steady-state energy balance model. That can be a useful research tool; but it wasn’t state of the art even in 1983.

Climate ‘Catastrophe’ Foreseen?

So, all of the above is pretty Meh. I think ICN sense this, because they mix in catastrophe forseen to make things more exciting:

company researchers had concluded that rising CO2 levels could create catastrophic impacts within the first half of the 21st century…

Well, maybe. There are people who will tell you exactly the same thing today. We’re ignoring them, largely. Ignoring such people 30 years ago was more defensible.

One scientist, Werner Glass, wrote an analysis in 1981 for a senior vice president that said the rise in global temperatures would begin to be noticed in a few decades. But Glass hedged his bet, saying the magnitude of the change would be “well short of catastrophic” in the early years. Exxon manager Roger Cohen saw things differently. “I think that this statement may be too reassuring,” Cohen, director of the Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory at Exxon Research, wrote in an August 18, 1981 memo to Glass.

Exactly. People disagreed. Which, for the times, was hardly surprising.

I sense that I’m the only person in my in-group who finds this stuff less than overwhelming. Everyone else seems to hate Exxon so much that they want to lynch them now and worry about exactly why later. So you’ll have to forgive me if, in reaction, I’ve erred over-much on the side of finding the anti-Exxon case unconvincing.

[Update: financial disclosure: I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere years ago, but I can’t find it and I doubt anyone else can: I don’t own any Exxon shares or have any direct financial interest but my parents in law worked for them, and I have received proceeds from Exxon shares. AFAIK Exxon themselves haven’t read this post, and certainly aren’t paying me for it.]


* Shitty Exxon “FUD” advert from 2000. And another from 2004.
* http://graphics.latimes.com/exxon-arctic/


13 thoughts on “What Exxon Knew and When, round three?”

  1. “only person in my in-group who finds this stuff less than overwhelming….”

    There’s more of us in the next ring out from your center.

    My overall take is that there is a lot of funding for any position that’s in strong opposition to any other position that’s far out from the center — fund the disagreement, in other words.

    That’s a great way to prolong inaction — suck the energy out of the political middle ground.

    Anyone with a fervent belief in the cause who gets funding really ought to look very carefully at where it comes from.

    Because the delay-and-deny crowd spends a lot on providing enough rope — for the people out on all the extremes.

    Dubitet? Look at this example:



  2. The Alaska spill was one of many oil spills, and many were worse. Do you know the names of the companies that had worse spills? It is amazing how people think about ExxMob. After the Alaska spill the company became very aggressive on safety consciousness. One afternoon in our Houston apartment there was a boom that felt like is was going to break the windows. My brother-in-law, a lifetime refinery worker, was sitting there with me. I said, “BP.” ExxMob never entered my mind.

    Sure enough, more than 20 dead.

    And then there is the Gulf of Mexico.When you’re on an ExxMob platform that nonsense would be pretty difficult. Their controls are elaborate and the consequences can be career ending. They take safety seriously.

    That said, drilling for oil and gas, and transporting oil and gas, are inherently dangerous things to do. Any major could have a major accident tomorrow.

    And all people can do is talk about the Valdez.

    No, the Valdez does not make the list.


  3. I didn’t get the outrage over the Indonesian gas field CO2 venting issue and I think I agreed with William when that story broke (I haven’t bothered to check what I actually said). there were plenty of reasons why they did the right thing even if they didn’t buy the science.

    But these revelations have really pissed me off, especially about Exxon’s behaviour during the Lee Raymond period. OK, so there’s stuff in the public domain that we all should have known about, but I didn’t. Maybe Exxon didn’t actively bury this stuff, but they knew about what their own experts said and nevertheless played up doubt and sponsored people like Willie Soon to produce stuff that knew was tripe. That’s disgraceful.

    Companies like Exxon, as I argued from anecdote over at Eli’s,, are so arrogant that they value their in-house research over any outside opinion. That’s their corporate culture and for them to have forgotten about their own researchers when promoting and amplifying doubt was a true act of hypocrisy and deceit.

    Oil companies buy and sell properties from each other all of the time. That’s one of the ways I’ve had professional contact with Exxon. There are unwritten ethical rules about sales pitches. For one thing, if you are a big company more focussed on preserving your reputation as an honest player than making a sale, you don’t hide your in-house studies that say Prospect x is crap. You may try to spin it a little and emphasize the good aspects, but you don’t dissemble. Next month you’ll be on the other side of the table.

    Exxon didn’t do this in the case of climate change. I assumed, naively as it turns out, that Lee Raymond was advised by technical people who really did believe that climate change was no big deal and was very uncertain. Instead it appears that, rather than face up to reality, he took the cynical path and tried to sow confusion and buy time for his company’s business model. He succeeded.

    I gave Exxon the benefit of the doubt that, even though they were talking rubbish, it was because they didn’t know any better. Instead it was a self-serving con-job. I never bought into Exxon-hatred previously, I do now.

    [Oh. I see what you mean. I’d always assumed that Exxon were getting the best advice. Just like all but a few wackos of the Republican pols denying GW are and were getting the best advice. What Exxon (as opposed to any personal outbursts from LR) said in public was always fairly carefully crafted I think – to skirt round the truth you need to know what it is -W]


  4. > on the side of finding the anti-Exxon case unconvincing.

    I think ppl have been talking past each other on this issue. Some focussing more on whether they buried any of their research, others on how much they knew when they began to mislead the public (directly or indirectly).

    I, like Andy, definitely learnt more about what EM knew from these articles. Some of it was “new”, wasn’t it?

    As you define the anti-Exxon case, I am likewise unconvinced, but I would definitely have identified as anti-Exxon and more so after these ICN articles.


  5. > I’d always assumed that Exxon were getting the best advice.

    “Getting” at what level of the organization?
    “Exxon” is a rather complex corporate structure.

    You know The Plan, I assume?

    [Oh, at the top. Or at a level that was briefing the top. How could it be otherwise? -W]


  6. The websites of the major oil companies all now pay lip service to their acceptance of the concept of global warming. But while these companies say the right things on the first few lines of their sites, as you read further down you see qualifiers, weasel words, cop outs, and dog whistle phrases to show where they really stand on global warming. Namely, they acknowledge that global warming is real, but they are not about to commit business suicide but actually doing something about it.

    Ironically, although the fossil fuel companies sing the praises of the free market to solve this problem, they probably know that without government intervention in the form of, for instance, a carbon tax, they and their competition are going to keep racing each other towards a lethal cliff which the rules of competition prevent them from avoiding.

    At this point, I am personally a little less interested in wasting time to pin the blame on the appropriate villains, than I am in getting the appropriate villains to call off their climate denying, science bashing, misinformation spewing dogs, the ones that are still roaming around out here on the web, long after direct funding by Exxon and others may have ceased. We all have a common problem to deal with, that of obtaining energy without trashing our homeworld. And it is nearly impossibly difficult to make progress against climate change with myriad happy denialists repeating long discredited arguments over and over and over…..


  7. I’m surprised you haven’t shown some of the actual ads that Exxon was running – like this one:

    Or this one: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/705644-xom-nyt-2004-1-22-weatherandclimate.html#document/p1/a241900

    These and many more were written and run two decades after their own scientists had produced this in-house climate projection (via Greg Laden).

    [I didn’t know those existed, though I knew stuff like that did. I’ve added them as refs; thanks. However, this isn’t terribly exciting. That Exxon were producing FUD under LR is well known. That they were doing it while already knowing the truth was already obvious to anyone with a clue -W]


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