Hypocrisy, lies and disinformation

Exxon long knew about the catastrophic effects of global warming, writes Eddie Ford. But they denied it, because what comes first is making money

Some readers will recall the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill from 1989. A supertanker bound for California struck a reef west of Tatitlek, Alaska and spilled 37,000 tonnes of crude oil over the next few days. The spillage eventually affected 1,300 miles of coastline in a region populated by salmon, sea otters, seals, seabirds, etc - wreaking enormous ecological damage.

In terms of the volume of oil released, this was the second largest spill in US waters after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and became a byword for corporate irresponsibility, with claims that the company “put a drunk in charge of the tanker”. They eventually forked out $507.5 million in punitive damages - only one tenth of the original claim, while the process of payment was drawn out over decades and the company remained hugely profitable.

Well, ExxonMobil is in the news again. Most comrades will not be surprised to learn that it involves another example of corporate malfeasance, taking cynicism and hypocrisy to staggering new levels. For decades, the fossil fuel industry tried to convince the public that a causative link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made, because the models used to project warming were too uncertain or inconsistent - the science is dodgy, they told us. In that sense, this is similar to the tobacco industry’s long denial campaign about the dangerous effects of cigarettes (Philip Morris’s CEO once said that cigarettes are about as addictive as Gummy Bears).


However, investigative journalists in 2015 discovered internal company memos indicating that Exxon - the largest investor-owned oil company in the world - has known since about 1977 that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming, with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050”. Additional documents then emerged showing that the United States Oil and Gas Association had likewise known since at least the 1950s - whilst the same more or less goes since the 1960s for the coal industry, electric utilities, Total oil company, GM and Ford motor companies, and so on. Of course, this did not prevent them from forcefully mobilising their considerable resources against any action to reduce fossil fuel use. Amongst many things, proving that there is no honour amongst big corporations and thieves, this involved spreading as much disinformation as possible, because what comes first is capital accumulation, not preserving the planet that we all live on - unless, of course, you are Elon Musk and dream of escaping to Mars.

But a new study published in the latest edition of Science magazine comprehensively demonstrates that Exxon - out of all the companies - had its own internal models that projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast by independent academic and government models, in total contradiction to what they were trying to get you and me to believe.1 This is the first ever systematic assessment of the fossil fuel industry’s internal climate projections, conducted by scientists from Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The research analysed more than 100 internal documents and peer-reviewed scientific publications either produced in-house by Exxon scientists and managers, or co-authored by Exxon scientists in independent publications between 1977 and 2014.

We discover that Exxon’s scientists were uncannily accurate from the 1970s onwards, predicting an upward curve of global temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions that is close to what actually occurred, as the world heated up at a pace not seen in millions of years. The company were clearly employing only the best. Therefore they predicted that there would be global warming of about 0.2°C per decade due to greenhouse emissions from the relentless burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Furthermore, Exxon’s scientists rejected the idea that the world was heading towards an imminent ice age - a popular notion in the 1970s - arguing instead that the planet was facing a “carbon dioxide-induced ‘super-interglacial’”. They also said that global warming was human-influenced and would be detected around the year 2000, predicting the need for a “carbon budget” for holding the warming below 0.2°C above pre-industrial times. You could almost describe Exxon’s scientists as prophets.

Armed with this knowledge, Exxon could have alerted the world to the coming disaster of runaway climate change - urging earlier investments in wind and solar that would likely have protected millions of people, and countless animal species. But criminally, Exxon did the exact opposite - embarking on a monumental exercise in doublethink to discredit what its own people had discovered. Hence they denigrated academic climate models, stressed uncertainties, massively overplayed global cooling, which they knew to be complete bunkum, and generally feigned ignorance about the possibility of estimating human-induced warming.

As recently as 2014 the company said that the climate models were “not competent”, adding that “scientific uncertainties continue to limit our ability to make objective, quantitative determinations regarding the human role in recent climate change” - even in response to appeals from the Rockefellers, its founding family, and despite its continued financial support for climate denial. A year later an Exxon spokesperson, talking about climate science, claimed that “there was nobody you could have gone to in 1981 or 1984 who would have said whether it was real or not” (except for the company’s own scientists presumably). Over the years, Exxon spent more than $30 million on think tanks and researchers that promoted climate denial, while always claiming that they were not doing any such thing.

Unsurprisingly, the Texas-based company has become the target of numerous lawsuits from critics saying the company always knew about the damage its oil and gas would do to the planet. In the latest such lawsuit, New Jersey accused five oil and gas companies, including Exxon, of deceiving the public for decades, while knowing about the harmful toll fossil fuels take on the climate. Similar lawsuits from New York to California have claimed that Exxon and other such companies launched public relations campaigns to stir doubts about climate change. Geoffrey Supran, who led the recent research that we now see in Science, declared that we finally have “the smoking gun” of Exxon’s complicity of what they knew and how they deliberately misled for decades.

There is a difference between the hype and spin that companies use to get you to buy a product, on the one hand, and an outright lie misrepresenting factual information, on the other, and the latter is obviously what Exxon did in the most brazen fashion. They knew - a phrase that has become the war cry of thousands of climate activists around the world.


Nor is it surprising that banks and other financial institutions are investing heavily in fossil fuels despite net-zero pledges. At Cop26 in Glasgow, the British government boasted that 450 organisations in 45 countries with assets of more than $130 trillion had signed up to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) to align their investments with the goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

But it was all bullshit, of course. According to data compiled by Reclaim Finance (founded in 2020 with the “simple mission” of “making finance work for the climate”), GFANZ members have poured hundreds of billions into fossil fuels since then. At least 56 of the biggest banks in the Net-Zero Banking Alliance grouping have provided $270 billion to 102 fossil fuel companies for their expansion, through 134 loans and 215 underwriting arrangements. GFANZ companies are also failing to divest from fossil fuels, with at least $847 billion in assets in more than 200 fossil fuel companies being held by the 58 largest members, as of last September.

The Reclaim report also found that few of the GFANZ members had put in place watertight investment policies that would stop them financing new fossil fuel projects, even though all are supposed to be shifting their portfolios to be in line with the 1.5°C declared at Cop26. In other words, it is business as usual for most of the companies, described by some as “climate arsonists”. For example, one of the biggest banks in the GFANZ is HSBC, which announced restrictions on oil and gas financing last month. But so far it has approved 58 transactions worth $12 billion - yet more astounding hypocrisy.

For communists, the present human relationship with nature is self-evidently unsupportable in the truly profound sense - capitalism has to go. In reality, despite all the pledges and fine words at conferences, the ceaseless competitive struggle drives each capitalist or individual firm to constantly expand and hence reinvest in order to survive - somewhere, somehow, regardless of the consequences. Production for the sake of production, and accumulation for the sake of accumulation. Exxon and HSBC are perfect case studies. Such a system by its very nature tends towards growth punctuated by crises, or temporary interruptions to the accumulation process, placing a never-ending pressure upon the natural environment. During the last half-century or so, the world economy has grown more than seven-fold, yet the biosphere’s capacity to support such expansion has diminished due to human - or, rather, capitalist - ecological depredations. As a result we are not far away from the possible total collapse of human civilisation.

We urgently need a new revolutionary understanding of nature and our relationship towards it and within it. Such a concept was expressed by Karl Marx in Capital volume 3:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].2

Common human survival demands that we fight for the sustainable use of nature’s resources. If you are a Marxist, the struggle for universal human liberation and the struggle to protect the environment are one and the same.


  1. science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abk0063.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch46.htm.↩︎