Politics

Exxon made shockingly accurate climate forecasts decades ago

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EXXON really did know.

The oil company for decades denied the impact that fossil fuels were having on the climate — even as its scientists produced stunningly accurate forecasts of just how much and how quickly carbon emissions were warming the planet. A new study released Thursday examining the company’s climate findings over a 25-year stretch makes that clearer than ever.

Since 2015, when a series of articles first exposed how Exxon Mobil Corp.’s in-house research contradicted its public statements, climate activists started waving signs reading, “Exxon Knew.” The company continues to resist that to this day, telling the New York Times “those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions.”

With the new data we have from researchers at Harvard and the University of Potsdam, it is impossible to draw any other conclusion. There is a chart from the new study, comparing a dozen different Exxon forecasts of fossil fuel-induced global warming with actual temperature change, in red. The foresight is uncanny.

Exxon studied carbon levels intensively at a time when public interest in global warming was just getting started. As Nathaniel Rich wrote in his book Losing Earth, when the political winds shifted against climate action in the early 1980s, Exxon shifted with them. For decades thereafter it denied its products were affecting the climate and cast doubt on models predicting a warming planet. All along, it turns out, its scientists were in perfect harmony with those models.

Exxon wasn’t alone. Other oil companies, coal companies, utilities, and automakers have been studying human-caused climate change for decades and coming to similar conclusions, the new study points out. Few contradicted Exxon publicly.

As my colleague Liam Denning has written, the oil industry’s short-term (in geological time, anyway) success at obscuring the truth about climate change has led to a longer-term, existential backlash. That image crisis has forced the industry to tack with the political winds again, though it still complains the energy transition is moving too rapidly. But the frantic pace wouldn’t have been necessary if the industry had only been honest about the problem earlier.

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