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Internal Exxon Documents Show Climate Awareness in 1982, Denial by 1988

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ExxonMobil had an early and quite accurate sense of the climate crisis that would result from continued dependence on fossil fuels, according to an April 1, 1982 research document prepared for company management, with strict prohibitions against it being distributed to external audiences.

The report warned that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is of concern since it can affect global climate,author Len Rosen writes for Energy Central, and calculated that the fossil fuel requirements projected in Exxon’s long-range energy outlook would double atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by about 2090. Such a doubling “could increase average global temperature by about 1.3°C, to 3.1°C,” the report said. It also acknowledged there would likely be some delay in observable climatic changes.

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Stating that potentially serious climate problems are not likely to occur until the late 21st century or perhaps beyond at projected energy demand rates,” the report authors declared that any moves to act upon its findings “would be premature in view of the severe impact such moves could have on the world’s economies and societies.”

The report did not comment explicitly on the implications of a coherent response to climate change for Exxon’s bottom line, Rosen notes.

What did become more and more explicit in Exxon’s internal correspondence, however, was the company’s need for a smokescreen around the atmospheric impacts of burning fossil fuels. In 1988, a staffer produced a memo emphasizing the need to sow uncertainty in the growing field of climate science research and resist anything that “could lead to non-economic development of non-fossil fuel resources.”

Rather more restrained are the stated objectives of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an entity launched in 2014. ExxonMobil joined the group in September 2018, along with Chevron Corporation and Occidental Petroleum. The second of OGCI’s three objectives asserts the need to “accelerate the policy agenda for further public sector action such as procuring clean products, investing in carbon capture, use, and storage infrastructure, developing natural sinks, and committing financial and human resources from governments at all levels, including the United Nations.”