When Exxon supported climate science

I have a fairly simplistic way of looking at some things.

I am a biologist and I have a reasonable understanding of how evolution and natural selection work. My expertise is 20 years out of date, but I have some grasp on what has been discovered since; enough to argue the facts with creationists. On the other hand, I’m not up on how deep time dating works, but I accept that the Earth is billions of years old and that’s how evolution can happen.

I am not a physicist, but I accept the ideas of scientists who accept that, despite what we experience, the Earth is approximately spherical and rotates on its axis, the Moon orbits our planet, and we all circle the sun along with some of the sparkly sky dots. Everything out there is much larger and further away than we can possibly imagine.

I also accept the atomic and quantum theories that explain existence at microscopic levels that are far beyond even most powerful microscopes.

Do I understand these things? No I do not. Nor do most of the people in the world. However, very few doubt the veracity of these theories. We leave the deep understanding to those who have expertise in these fields, even if there are a few naysayers to all theories.

I am not a climatologist, but I trust the vast majority of climatologists who do accept the reality of anthropogenic climate warming, but there is a large number of people who refuse to accept the facts. Researchers have established that approximately 97% of the world’s climatologists agree on the basics, even if some may have differing views on the extent of the future changes. That’s a pretty convincing number

Many of these people follow the few contrarians and have decided that climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated on the world. They bristle at the terms ‘denier’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’ but that is exactly what they are, claiming that decreasing fossil consumption is just a power and money grab by supporters of the science. As you would expect, petroleum companies have been agitators in promoting this denial. However, some recent revelations suggest that at least some of the companies have been aware of the problems for many years.

As early as 1982, Exxon was aware of the climatic consequences of dependence on fuels. An internal report, buried until now, describes with prescient accuracy what has been observed since then.

  • The present trends of fossil fuel combustion with a coal emphasis will lead to dramatic world climate changes within the next 75 years, according to many present climatic models.
  • The CO2 buildup in the atmosphere is a worldwide problem. U.S. efforts to restrict CO2 emissions would delay for a short time but not solve the problem.
  • Warming trends which would move the temperate climate northward may be beneficial for some nations (i.e., the USSR’ see Figure 1) and detrimental for others. Therefore, global cooperation may be difficult to achieve.
  • Removal of CO2 from flue gases does not appear practical due to economics and lack of reasonable disposal methods
  • If it becomes necessary to limit future CO2 emissions without practical removal/disposal methods, coal and possibly other fossil fuel resources could not be utilized to an appreciable extent.
  • Even with dramatic changes in current energy resource use it appears unlikely that an increase of CO2 over the Pre-industrial CO2 level can be avoided in the next century. This would be likely to cause a slight increase in global temperatures but not, a significant change in climate, ocean water level or other serious environmental efforts.

As a result of this report, Exxon acted to understand the problem in greater detail.

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. The models aimed to simulate how the planet’s climate system would react to rising CO2levels, relying on a combination of mathematics, physics, and atmospheric science.

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.

However, by 1989, Exxon management changed tacks and became an active campaigner for the status quo. However as the chart below indicates, those original  models were very close to current observations and predictions.

 

Is it possible that this many scientists are wrong? Yes. Is it likely? No. As more data is collected and models improve, the details may change, but the facts of climate change and our role in the problem is undeniable.

Will these new facts alter the opinions of the deniers? Of course not, because their beliefs are closer to religion than science. However, for the rest of us, and hopefully for policy makers and governments, it will push the naysayers into the margins where they belong alongside creationists and real progress can be made.

 

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