The New York attorney general’s decision to investigate Exxon Mobil over whether the company lied to the public and investors about the risks of climate change reminds of similar allegations in the Justice Department’s successful suit against the tobacco industry in 1997. Except the epic scale of harm caused from fossil fuels makes the health impacts of the tobacco industry look tiny in comparison. See: Exxon Inquiry mirrors and contrasts with tobacco industry.
Other oil companies will also now be scrutinized for internal evidence of how their public statements conflicted with what they knew about the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change. British Petroleum (BP), Shell Oil, Texaco (now part of Chevron) and Exxon, along with several manufacturing companies, were all members of the coalition of companies and trade associations that funded campaigns since the 1990s to spread misinformation, confusion and public doubt in order to undermine reform of our energy sector.
Exxon led the global subterfuge and their actions and delays have compounded our current costs and challenges exponentially. See Exxon’s Climate Concealment:
As one of the most profitable companies in the world, Exxon could have acted as a corporate leader, helping to explain to political leaders, to shareholders and institutional investors, and to the public what it knew about climate change. It could have begun to shift its business model, investing in renewables and biofuels or introducing a major research and development initiative in carbon capture. It could have endorsed sensible policies to foster a profitable transition to a 21st-century energy economy.
Instead — like the tobacco industry — Exxon chose the path of disinformation, denial and delay. More damagingly, the company set a model for the rest of the industry. More than 30 years ago, Exxon scientists acknowledged in internal company memos that climate change could be catastrophic. Today, scientists who say the exact same thing are ridiculed in the business community and on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.
We have lost precious time as a result: decades during which we could have built a smart electricity grid, fostered efficiency and renewables and generated thousands of jobs in a cleaner, greener economy. There is still time to prevent the worst disruptions of human-driven climate change, but the challenge is now much greater than it needed to be, in no small part because of the choices that Exxon Mobil made.