14 December 2016

What did ExxonMobil know, and when did it know it?

By Andrew Ivers

Nearly 150 years after John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, a charity run by his family is escalating its fight with the greatest corporate descendant of his original firm—in a clash of the titans that should make any climate skeptic rethink a few things.

Last year the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles about ExxonMobil’s history with climate science, including how the oil giant turned from “a pioneer in climate change research” in the 1980s to a company that later “poured millions” into questioning the phenomenon. The reporting received funding in part from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the former of which later “singled out ExxonMobil for immediate divestment” due to this “morally reprehensible conduct.” At the time of that announcement, in March, a spokesman for the company, which now faces fraud investigations over issues related to the matter in New York, Massachusetts, California, and the Virgin Islands, accused the organization of “funding a conspiracy against us.”

Now the Rockefeller Family Fund is laying out its case against ExxonMobil in the pages of the New York Review of Books, with a two-part article by David Kaiser, a fifth-generation Rockefeller and president of the organization, and Lee Wasserman, the fund’s director. “For over a quarter-century,” they write, “the company tried to deceive policymakers and the public about the realities of climate change, protecting its profits at the cost of immense damage to life on this planet.”

Drawing on reporting from the Times and InsideClimate News and books like Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Kaiser and Wasserman weave a damning narrative of a firm that accepted climate science in private while questioning it in public. “Regardless of its campaign to confuse policymakers and the pubic, Exxon has always kept a clear eye on scientific reality when making business decisions.”

Citing Steve Coll’s 2012 book Private Empire, the authors point out that “the company gradually began to change its public position on climate” after Rex Tillerson took over as CEO in 2006. Yet they also imply the shift could have been connected to internal concerns that “the company’s aggressive denial campaign had made it vulnerable to lawsuits.” Tillerson, who still heads the company, has himself been in the news this week as Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state.

Kaiser and Wasserman’s essay even drew New York Times coverage, which makes for helpful background reading on the web of players and proxies involved in this bitter, multi-front feud—a contest playing out in the courts, in news and social media, and in Washington, where the chair of the House Science Committee has so brazenly sided with ExxonMobil that he’s been accused of abusing his office. At a time when the next American president turns to climate deniers to help shape his environmental agenda while acknowledging global warming in his private business, these essays should be required reading for anyone concerned with the fate of the planet.

Publication Name: 
The New York Review of Books