Did Exxon Lie About Global Warming?
At 9 a.m., ExxonMobil’s shareholders start to file into Dallas’ Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center for their annual meeting. Security personnel check IDs and confiscate phones. Uniformed police stand guard. Everyone passes through metal detectors. Outside is a crowd of protesters hoisting signs – “Exxon Lies, Seas Rise” – while standing beside a 13-foot ice sculpture of #ExxonKnew. Inside the cavernous auditorium, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson stands onstage, his podium framed by two massive pots of white carnations and a pop-up forest of green ferns. Behind him is a beautiful image of a snow-dusted desertscape – Utah, perhaps – with an oil derrick perched lightly atop a rock outcropping. “For many years now,” Tillerson begins, “ExxonMobil has held the view that the risks of climate change are serious and do warrant action.”
On this muggy Texas morning, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, one of the most profitable corporations of any kind anywhere ever, is facing unprecedented pressure. A series of in-depth reports recently revealed that Exxon, a font of climate skepticism in the 1990s and 2000s, had also been on the cutting edge of climate science as far back as the 1970s. It ran its own computer models, built up a team of in-house experts, and understood from the beginning that any effort to stop global warming would mean an effort to reduce fossil-fuel use. As the threat of regulation grew, the company gave tens of millions of dollars to dozens of think tanks and advocacy groups that churned out white papers questioning even the most basic facts of climate change. It took out full-page advertorials in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal with titles like “Climate Change: A Degree of Uncertainty” and “With Climate Change, What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us.”
Last November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened a fraud investigation, subpoenaing the company for 39 years’ worth of internal memos, e-mails and other documents related to climate change. In March, he announced a new coalition of 17 states and territories that will pursue climate litigation against Big Oil. Members of Congress and both Democratic presidential candidates have called on the Department of Justice to do the same. The FBI is circling. The 70,000-person company, long a symbol of American corporate might, is under siege. This investigation, Al Gore has said, “may well be looked back on as a major turning point.”
Now, in Dallas, Exxon is being confronted by yet another group: its own shareholders. As never before, Exxon’s investors are worried about how global efforts to curtail rising temperatures will hurt the company’s profits. To meet the climate goals of last year’s Paris Agreement, more than two-thirds of global fossil-fuel reserves – $100 trillion worth, according to a Citigroup estimate – would have to remain in the ground. If Exxon believes climate change is real, that warming more than two degrees Celsius could be catastrophic, and that the world is finally serious about averting this disaster, it must also accept that it may never sell tens of billions of barrels of oil currently on its balance sheet.