BY RICHARD TAYLOR
In 1978, 11 years before NASA scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm to Congress about carbon emissions and global warming, Exxon Mobil (EM) scientist James Black reported to the top brass that, “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely way in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” “General scientific agreement” now amounts to 97% of climate scientists.
By 1982, EM’s scientists had refined their analysis to conclude that “potentially catastrophic events would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” Despite this, EM’s executives chose not to embrace James Hansen. Instead of moving away from fossil fuels, the company, knowing that sea levels would rise, opted to raise the height of its off-shore oil platforms.
Almost immediately after Hansen’s testimony, EM changed the party line “to emphasize the uncertainty in scientific data,” an uncertainty that the company itself had dispelled. In 1997 CEO Lee Raymond had his Orwellian moment when he announced to the World Petroleum Conference in Beijing that the atmosphere was actually cooling.The disinformation campaign worked all too well: As recently as 2017, a poll showed that almost 90% of Americans didn’t know that a scientific consensus existed.
Eventually, the peril that EM had detected morphed into comely opportunities: diminishing ice in the Arctic Ocean would make drilling for oil easier and cheaper; the company even postured as a grand world benefactor claiming the added carbon would boost crop production and so ease world hunger.
EM, along with Chevron, Shell and Amoco, formed the Global Climate Coalition “to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate.” More candidly, Republican consultant Frank Luntz urged the oil giants and their political supporters to “make lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
The Global Climate Coalition then linked up with the National Coal Association and the American Petroleum Institute in a campaign to rebuff efforts to increase taxes on fossil fuel emissions. In 2018 voters in the state of Washington leaned toward imposing a carbon tax, but the fossil fuels Leviathan spent record sums to defeat it. British Petroleum alone chipped in $13 million.
If anyone remained uncertain about EM’s intentions, CEO Rex Tillerson, in his last address to stockholders before joining the Trump administration, stated the company’s position with alarming clarity: “The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.”
The actions of his successor, Darren Woods, are fulfilling Tillerson’s pledge. All the majors—EM, Chevron, Total, Shell and BP—plan to gin up production of oil and gas.EM’s plan is especially ambitious. Indifferent to climate disruption, it has embarked on a new $200 billion investment tsunami that intends to ramp up oil and gas production by 25% by 2025, with output continuing to grow by 2040 and beyond.
This surge promises to be most lucrative; EM is shooting for $23 billion in profits in 2025, triple those of 2017. Crucially, this leap boosts the rate of profit.
Worldwide, the oil giants are already four of the 20 largest dividend providers, and the drive to further gin up the rate of profit serves as a magnet for investors seeking higher returns. As a result, instead of divesting from fossil fuel companies, big institutional investors are adding shares to their portfolios.
Here, we should note that the new wave of investment starts from an unfathomably high rate of oil consumption. In 2018, the world surpassed using 100 million barrels of oil per day, every day of the year—and the heat accruing daily from this combustion equals the heat of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Given modern technology’s power to impact the biosphere, it’s hardly surprising that the Holocene Era has given way to the Anthropocene Epoch, an epoch defined as one where “human activities equal or exceed the great forces of nature.”
EM will work tenaciously to keep demand for its products growing. Indeed, it has to do so, because a big chunk of the new investment is in expensive deep water wells. If demand flags, so will prices, leaving the oil too expensive to extract. If that happens, profits morph into losses, and losses signify lower dividend and stock prices—capitalism in reverse.
Ominously, EM’s ambitions collide with the inconvenient truth of climate disruption and the urgent calls to reduce carbon emissions.Consider just a few events from 2018: Cities in Iran and Pakistan saw high temperatures just shy of 130 degrees; a fierce heat wave in Montreal, Canada, killed more than 70 people; the Paradise fire in California razed 10,000 buildings and snuffed out the lives of 63 people; due to the encroachment of salt water born of rising sea levels, 24,000 people in Vietnam had to abandon the fertile fields of the Mekong Delta. From now on, in each coming year, thousands more will join the migration.
This gathering storm lends urgency to the need to reduce carbon emissions. In its most recent report (December 2018), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for an 80% reduction of annual carbon emissions from 32 million tons to 7 million tons. Without such reductions by 2050, the target of confining the rise in air temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius cannot be met.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) also recently issued a report, a report that reveals an unfolding reality starkly at odds with the recommendations of the IPCC. Given the new surge in investment, the IEA sees carbon emissions rising to 43 million tons by 2040. Spewing that much carbon into the atmosphere signifies that temperatures will blow past the 1.5 degrees target and add at least 4 degrees, meaning that EM and its confederates are building a Doomsday Machine to rival the one posed by nuclear weapons.
Given that EM was a pioneer in discovering the dangers of vast fossil fuel burning, it is now giving a darkly ironic answer. Along with the other majors, the company is proclaiming boldly that the ruling principle of our economic system remains the maximization of profit. And this quest must take priority over all other values—including the survival of the human species.
In opposition to this invitation to omnicide, we are well advised to consider the ever-fresh words of Martin Luther King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”