In September a nonprofit news organization published a series of articles illustrating the role Exxon (now ExxonMobil) has played for decades in the argument about climate change. Titled “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” the series published by Inside Climate News, asserts Exxon knew for decades that traditional fossil fuels have a cumulative effect on the environment, leading to potentially catastrophic climate change. The oil giant began studying the effects of greenhouse gases as early as the 1960s, but, despite its own findings that supported the role of fossil fuels in climate change, the company began to work against the evidence and to create confusion around the issue, the series authors say.
The series has created almost as much back-and-forth debate as the issue of climate change itself. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Naoimi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, points to the Inside Climate News series as evidence of a “campaign of disinformation” by the oil company in putting profits over scientific evidence. “We have lost precious time as a result,” she writes.
But Michael Lynch, a former MIT researcher at the Energy Laboratory and Center for International Studies, who now analyzes petroleum economics and energy policy for Forbes magazine, says the case being levied against ExxonMobil isn’t balanced. While it’s true, he asserts, that Exxon funded more than 30 organizations that would presumably argue against climate change, the company also funded independent academic climate change research – including at his alma mater, MIT – and participates on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Oreskes admits that internal documents uncovered by the investigative series demonstrate that Exxon did, for a time, encourage climate change research, including by its own team of scientific investigators. The company even acknowledged “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.” But then, she writes in her opinion piece, the company did an about-face and “chose the path of disinformation, denial and delay.”
Lynch, on the other hand, says the issue surrounding what Exxon did or didn’t do is more about public policy than science. Those who believe fossil fuels definitely are affecting climate change tend to demonize the oil industry, he says, while those with the opposing view say their opponents are more interested in securing government funding using the industry as an easy target. The truth, he says, probably lies somewhere in the middle ground.
Sources: Inside Climate News, The New York Times, Forbes
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