Esso's tactics to create uncertainty over climate change

How Esso employs tactics and people used by tobacco firms to create uncertainty over the science of climate change. Report by Jon Hughes

It’s not often that a journalist gets to bandy the words liar and lies in print. They are guaranteed to attract the interest of m’learned friends. So here’s hoping. The OED definition of a lie is: ‘1: to speak untruthfully with intent to mislead or deceive 2: to convey a false impression or practise deception 3: an untrue or deceptive statement deliberately used to mislead 4: something that is deliberately intended to deceive.’ A liar is defined as someone who tells lies.

On that basis it is right and proper to call the CEO and board of ExxonMobil (formerly Exxon and known as Esso in the UK) liars. This group, with a hotline to the White House, has made a concerted effort to mislead and deceive and convey a false impression to the world about the truth of climate change.

Its underhand activities have recently been exposed in a damning investigation undertaken by journalist Seth Shulman on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organisation working for a healthy environment and safer world. Entitled ‘Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air’, it details documents obtained under freedom of information legislation to shed light on the company’s funding of pseudo-science to legitimise the Bush administration’s refusal to take action to combat climate change. What Shulman’s report makes clear is that in terms of tackling global warming, Exxon’s covert activity has set the world back a decade.

As for its main business, ‘Company operations alone pumped the equivalent of 138 million metric tons of C0² into the atmosphere in 2004 and roughly the same level in 2005,’ says Shulman, extrapolating from figures in ExxonMobil’s own company reports. ‘In 2005, the end-use combustion of ExxonMobil’s products – gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, diesel products, aviation fuels and heavy fuels – resulted in 1,047 million metric tons of C0²-equivalent emissions. If it was a country, ExxonMobil would rank sixth in emissions,’ behind America, China, Russia, Japan and India.

Pollution, to put it plainly, is where Exxon makes its money. ‘At $339 billion,’ writes Shulman, ‘its 2005 revenues exceeded the GDP of most of the world’s nations. It is the most profitable corporation in history. In 2005, the company netted $36 billion – nearly $100 million in profit each day.’

Meanwhile, Shulman continues, it gave more than $4 million in political donations between 2000 and 2006 – nearly $1 million at the last election, more than any other power company, and most went to the Bush campaign – and ‘paid lobbyists more than $61 million between 1998 and 2005 to help gain access to key decision makers’.

However, Shulman’s report doesn’t dwell on the company’s funding of political parties, but on the comparatively small $16 million that ExxonMobil paid between 1998 and 2004 to fund ‘select political
organisations’ to manufacture uncertainty about the scientific consensus on global warming....

The full article, which reveals the similarities between Exxon's tactics and those of tobacco companies in distorting the science of global warming, is available in the current April edition of the Ecologist. The magazine is available in all branches of WHSmiths.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007

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