ExxonMobil is maybe the most profitable company in the world, and also probably the biggest funder of climate change denial in the world. Although suspicion has long existed that ExxonMobil understood the dangers of “business as usual” regarding fossil fuel extraction and use, evidence has now emerged that they were fully aware of what they were doing and decided to openly deny it anyways.

Steve Knisely was an intern working at Exxon Research and Engineering in the summer of 1979 when he was asked by a vice president analyze how global warming might affect fossil fuel use.

“I think this guy was looking for validation that the greenhouse effect should spur some investment in alternative energy that’s not bad for the environment,” Knisely, now 58 years old and a partner in a management consulting company, recalled in a recent interview.


Andrew Callegari’s 1982 prediction, remember that 1 degree K is 1 degree C

Knisely concluded in his 1973 report that the fossil fuel industry may need to leave 80% of recoverable reserves in the ground to avoid doubling global CO2concentrations. Strangely, Exxon accepted his report and without altering their business model remotely, and over the next 10 years they requested more detailed analyses.

Throughout much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate more-or-less objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming’s risks. In 1982, ExxonMobil requested a climate projection regarding global climate changes from Andrew Callegari, who worked with scientific experts to develop a new model, which is actually very similar to current models.

So after over a decade of designing essentially accurate models predicting the same as later IPCC reports, Exxon strangely did an abrupt about-face in the early 1990s. Exxon leaders took a different path. They openly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as available models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began rightfully to erode.

Check out this Exxon internal memo from 1981, roughly 10 years before their targeted attempts to argue the opposite conclusions of their own scientists:


An internal Exxon memo from 1981

Unsurprisingly, the open denial of climate science and indeed the refusal to acknowledge global biosphere destruction was a business boom. By ignoring environmental and long-term costs and externalizing them onto future generations, Exxon was guaranteeing current profit-margins.

Sadly the behavior of Exxon is not a surprising exception to normal corporate responsibility but instead acts more as the rule and standard. A recent report for the United Nations found that essentially no industry, especially cattle grazing and oil, would actually be profitable if environmental costs were included instead of exorcised from their business models.

Exxon and others are making obscene profits (almost never dipping below +30% per quarter) explicitly because they are ignoring the environmental consequences of their actions, and not because of any real type of business genius or hard work. The fact that these companies so frequently reinvest their ill-gotten profits into greenwashing their image and continuing to hide the damage is repugnant.

The fact is that there is no legitimate debate: our continued use and extraction of fossil fuels (and more broadly our over-dependance on animal agriculture to feed us) is not sustainable. The industries involved have known it was not sustainable or environmentally responsible for decades, and yet manufactured uncertainty and massive lobbies keep political action at bay. If internal memos from Exxon in 1981 describe the effects as “catastrophic,” then what excuse do we really have for inaction over 20 years later?