ExxonMobil accurately predicted climate change, but publicly rejected it

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ExxonMobil predicted rising global temperatures with remarkable accuracy, even as it tried to downplay the existence of climate change, new research shows. It comes with damning data visualizations that give hard numbers on how much ExxonMobil knew about the climate crisis it created.

There is a litany of evidence on how ExxonMobil rejected mainstream climate science, even though the company’s own research and internal communications acknowledged that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming. Now, an article published today in the magazine Science gives us the first comprehensive overview of decades of ExxonMobil climate models. And the company’s projections for how much global temperatures would rise over the years were pretty much accurate.

“What’s quite shocking is the accuracy and skill of their insights.”

“What is quite shocking is the accuracy and skill of their insights. They didn’t just vaguely know something about global warming… They knew as much as academic researchers do,” said Geoffrey Supran, a research associate at Harvard University and lead author of the new paper. “No doubt they knew everything they needed to know to take action and warn the public. But of course they didn’t.”

Looking back at predictions ExxonMobil has made since the 1970s, the estimates for future global temperature increases are in pretty good agreement with what actually happened. To show how good the company has been at predicting global warming, The edge has recreated one of the figures from the new research paper below.

Multiple lines are plotted in a graph.  Multiple gray lines show ExxonMobil's climate projections over time.  A red line, which falls close to the gray lines, shows observed changes in global temperatures.

The graph above summarizes all projections of global warming from ExxonMobil scientists between 1977 and 2003 (grey lines), superimposed on a red line representing real increases in global temperature.

The red line shows how much the average global temperature has actually changed over time, due to heat retention from greenhouse gas emissions. The gray lines represent ExxonMobil’s global warming projections. The colors of the lines range from light gray to dark gray, with lighter colors representing the company’s early research from the late 1970s to darker gray representing the company’s more recent estimates in the early 2000s. Solid lines indicate predictions that ExxonMobil scientists have used their own models for, while dotted lines represent third-party research that ExxonMobil scientists have adopted in corporate documents.

The main takeaway is that ExxonMobil could foresee how much the petroleum products it sold would warm the planet. The earth has already warmed up by about 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era. That may seem like a small change, but it has led to more severe heat waves, droughts, storms and floods that we have to live with today.

“When I first plotted this graph and all these prediction lines fell right around this red line of reality, it was pretty surprising that they were equipped with this knowledge years before I was even born,” says Supran. You can check out his team’s recently published research to see more real-world observations on top of surprisingly accurate corporate records.

On average, Supran and his colleagues give ExxonMobil’s climate models a pretty high “skill score” (a metric also used in meteorology to rate weather forecasts) of about 72 percent. By comparison, that’s even more accurate than the global warming projections that noted NASA scientist James Hansen presented to Congress in 1988. Hansen is legendary in the climate world for being one of the first to sound the alarm about climate change.

Now ExxonMobil is notorious for denying climate science that it actually made progress. The company sought to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potentially enhanced greenhouse effect,” according to an internal 1988 memo, and continued to characterize climate models as “unreliable” into the early 2000s.

By 2015, groundbreaking studies through Inside Climate news and the Loose Angels Time had unearthed many of the documents showing that the company had spent decades studying climate change, yet cast doubt on climate science. That coverage led to the #ExxonKnew scandal, plus dozens of lawsuits faced by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies from cities, counties and states, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The lawsuits allege the oil giants deliberately misled people about climate change to protect their own interests.

“This issue has come up several times over the years and in any case our answer is the same: Those who talk about how ‘Exxon knew’ are wrong in their conclusions,” Todd Spitler, a senior advisor of corporate media relations for ExxonMobil, wrote to The edge in an email. Spitler references a 2019 decision by a New York State Supreme Court judge who ruled in favor of ExxonMobil, finding that the state did not have enough evidence to show that the company had misled investors.

ExxonMobil is still staring at other lawsuits

Nevertheless, ExxonMobil is still staring at other lawsuits. The new research published today could potentially yield more ammunition for those suits targeting the company. The paper analyzes all of the company’s now publicly available climate projections between 1977 and 2003 (many of which stemmed from the journalistic investigations). Until now, much of #ExxonKnew’s focus has been on the discrepancy between the company’s internal and external reporting on climate change. But Supran and his colleagues wanted to make a full assessment of what the company’s climate data actually showed.

“This kind of evidence that concisely and statistically represents everything they knew in one number and one graph could probably be persuasive…an addition to more qualitative forms of evidence that lawyers typically rely on,” says Supran. “And then, of course, there’s also the court of public opinion where I suspect that simple images proving that Exxon was aware of and misled about the climate can be powerful.”

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