According to a study conducted at Harvard, ExxonMobil scientists knew all the details of the impending climate crisis.
Legal experts told Insider the analysis was “dynamite” for the series of lawsuits filed against ExxonMobil.
“Those who say ‘Exxon knew’ are mistaken in their conclusions,” the company said in a statement.
A new Harvard study reveals that ExxonMobil scientists predicted the climate crisis with astonishing accuracy as early as 1977.
The new analysis of the accuracy of company scientists’ estimates could be powerful fuel for cities and states that are suing ExxonMobil, accusing it of violating consumer protection laws, lying to or blackmailing investors.
“This analysis is a stick of dynamite in these situations,” Patrick Parenteau, a professor and senior fellow on climate policy at the Vermont School of Law, told Insider in an email. “The kind of incriminating evidence that could really impress the jury.”
The study, published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science, compares early ExxonMobil climate models with models from other scientists at the time and the actual increase in global temperature since then.
According to the study, 63 percent to 83% of the company’s scientists’ global warming predictions turned out to be accurate matches of real-life temperature rises in the decades since then.
The average “skill score” of these projections was 66% to 78% – higher than the 38% to 66% scores reported by NASA scientist James Hansen when he testified to Congress in 1988.
Despite knowing so conclusively about its consequences, ExxonMobil publicly denied that global warming would happen, spent decades trying to discredit public research that predicted it, and propounded the myth that the planet was actually cooling.
At the same time, the company strengthened its infrastructure against future climate changes.
“This is probably pretty malicious behavior, not just to keep your business running, but to really speed up production,” Karen Sokol, a professor specializing in climate law and policy at Loyola University’s New Orleans School of Law, told Insider.
“We are now at a point where getting out of the fossil fuel economy is getting more and more painful and expensive,” he said, pointing to the energy crisis in Europe. “There was a time when we could have done this much more calmly, where there wasn’t a lot of damage.”
ExxonMobil spokesperson Todd Spitler emailed Insider the following statement: “This issue has come up several times over the past few years, and in each case our answer is the same: those who talked about ‘Exxon Knew’ were wrong in their conclusions.”
“Some have tried to misrepresent the facts and ExxonMobil’s position on climate science and its support for effective policy solutions by reshaping the well-meaning, domestic policy debate as a corporate disinformation campaign,” Sptiler said. “ExxonMobil’s research in climate science has resulted in nearly 150 articles, including more than 50 peer-reviewed publications by the Company to the public. ExxonMobil’s understanding of climate science has evolved with that of the broader scientific community.”
A growing wave of ‘indisputable’ evidence suggests Exxon lied about what it knew
A previous study by InsideClimate News revealed that ExxonMobil scientists began warning its executives about the dangers of burning fossil fuels in 1977, when the company was renamed Exxon.
The company’s products could release so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that global temperatures could rise by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, scientists predict.
This is exactly the path that global warming is currently taking. The new analysis reveals even more details about former Exxon scientists’ predictions by examining data from internal documents.
“It’s one thing to have the impression that they were vaguely aware of global warming decades ago, but it’s another thing to see the numbers and realize they actually know as much as anyone,” Harvard science historian Geoffrey Supran said. Analysis told Insider. “They probably knew everything they needed to know.”
Sokol described the new study as “impressive”.
“This study makes it more incontrovertible that Exxon knew the truth internally and lied publicly,” environmental lawyer Matt Pawa, who previously won a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for groundwater pollution, told Insider.
He added that the new research could make a big difference in lawsuits against the company, because “they get sued because they know the truth, lie, and cause great harm.”
Numerous lawsuits against ExxonMobil can result in the company paying them if they see it one day in court.
The analysis relates to an ongoing series of legal cases against the oil giant.
Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, the District of Columbia and the City of Hoboken have sued ExxonMobil, alleging that the company deceived the public that fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change and violated consumer protection laws.
Other lawsuits accuse ExxonMobil of failing to disclose to investors that future oil and gas resources may not be assets at all, as they may need to be left in the ground to stay within the planet’s carbon budget. Because of the global climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement, these “idle assets” are now a real possibility.
The new analysis also relates to a recent class action lawsuit filed by 16 Puerto Rican municipalities under the RICO law normally used to prosecute organized crime. This lawsuit alleged that ExxonMobil – and other oil companies – were running a coordinated, multibillion-dollar program to convince consumers that fossil fuels are not changing the climate and increase their profits.
But the outcome of many of these cases depends largely on whether defendants like ExxonMobil take their state-level cases to federal court, where judges can be friendlier to fossil fuel companies than state juries. The RICO case is an exception, as it has already been heard in federal court.
Sokol said the merits of the lawsuits against ExxonMobil were strong and would likely require punitive damages under the law. But that doesn’t mean fossil fuel companies will have to pay.
“I’m afraid they’re going to run away from the merits altogether and won’t even have a day in court,” he said.
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