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Washington Post – Half right, half wrong

Half right and half wrong. That describes a recent editorial in the Washington Post about ExxonMobil’s climate-related research. The Post ran a letter-to-the-editor response from me in Thursday’s edition.

11302015_Feature_v1After the editorial ran last week, we asked for equal space to address the Post’s charge of “corporate irresponsibility” on our part. It’s a serious charge, but an inaccurate one. The Post refused, and would only allow us space for a letter.

However, there’s no reason not to print the full text of our reply on the Perspectives blog.

All along, I have been saying that readers can make up their own minds about the manufactured controversy over ExxonMobil’s climate science, but they should have all the facts.

With that in mind, here is the full op-ed we offered to the Washington Post:

Corporate responsibility and climate science
By Ken Cohen, Exxon Mobil Corporation

In editorializing about the investigation targeting my company, the Washington Post got it half right – and half wrong.  It was right in asserting ExxonMobil committed no crime.  It was wrong, however, in suggesting ExxonMobil exemplified “corporate irresponsibility.”

This misguided accusation is based on an unfortunate but all-too-common mistake of misrepresenting the state of knowledge regarding climate change three decades ago. This misrepresentation led the editors to assert that ExxonMobil “turned from one of the greatest challenges facing the planet” and pursued activities that are an “example of corporate irresponsibility.” These accusations are unfair, unfounded, and untrue.

The period in question involves our company’s scientific research during the 1970s and 1980s into climate change. After acknowledging that ExxonMobil pursued research into climate change beginning in the 1970s, the Post alleges that we “changed course in the 1980s, pushing back against the emerging scientific consensus rather than advancing it.”

To judge the merit of this claim, it’s important to revisit the scientific consensus regarding global warming at the time. So what was it?

The best embodiment comes from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body charged with bringing together and distilling the state of the world’s knowledge regarding global warming. That panel’s first assessment report in 1990 concluded that “the size of the warming over the last century is … of the same magnitude as natural climate variability” and that “the unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.”

In other words, much more inquiry would be needed to determine what effect greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use were having on the planet and might have in the future.

Perhaps it is understandable that many forget how little was known back in the 1970s and 1980s about the effect of man-made CO2 emissions on a system as complex as the earth’s climate. While scientists long understood the greenhouse effect and understood that the earth’s climate is complex and always changing, our company scientists and the scientific community did not know with precision to what extent and in what ways rising CO2 emissions from industrial activity might influence the earth’s climate over time. The UN’s report from that time is a helpful reminder of how much more scientific research was needed.

Recognizing this limited level of scientific understanding during those years prompted our scientists to work with other leading scientific researchers to investigate the potential enhanced greenhouse effect and its influence on the global climate system. To that end, ExxonMobil has participated in the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since it was formed in the late 1980s. We have shared our research and insights with the IPCC since its inception, and our scientists worked alongside the IPCC, often serving as authors for each of the organization’s climate science assessments.

We have also partnered with prestigious research institutions such as MIT and Stanford on efforts to close the gaps in the knowledge of climate science. ExxonMobil scientists have produced more than 50 peer-reviewed publications on topics including the global carbon cycle, detection and attribution of climate change, low carbon technologies, and analysis of future scenarios for energy and climate.

Instead of “pushing back against the emerging scientific consensus” in the 1980s as claimed by the Post’s editors, ExxonMobil was an active and public participant in that scientific process and helped to advance the science, something we continue doing to this very day.

At the same time we have also engaged with policymakers and other political and business leaders to consider crafting sound policies — such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax — that will allow society to address climate change risks in a responsible manner that recognizes the central importance of energy to economic growth and prosperity.   In other words, we have been engaged in both the scientific debate and the policy debate on climate change.  And although the policy debate must be informed by the evolving science, other factors should also be considered, like the relative costs and benefits of a particular policy option as compared to others.  Good science does not guarantee good policy.

We recognize that our past participation in industry coalitions to oppose ineffective climate policies subjects us to criticism by climate activist groups. We did not support U.S. adoption of the Kyoto Protocol (it would have exempted over two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse emissions); nor did we support adoption of complicated cap-and-trade schemes that picked winners and losers in the market place.  Perhaps this is what the Post editors meant by claiming we turned from one of the greatest challenges facing the planet. While it is unfortunate that policy differences are characterized in this way, we will continue to advocate for policies that reduce emissions while enabling economic progress.  To do anything less, we believe, would be irresponsible.


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