Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ has often been assailed as anti-capitalist, but some of his comments about business seem prophetic in light of recent disclosures about Exxon’s long-ago research on global warming.

Earlier this month, journalists from the Los Angeles Times and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism documented how Exxon scientists confirmed in research conducted from 1986 to 1992 that global warming was melting the Arctic ice cap.

Publicly,  the company stated that its “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.” Privately, it was using the research to guide future exploration for oil in areas where its scientists knew the ice would be melting.

The LA Times story follows on more pointed reports from the Guardian in July and InsideClimateNews.com in September. The latter charged:

toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.

Exxon has its defenders, who say that there were also scientists within the company who disagreed with the findings on global warming. But the fact that the company was willing to use the information about global warming to guide its business decisions -- while at the same time denying its importance to the public -- suggests the need for the type of investigation tobacco companies faced.

 Against the background of what is now known about Exxon, Pope Francis’s criticisms of big business are relatively mild. Here are a few:

  • "Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world."  
  • “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society."
  • "The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved."

Exxon has proven the pope's point: the unrestrained search for profit is a root cause of the crisis we and future generations face. 


Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.