It’s almost half a century since scientists at Exxon (now ExxonMobil) determined that the burning of fossil fuels posed potentially catastrophic dangers to the earth’s climate. What happened next is fairly well known. Executive leadership used the findings to game out future drilling opportunities afforded by a melting Arctic, while embarking on a decades-long campaign of public miseducation to sow doubt about the damage their product does and about climate science itself. This strategy, developed with the help of tobacco-industry executives, included taking out full-page advertorials in the New York Times every Thursday from the 1970s through the early 2000s—misinformation that made its way to untold numbers of readers weekly for nearly thirty years. In 1997, Exxon’s CEO said in a speech to Chinese leaders that the planet was cooling. As late as 2008, the company insisted that industry guidelines on reducing emissions should not “imply a direct connection between greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and natural gas industry and the phenomenon commonly referred to as climate change.”
This October, a federal court will hear opening arguments in a New York State lawsuit against Exxon for “engaging in a long-standing fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors about its knowledge of climate-related financial risks. This will not get the world back the forty-plus years that could have been spent using what Exxon knew about the dangers of carbon emissions to address climate change. As it is, July 2019 was the hottest month worldwide in human history. Temperatures reached record levels in India and in northern Europe, wildfires swept across Siberia, and ten billion tons of water ran off the melting Greenland ice sheet, resulting in measurable sea-level rise around the world. These are just the most recent of the observable phenomena. In August, the World Resources Institute warned that a quarter of the planet’s population is at imminent risk of running out of water because of climate change; the United Nations followed with a dire report on the threat to the world’s food supply, ominously warning of “multi-breadbasket failure,” or food crises breaking out on several continents simultaneously.