Historians of Science: What Exxon Knew About Oil and the Climate, and WhenHistorians in the News
tags: history of science, climate change, fossil fuels, Exxon Mobil
G. Supran, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.
S. Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany. Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany.
N. Oreskes, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA.
For decades, some members of the fossil fuel industry tried to convince the public that a causative link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made because the models used to project warming were too uncertain. Supran et al. show that one of those fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil, had their own internal models that projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast by the independent academic and government models. What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe. —HJS
In 2015, investigative journalists discovered internal company memos indicating that Exxon oil company has known since the late 1970s that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Additional documents then emerged showing that the US oil and gas industry’s largest trade association had likewise known since at least the 1950s, as had the coal industry since at least the 1960s, and electric utilities, Total oil company, and GM and Ford motor companies since at least the 1970s. Scholars and journalists have analyzed the texts contained in these documents, providing qualitative accounts of fossil fuel interests’ knowledge of climate science and its implications. In 2017, for instance, we demonstrated that Exxon’s internal documents, as well as peer-reviewed studies published by Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists, overwhelmingly acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. By contrast, the majority of Mobil and ExxonMobil Corp’s public communications promoted doubt on the matter.
Many of the uncovered fossil fuel industry documents include explicit projections of the amount of warming expected to occur over time in response to rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Yet, these numerical and graphical data have received little attention. Indeed, no one has systematically reviewed climate modeling projections by any fossil fuel interest. What exactly did oil and gas companies know, and how accurate did their knowledge prove to be? Here, we address these questions by reporting and analyzing all known global warming projections documented by—and in many cases modeled by—Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists between 1977 and 2003.
Our results show that in private and academic circles since the late 1970s and early 1980s, ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully. Using established statistical techniques, we find that 63 to 83% of the climate projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists were accurate in predicting subsequent global warming. ExxonMobil’s average projected warming was 0.20° ± 0.04°C per decade, which is, within uncertainty, the same as that of independent academic and government projections published between 1970 and 2007. The average “skill score” and level of uncertainty of ExxonMobil’s climate models (67 to 75% and ±21%, respectively) were also similar to those of the independent models.
Moreover, we show that ExxonMobil scientists correctly dismissed the possibility of a coming ice age in favor of a “carbon dioxide induced ‘super-interglacial’”; accurately predicted that human-caused global warming would first be detectable in the year 2000 ± 5; and reasonably estimated how much CO2 would lead to dangerous warming.
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