Exxon was ahead of the game on climate change. According to Lenny Bernstein, who spent 20 years there as a climate expert, the company knew about the link between fossil fuels and climate change in 1981—seven years before the issue truly became public. But for the next 27 years, Exxon refused to publicly admit those realities, even as it funded climate deniers, reports the Guardian. In an email, posted by the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University in October and now included in a report on climate disinformation, Bernstein says Exxon weighed evidence in support of climate change when considering whether to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. As it contained 70% carbon dioxide, Exxon projected it would be the "largest point source of CO2 in the world," Bernstein says.
The email shows Exxon knew "climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making," the director of the ethics institute says. While many compare the case to the tobacco industry denying the dangers of smoking, she argues "this is an order of magnitude greater moral offense, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilization." "The science in 1981 on this subject was in the very, very early days and there was considerable division of opinion," says an Exxon rep, though a Harvard professor notes the White House and National Academy of Sciences issued reports on climate change in the 1970s. Greenpeace says Exxon has given $30 million to those backing climate denial over the years; Exxon says it doesn't do so now. (Read more Exxon stories.)