A lobbyist working for ExxonMobil has revealed that the company has been lobbying to block U.S. climate policies. In itself, that’s not really news. But this time, there’s video. And it comes as confirmation that the denialism of the company—and, more broadly, of the fossil industry—is not a thing of the past.
A number of journalists went undercover, posing as headhunters looking to hire an Exxon lobbyist, Keith McCoy, on behalf of a client. This is the latest investigation by Greenpeace UK’s investigative platform, Unearthed, which shows how ExxonMobil continues, even today, to obstruct climate action through government-level lobbying.
In the video interview, McCoy acknowledges that Exxon has been secretly and aggressively fighting against climate policies through front groups and what is called the flow of “dark money” of organizations acting under the radar.
In addition, McCoy said, Exxon has worked to discredit the science linking climate change to fossil fuels. “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes,” McCoy admitted during the interview. And he confirmed, by naming names, that the senators the company has “recruited” are not all Republicans.
McCoy revealed that there are 11 senators who are “crucial” to ExxonMobil’s denialist efforts, and not all of them are Republicans. Among the most known figures on the list, we find Marco Rubio, a Republican; Chris Coons, a Democrat; and Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator whom McCoy called the “kingmaker” of the Senate.
According to McCoy, the company is publicly supporting a carbon tax because it would never have enough political support to pass — “it’s a nonstarter” and a mere “talking point,” as Reuters reports. And he also recounted that, more recently, ExxonMobil lobbied Congress to weaken the climate provisions in President Biden’s infrastructure bill.
None of this is particularly surprising, considering that ExxonMobil was among the first fossil fuel companies to deploy major tools such as communications and media manipulation strategies and substantial funding to build a climate disinformation campaign.
As early as the 1970s and 1980s, the company’s own in-house scientists had observed the link between the activity of burning fossil fuels and increased emissions, and the resulting rise in temperature.
According to internal company documents and memos, Exxon knew everything it needed to know to recognize the existence of anthropogenic climate change and admit its own responsibility.
However, instead of changing course, Exxon spent tens of millions of dollars on conservative think tanks, front groups and denialist scientists to misinform and confuse the public about climate science.
When these facts came to light in 2015, the hashtag #Exxonknew was born. And it wasn’t the only fossil fuel company: Shell and other companies knew as well. They just chose not to tell the rest of the world.
According to a statement from 1997, Lee Raymond, Exxon’s president at the time, said: “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”
But 19 years earlier, James F. Black, an Exxon scientist, had said in a presentation that “man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute (API), a group that also included representatives from Chevron, Exxon, Southern Company (a major U.S. energy company) and the George C. Marshall Institute, all of whom were engaged in the climate change denial campaign, released an “action plan” with the goal of “informing the media” about “the uncertainties in climate science” and “educating and informing the public,” so that the “uncertainties” in climate science become “part of ‘conventional wisdom.’”
According to the document, “victory” (for the deniers) would be achieved only when “those promoting the Kyoto Treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”
At the time, the denialist strategy, like the one pursued by Exxon, was to pass off climate change as an opinion, a theory, and not an empirically observable scientific phenomenon: they twisted the facts so those who understood that global warming was real and man-made became those who had become “out of touch with reality.”
In 2005, The New York Times obtained documents showing that Philip Cooney, chief of staff of the Council of Environmental Quality and former lobbyist for API, had manipulated scientific reports from government agencies to cast doubt on climate science and obstruct government regulation of carbon emissions reductions. Cooney was forced to resign and, unsurprisingly, went on to work for Exxon.
Some denier groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition, have tried to undermine the credibility of the reports of the International Panel on Climate Change, using well-known deniers as “experts” in order to legitimize their position: Patrick Michaels, Robert Balling and Fred Singer, all funded in part by ExxonMobil or other fossil companies.
In short, there is so much evidence of ExxonMobil’s denialism that reviewing it all in just one article would be impossible.
What the Unearthed investigation has made clear is that these efforts are still ongoing today. Even now, at a time when the temperature in the Canadian province of British Columbia has exceeded 49°C, while it’s so hot in the northwestern United States (a temperature of 46°C has been recorded in Portland, Oregon, for instance) that roads are failing and asphalt is cracking.
“Climate change … doesn’t affect people’s everyday lives,” McCoy claimed in the video interview. It would be merely laughable, if this wasn’t a serious problem with dramatic effects on human life and health.
The Washington Post reports that for the five-day period starting Friday, June 25, there have been 486 sudden deaths in Canada, a 195 percent increase over the average over a five-day span. On Tuesday, BBC News reported that in Vancouver alone, police recorded more than 130 deaths for which heat was a “contributing factor.”
The English-speaking media have called this phenomenon a “heat dome”: a weather phenomenon in which an area experiences stifling heat when a high-pressure system pushes very warm air downwards and keeps it trapped like in a bubble.
This is what happened in Lytton, a village northeast of Vancouver, which last week set a national temperature record for three days in a row, and on Wednesday was evacuated because of the danger of uncontrollable fires—which ended up burning it down to the ground.
The British Columbia government also issued a flood warning for the Upper Fraser River, saying that the “unprecedented” high temperatures had triggered an “astounding” amount of snowmelt.
In the northwestern United States, to fight the heat, many counties have set up air-conditioned public buildings as emergency “cooling shelters.” However, despite these precautions, Buzzfeed reported that in the states of Washington and Oregon, more than 1,100 people had been sent to the hospital for “possible heat-related illnesses” in recent days.
Heat waves are not a phenomenon unrelated to climate change.
According to Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a climate expert and director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program, the media and decision makers should stop asking the question of “whether a [weather] event was caused by climate change.”
Rather, the questions that should be asked are more like: “Are events of this severity more or less likely due to climate change?” Or: “To what extent was the event more or less intense because of climate change?”
In the New York Times, renowned climate scientist Michael E. Mann and the director of the nonprofit Climate Communication, Susan Joy Hassol, wrote an op-ed explaining that, of course, a heat dome could have developed even without anthropogenic climate change, but it would have never been so extreme. And they added that today, heat waves are occurring three times more often than in the 1960s, record heat months are being seen five times more often than would be expected without global warming, and heat waves have become more extensive, affecting 25 percent more land area in the Northern Hemisphere than in 1980. If we include ocean areas, heat waves have increased by no less than 50%.
Publicly denying the effects of the climate crisis has become impossible even for climate deniers. And Exxon knows it.
Darren Woods, the company’s president and CEO, said: “We condemn the statements and are deeply apologetic for them, including comments regarding interactions with elected officials. They are entirely inconsistent with the way we expect our people to conduct themselves. We were shocked by these interviews and stand by our commitments to working on finding solutions to climate change.”
The #Exxonknew campaign replied on Twitter: “you have known and lied about your contribution to climate change for decades. would anyone be surprised if you were lying about your ‘commitment to finding solutions’? we aren’t.”
For his part, McCoy said on LinkedIn that he was “deeply embarrassed” by his comments and apologized to his colleagues at Exxon. On Twitter, climate journalist Kate Aronoff accurately paraphrased his apology: “I apologize for speaking the truth.”
Stella Levantesi, journalist and photojournalist, is the author of I bugiardi del clima. Potere, politica, psicologia di chi nega la crisi del secolo (The Climate Liars: The power, politics and psychology of those denying the crisis of the century), ed. Laterza
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.