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What If Exxon Had Told the Truth? McKibben Asks


In a post last week on EcoWatch, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben imagines what would have happened if Exxon had shared what it knew in August 1988, when it first concluded that climate change was a reality and a serious global problem.

“That was a few months after NASA scientist James Hansen had told Congress the planet was heating and humans were the cause,” McKibben writes. “It was amid the hottest American summer recorded to that point, with the Mississippi running so low that barges were stranded and the heat so bad that corn was withering in the fields. Imagine, amid all that, if Exxon scientists had simply said: ‘Everything we know says Hansen is right; the planet’s in serious trouble.’”

Rather than gaining a reputation as a global climate villain, Exxon “would have been hailed for its forthrightness. It could have begun the task of finding alternatives to hydrocarbons, and the world could have done the same thing,” he notes.

Shifting out of a total dependence on coal, natural gas, and oil would have been tough. “But it would have become our planet’s single-minded job. With Exxon—largest company on Earth, heir to the original oil baron, with tentacles reaching around the world—vouching for the science, there is no way we would have wasted 25 years in fruitless argument.”

If Exxon had shared what it knew, rather than funding climate denial and adopting a deliberate strategy of emphasizing the uncertainty in the science, “rapid development of renewables might well have kept half of Delhi’s children—2.5 million children—from developing irreversible lung damage,” McKibben writes. “The rapid spread of decentralized renewable technology might have kept oil and gas barons like the Koch Brothers from becoming, taken together, the richest man on earth, and purchasing America’s democracy. The earth’s oceans would be measurably less acidic—and we are, after all, an ocean planet.”

Although it could face federal racketeering charges in the United States for its actions, Exxon responded to the revelations by attacking InsideClimate News, the Pulitzer-prize winning news agency that published the original news report, as an “anti-oil and gas activist organization.”

“We are a news organization with a track record of excellence,” InsideClimate publisher David Sassoon replied. “Facing a possible Department of Justice investigation, it’s not prudent for Exxon to say otherwise, and mislead its own shareholders. They might be wrongly persuaded to discount the seriousness of what we have uncovered.”