Investigate Exxon, but Blame Yourself

Dow Chemical Petroleum Refinery, Freeport TX; photo: Irene Tobis

We have to forgive Big Oil and offer it paths to move on without undue disruption, just as we have to forgive ourselves and design our own transition.

William Connolley has challenged me to take up Exxon’s side of the battle in the question of whether their behavior should be investigated on the same principles that convicted the major tobacco companies a few years back. I have thought about it and I am not going to do that. I think the investigation of Exxon should proceed. On the other hand, I think the demonization of Exxon must stop.

Mike Mann is definitely on board with the investigation of Exxon, according to a thought-provoking interview with Inside Climate News.

Mann: I think it’s a legitimate question to ask, “Was there some collusion here?” Were they intentionally misleading the public and policymakers and their own stockholders about what they knew about climate change…when they knew better — when their own scientists had told them that the science is real and the outcomes would potentially be catastrophic? I’ve seen compelling arguments from one of the lawyers who was involved in the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] case against the tobacco industry. She was quoted as saying that based on what she has seen, there is a prima facie case for suspecting the possibility that they [Exxon] were engaging in what is effectively racketeering. I think we all deserve to learn more about what they knew and when they knew it…and I assume that will come out in the course of [the] investigation.
ICN: Do you think we’ll find evidence that other oil companies behaved similarly?
Mann: Oh yeah. I think this is the veritable tip of the iceberg. If this investigation from [Schneiderman’s office] leads to legal action, then there will be a process of discovery, and my guess would be that then we start to see stuff from the Global Climate Coalition [an industry group, disbanded in 2002, that opposed carbon emissions cuts], of which ExxonMobil was a member, but there were many other members. I suspect that we’ll learn a lot about the other actors that were involved, and ExxonMobil might not even be the worst of the actors.

I have little doubt that this is true. As Mike said, this is stuff we have “long suspected”.

On the other hand, Exxon/Mobil is a vast enterprise, and the question of collective culpability is complicated, even though it’s no surprise that there’s reason to believe that some people pulling levers at Exxon were behaving maliciously.

Here, Mike spins it rather negatively:

ICN: One big difference between the tobacco and Exxon cases is that Exxon didn’t hide its climate change research. Exxon scientists have published peer-reviewed papers and participated in government panels. How do you think that changes the situation?
Mann: Frankly, there was sort of a good cop/bad cop thing going on there…The cynic in me thinks that they were playing both sides. In fact, we know that they continued to have some scientists who participated in the IPCC process into the 2000s, while they were obviously engaged in massive funding of climate change disinformation, basically financing propaganda that was fundamentally inconsistent with the sort of work that their own scientists were doing.
So this internal dissonance feeds the notion that it wasn’t really a good faith effort on their part to try to find a way forward to solving this problem. It was to buy them some plausible deniability and apparent credibility by appearing to engage with the scientific community, while at the same time, behind the scenes, massively funding efforts to attack the science and to attack the scientists. That’s my view.

That’s hardly the most charitable view one could take. Presumably in an institution as vast as Exxon/Mobil, some people were acting in good faith and others were not. The comparison to tobacco is weakened on at least three grounds:

  • Firstly, the tobacco companies were more tightly knit and smaller than big oil, so their intentionality was more cohesive.
  • Second, the oil companies are producing a product with enormous short term benefits, and what were originally long-range and speculative drawbacks. As Mike said, the knowledge that intolerable global risks were built into the fossil fuel business model must have been obvious to some people within the organization, but it’s hard to identify what the organization as a whole knew or should have known. That one’s own business, and a mightily impressive one, is ultimately also destructive is surely something people will be slow to understand.
  • Third, while the tobacco companies were exclusively promulgating pseudoscience to support their model, Exxon was not. Big oil is a legitimate presence at the same annual AGU meeting where American climate science comes together.

To be sure, on the other hand, pseudoscience on climate has certainly been produced in copious proportion, largely by by dubious non-profits, some of which were modestly but directly supported by Exxon. I think that it will be historically important to determine to what extent this is true, and to find legally and ethically sound ways of discouraging the organized promulgation of agenda-driven pseudoscience.

In short, one one hand the implication that the entire industry is fundamentally malicious in the same way as the tobacco industry is overwrought. On the other hand, there is a legitimate cause for investigation.

I have, until recently, been an enthusiastic supporter of Bill McKibben, whom I always thought of as balancing a serious and measured disposition with a horrified comprehension of the long-term damage that our current civilization is based upon. But I see his conflation of the problem of eliminating catbon emissions with a goal of destroying the companies currently in that business as going much too far. He’s stopped seeming to me the thoughtful reluctant activist and more the attention-grabbing political polarizer. The problem is that blaming Big Oil does not offer a realistic way out of our quandary. We cannot shut these industries down.

Not only do these companies represent significant investment that we cannot afford to throw into chaos, they are also legitimate and crucial stakeholders in the energy problem. We have to work with the incumbents in the energy industry, not against them. We have to understand the constraints under which they operate.

While those of us in the most developed countries need to consider the possibility of moving to less energy-intensive approaches to life, we also need to understand that the world will need more, not less, energy to proceed to a state of civilization and sane governance, where daily life is not fraught with risk of deprivation and violence. This is achievable at the same time as a deliberate, but not instantaneous decarbonization. There are no serious technical obstacles. But making enemies of the incumbent powers in the energy industry is not the way to do it. It’s not as if we could do without their product immediately. And their vast expertise is going to be needed more than ever.

It would be great to get to the bottom of the climate-BS industry that generates the argumentation weapons of climate-risk denial. But that’s a tiny fraction of the indispensable energy industry, and probably only tangentially related to it. We have to understand that.

I think we will find that corporations like Exxon played a significant but relatively minor role in promoting the horrifying confusion that dominates the right wing political parties and infects many others. It’s my understanding that it’s more rich (and socially malign) oil billionnaires acting as individuals who are behind the production of manipulative pseudoscience, as well as many other political distortions, as is well-known.

If prying at Exxon offers a way to investigate this travesty, I think I have to support it. I am not convinced that a huge amount of culpability is going to end up on their shoulders, though, and frankly, I hope that it won’t. On the other hand, McKibben’s developing posture that the oil industry must be destroyed is a turn very much for the worse. The history of scapegoating is not a pretty one. In the end, the oil industry is us. We have to forgive Big Oil and offer it paths to move on without undue disruption, just as we have to forgive ourselves and design our own transition. Big Oil itself increasingly understands this. The rest of us should do so as well.

So here’s my conclusion: Our task is to energize the world in the near future while minimizing the (already inevitably large) losses to our descendants over times to come. Defeating organized denial is a part of that task, but breaking the energy industry in pursuit of that goal is a catastrophically disproportionate strategy which can only do more harm than good.