A former Exxon climate expert has provided evidence that the oil giant knew about the dangers of climate change as early as 1981. According to the Guardian, that’s seven years before it became a public issue
The expert, chemical engineer Lenny Bernstein, has worked in the oil industry for 30 years. In an email to the Guardian, he explained that Exxon “first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2.”
Bernstein first learned about the project in 1989. According to Exxon’s projections, “if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions [at the time].” It would be equivalent to setting off a “carbon bomb,” he explained.
Exxon ultimately decided not to develop the site, which Alyssa Bernstein (no relation to Lenny), the director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, believes reveals Exxon accepted man-made climate change as fact. “[I]nstead of denying the reality as they have done publicly,” Bernstein told the Guardian, the company “took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation.”
For nearly three decades, in the face of ever-mounting evidence that industrial emissions are causing dangerous global warming, Exxon has spent millions of dollars promoting climate change denial (upwards of $30 million, according to Greenpeace, including funding the research of Dr. Willie Soon, a recently exposed shill of the fossil fuel industry).
Even the Rockefeller family, the founding dynasty of Exxon, has attempted to convince the company to listen to the science.
“We were really begging the company to look harder at what they were doing,” said Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, told The Guardian earlier this year. “They were still into climate denial and funding deniers and really against any positive steps.”
The Rockefellers shocked the financial world last September when they announced that they were joining Global Divest-Invest, a philanthropic movement to dump fossil fuel-related assets. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund pledged to divest the family’s holdings of $860 million of fossil fuel investments.
Alyssa Bernstein compared Exxon’s actions to tobacco companies decades-long denial of the connection between smoking and lung cancer, but considers this an order of magnitude greater in its moral offense, “because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilization.”
When questioned on its decision in 1981 and its acknowledgment of climate change, a spokesman for the company said the climate science of that era “was in the very, very early days and there was considerable division of opinion.” According to Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor, Exxon is likely being coy, as the National Academy of Science had reached a consensus on climate change in the 1970s and government agencies have been researching it since the 1960s.
“I find it difficult to believe that an industry whose business model depends on fossil fuels could have been completely ignoring major environmental reports, major environmental meetings taken place in which carbon dioxide and climate change were talked about,” she told the Guardian.