A Harvard study released last Wednesday, August 23rd, has accused oil giant Exxon Mobil of misleading the public during the past 40 years, over the causes and implications of climate change. This new comprehensive study, alongside US president Donald Trump’s long history of disregarding human influence on climate change, casts doubt over US government and corporate leadership on environmental issues.
Environmentally driven industries such as renewable energy and smart technology in buildings, cities and grids, have cause for concern with this worrying attitude in the higher echelons of the world’s biggest economy. As government support strengthens for oil and gas projects, the clean and energy efficient technology sectors will be wondering if their business proposition is strong enough to survive the Trump era.
“We conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public,” the Harvard researchers wrote in a peer-reviewed study that could add legal scrutiny to the controversy surrounding Exxon’s handling of climate change. Exxon dismissed the Harvard study as “inaccurate and preposterous,” saying in a statement that the research was “paid for, written and published by activists.”
The study examined 187 public and private communications from Exxon about climate change between 1977 and 2014, ranging from internal documents and peer-reviewed studies to company pamphlets and advertorials in The New York Times. They found that the more public-facing the Exxon communication, the more doubt it expressed about climate change.
Exxon's advertorials "overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties, promoting a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil's own," the research found. Whereas Exxon's internal communications broadly acknowledged that global warming is "real, human-caused, serious and solvable."
In fact, as many as 80% of the Exxon internal documents examined acknowledged that climate change is both real and human-caused, compared with just 12% of advertorials published in the op-ed pages of the Times. While doubt was clearly expressed by 81% of Exxon's advertorials. The damning evidence may even lead to legal action against the company, and if found guilty, the ruling would be as unpredictable as it is unprecedented.
Take for example, a private Exxon internal message in 1979 that stated, “the most widely held theory is that...the increase [in atmospheric carbon-dioxide] is due to fossil fuel combustion." Almost 20 years later, in a 1997 Times op-ed, Exxon cautioned that the "science of climate change is too uncertain" and "we still don't know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet." Exxon went on to write, “let's not rush to a decision at Kyoto,” the global warming pact being negotiated at the time, as it may “plunge economies into turmoil."
Protecting business interests is one thing, but misleading the public about grave issues that many experts believe have now past the point of no return, is quite another. The environment issue, after a series of false starts, did push through however, and from it renewable energy and energy efficiency technology was born. The last decade or so has seen these technologies blossom into progressive industries that have moved beyond “clean and green” to offer a variety of services within the context of the internet of things.
222 days into office, the current US President and long-time climate change denier has already brushed aside social and environmental protest to restart the Keystone oil and gas pipeline project, withdrawn the US from the COP21 agreement and seems to be using his power to dismantle the environmental protection agency.
Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is heavily embroiled in the Exxon story, accused of using the pseudonym "Wayne Tracker" to send concerning emails related to climate change while serving as CEO of the oil giant.
The renewable energy and smart technology sectors will be thankful that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, set in motion a number of green initiatives including a $160 million smart cities intiative and a $4.5 billion smart grid program. These initiatives will continue to support the green and smart sectors until they run their course or are dismantled.
They will also be thankful that US politics has provided just enough time for these green and smart industries to stand on their own feet, and find value added services. The future of government support for environmentally conscious industries may be waning but smart technology has already developed a business case that should see them continue to grow despite the environmentally unfriendly policies of the current US government and the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company.
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