Fossil Fuel Industry Haunted by Its Own Deception

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In 1982, a group of scientists predicted with stunning accuracy that fossil fuel use would lead to a dangerous rise in temperatures in the decades ahead. Those scientists worked for Exxon and two of them testified last week at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long efforts to conceal the truth about climate change from the public.

Internal documents from Exxon have revealed that fossil fuel companies knew about the dangers of their products as early as 1968 and were told by their own scientists in the 1970s that inaction would cause dramatic, or even catastrophic, changes to the climate. Industry leaders were aware, yet they chose to do nothing.

For the youth activists around the world who took to the streets on September 20th for the Climate Strike, this information must be infuriating. Efforts to avoid the climate crisis could have started 30 or even 50 years ago. Instead, we are still trying to convince politicians that the science is real, even though communities around the United States have already started to experience the burden of increased greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures.

During the Congressional hearing, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captured this sentiment, saying, “In 1982—seven years before I was even born—Exxon accurately predicted that by this year, 2019, the Earth would hit a carbon dioxide concentration of 415 parts per million and a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius.”

One of the former Exxon scientists confirmed this.

“So they knew,” said Ocasio-Cortez, summing the up the problem.

Rather than taking action to avert catastrophe, the fossil fuel industry launched a decades-long misinformation campaign to deceive the public. Dr. Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University testified, “ExxonMobil not only knew about the findings of climate science but until the 1980s, contributed to that science. However, some time in the late ‘80s, or early ‘90s, ExxonMobil changed course. Rather than accepting the science and altering its business model appropriately, it made the fateful decision to fight the facts.”

The fossil fuel industry’s campaign successfully delayed climate action by decades.

What the industry did not count on was that it could be held liable in courts for this deception. Across the country, 14 communities, one state, and one fishing association have sued fossil fuel companies, demanding that they pay their fair share of the costs of cleaning up local climate damages. EarthRights International represents three Colorado communities in one of these lawsuits. 

In October, several of the lawsuits passed their first major hurdle. Most of the lawsuits were filed in state courts but the fossil fuel companies serving as defendants in them tried to move the cases to federal court, where they believe federal law and the U.S. Supreme Court would give them a better chance of evading liability. But the courts rejected the industry’s arguments, returning the cases to the state level, which is better placed to look at the highly localized impacts of climate change.

In late October, the trial began in another climate lawsuit against Exxon, brought by New York’s attorney general. New York alleges that Exxon defrauded its investors by “cooking the books” to conceal the financial impacts of climate change. Days after the trial began in New York, Massachusetts’ attorney general filed an even more far-reaching lawsuit against Exxon, alleging that the company hid its knowledge of the dangers of fossil fuels from the public and investors.

Meanwhile, in September, an oil industry-sponsored initiative called the Climate Leadership Council quietly abandoned a legislative proposal that would immunize the industry from these types of lawsuits – perhaps because no member of Congress was willing to back such a bill.

The fossil fuel industry has amassed enormous profits from our society’s addiction to their products and has done everything to keep us hooked. It has succeeded so far, delaying our collective response by decades and reaping in billions of dollars. The events of the past month are a hopeful sign that the fossil fuel industry will soon be forced to pay for the damages it has caused. 

And that is a good sign for the future of our country. Because in a real democracy, corporations – no matter how powerful – are not above the law.

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