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What the Oil Companies Really Knew, Part 2

Donate Is it true that the oil companies knew how much harm they were doing as far back as the 1970s?  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment, History & Pseudohistory, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid Podcast #877
March 28, 2023
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What the Oil Companies Really Knew, Part 2

Today we're going to continue with Part 2, the concluding half of our series on what the oil companies knew about global warming as far back as the 1970s. The popular narrative that you've heard is that they knew all about it; that their scientists did all they could to warn them, but they still did nothing, devil may care, let the chips fall where they may. Last week we found that some of the earliest findings are not exactly the way they've been reported. And so today we're going to level up and look at the biggest story in all of this popular reporting: Exxon, from where the majority of the uncovered reports have come, the poster child for ignoring science in the name of profits. The characterization of their giant role in all of this is where we turn our skeptical eye today.

Exxon has become somewhat infamous for the revelations of their findings mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, which, if you read the news articles, imply that Exxon was fully aware of the damage they were doing. One that has gotten a lot of press was an internal report from 1979 titled Controlling the CO2 Concentration in the Atmosphere. Its headlining abstract:

The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased since the beginning of world industrialization. It is now 15% greater than it was in 1850 and the rate of CO2 release from anthropogenic sources appears to be doubling every 15 years. The most widely held theory is that:

  • The increase is due to fossil fuel combustion
  • Increasing CO2 concentration will cause a warming of the Earth's surface
  • The present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.

Virtually every article you can find online about what the oil companies knew gives this quote verbatim. But here's what doesn't get reported. The very next sentence in that paper continues:

However, the quantitative effect is very speculative because the data base supporting it is weak. The CO2 balance between the atmosphere, the biosphere and the oceans is very ill-defined. Also, the overall effect of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration on the world environment is not well understood. Finally, the relative effect of other impacts on the earth's climate, such as solar activity, volcanic action, etc. may be as great as that of CO2.

Despite the fact that today we understand these statements to be factually wrong, they show that the information Exxon's executives were given did not indicate the need for a change of course. Indeed, the report continues:

The potential problem is great and urgent. Too little is known at this time to recommend a major US or worldwide change in energy type usage, but it is very clear that immediate research is necessary to better model the atmosphere/terrestrial/oceanic CO2 balance. Only with a better understanding of the balance will we know if a problem truly exists.

Qualified, at best. This is a summarizing statement that made it onto the report's cover sheet:

Much more study and research in this area is required before major changes in energy type usage could be recommended.

If you're trying to prove that industry executives knew they had to make changes, this report would not serve that purpose. It indicated, quite the opposite, that changes would have been premature. Quote-mining it to show just the part you like, as if it represented the whole, would be intellectually dishonest — even though we now know that part to have been the only correct part.

It is, in fact, quite remarkable how accurate Exxon's scientists turned out to be. One confidential report they produced in 1982, intended for internal eyes only, listed many effects that are right in line with the best state of our knowledge today, more than four decades later: the breakup of the Antarctic ice shelf at 3°C of warming, for example. But when you actually read the entire thing, it's chock-full of falsehoods, at least as we know them to be today:

Considerable uncertainty also surrounds the possible impact on society of such a warming trend, should it occur…

There is currently no unambiguous scientific evidence that the Earth is warming…

Making significant changes in energy consumption patterns now to deal with this potential problem amid all the scientific uncertainties would be premature in view of the severe impact such moves could have on the world's economies and societies.

Although Exxon gets most of the attention for having known about global warming and done nothing, this same treatment was found industry wide. From 1979 to 1983, the American Petroleum Institute had a committee called the CO2 and Climate Task Force which included senior scientists from Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio, and the companies that soon became Chevron, Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil. In the minutes from one of their meetings in 1980, the #1 item on their agenda was:

Increase industry's understanding of the CO2 and climate problem.

The bulk of the meeting consisted of the presentation of a report from a guest scientist, John Laurmann from Stanford University, who had published extensively on greenhouse gases and economics. One of his slides gave the following as "likely impacts" of the warming already taking place:

  • 1.0°C rise (2005): Barely noticeable
  • 2.5°C rise (2038): Major economic consequences, strong regional dependence
  • 5.0°C rise (2067): Globally catastrophic effects

And as you can imagine, that section is quoted in an evident majority of the articles talking about what the oil companies knew and hid from the public.

So is this document being misrepresented as well? Much less so, I think. As an economist, Laurmann's presentation was not so much about the science but about how we make decisions today based on things in the future that don't impact us, and are important to groups other than ourselves:

The difficulties of dealing with the pragmatic questions related to the CO2/fossil fuel problem all relate to certain general features, these having A) high impact cost, B) large uncertainty, and being C) far distant and D) global. The problem is interdisciplinary in its scientific aspects and it has ramifications in many economic sectors and in most nations. Therefore, not only is addressing it difficult in analytic terms, but the multiplicity of possible interest groups that can be affected means that choice of what constitute the critical research issues depends on the user.

So really, I think this particular document is more notable not for its assessment of the severity of the environmental impact, but more for the callous attitude of "Whatever's going to happen will be in someone else's back yard."

I find this attitude to be pretty consistent with who these oil company scientists were, what they chose to do for a living, and who they chose to sign their paychecks. None of these scientists were impartial to the question, and so we should not expect them to have given impartial straight science to the executives. An excellent example of this is shown in a 2015 interview in Inside Climate News with James Nelson, who was a former director of the API task force. From the article:

Nelson does not accept that human activity is the main driver of climate change; he believes that natural cycles and phenomena such as volcanoes and deforestation have contributed significantly to a warming planet.

Moreover, Nelson said CO2 was not even among the most pressing issues that the API was dealing with. One of the Exxon scientists on the task force, Raymond Campion, wrote in 1979:

…We recommend that [CO2 buildup] not receive a high priority… The DOE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a symposium in April 1979, which concluded that no catastrophic hazards would be associated with the CO2 buildup over the next 100 years and that society can cope readily with whatever problems ensue, such as

  • some increase in ocean level, due to polar ice cap melting,
  • the main concern that crop-growing regions would shift northward to Siberia and Canada, leaving central regions too warm for food production.

Both of these effects would be very gradual and could be adjusted for via shoreline improvements and better irrigation methods over the next 100 years.

The message received from actually reading all of these documents is not — as is commonly reported — that oil executives' own scientists were warning them of the true nature of climate change. Instead, what they indicate is a broad pattern of scientists who were either outside their discipline or among the outliers who were unconcerned with the anthropogenic portion of CO2 buildup, advising those executives that no action was currently warranted. They were wrong, make no mistake; but that's what they were saying, and that's the information the oil companies were acting upon, at least through the end of the 20th century.

If you want to know more about all of these documents uncovered by investigative journalists, the best have already been compiled for you. In 2017, three California coastal communities sued the oil companies to recover the costs they'd incurred, and would continue to incur, of dealing with rising sea levels. The lead law firm, Sher Edling LLP, put all their exhibits online. There are dozens of reports, many produced by oil industry scientists, nicely organized and summarized for you. Have a look and see if you feel they're usually being misrepresented.

There's a point I've tried to make any number of times on Skeptoid, and that's if you want your argument to be robust and persuasive, don't include any bad evidence. Include only strong evidence that has been proven to survive scrutiny. If you present cherrypicked quotes, like the authors of so many of these articles have been doing, it is very easy for your opponents to discover that; and when they do, the only point you will have made is that your argument is weak and easily countered — and thus probably false. It's a bad time in human history to harm the cause of educating people about global warming.

For at least 20 years, there has been no real scientific uncertainty about what needs to happen to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Maybe in the 1970s when some of these reports were written, uncertainty was an argument that could be made; recall that a minority of climatologists wondered for a few years if cooling from ozone depletion might outpace warming from CO2. It was a minority view and didn't last very long, but it was a legitimate point of uncertainty. Fossil fuel executives may have had an excuse then to hide behind uncertainty, but since at least the turn of the 21st century, that excuse has no longer existed.

For example, as recently as 2015, then-chairman of Exxon Rex Tillerson said at their annual meeting that we need to wait for more solid science before deciding to act on climate change. By that point, he knew he was in contradiction with reality and that neither science nor any uncertainty backed him up. He knew it, and yet the oil companies kept the millions flowing to the think tanks to produce more and more disinformation.

In conclusion, despite some disingenuous misrepresentation of the content in these uncovered documents, it is an exhaustively proven fact that the fossil fuel interests have known for some time that the use of their product would have dramatic impacts on our climate and on the world's infrastructure, economic, and environmental systems. Their funding of the special interest think tanks to produce propaganda contradicting that remains a deliberate and reckless deception against lawmakers at every level, and against the human race at large. It could well prove to be the farthest ranging and most destructive conspiracy of all time.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "What the Oil Companies Really Knew, Part 2." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 28 Mar 2023. Web. 20 Jul 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Banerjee, N. "Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too." Politics & Policy. Inside Climate News, 22 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2023. <>

Editors. "Truth or CO2nsequences." Climate Coalition. Climate Coalition, 25 Sep. 2020. Web. 10 Mar. 2023. <>

Exxon. CO2 Greenhouse Effect: A Technical Review. Florham Park: Exxon Research and Engineering Company, 1982.

Franta, B. "Early oil industry knowledge of CO2 and global warming." Nature Climate Change. 19 Nov. 2018, Number 8: 1024-1025.

Knisely, S. Controlling the CO2 Concentration in the Atmosphere. Florham Park: Exxon Research and Engineering Company, 1979.

Nelson, J. CO2 and Climate Task Force, Minutes of Meeting. New York: American Petroleum Institute, 1980.


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