What Exxon knew about climate change, and when it knew it

A view of the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas in this September 15, 2008 file photo.  About 30 percent of shareholders of both Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp backed calls for more disclosure surrounding their use of hydraulic fracturing May...
A view of the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas in this September 15, 2008 file photo. About 30 percent of shareholders of both Exxon Mobil Corp and...
It's been well established over many years that Exxon is one of the world's leading voices when it comes to denying the evidence of climate change. What's new, however, are reports that the oil giant has quietly operated for decades on the assumption that the scientific evidence is real.
The L.A. Times had a fascinating piece on this yesterday, which deserves to have an impact on the broader policy discussion.

[In 1990] in the far northern regions of Canada’s Arctic frontier, researchers and engineers at Exxon and Imperial Oil were quietly incorporating climate change projections into the company’s planning and closely studying how to adapt the company’s Arctic operations to a warming planet.

Of particular interest are the efforts of Ken Croasdale, a senior researcher for Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, who reportedly focused considerable effort into "trying to determine how global warming could affect Exxon’s Arctic operations and its bottom line."

Between 1986, when Croasdale took the reins of Imperial’s frontier research team, until 1992, when he left the company, his team of engineers and scientists used the global circulation models developed by the Canadian Climate Centre and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies to anticipate how climate change could affect a variety of operations in the Arctic. These were the same models that -- for the next two decades -- Exxon’s executives publicly dismissed as unreliable and based on uncertain science.

This is no small detail. Based on the L.A. Times' reporting, Exxon accepted the fact that climate change is real. Exxon also put those beliefs into action, basing company decisions on the available science.
But at the same time, Exxon also seems to have denied the very evidence it was acting upon.
Also over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece from Harvard's Naomi Oreskes, who noted, "As early as 1977, one of Exxon’s senior scientists warned a gathering of oilmen of a 'general scientific agreement' that the burning of fossil fuels was influencing the climate. A year later, he had updated his assessment, warning that 'present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.'"
In the years that followed, however, Exxon, which became ExxonMobil, urged policymakers around the world not to take steps to address the intensifying climate crisis that its own scientists and engineers recognized.
All of this evidence is important in the context of the policy discussion, but there's a political angle that's worth appreciating. Every conservative -- in Congress, in state legislatures, in the media -- who has dutifully regurgitated far-right talking points and denied climate science, thought they were aligned with Exxon. They weren't -- the oil giant recognized the science as true, even when the company's political allies didn't.
Consider the implications for a policymaker like Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma (Senator Snowball), who continues to believe the entirety of climate science is an elaborate "hoax." These latest revelations suggest Inhofe has positioned himself to Exxon's right.
Or put another way, when the far-right senator makes his case against global warming, it's not just the reality-based community who considers Inhofe's ridiculous -- even Exxon engineers believe the senator is wrong.