Exxon Knew About Climate Change In 1981 – And Covered It Up

Oil rig in northern California. Brendan Steele/Shutterstock.

It has recently come to light, thanks to one of Exxon's own climate experts, Lenny Bernstein, that this company knew about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change over 30 years ago. That's seven years before the dangers of climate change became a public issue. This shocking revelation came from an email sent by L. Bernstein to Alyssa Bernstein from Ohio University (no relation to Lenny Bernstein), and was reported in the Guardian.

L. Bernstein has been in the oil industry for 30 years, which included time as Exxon's in-house climate expert. He claimed that the possible effects that the company could have on climate change were first brought to their attention in 1981, when the company was debating whether to start farming Southeast Asia's largest gas field. The site, known as Natuna, included natural gas but also a large quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a significant contributor of climate change. “Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia,” L. Bernstein wrote in his email to A. Bernstein.

“When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that 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.”

L. Bernstein suggests that Exxon did not push ahead and mine the Natuna site, in order to limit the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. ExxonMobile, however, has said that there could have been a “huge range of reasons” why they didn't pursue the site.

This means that Exxon could have known that humankind was having an impact on climate change a full 8 years before climate change was brought to the public eye. The first public announcement referencing climate change was in 1988, when a climate scientist called James Hansen announced to Congress that climate change was being caused by a build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“What it shows is that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation,” Alyssa Bernstein, the recipient of L. Bernstein's email, told the Guardian.

Federal Department of Justice lawyer Sharon Eubanks, who led a successful lawsuit against tobacco companies, noted the similarities between Exxon denying climate change and tobacco companies denying that smoking causes lung cancer. In both situations, the denial was opposed head-on with evidence to the contrary. Exxon's long history of publicly denying the links between climate change and human influence increases the company's liability for damage to the climate. 

“It starts to look like a much longer conspiracy. It's like what we discovered with tobacco – the more you push back the date of knowledge of the harm, the more you delay any remediation, the more people are affected. So your liability can grow exponentially as the timeline gets longer,” she said.

Exxon's denial of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change didn't stop at just brushing off a couple of claims. The company has spent millions on research that actively promotes climate change denial. 

“Instead of taking responsibility, they have either directly – or indirectly through trade and industry groups – sown doubt about the science of climate change and fought efforts to cut emissions,” wrote L. Bernstein.

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