Sunday, October 18, 2015

Corporate Climate Crimes: Take ExxonMobil to the Hague!

When I read about the research of archaeologists and anthropologists, filling in the story of the human adventure, from our evolutionary ancestry to the global dominance of homo sapiens, I sometimes get the sinister feeling they are bringing the story to completion. What used to seem boundless--human life on earth--now seems like a closed system, its finale increasingly imaginable.

One important piece of that story to fill in is of course the climate change chapter: if anthropogenic climate change is on course to do us in as a species--a hypothesis at least worth considering--it is worth looking back to see how the leaders of the human clans managed to do so little for so long, until the consequences become unavoidable. A major part of that story has been assembled and published in recent weeks by the Pulitzer-winning climate blog Inside Climate News. After eight months of careful archival research into ExxonMobil's management of information about climate science, the blog's researchers are able to document a story that amounts to an enormous crime against humanity on Exxon's part.

The investigative team first shows an earlier timeline for the decisive climate research, dating to the 1960s and 70s, carried out by Exxon's own scientists working with academic and government researchers. These studies already documented the threat of a carbonized atmosphere in terms that are very close to current estimates.  Exxon's researchers for a decade or so published those findings in peer-reviewed journals, and urged corporate managers to consider a narrow time frame--5 to 10 years--to turn the energy sector away from fossil fuels before change became irreversible. This message reached Exxon executives around 1980! As Harvard History of Science professor Naomi Oreskes notes in a recent New York Times post, the whole history of climate change might have taken a different turn if Exxon's executives had acted properly at that moment.

But of course they didn't. In 1988 James Hansen sounded the alarm at a US Senate hearing, and the following year Exxon undertook its massively funded 20 year campaign of disinformation, obfuscation, confusion, and denial. We are living with the desperate consequences of that enormous corporate crime.

In his Guardian article last week Bill McKibben called this crime "the most consequential lie in human history"--a not unreasonable claim under the circumstances, though he also notes that world-weary types will merely say 'I knew it all along.' Two US Congressmen have called on the Department of Justice to investigate, though of course there is no real remedy, no restitution we could claim for the decades lost to confusion and denialism. It is nonetheless essential, as McKibben and Oreskes make clear in their different voices, if only for the historical record, to take note, to bear witness--to say 'these evil stewards did this, for their own greed and profit, to our incalculable loss.' ExxonMobil's official response, recorded in yesterday's Guardian, was "This is complete bullshit." Yes, alas, it is, but not the way they mean it.

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