[Editor Note: For several years, Bradley published his “Political Energy” series at Forbes.com. This particular post, published on March 25, 2016, received 6,146 views. Given the lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other energy companies alleging a conspiracy to hide from the public the postulated delirious effects of anthropogenic climate change from fossil fuel burning, his major points remain pertinent today.] This article follows:
The Left has declared another war on Exxon Mobil. No, it’s not about high prices and high profits, as it has been before. The new charge is that the world’s largest private-sector energy company knew about the dangers of global warming back in the 1970s and 1980s from its own internal scientific investigation.
Therefore, Exxon should have disclosed to investors and other parties that its carbon-based business model had special risks.
Nice try. Not only have investors in Exxon Mobil had little to complain about, but today’s discussion over climate change also still involves unsettled science and robust scientific debate — just like it did decades ago. The 18-year warming ‘pause’ seems to have been reconfirmed, and climate models are notoriously running ‘too hot.’ Global lukewarming, which many climate economists see as beneficial, is now a school of thought.
From the 1970s to the present, more generally, there has been vigorous debate over global cooling, global cooling and warming, global warming, and global lukewarming. What might be next?
Ironically, the coming court debate promises to have unintended consequence for its sponsors. Dredging up the history of the physical science of climate change is hardly what the alarmists want given the dismal record of Malthusianism with fossil fuels for the last half-century.
Obama’s Department of Justice asked the FBI to launch a criminal investigation into Exxon Mobil regarding the climate issue. This followed New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman decision last fall to investigate Exxon’s internal debate over the effect of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions on climate.
This is part of a wider effort that is raising free speech issues. Sen. Shelton Whitehouse’s (D. RI) has threatened to prosecute critics of climate alarmism. Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is encouraging the DOJ to open another investigation of Exxon. And a pack of Congressmen have urged the DOJ to launch a similar probe into Shell’s response to global warming.
The anti-industrial Left, which can no longer attack ‘Big Oil’ over prices or profits, has turned to climate change.
A petition signed by more than 350,000 environmentalists states: “Exxon has known about the threat of climate change since the 1970s and 80s … and proceeded to cover up their findings for nearly forty years.” The Union of Concerned Scientists complained about “a massive coordinated campaign of deception conducted by the industry to deceive the public of climate science that even their own scientists confirmed.” Today In: Opinion
Is there a ‘smoking gun’? One can find statements from deep down in the bowels of Exxon that support either a skeptic or an alarmist position. There was a push to include the alternate case of climate catastrophism into the scenario analysis. But there were also statements about the pronounced uncertainty about the human influence on global climate and the unreliability of climate-model prediction of future impacts of the enhanced greenhouse effect.
One 1982 conclusion could be stated with equal veracity today: “Much is still unknown about the sources and sinks for atmospheric CO2, as well as about the climate effect of increasing CO2 levels in the air, so that the prognostications remain highly speculative.”
And on page 5 of a 1989 report by Bill Flannery, Exxon’s resident climate researcher wrote:
“We also know that the modeled projections are far from certain: potential impacts could be small and manageable or they could be profound and irreversible. Uncertainty arises from incomplete scientific understanding — and missing data … Available data display such fluctuations that, today, observations neither confirm nor refute the possibility of climate change from an enhanced Greenhouse Effect.”
Chalk one up to intellectual diversity and alternative scenario planning. But what was going on outside the window — in the real world of climate debate and policy action? There, the science was anything but settled.
In the 1970s, global cooling became a publicized climate scare. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) from coal plants was implicated.
Obama’s current science advisor, John Holdren, was part of this false alarm. In Holdren’s co-edited Global Ecology (1970: 84), Reid Bryson wrote: “I believe that increasing global air pollution, through its effect on the reflectivity of the earth, is currently dominant and is responsible for the temperature decline of the past decade or so.”
In Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment (1977: 686), Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and Holdren stated: “Many observers have speculated that the cooling could be the beginning of a long and persistent trend in that direction — that is, an inevitable departure from an abnormally warm period in climatic history.”
Wondering about the net effect of warming and cooling, the Ehrlichs and Holdren added (p. 687):
There can be scant consolation in the idea that a man-made warming trend might cancel out a natural cooling trend. Since the different factors producing the two trends do so by influencing different parts of Earth’s complicated climatic machinery, it is most unlikely that the associated effects on circulation patterns would cancel each other.
So how might Exxon explain all this to shareholders in an annual report?
It was a good thing they didn’t. Only later was the global cooling scare put to bed. “Predictions of future climate trends by Stephen Schneider and other leading climatologists, based on the prevailing knowledge of the atmosphere in the early 1970s,” Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote in Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996: 34), “gave more weight to the potential problem of global cooling than it now appears to merit.”
Exxon’s internal research of the 1970s and 1980s was seconded much later. Richard Kerr, the award winning climate scribe for Science magazine, summarized as much in 1997 in Greenhouse Forecasting Still Cloudy. Kerr quotes leading climate modelers who admit to not being able to replicate real physical processes to establish causality and true knowledge:
Says one senior climate modeler who prefers not to enter the fray publicly: ‘The more you learn, the more you understand that you don’t understand very much.’ Indeed, most modelers now agree that the climate models will not be able to link greenhouse warming unambiguously to human actions for a decade or more.
This sea of uncertainty did not go away. “Empirical evidence does not lend much support to the notion that climate is headed precipitately toward more extreme heat and drought,” stated James Hansen, the father of the global warming scare, in 1999.
And two years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded: “The possibility for rapid and irreversible changes in the climate system exists, but there is a large degree of uncertainty about the mechanisms involved and hence also about the likelihood or time-scales of such transitions.”
‘Peak Oil’ Warnings?
The dangers for any corporation to tie its wagon to a climate ‘consensus’ can be appreciated with the sister debate over the future availability/affordability of mineral resources.
Specifically, the purported ‘consensus’ of climate change has been joined in the pages of leading scientific publications about the imminent exhaustion of natural gas and oil. “This time it’s for real,” announced the cover story of the June 2004 issue of National Geographic. “We’re at the beginning of the end of cheap oil.” The article goes on to say: “It’s inevitable. But just how soon will the vital fuel become so scarce and expensive that we’re forced to make hard choices about how we live?”
Richard Kerr presented the mainstream position in his 2011 essay in Science, “Peak Oil Production May Already Be Here.” He confidently wrote that “time’s running out to prove that newly discovered fields and new technology can more than compensate for flagging production from the rapidly aging fields beyond OPEC.” Even experts who five years ago  forecast supply problems were “unduly optimistic,” Kerr added.
Ten years later (today), the ‘peak oil’ consensus is exactly wrong.
Should the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) have forced Exxon Mobil and other energy producers to disclose the fact that their lifeblood was allegedly fixed and depleting? In the 1970s … 1980s … 1990s … today?
To ask the question is to dismiss it.
Global cooling, global warming, or global lukewarming? Peak oil and peak natural gas? What is a company to do? The right answer is for public companies to let the science sort itself out.
That same science involving many things hydrocarbon is still playing itself out. Exxon Mobil today, as it did decades ago, should let investors and other parties determine what the scientists may or may not know. And even there, buyer beware!