Credit Photograph by BEN STANSALL / AFP / Getty
Is there such a thing as non-denial denialist?
This question came to mind this week, when Donald Trump nominated the chairman of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, to be the next Secretary of State. Several news outlets gave Tillerson credit for at least acknowledging that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, a fact that was already considered established science in the Victorian era. The Washington Post noted that Tillerson’s position—that climate change is not a “hoax“ invented by the Chinese—is more nuanced than that of many other of Trump’s appointees, and “in the context of how Trump’s administration is shaping up on energy and environmental policy, could almost be called moderate.” The Times editorial board went so far as to praise Tillerson for having “reversed ExxonMobil’s long history of funding right-wing groups that denied the threat of global warming,” and suggested that he might “convince Mr. Trump not to pull out of” the Paris climate accord. All of which goes to show that Tillerson is smart enough to have positioned himself, and repositioned his company, so that there’s now at least confusion about where he stands. But you have to be pretty desperate—and at this point many people are—to take this as cause for optimism.
As has been copiously documented, ExxonMobil has a long history of peddling misinformation on climate change. Lengthy investigations last year by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News revealed that, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company—then just Exxon—conducted its own extensive research on the subject. Its scientists found that the continued burning of fossil fuels would, indeed, alter the climate dramatically, and warned that “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.” But instead of considering the possibility of catastrophe—or perhaps in spite of such consideration—the company discontinued its own research efforts and began to try to undermine those of others. Behind the scenes, it attacked the work of government scientists and donated generously to groups that did the same. In public, it promoted the notion that climate change was a matter of debate.
“Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive,” the company’s then-chairman, Lee Raymond, said in 1997, more than a decade after Exxon’s in-house scientists had concluded just the opposite. The disconnect between the findings of the company’s own researchers and the actions it subsequently took is now the subject of multiple government investigations, including one by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is looking into whether the company has properly valued its assets in light of the possibility of limits on CO2 emissions.
In recent years, ExxonMobil has moved away from explicit climate denial. Under the heading “Our position on climate change,” the company’s Web site states: “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action.” (The site also declares that the company “unequivocally” rejects allegations that it has “suppressed climate change research.”) In a speech he delivered in Washington, D.C., in May, Tillerson used almost the same words: “At ExxonMobil, we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.”
But has ExxonMobil abandoned more insidious forms of denial, which are themselves deniable? This past spring, a group of researchers at M.I.T. and Harvard set out to answer this question. The group concluded that ExxonMobil “has been—and still is—a leading sponsor of think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations that promote climate science misinformation.”
The researchers found that as recently as 2014, the latest year for which complete data were available, ExxonMobil was still contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to groups promoting climate misinformation. These included the American Legislative Exchange Council, which, among other things, advocates teaching climate denial to schoolchildren, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which asserts on its Web site: “Actually, there is no sound science to support the claims of Global Warming.” ExxonMobil contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars more to what might be called the country’s most influential denialist group: the Republican majority in Congress.
The M.I.T and Harvard team assembled the report in support of a letter, signed by more than a hundred and fifty researchers, urging the American Geophysical Union to reject ExxonMobil’s sponsorship for its annual fall meeting. The governing board of the A.G.U., one of the country’s preëminent scientific associations, rejected this request; however, the issue became moot when ExxonMobil, perhaps fearing negative publicity, declined to offer its sponsorship for the meeting. (The A.G.U.’s fall meeting is underway in San Francisco.)
Meanwhile, climate change continues apace, indeed, at an ever-faster pace. The day after Trump nominated Tillerson, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual report on the state of the Arctic. The report, which reads like a checklist for the apocalypse, observes that the Arctic ice cap is melting, the Greenland ice sheet is shrinking, snow cover is declining, and permafrost is thawing. The thawing permafrost is, in turn, releasing methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. In other words, as one scientist put it, the “Arctic is unraveling.”
The world can obviously ill afford to waste the next four years debating whether the world is warming. Equally obviously, this is exactly what the Trump Administration is intent on doing. In this context, the nomination of Rex Tillerson, a non-denier denier, should be seen for what it is: not a cause for hope but yet another reason to be terrified.