While some in the fossil fuel industry now appear to support climate science, the truth is they have been acting to obscure the facts for decades. ExxonMobil and the whole fossil fuel industry have known that they are the leading cause of global warming for more than half a century.
A letter by Benjamin Franta titled “Early oil industry knowledge of CO2 and global warming” confirms that the fossil fuel industry knew about its impact. The letter published by Nature reads as follows, “archival documents show that even before Keeling published his measurements [in the 1960s], oil industry leaders were aware that their products were causing CO2 pollution to accumulate in the planet’s atmosphere, in a potentially dangerous fashion.”
A Guardian article Franta said: “American oil’s awareness of global warming – and its conspiracy of silence, deceit, and obstruction – goes further than any one company. It extends beyond (though includes) ExxonMobil. The industry is implicated to its core by the history of its largest representative, the American Petroleum Institute [API].”
According to API research conducted in 1954 by the California Institute of Technology, fossil fuels were shown to have increased levels of atmospheric CO2 in the preceding century. It should come as no surprise that the results were never published. Subsequently, a researcher at ExxonMobil (then known as Humble Oil Co.) found that the carbon isotopes in tree rings corroborate the unpublished Caltech findings.
In 1959 as the American oil industry celebrated its centennial Nuclear physicist Edward Teller addressed the Energy and Man symposium, an event organized by the API and the Columbia Graduate School of Business. Teller linked carbon emissions from fossil fuels saying they were “contaminating the atmosphere”. Here is an excerpt of Teller’s remarks:
“Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect,” Teller said. “It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”
In a 1965 speech to members, American Petroleum Institute president Frank Ikard outlined the findings of a report by then-president Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee.
“The substance of the report is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequence of pollution, but time is running out,” Ikard said, adding, “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.”
In 1968 the American Petroleum Institute received a report on air pollution it had commissioned from the Stanford Research Institute, and its warning about carbon dioxide was clear:
“Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes…there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe…pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes.”
Oil companies knew that fossil fuels cause climate change but they hid this knowledge. Even more damning they devised devious disinformation campaigns designed to undermine the public’s support for the facts. They have used their tremendous wealth and power to buy politicians and political outcomes.
As they stymied climate action they increased extraction. As a consequence, we are now faced with a climate emergency that demands rapid action. As stated by the president of API more than a half-century ago, “time is running out”.
API’s Long History of Climate Denial and Disinformation
Fossil Fuel Industry Buys Politicians and Political Outcomes
Ending Fossil Fuels Really is the Answer
Fossil Fuel Industry Hypocrisy Knows No Bounds
War on Science Makes Fossil Fuels a Climate Archvillain