By George Harvey
Knowledge of human-caused climate change has been around for a long time. An early scientific paper on the connection between carbon dioxide (CO2) and changes in the Earth’s climate, based on scientific measurement of CO2’s ability to absorb infrared emissions, appeared in 1896.
Scientific research on our current situation, connecting use of fossil fuels and climate change, was certainly underway more than half a century ago. On November 5, 1965, a group of well-known scientists sent a paper, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” to President Lyndon Johnson. The paper had a section on CO2 and climate change. The section was written by Roger Renelle, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who had been working on issues of CO2 pollution since 1956, at the latest; Wallace Broecker, known for developing the understanding of the “ocean conveyor belt,” that explains circulation of major oceanic currents; Charles Keeling, who developed the first instrument for monitoring the level of CO2 in the atmosphere; Harmon Craig, professor of Geochemistry and Oceanography at Scripps; and J. Smagorinsky, director of the U.S. Weather Bureau’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
Though the press and the public ignored the problem, the question of CO2 and climate change was soon taken up by companies in the fossil fuel industries. They had an interest in the issue because the CO2 that was beginning to be accused of altering the weather was coming from their products. What they did with the information they found should probably come as no surprise to anyone who understands that many companies are run by people who believe first duty of any company is to make money, regardless of the social costs or externalities.
On September 16, 2015, InsideClimate News (ICN) issued the first part of a story detailing the history of the effort at Exxon, now ExxonMobil, first to study, and then deny, the implications of climate change. The report was based on a long investigation by a group of researchers. What they found was that Exxon had climatologists studying the issue of climate change since 1977, at the latest. The Exxon scientists did a very creditable job, drawing conclusions that are very close to those accepted by mainstream science today.
When the Exxon scientists gave their report to the corporate management, they advised that their conclusions be published outside the company for reasons of ethics. What the company did, however, was precisely the opposite. They chose to pursue two paths. One was to find ways to make use of their private knowledge of climate change to make advantageous investments. For example, they determined what Arctic regions would thaw first and become the best prospects for drilling. The other was to hire scientists to develop plausible explanations on climate change, to cloud the issue for everyone else.
In this case, clouding the issue included outright denial of the conclusions of their own scientists, which they were using to advantage. Their reason for doing this almost surely included an intention to maintain their very profitable business model as long as possible.
We might take the actions of Exxon, and later of ExxonMobil, to constitute deception for the purpose of making money. If that is what happened, then it is fraud. Maintaining a fraud over time is one of several things referred to as racketeering, which is covered by its own set of laws.
Last spring, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse wrote an opinion piece calling for an investigation into ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This fall, a group of twenty prominent scientists wrote an open letter to President Obama, requesting such an investigation.
Interestingly, on the same day ICN issued its report, a U.K. nonprofit, InfluenceMap, issued a similar report looking at the broader scale of denial of accepted science for the sake of protecting profitable business models. They found the practice was in use by about half the world’s largest corporations.
The Federal Government is not the only organization capable of working under the RICO act. It can be done in criminal or civil court, and it can be instituted by anyone. The Attorney General of New York has announced that it is investigating ExxonMobil. New York has indicated that the investigations could go beyond ExxonMobil to any organization that has promoted climate denial for profit.
The idea of a RICO investigation was roundly denounced by a number of organizations, including a set of non-profit organizations that disseminate money, information, legal advice, and literature, and also have a record of attacking renewable power, from whatever source, and supporting fossil fuels. These organizations tie their goals to legitimately conservative political goals, often masquerade their output as news articles, and have heavily influenced the current political campaigns.
We should certainly bear one thing in mind. New York State’s RICO investigations are not targeting people or organizations because of what they believe. They are targeting them because their actions suggest a continuing pattern of fraud, in which the victims include not only the public, but the shareholders of the companies engaging in deceptive practices.