The Heat Is Online

ExxonMobil Changes its Public Rhetoric on Climate Change . . .

In a change in its public rhetoric, ExxonMobil has for the first time conceded that "The risk of climate change and its potential impacts on society and the ecosystem are widely recognized."

In an advertisement on the op-ed page of the New York Times (Oct. 4, 2002), the company declared: "Doing nothing is neither prudent nor responsible…"

In November, 2002, Frank B. Sprow,Vice President, Safety, Health & Environment for Exxon Mobil declared:

"Perhaps the most publicized issue today concerns climate change, and this has taken on a prominent role in whether a country is considered responsible and a company a good corporate citizen.

ExxonMobil's view is straightforward.

We recognize that the risk associated with climate change, and its impacts on society and various ecosystems, may prove to be significant. We do not think this subject has become a settled scientific certainty, however, and that is why our views are in some quarters considered controversial.

Be that as it may, we believe that the risk of adverse effect is large enough to take strong, concerted actions to reduce the risks. Accordingly, we are engaged in two primary avenues to address this risk:

First, we carry out and support research to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to limit their impact. We are also seeking means to support major efforts to work in concert with others in industry and academia to drive toward technological breakthroughs that would substantially reduce the risk of adverse climate changes -- including very high efficiency systems and means to capture and sequester CO2."

The ad, as well as the statement by Sprow differs markedly from previous ExxonMobil statements on climate change. It also differs significantly from the current views of ExxonMobil's CEO Lee Raymond.

For example, two years ago, the world’s largest oil company insisted in an ad headlined "Unsettled Science" that not enough was known to act on the issue. At that time, ExxonMobil declared: "Against [the] backdrop of large, poorly-understood natural variability, it is impossible for scientists to attribute the recent small surface temperature increases to human causes."

The findings of the world’s third largest corporation differed dramatically from the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC found in 1995 that climatic instability is being driven by our burning of coal and oil and, in 2001, that climate change is happening much more rapidly than had previously been projected.

Until October, ExxonMobil parroted the views of a few "greenhouse skeptics," such as S. Fred Singer, most of whom ExxonMobil has been funding. The company did not say whether the change in its position meant it would stop funding the "skeptics."

By contrast, in its ad of October, 2002, ExxonMobil declared it is "taking action to minimize the risks of climate change."

The company is rumored to be preparing to announce a new initiative into hydrogen and fuel cell research. Officials would not confirm that rumor.

Such an initiative by ExxonMobil would conform to the position of President George W. Bush, who recently acknowledged the reality of climate change while declining to take governmental action. Bush’s "Clear Skies" plan calls on companies voluntarily to reduce emissions – and proposes a $4.6 billion fund for research into such renewable technologies as hydrogen fuel cells.

The relationship between ExxonMobil and the current Bush White House has been one of lockstep since the President took office. Last year, ExxonMobil sent a memo to the White House requesting the ouster of Dr. Robert Watson, then-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and replacing him with one of two known "greenhouse skeptics." Shortly thereafter, the White House refused to support Watson for a second term. He was subsequently replaced by India’s Dr. Rajendra Pachauri.

Some observers said that even if ExxonMobil does commit significant resources to a hydrogen research effort, the company could well use the need for further research as an excuse to immediate avoid action on global warming. Indeed, in its Oct. 3 ad, the company warned against "rash action," adding, "Energy and the economic growth it supports are too important to be treated cavalierly."

Nevertheless, the change in position of the world’s third largest corporation in acknowledging both the reality and potential dangers of climate change is very significant. Two years ago, the Economist declared that if ExxonMobil ever embraced the reality of climate change, that would do more than any Kyoto Protocol.

The change in the company’s public position follows by four months an unusually successful move by dissident shareholders. At the ExxonMobil annual meeting in May, 2002, a group of shareholders introduced an alternative resolution calling on the company to stop its disinformation about global warming and to develop a plan for renewable energy. While such alternative resolutions are normally considered successful if they garner 5 percent of the vote, the alternative resolution won about 21 percent of the votes at the ExxonMobil meeting. The shareholder resolution, which was promoted by the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and Campaign ExxonMobil, had a significant impact on top executives inside the company.