After being sued for deception, Exxon brings lies to the courtroom
We’re fact checking Exxon’s claims from last week’s Massachusetts hearing
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Last week, lawyers for the oil giant were in court for their latest effort to escape accountability for lying to the public about climate change. This time it was to ask a Massachusetts state judge to dismiss Attorney General Maura Healey’s 2019 lawsuit that challenges the corporation’s ongoing campaign to mislead consumers about the climate-driven risks posed by fossil fuel products.
We aren’t going to get into the legal minutiae of the arguments here. But for a newsletter called EXXONKNEWS, one thing stuck out to us in particular. In his opening statement, the attorney for Exxon, Justin Anderson of the firm Paul, Weiss, told the judge the following: “ExxonMobil — for the better part of the last decade — has recognized that climate change presents a challenge, that climate change is real and it presents a challenge to governments on how to address it.”
We know Exxon lies (it’s why they keep getting sued), but this is rich, even for them. “The better part of the last decade”?! That would mean Exxon did not recognize that “climate change is real and presents a challenge to governments” until … 2011, at the earliest. We know that’s not true — Exxon’s own scientists were sounding alarm bells about their products’ role in causing climate change as early as the 1970s.
So, this is a perfect time for us to revisit just a few examples of what #ExxonKnew about climate change, and when. Much of this information is known to the public only because of the work of journalists and whistleblowers.
As early as 1977, as unearthed by InsideClimate News, senior Exxon scientist James Black told company executives in a presentation that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”
In a 1978 written summary, Black said urgent action was needed because, “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
By 1981, Exxon employees were urging higher-ups to recognize that the results of climate change could be “catastrophic” and that failure to warn the public would be unethical.
Rather than heed that advice, Exxon officials stated in an internal 1988 memo that the corporation’s position should be to “[e]mphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”
By the 1990s, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, Exxon, Mobil, and other oil companies “joined a multimillion-dollar industry effort to stave off new regulations to address climate change, [while] they were quietly safeguarding billion-dollar infrastructure projects from rising sea levels, warming temperatures and increasing storm severity.”
Exxon documents, 1981
Decades earlier than Exxon’s lawyer claimed, the corporation “recognized” the reality of climate change enough to spend money to protect its own assets from the damage. The company was so intent on protecting their profits that they spent decades lying about what they knew to prevent climate action, leaving the rest of us to pay the price — which is exactly why Healey and five other attorneys general have since taken the company to court.
As former Exxon scientist Martin Hoffert testified in a 2019 Congressional hearing, “Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong. This was immoral and has greatly set back efforts to address climate change.”
Despite all this evidence, Exxon’s high-priced legal team still has the gusto to claim in court just last week that the corporation has only “recognized” that climate change is a “real” challenge since sometime in the 2010s.
And what is causing this “challenge”? Throughout last week’s hearing, Exxon’s legal team carefully avoided any acknowledgement that fossil fuels are chiefly to blame for the climate crisis. In a bizarre twist, Anderson affirmed several times that Exxon’s view is that “fossil fuel products have a role to play in reducing emissions.”
Got that? Exxon’s fossil fuel products that create the emissions that cause climate change …. will play a role in reducing emissions and combating that climate change.
As lawyers for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office reminded the court, Exxon is facing this lawsuit exactly because they have lied to the public about the role of fossil fuel products in climate change and the climate risks they pose to their business and to consumers and investors in Massachusetts.
"We brought this case against Exxon to put an end to decades of deception and lies," Attorney General Healey told E&E News this week. “...Our goals are simple: to stop Exxon from engaging in this illegal deception of Massachusetts consumers and investors and to hold it accountable for its misconduct.”
The corporation’s efforts to escape and delay justice in this case are nothing new — we’ve seen them use similar tactics in more than 20 climate damages and fraud lawsuits they face across the country. Thankfully courts have largely rejected them so far, and we hope that trend continues.
If Exxon loses this round, the people of Massachusetts will finally be one step closer to having their rightful day in court.
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