Image: Steve Snodgrass/Flickr
“The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” William Colton, a vice president of the largest publicly-traded oil company in the world, said in a statement yesterday. ExxonMobil, which has in the past pursued and funded efforts to propagate the view that climate change isn't occurring at all, has taken the unusual step of publishing an entire report affirming its existence. The aim may be to assuage shareholders about the IPCC's dire climate findings, also released this week. That synthesis of the last six years' worth of climate research found that global warming threatens to do no less than destabilize human civilization as we know it.
Exxon's response is fairly bizarre, and brimming with curious falsehoods and contradictions. Just take a peek at Colton's next statement: “ExxonMobil is taking action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its operations, helping consumers reduce their emissions, supporting research that leads to technology breakthroughs and participating in constructive dialogue on policy options."
When legislation that sought to reduce carbon emissions threatened to pass Congress in 2009, Exxon spent more money lobbying against it than the entire clean energy industry spent lobbying in favor. Before that, it funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that published scientifically-debunked materials claiming climate change wasn't real, or wasn't a problem. As recent as 2012, its CEO was still downplaying the threats posed by a warming world. That isn't exactly what most would consider to be "constructive dialogue."
It's also unclear how Exxon is "reducing greenhouse gas emissions," as its entire business model is predicated upon helping the world to generate more of them. It acknowledges this just paragraphs later, and in this feel-good image, the first included in the report:
Either this indicates that Exxon is moving the destitute into apartments and buying tractors for the world's poor, or the company is arguing that more oil and gas—and more greenhouse gases—are essential to global wellbeing. The report cites the findings of the International Energy Agency, which, according to Exxon, predicts "that carbon-based fuels will continue to meet about three-quarters of global energy needs through 2040."
But it conveniently fails to note that the IEA sees that scenario as a colossal disaster. In its last report, the IEA clearly states that “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal" that scientists say is safe for maintaining a stable civilization. Exxon currently has 25 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a fairly hefty chunk of the planet's doomsday stock.
Therein lies the rub. Exxon says climate change is clearly a threat, but is planning on doubling down on efforts to move its carbon-loaded merchandise regardless.
“All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs,” Colton said. If the risk of climate change were indeed clear, it probably wouldn't do that—after all, if the American oil companies alone were to burn all their reserves (and Exxon has the biggest), it'd create nearly enough greenhouse gases to push us past our carbon budget. After that, it's into the unknown frontier of potentially catastrophic warming.
It thus remains entirely uncertain what sort of action Exxon believes climate change actually "warrants," seeing as how it's not prepared to sell a single drop less of its own oil reserves.