By now, you are probably aware of climate change studies conducted internally by ExxonMobil going back to the 1970s. That itself isn’t new news. But what is new and fascinating is that predictions made in the studies have been validated as being quite accurate. A piece in the Harvard Gazette summed it up this way:
“… Geoffrey Supran, lead author and former research fellow in the History of Science at Harvard [said] ‘What we found is that between 1977 and 2003, excellent scientists within Exxon modeled and predicted global warming with, frankly, shocking skill and accuracy..'”
Among other conclusions from the peer-reviewed Science analysis:
“… ExxonMobil scientists correctly dismissed the possibility of a coming ice age in favor of a ‘carbon dioxide induced ‘super-interglacial’’; accurately predicted that human-caused global warming would first be detectable in the year 2000 ± 5; and reasonably estimated how much CO2 would lead to dangerous warming.”
We thought it would be interesting for Zach and I to offer different perspectives on possible implications of the Science validation.
Point: Potential Practical Aspects
I admit, not everyone may be open to the idea that there could be practical value from ExxonMobil’s accurate pessimism. However, I think it is worth considering.
For instance, the company’s assumptions and predictions – now independently validated – may offer insight into and timing of business opportunities for a transition economy and what the future may hold for a host of companies, not just those in fossil fuels. Climate change is a – maybe the – macroeconomic issue of modern times. Nations, people, cultures and landscapes will change and adapt. Business opportunities will arise throughout the entire global supply chain to avoid, reduce and mitigate climate change. ExxonMobil’s predictions could be seen as a basis for better understanding what the future may hold – illuminating a path for policymakers. Business leaders arguably now have concrete information on which to better plan their transition to a low-carbon economy should they wish to grab the opportunity. Companies that don’t want to make plans have a sense of when they could meet their end.
Companies and consumers both could take some comfort in knowing that human predictions of nature may be valid. I am not saying that we should rejoice about predictions of climate change. Yet it is a powerful thing in my opinion to realize scientists have magical abilities to make accurate predictions about multi-decade changes in global weather patterns, which then can be extrapolated into other impacts on nature, humans and the landscape. The insurance industry could particularly benefit from this. Certainly a variety of models already exist and have been validated to an extent, but I bet ExxonMobil’s data, predictions and scientific confirmation are buried treasure for quants and actuaries.
The internal studies may also show how the earth responds, adapts and changes to emissions levels. If these changes can be predicted, plans can be developed to counteract or reduce their impacts. Perhaps not all of countermeasures will be permanent – some may buy time that allows us to find a better/permanent solution later. Some prevention/preparation is better than none at all.
Counterpoint by Zach: Legal Liability
While I appreciate Lawrence’s optimism regarding the validation of ExxonMobil’s study, my mind immediately turns to the potential legal liability resulting from the new findings. In many tort cases, actual or constructive knowledge is a required element to prove the cause of action. This requires plaintiffs to prove that the defendant “knew or should have known” that their conduct was harmful. This study may provide plaintiffs with evidence that ExxonMobil had actual knowledge that their conduct contributed to rising global temperatures.
Lawsuits against ExxonMobil and their peers are coming from municipalities, but there may be fertile ground here for a wave of class action suits. Those with property damage or loss of life resulting from a climate event claimed to have occurred because of fossil fuel emissions may now have an argument against the fossil fuels industry.
This situation could be analogous to the history of big tobacco lawsuits, as other legal observers have pointed out. Even though lawsuits were brought against tobacco companies as far back as the 1950s, those saw limited success. However, a watershed moment came in the 90’s partly because internal documents leaked that tobacco companies knew about the addictive nature of their products. This culminated in 46 state Attorneys General reaching a settlement with the four largest tobacco companies at the time. That settlement included fines totaling $206 billion over twenty-five years. In addition to government actions, consumers began winning large awards from tobacco companies, including a $51.5 million for one California consumer with inoperable lung cancer.
I believe that ExxonMobil sees a similar emerging risk. Todd Spitler, a spokesperson for ExxonMobil, sent the following statement to Insider (which published an article on the companies climate change studies) via email:
“This issue has come up several times in recent years and, in each case, our answer is the same: those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions… Some have sought to misrepresent facts and ExxonMobil’s position on climate science, and its support for effective policy solutions, by recasting well intended, internal policy debates as an attempted company disinformation campaign… ExxonMobil’s research in climate science has resulted in nearly 150 papers, including more than 50 peer-reviewed publications that the Company has made available to the public. ExxonMobil’s understanding of climate science has developed along with that of the broader scientific community.”
This statement makes clear that ExxonMobil will continue to take the stance that they had no actual or constructive knowledge of the damaging nature of their products, which is to be expected. Admitting knowledge would increase potential liability and make cases against the company easier for plaintiffs to win. We’ll see how judges and juries weigh this new evidence as lawsuits against ExxonMobil play out.
In the end, maybe the points we made here don’t have to be mutually exclusive. What do you think? Email me at email@example.com if you have comments or other perspectives you would like to share.