ExxonMobil accurately predicted climate change while publicly dismissing it

ExxonMobil predicted rising global temperatures with remarkable accuracy even as it attempted to downplay the existence of climate change, new research shows. It comes with damning data visualizations that put hard numbers on just how much ExxonMobil knew about the climate crisis it was creating.

There’s been a litany of evidence about how ExxonMobil rejected mainstream climate science, even though the company’s own research and internal communications acknowledged that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming. Now, a paper published today in the journal Science gives us the first comprehensive review of decades of ExxonMobil climate models. And the company’s projections for how much global temperatures would rise over the years were pretty much on the dot.

“What’s pretty shocking is the accuracy and skill of their insights.”

“What’s pretty shocking is the accuracy and skill of their insights. They didn’t just vaguely know something about global warming … They knew as much as academic researchers,” says Geoffrey Supran, a research associate at Harvard University and lead author of the new paper. “Arguably, they knew all they needed to know to begin to take action and warn the public. But of course they didn’t.”

Looking back on predictions ExxonMobil has made since the 1970s, its estimates for future global temperature increases line up pretty closely with what actually took place. To show just how good the company has been at predicting global warming, The Verge recreated one of the figures from the new research paper below.

Multiple lines are plotted on a graph. Multiple grey lines show ExxonMobil’s climate projections over time. One red line, which closely falls alongside the grey lines, shows observed changes in global temperature.

The graph above summarizes all of the global warming projections from ExxonMobil scientists between 1977 and 2003 (gray lines), superimposed on a red line showing the real-world increases in global temperature.

The red line shows how much global average temperatures have actually changed over time, a result of greenhouse gas emissions trapping heat. The gray lines represent ExxonMobil’s global warming projections. The colors of the lines range from light gray to dark gray, with lighter colors representing the company’s early research starting in the late 1970s to darker gray representing the company’s more recent estimates in the early 2000s. Solid lines indicate predictions that ExxonMobil scientists arrived at using their own models, while dashed lines represent third-party research that ExxonMobil scientists reproduced in company documents.

The key takeaway is that ExxonMobil could foresee just how much the petroleum products it sold would heat up the planet. The globe has already warmed by about 1.2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial era. That might seem like a small change, but it has triggered more severe heatwaves, droughts, storms, and flooding that we’re forced to live with today.

“When I first plotted this graph and all these prediction lines just fall right around this red line of reality, it’s pretty startling that they were equipped with this knowledge years before I was even born,” Supran says. You can check out his team’s newly published research to see more real-world observations overlaid on top of surprisingly accurate company documents.

On average, Supran and his colleagues give ExxonMobil’s climate models a pretty high “skill score” (a metric also used in meteorology to rate weather forecasts) of about 72 percent. For comparison, that’s even more accurate than global warming projections that noted NASA scientist James Hansen presented to Congress in 1988. Hansen is legendary in the climate world for being one of the first people to sound the alarm on climate change.

Now, ExxonMobil is notorious for denying the very climate science that it was actually moving forward. The company sought to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect,” according to a 1988 internal memo and continued to characterize climate models as “unreliable” into the early 2000s.

By 2015, landmark investigations by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times had unearthed many of the documents showing that the company had spent decades studying climate change but nevertheless sowed doubt about climate science. That reporting sparked the #ExxonKnew scandal, plus dozens of lawsuits that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies have faced from cities, counties, and states, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia. The suits allege that the oil giants intentionally misled people on climate change to protect their own interests.

“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,” Todd Spitler, a senior advisor of corporate media relations for ExxonMobil, wrote to The Verge in an email. Spitler references a 2019 decision by a New York State Supreme Court judge who ruled in ExxonMobil’s favor, finding that the state didn’t have enough evidence to show that the company misled investors.

ExxonMobil is still staring down other lawsuits

Nevertheless, ExxonMobil is still staring down other lawsuits. The new research published today could potentially become more ammo for those suits targeting the company. The paper analyzes all of the company’s now publicly available climate projections between 1977 and 2003 (many of which came out of the journalistic investigations). So far, much of the focus of #ExxonKnew has been on the discrepancy between the company’s internal and external messaging on climate change. But Supran and his colleagues wanted to do a full assessment of what the company’s climate data actually showed.

“This kind of evidence that succinctly and statistically captures everything they knew in one number and one graph probably could be compelling… complementary to more qualitative forms of evidence that lawyers typically rely on,” Supran says. “And then, of course, there’s also the court of public opinion where I suspect that simple visuals proving that Exxon knew and misled on climate may prove powerful.”

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