What is 1982 best remembered for? The outbreak of the Falklands War? Maybe the release of Michael Jackson’s majestic album Thriller? But the year the greatest crime against humanity was ever committed, really? While other events made the headlines, Exxon shared research on the effects of carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels in the environment to management. The findings were seismic. The report found a close relationship between increases in CO2 levels and increases in the global temperature.
What did they do about this revelation? They suppressed it. Realising that to publicise the findings would place them under the spotlight. The study proved Exxon’s own product (fossil fuels) was creating a monumental problem. A problem that would threaten the very existence of humanity in the 21st century. Hardly the best PR.
From the perspective of Exxon, what purpose did it serve their business interests to publicise the findings? With revenue exceeding $108 billion this was the biggest company in the world. They were doing just fine as they were. Morally this decision is breathtaking in its greed, self-interest and short-sightedness.
But 37 years on ExxonMobil (Exxon merged with Mobil in 1998) are still supplying the world with fossil fuels. And we’re still very much on course to experience temperature increases that threaten the existence of humanity.
The greatest crime against humanity?
When we think about the worst crimes against humanity, it’s hard to look further than mass genocide. These are crimes of unparalleled brutality. And the effects cause distress and suffering that will never be forgotten.
Exxon’s decision pales in comparison to the Holocaust or the Cambodian genocide. But its ramifications have the potential to cause pain and suffering on an unimaginable scale. Exxon knew that to continue on the path of business-as-usual risked the existence of humanity.
Exxon’s crime isn’t what they did do, but what they didn’t. The irony is that the initial decision to carry out research on the relationship between CO2 and the global temperature was a good thing. But they didn’t undertake research for the public good. They undertook it to gain understanding so they could stay ahead of the game.
To add salt to the wounds, by suppressing the research, Exxon didn’t commit a crime. This says more about our law system than anything else. This information was of public interest. People had a right to know that our current path was leading us to our demise. And yet, because the research would have negative ramifications on Exxon’s business they chose to keep it secret.
Even now, knowing what they did, no legal action has been taken against the company. These executives are able to make decisions that could impact the lives of millions with impunity. Alongside other oil and gas companies, they spend millions of dollars on lobbyists to push against climate change policy that will help tackle the effects of their products.
They still make concerted efforts to protect their self-interest. Having known for 37 years that this path is leading us to our demise this seems to be utter madness. But,
In a mad world, only the mad are sane.
Why did Exxon suppress the information?
In a world gone mad understanding Exxon’s decision making is simple. They do not exist for the benefit of the whole of humanity. They exist to maximise returns for their shareholders. The interests of the company are in direct competition with the interests of humanity. They want us to continue our dependence on fossil fuels as this creates returns for shareholders.
Exxon placed the short term interests of their business and shareholders ahead of the long term interests of humanity. From their perspective, this was a logical decision. In fact, it was the only decision they could have made. Imagine Exxon’s executives called a shareholder meeting to announce that based on their findings they were going to restructure their business model.
The headline from the announcement may have been along these lines. The long term viability of fossil fuels has been put into question. The problem requires a transformation of the global system towards a low carbon economy. The future is renewable energy. Exxon‘s vision is to be a pioneer and lead the way in this transformation, cementing the long term future of the company, and with it, humanity.
This would have caused an uproar. The board of directors would have been considered hippy loving environmentalists. A threat to the shareholder’s investment. They would have quickly found themselves being voted off the board. From this perspective, they didn’t have any alternative but to suppress the information and continue on the path of business as usual.
It could all have been so different
Imagine if Exxon had looked at the evidence as an opportunity? One where they could lead the transition to a renewable, low carbon economy. They could have put steps in place to become a leader in this transition before anyone else was even talking about the problem.
Exxon’s decision could have instigated other oil and gas companies to follow suit. The trickle-down effect of this transformation would have been remarkable. The world would be a very different place if executives at Exxon had shown the leadership that is still so desperately needed to transition to a low carbon economy.
But this is pure speculation. They didn’t see the evidence as an opportunity but as a threat to their current way of doing things. The executives took the easy option, hide the evidence, and reap the rewards of doing so. Greed and self-interest prevailed. In a corporate world fuelled by short term maximisation of profit, this isn’t a surprise.
37 years on, we are in the midst of a climate catastrophe that threatens the existence of humanity. The decision seems bizarre if you consider that the success of any business relies on humans buying their products. If there aren’t any humans, there is no ExxonMobil.
That it was logical for Exxon to suppress this report symbolises the era we live in. The fact they were able to do this from a legal perspective reflects a law system that is in desperate need of reform. This is an era dominated by greed and self-interest. If we’re around in 100 years that short sight sighted decision will be considered a crime that will go down in infamy.