We're Finally Going to Learn How Much Exxon Knew About Climate Change

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Exxon Mobile was ordered to turn over 40 years of documents on Wednesday showing the company’s views on and knowledge of climate change. The ruling was made by a Massachusetts judge in an investigation led by the state’s attorney general Maura Healy, who is working to determine how much the company knew about the link between fossil fuels and climate change, and also to determine whether Exxon intentionally hid or suppressed information from the public and investors.


The decision represents a huge victory for climate change advocates and came on the same day Exxon’s former CEO Rex Tillerson faced off with members of the Senate over his nomination to become President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state. Although Tillerson himself has a track record of acknowledging climate change is real, which is better than can be said for many of Trump’s cabinet picks, has repeatedly refused to answer questions about Exxon’s knowledge of climate change during the hearing.

This entire saga started last year when Inside Climate News and other news outlets published investigations alleging Exxon spent millions of dollars on groundbreaking research that showed how their products would change climate, then buried all of the evidence they found. Attorney general Healy opened an investigation with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman concerning potential violations of the state’s consumer protections statute.

Since launching the investigation, it has been a legal tit-for-tat between the attorney generals and Exxon. Schneiderman issued a subpoena demanding financial records, emails, and other documents. In response, Exxon tried retaliating with a lawsuit against Healey claiming she was politically motivated and incapable of impartial investigations.

Inside Climate News kept digging. They later found that scientists from numerous American and multinational oil companies affiliated with the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association, were aware of global warming all the way back in the late 1970s and 1980s. The scientists working with these companies allegedly ignored and obfuscated the truth.


In wake of Wednesday’s court order, Exxon is “reviewing the decision to determine next steps” according to a Reuters report. Experts believe that this investigation into the world’s largest publicly traded oil company could affirm suspicions of fraud and years of promoting climate denial rhetoric. As Gizmodo has reported many times before, this has an eerie resemblance to the way Big Tobacco hid the deadly effects of smoking in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Technology editor at Gizmodo.


Given the sheer size of the industry, a Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement-style settlement with funds directed toward climate change mitigation and adaptation, as opposed to health care, could have a profound effect on our ability to fight and adapt to climate change. Billions of dollars plowed into carbon capture and sequestration, improving coastal defenses, building desalination plants, and R&D.

I wonder if many state governments would suddenly change their climate change-denying tune when suddenly presented with money that is required to go towards mitigation and adaptation, which can simultaneously be targeted to benefit human health and safety (looking at particulate matter and NOx/VOC/ground-level ozone pollution).

Additionally, like the Tobacco Settlement, it could result in the destruction of industry trade groups who abused 501(c)(4) status to spread deliberate misinformation and smear their opponents, which would reduce counterproductive lobbying and suddenly the many sensible Republicans out there would no longer feel hamstrung on climate change and could join the discussion about finding economically beneficial, business-friendly solutions. It’s an exciting thought, though I am not sure how likely it is.