Saturday, January 06, 2007

‘Greenwashing’ Oil

A report says the world’s largest corporation funded studies that cast doubts on the link between fossil fuels and climate change.

Jan. 4, 2007 - For more than three decades, the tobacco industry carried on a campaign of disinformation intended to mislead Americans about the health risks of smoking—a strategy that has been dubbed “manufacturing uncertainty” in the minds of consumers. And ever since global warming emerged as an environmental threat, there has been a well-funded public campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus about the danger of global warming and its source in fossil-fuel combustion. A report this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds a parallel between the efforts to whitewash tobacco and “greenwash” oil—and points the finger of responsibility at the world’s largest corporation, ExxonMobil.

Under its former chairman and CEO, Lee Raymond, who retired in 2005 as one of the best-paid corporate executives in history, ExxonMobil was well known for its hostility to government regulations on emissions of carbon dioxide. But, according to the report, the op-eds and position papers were only the visible tip of Exxon’s effort to fund a small group of researchers and an overlapping network of think tanks that could be relied on to spread the message that global warming was nothing to worry about—or at least, nothing the government could or should do anything about. Their frequently repeated call for “sound science” on global warming echoes the tobacco industry’s endless demand for more research on whether cigarettes really, truly, unquestionably cause cancer.

Of course, cigarette companies weren’t concerned just about future sales, but the billions of dollars in compensation they eventually had to … umm … cough up. ExxonMobil’s motivation, presumably, is to protect a fantastically lucrative market: its 2005 profits of $36 billion made it the most profitable corporation in history. But that very wealth puts them in a position both to shape and eventually dominate the postcarbon energy world, if they choose to do so.
Ironically, as the report points out, the company and its shareholders will suffer if it gets left behind in the transition to less polluting forms of energy.

For its part, ExxonMobil—after promulgating, and then withdrawing 20 minutes later, a statement that called the report an “attempt to smear our name and confuse the discussion”—wants you to know that it now accepts some responsibility for global warming. Specifically, and in boldface, it admitted that “It is clear today that greenhouse gas emissions are one of the factors that contribute to climate change, and that the use of fossil fuels is a major source of these emissions.” That would seem, on the face of it, to contradict the assertions of some of its favored researchers in the ever-shrinking coterie of global-warming skeptics. The question, of course, is what specific policies ExxonMobil is willing to accept to curb those emissions. With a new Congress taking office, climate change is likely to be a much more salient issue this year than it has been for the last six—so ExxonMobil will have the chance to show if it means what it’s saying now.


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