Yes, ExxonMobil Committed “Unparalleled Evil” Yet that Evil Can Distract From Taking Action

By Michael Hoexter

In a series of revelations over the past three months, the Pulitzer Prize winning website Inside Climate News has revealed what may be the greatest crime of the 20th and the 21st Centuries.  Via interviews and archival research, ICN recovered irrefutable evidence that Exxon scientists (and then ExxonMobil) had an extensive climate research program in the late 1970’s and 1980’s and came to the conclusions that fossil fuel use would lead to heating of the atmosphere, a radical change in climate, and would lead very likely to catastrophic consequences.  In the 1980’s, Exxon scientists participated in scientific conferences that explored the role of carbon dioxide in warming and other climatic effects. However, ExxonMobil, once government officials were alerted in 1988 by the broader scientific community that global warming was occurring and was a global crisis, changed course and funded climate denial, delaying and weakening climate action and nascent climate policies.  Exxon’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson, claims that global warming’s effects are exaggerated and won’t be that bad for humanity.  The Los Angeles Times has used some of the same archival material to come to similar conclusions as has ICN.

Bill McKibben, the founder of and one of the leading climate activists has fittingly characterized these actions of ExxonMobil, as “unparalleled evil” in a Guardian op-ed piece.  McKibben points out plausibly that if ExxonMobil hadn’t thrown its substantial political and economic weight behind climate denial, we would have acted sooner and more vigorously to change our energy system.  McKibben imagines a positive role for Exxon in the climate action past and present that “might have been”.  Despite McKibben’s reputation as a harsh critic of the fossil fuel industries, I find it surprising how much he holds onto the idea that they can be “converted” to the cause of helping the fight against global warming.

McKibben, in a solo protest, got himself arrested recently, in front of a gas pump at a Mobil Station in Burlington Vermont near where he lives, holding a sign saying that that gas pump was temporarily closed because “Exxon lied”.

That ICN uncovered one of the greatest corporate crimes or crimes overall of all time is pretty clear:  the continued use of fossil fuels has warmed the planet substantially in the last 25 years and the likelihood of hitting irreversible turning points in warming and negative climate impacts for humanity have greatly increased.  At the point that Exxon started concealing and distorting knowledge of carbon dioxide’s role in the global climate, it had a large share of the scientific resources and data to inform the world of the problem.  The likelihood of climate catastrophe, destruction of human civilization and maybe self-extinction of our species has become uncomfortably high in the intervening years.

The news has not gone unnoticed and some Democratic members of Congress are calling for a criminal investigation into Exxon’s efforts to undermine climate action, even as its leadership knew about the catastrophic impacts of its own and the entire fossil fuel extraction business.  It seems like a wide-ranging case of criminal negligence, racketeering, and reckless endangerment could be built quite successfully if there is political will to do so.  You can sign a petition to call for Exxon to be prosecuted here.

I support such efforts to bring Exxon and other professional climate deniers to justice but at the same time, I see a massive trap for the climate movement in maintaining a central focus on both past and current wrongdoings of the fossil fuel industries.

Anti-Fossil Fuel Company Activism ≠ Climate Activism

As time allows, I have been active for a couple years now in local groups in Northern California that ostensibly are combatting climate change and I also put some effort into publicizing and attended last year’s People’s Climate March in New York.  I have been active politically over a couple of decades in electoral and issue oriented politics and have become, through practice and maybe temperament, used to interacting with people with a wide variety of political views.  After working in energy efficiency and renewable energy and writing about climate change, economics, and technology, I had thought that climate activism on the local level would be, in part, about pressuring for the best or better policies to actually cut our emissions.

However, after being a participant for several years now in grassroots activism on these issues, it appears to me that the stance of blaming fossil fuel companies for our dependence on their products is the default stance of most in the movement.

In that stance and activism are a whole host of illusions about what would be the expected causal chain from various protests or attempted blockades to the net-zero carbon emitting society we require.   Though I did not start there, I have come to the view that the primary focus on the sins of the fossil fuel industries is largely counterproductive as well as ethically questionable.  In my observations, most troublingly, the focus on the wrongdoings of the fossil fuel industry seems to distract activists from pressing for solutions to our overall dependence on fossil fuels.  For instance, it doesn’t occur to local climate activists to press for safe biking and walking infrastructure or better electric public transit, i.e. ways to immediately cut emissions, cut the use of oil, and create more cohesive communities.  That the fossil fuel companies are “worse” than we activists are and are capitalist firms, does not begin to address either the complicity of political figures in keeping our fossil fuel dependence largely intact, as well as our own roles as consumers in enjoying to varying degrees our fossil fuel binge.

Bill McKibben, in his Tumblr blog post explaining his arrest yesterday, calls people who point out that consumers and demand for fossil fuels/energy needs to be considered in the moral equation, “cynics”.   I don’t believe that it is at all “cynical” to see ownership of our individual as well as collective roles in global warming as a basis for sustained activism.  I have in fact developed what I believe to be a non-cynical but also realistic framework for understanding our ethical responsibilities as regards the climate.

Unfortunately national leaders of the climate movement, including Bill McKibben as well as Josh Fox, both of whom have wide-ranging interests, have not realized that there seems to be a trade-off between a focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels and a focus on the various missteps of fossil fuel refiners, extractors, and transporters.  Few if any seem to notice that the implied message of criticizing the “how” of the fossil fuel industry diverts the discussion from the “what”, the overall practice of burning fossil carbon for fuel.  Far more “climate” activists, it seems, see it as their role in compiling lists of the various faults of the fossil fuel industries (which are many) than as figuring out how we can politically, culturally and economically extract ourselves from the use of their products, thereby lowering our emissions.  Josh Fox has a foot in both worlds, being both the author/director of Gasland 1 and 2 and now Gasworks as well as a founder of the Solutions Project.  The former are highly influential films chronicling the dangers and upswing in fracking activity in North America; the latter is an educational project about climate solutions based on the work of Stanford engineering professor, Mark Z. Jacobson that has not had nearly the impact on activists as have Fox’s movies, at least to date.

There appears to be a comfort zone in which activists want to live, where blaming the nevertheless blameworthy fossil fuel companies, appears to be what those activists interpret to be the heart of climate activism and they seem to have little motivation to go any further.  I believe this is because many of these, mostly older, activists have spent a long time in either the traditional environmental movement or the traditional left where there are simple and comforting distinctions made between the culpable and the innocent.  The personal function of activism appears to be to offload responsibility onto institutions, like corporations or, alternatively, in the “climate justice” idea, to side with victimized groups versus perpetrators, a comfortable political liberal or left stance.   What is most attractive, apparently, is the clear-seeming distinction between good and evil, with victims and perpetrators clearly demarcated.

Pursue Vigorous Prosecution, But Retribution Doesn’t Lead Us Forward

In Bill McKibben’s causal framework for the delay in meaningful climate action, Exxon Mobil, at least in his current analysis, plays an overwhelming role, as if that single corporation “stood astride the earth” and decided to condemn us to climate hell.  It did have a key role, as we have recently learned, but McKibben’s analysis excuses the role of neoliberal politicians, intent on keeping a series of economic bubbles going and in currying favor with large corporations and a complacent and misinformed electorate.  These politicians did not decisively challenge climate denialists and proposed weak climate policy instruments, in particular cap and trade schemes that have always been shot through with debilitating compromises.  There were political events and well-funded ideological campaigns, unrelated to Exxon, regarding society and the economy that made this seem “sensible” at the time though their scant rationales have now worn thin.

The causal framework that blames only fossil fuel companies also excuses us consumers who were and are only too happy to continue the fossil-fueled party, especially with no visible impingements on our fun from the side of the climate until quite recently.

Even as now a number of corporations are committing to 100% clean energy, we cannot stand by as citizens and hope and pray that somehow corporate “big brothers” will solve all of our problems.  If they can apply these commitments to 100% renewable energy to their operations that is all to the good or offer their various technical competencies for the public benefit.  But the influence of even well-wishing corporate lobbying on the future structure of government carbon policy must be held in check.  Climate solutions written by contemporary corporations or their surrogates will never get us rapidly enough to net-zero emissions as a society, as public obligation beyond profit and loss will be central to actually-effective climate policy.  As fantastic a demand as it may seem in our still-neoliberal era, government leaders must subordinate even well-meaning and economically favored (because of their low carbon products or processes) corporations to the common good.  All corporations must be sufficiently regulated even as also some are also greatly helped by an effective policy framework like the US Climate Platform I have proposed.

Prosecuting and fairly punishing Exxon would have its greatest effect in tarnishing the reputations of all funders and promoters of climate denial and demonstrating to them that their climate denial has pernicious and deadly consequences.  However spurring on and reveling in the prospect of retribution is something upon which climate activists should only spend a fraction of their time and efforts.  For this reason, we have courts and prosecutors, who exact public vengeance upon wrongdoers to stop their wrongdoing and as an example to others.

However, actually-effective climate action will be ultimately an enormous creative endeavor, a series of injunctions (commandments to DO something) rather than prohibitions (i.e to NOT do something).  Indulging in or focusing on retribution, in my view, diverts energy and attention from that enormous creative endeavor.  It is not wrong to punish wrongdoers and make examples of them but it does not, in my experience, lead to an effective climate politics that will actually cut our emissions and dependence upon fossil fuels.  That massive creative effort will require a great deal of our energy, which has little to do with exacting vengeance on those who have done us wrong.

8 Responses to Yes, ExxonMobil Committed “Unparalleled Evil” Yet that Evil Can Distract From Taking Action

  1. You have put your finger on the weakness in our system. Our national leaders are selfish and primarily concerned with their own careers. Many books have been written on the dangers of climate change, and on the weaknesses of our political and economic systems. None of these books have proposed a plan for dealing with these problems.

    Your final paragraph comes closer to such a proposal than any I have read and I have been studying the problem of global warming for eleven years now. I have also been studying the problems with our current political and economic systems for decades. The “massive creative effort” you mentioned is exactly what I have been working on since 2004. I have been working alone, but I have tried to enlist others to the effort. Unfortunately I have not been successful. Nevertheless I have kept working on my design of a plan for dealing with all of these problems. In order to direct the appropriate resources to dealing with global warming our systems of government and economics have to be changed. Only then will we be able to act in a concerted, focused way.

    Fortunately, these problems are nothing more than ordinary systems problems. It is easy to understand why things are not working now, and it easy to understand what should be done, and the doing of it is even easier. But attitude is everything. So, before we can break free of our chains we must change attitudes. And we have to begin with those whose attitudes can be changed. Clearly the attitudes of the leading authorities in economics, while they disagree with each other on their pet economic theories, they at least agree that their sinecures must not be endangered. Our political parties and politicians are of no use–no use at all. So, we are left with ordinary citizens. They are the ones who can trigger change. We need a campaign directed at persuading citizens to act in concert without resorting to the current cadre of leaders. We must help ourselves. There is no one else to depend on. But this campaign should not just be aimed at getting people to take action, it must include an actual plan of action. The campaign must be an actual project plan for getting from here to there.

    So, who is going to write such a plan? You? Me? If not us, who? If not now, when?

    • Michael Hoexter

      Thank you for your kind words and words of encouragement.

      I don’t know how much you have read at New Economic Perspectives but I have been writing about climate change and the challenge of mobilizing a full-scale wartime mobilization here to combat climate change and its effects for the last two years. So the last paragraph of this particular post is maybe not as apropos of your concerns and interests as other pieces I have written over this last period. You can scroll down and read if you like:

      Most recently, I have written a proposed “US Climate Platform”, which is a sketch of what should happen to address the climate catastrophe. If you have similar or different ideas, I would encourage you to take a look around (not just at my work), maybe using Google with keywords “climate mobilization”. There is an organization that I advise called The Climate Mobilization as well.

      I would disagree that the climate catastrophe facing us is a generic “ordinary systems problem”. We are talking about very concrete challenges and, yes, systems and institutions involved in energy and the technologies that depend on fossil energy. There is much to be learned from comparison but I don’t think “ordinary systems problems” captures the climate challenge very well…

      • Jerry Hamrick

        By “ordinary systems problems” I meant that the process for dealing with them is the same for all systems. But most systems I have been involved with are usually managed by people who see a need for change and who follow the ordinary process of implementing that change.

        Our national government, the supposed manager of our systems, is not able to follow this process because of attitudes among the powerful. So, the process of changing our systems to minimize the adverse effects of climate change cannot proceed until we change attitudes. In other words, we know what to do about climate change we just don’t have the will to do it. Our political system rewards aggression, deception, and money. It ignores reality. This is why we are so deep into this onrushing catastrophe.

        And, or course, we must change our economic system. The idea that the profit motive will provide effective, sufficient solutions is just plain nuts.

  2. Lewis Gannett

    This piece so assiduously threads together themes of guilt and retribution and exculpation that one must remind oneself, when done reading it, that a) the climate movement has *not*, in fact, been hijacked by angry justice-seekers bent on demonizing ExxonMobil, and that b) ExxonMobil arguably has *indeed* committed the single most heinous criminal cover-up of carbon planet-wrecking, thereby greatly enlarging the wrecking itself. Sure, there’s a main mission from which we must not be distracted: the abolition of carbon fuels. That’s blindingly obvious! But let’s keep in mind that the “complicity” argument–that we all love the carbon thrill ride–doesn’t taint the general public with knowing the mortal consequences back in 1978.

    • Michael Hoexter

      I think that while your comment communicates outrage about my piece, you end up pretty much re-stating (except for your last sentence) what is the content of some of my argument here as your own argument! I think you “doth protest too much”.

      A couple issues I have with your comment:

      1) using the word “hijacked” indicates somehow that I have expressed or implied in this piece that a “real” climate movement pre-existed the “anti-fossil fuel movement”. I don’t think that is the case. It is more a matter of a real climate movement emerging for the first time, capable of facing the challenges associated with a “great switch” of energy sources from fossil to non-fossil sources.

      2) In your last sentence you set up a straw man argument and attribute it to me, that somehow the public knew in 1978 the consequences of fossil fuel combustion. Of course they didn’t. My argument doesn’t depend on it. That however, people have ENJOYed and now enjoy the use of supplementary energy and the products and services it enables should be uncontroversial to you. That supplementary “exosomatic” energy has come largely from fossil fuels, with the most “intimate” of those fuels being petroleum, which people smell and pump to use in their vehicles.

      3) That I observe that fossil fuels (and other non-carbon supplementary fuels) enable enjoyments to which people are attached is not a “smear” on people. This is an issue with accepting some personal responsibility that you might have that in no way EXONERATES Exxon’s coverup. The two things can both be true: people have responsibility to change their habits and political behavior and Exxon is responsible for deceiving the public with regard to the catastrophic impacts of their product. You are trying to set up a framework in which it is EITHER/OR, which I perceive to be a political and ethical problem of very large proportions.

  3. The big banks will not allow for any serious repercussions to the big oil cos.

  4. Lewis Gannett

    You misunderstand my comments. I didn’t at all mean to suggest that “the public knew in 1978 the consequences of fossil fuel combustion.” The opposite: the public had no idea, whereas Exxon did. My point is that in this context of accountability for criminal cover up, it’s distracting to characterize the public as complicit “consumers in enjoying to varying degrees our fossil fuel binge,” when for decades the public had no idea what the consequences were. I must add that it’s striking that you continually acknowledge the carbon industry’s accountability and yet, at the end of the piece, declare that punishment isn’t a good idea: “Indulging in or focusing on retribution, in my view, diverts energy and attention from that enormous creative endeavor.  It is not wrong to punish wrongdoers and make examples of them but it does not, in my experience, lead to an effective climate politics that will actually cut our emissions and dependence upon fossil fuels.” Ah well: you do qualify by saying that it’s “not wrong” to punish wrongdoers. But the drift is clear. Punishment is a waste of time. It’s hard not to conclude that, voluble though you are about corporate wrongdoing, your main interest in this piece is taking heat off of ExxonMobil & Co. Lastly, I must say that it’s news to me that the climate movement is single-minded about blaming the big carbon corporations for the climate crisis. Your insistence on this point is puzzling.

  5. Michael,
    Given that your argument is balanced, in its own way, I have no dispute with it overall. It appears, nonetheless, that you may be missing the key point in this particular case. The climate denial industry that is most typically characterised by the Murdoch media and Koch brothers’ network has succeeded in purchasing real influence and a prosthetic facade of credibility. This Exxon story, this case, this prospective litigation has the potential to do more harm to their cause than anything that I have seen before.
    Its unique potential has four distinct characteristics:
    1. The origin of the evidence and information in this case is the fossil fuel / climate denial industry itself. So their usual attempts at vilifying, smearing or casting doubt upon the source of the science are redundant. For those who are fool enough to actually believe in the denialist dogma, a 30 year-old body of climate-change evidence from Exxon could represent an inexplicable, un-deflectable, insurmountable embarrassment.
    2. The evidence is retrospective. One could write an essay on the implications of that. Suffice to say nonetheless that this not a case where their credibility is damaged by some new discovery that may be disputed. Their own best research determined that they wrong before they even got started. It is not as if they had credibility and lost it. They never had any to begin with.
    3. They are not only wrong they were lying. Cover-ups make great copy. They attract fascination. This is a cover-up of monumental and historic proportions. Written well, its an irresistible story of scandal, intrigue, high politics and human destiny.
    4. The blaming and punishment of Exxon would not be the sole purpose of this prosecution. That purpose may even be secondary. This is all about the politics, the morality, science and publicity. The court is a gladiatorial theatre that attracts the sort of attention that can be be hard to get elsewhere. Personally, I would suggest that if a RICO prosecution doesn’t proceed then activists should find a way of provoking Exxon into bringing a case against them (well, that’s one option perhaps).
    With regard to point #3 here it should also be remembered that corporate fraud (and the firms’ own research) played a big role in the prosecution of big tobacco. The companies escaped with light penalties but their PR defence and credibility were shot completely.