Big Oil’s 50-Year Deception Revealed. It Is “Breathtaking.”

January 13th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

On 4 February 1996, Mike Wallace’s whistleblower interview of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, former Director of Research for tobacco company Brown & Williamson, aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes. That interview began the destruction of what had been the myth of the invincibility of big tobacco’s power. Out of its fear of the epic lawsuit big tobacco could bring, CBS  refused to air the interview for several months. When it did air in February, the House of Tobacco began to crumble. Three years later, Russell Crowe, Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer would star in the Academy Award-winning movie that told the tale, The Insider, with Crowe, as Wigand, winning Best Actor.

Wigand suffered mightily  for his outing of big tobacco’s big secret: That nicotine is addictive, and a cigarette is, in his words, “a nicotine delivery device.” Of course, many people were decrying the evils of cigarettes during the 1990s, but they did not have Dr. Wigand’s inside knowledge. At the time of his 60 Minutes interview, 45.8 million Americans, nearly 26% of the US population, smoked, according to the CDC; today, the percentage has dropped to 12.5%.  Between 10% and 20% of smokers develop lung cancer. Jeffrey Wigand’s heroism has saved a lot of lives.

The current big worldwide battle is over Climate Change, and the science is finally winning. But, although scientists have been working in a Herculean effort to educate the countries of the world to get them to move collectively before time runs out on reversing the warming, there’s no Jeffrey Wigand in this fight.  This battle is not with Big Tobacco, but rather with Big Oil, and today, researchers from Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, writing in Science, catalogue in exquisite detail oil giant Exxon Mobile’s monumental 50-year coverup of its knowledge that human-induced climate change has been making the world warmer all along.

The new research has found Exxon privately “predicted global warming correctly and skilfully” only to then spend decades publicly attacking such science in order to protect its core business.

This story comes in three parts. First, in 2015, investigative journalists discovered internal company documents and research papers that established Exxon knew of the dangers of global warming from at least the 1970s. Additional documents then emerged showing that the industry’s largest trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, along with other oil industry companies knew of the risk even earlier, from around the 1950s. However, the industry forcefully and with great skill mobilized to attack the science to prevent action to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

But today’s publication in Science discloses and makes clear that Exxon’s scientists, not only knew about their industry’s contributions to global warming, but also were uncannily accurate in their projections from the 1970s onwards, predicting an upward curve of global temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions that is close to matching what actually occurred as the world heated up at a pace not seen in millions of years.

Lest you doubt the thoroughness of the researchers, here’s how they did it:

We analyzed 32 internal documents produced in-house by ExxonMobil scientists and managers between 1977 and 2002, and 72 peer-reviewed scientific publications authored or coauthored by ExxonMobil scientists between 1982 and 2014. The internal documents were collated from public archives provided by ExxonMobil Corp (28), InsideClimate News (29), and Climate Investigations Center (30). The peer-reviewed publications were obtained by identifying all peer-reviewed documents among ExxonMobil Corp’s lists of “Contributed Publications,” except for three articles discovered independently during our research (31) [see supplementary materials (SM) section S2 for details on the assembly of the corpus]. These constitute all publicly available internal ExxonMobil documents concerning anthropogenic global warming of which we are aware, and all ExxonMobil peer-reviewed publications concerning global warming disclosed by the company.

Lead author Geoffrey Supran, who characterized the team’s findings as “breathtaking,” said, “This really does sum up what Exxon knew, years before many of us were born.”

Chapter three of this saga began relatively recently and is ongoing. In it, the fossil fuel industry acknowledges publicly the now undeniable (even by it) dangers of global warming and vows to do all in its power to reverse what is rapidly becoming irreversible.

Here are three pieces of data to show the depth of the hole we’ve dug:

  • Burning fossil fuels accounted for 74 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.
  • The fossil fuel industry receives at least $20 billion in direct federal subsidies.
  • In 2020, renewable energy accounted for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, and that share is expected to continue to grow. Seventy-four percent versus 20%. We have a long way to go.

In a telling irony, a gentleman by the name of Rex Tillerson was Exxon Mobil’s CEO from 2006 until 2017, when he retired to become Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State. I doubt we’ll have an academy award-winning film showing Tillerson’s heroic efforts to unleash the truth of global warming.

But suppose someone had done that, say one of the scientists who correctly predicted the coming debacle. Imagine what would have happened if Big Oils’ Big Lie had been outed a la Wigand 30 years earlier. Imagine if the US and the rest of the world had had a chance to begin reducing fossil fuels and going green so much earlier. Imagine if we heeded Carl Sagan’s warning in his 1985 testimony to the US Congress that climate change and human-induced global warming was a “real phenomenon.” And he had data to prove it.

If that had happened, poor Kermit the Frog would never have had to sing, “It’s not easy being green.” 


For those interested in diving into the weeds, here are three graphs from the Science paper illustrating how closely Exxon’s predictions matched reality. In the third one, global temperatures are charted over the last 150,000 years. I’ve highlighted where we are today.

Historically observed temperature change (red) and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (blue) over time, compared against global warming projections reported by ExxonMobil

(A) “Proprietary” 1982 Exxon-modeled projections.
(B) Summary of projections in seven internal company memos and five peer-reviewed publications between 1977 and 2003 (gray lines).
(C) A 1977 internally reported graph of the global warming “effect of CO2 on an interglacial scale.” (A) and (B) display averaged historical temperature observations, whereas the historical temperature record in (C) is a smoothed-Earth system model simulation of the last 150,000 years.