It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, November 13, 2015

Exxon as Egg, Defeating Organized Denial as Omelette?

We have to forgive Big Oil and offer it paths to move on without undue disruption, just as we have to forgive ourselves and design our own transition.

William Connolley has challenged me to take up Exxon's side of the battle in the question of whether their behavior should be investigated on the same principles that convicted the major tobacco companies a few years back.

I have thought about it and I am not going to do that. I think the investigation of Exxon should proceed. On the other hand, I think the demonization of Exxon must stop.

Mike Mann is definitely on board with the investigation of Exxon, according to a thought-provoking interview with Inside Climate News.
Mann: I think it’s a legitimate question to ask, "Was there some collusion here?" Were they intentionally misleading the public and policymakers and their own stockholders about what they knew about climate change...when they knew better—when their own scientists had told them that the science is real and the outcomes would potentially be catastrophic?
I've seen compelling arguments from one of the lawyers who was involved in the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] case against the tobacco industry. She was quoted as saying that based on what she has seen, there is a prima facie case for suspecting the possibility that they [Exxon] were engaging in what is effectively racketeering.
I think we all deserve to learn more about what they knew and when they knew it...and I assume that will come out in the course of [the] investigation.
ICN: Do you think we'll find evidence that other oil companies behaved similarly?
Mann: Oh yeah. I think this is the veritable tip of the iceberg. If this investigation from [Schneiderman's office] leads to legal action, then there will be a process of discovery, and my guess would be that then we start to see stuff from the Global Climate Coalition [an industry group, disbanded in 2002, that opposed carbon emissions cuts], of which ExxonMobil was a member, but there were many other members. I suspect that we’ll learn a lot about the other actors that were involved, and ExxonMobil might not even be the worst of the actors.
I have little doubt that this is true. As Mike said, this is stuff we have "long suspected".
On the other hand, Exxon/Mobil is a vast enterprise, and the question of collective culpability is complicated, even though it's no surprise that there's reason to believe that some people pulling levers at Exxon were behaving maliciously.
Here, Mike spins it rather negatively:

ICN: One big difference between the tobacco and Exxon cases is that Exxon didn't hide its climate change research. Exxon scientists have published peer-reviewed papers and participated in government panels. How do you think that changes the situation?
Mann: Frankly, there was sort of a good cop/bad cop thing going on there...The cynic in me thinks that they were playing both sides. In fact, we know that they continued to have some scientists who participated in the IPCC process into the 2000s, while they were obviously engaged in massive funding of climate change disinformation, basically financing propaganda that was fundamentally inconsistent with the sort of work that their own scientists were doing.
So this internal dissonance feeds the notion that it wasn't really a good faith effort on their part to try to find a way forward to solving this problem. It was to buy them some plausible deniability and apparent credibility by appearing to engage with the scientific community, while at the same time, behind the scenes, massively funding efforts to attack the science and to attack the scientists. That's my view.
That's hardly the most charitable view one could take.

Presumably in an institution as vast as Exxon/Mobil, some people were acting in good faith and others were not.

The comparison to tobacco is weak on at least three grounds:
  • Firstly, the tobacco companies were more tightly knit and smaller than big oil, so their intentionality was more cohesive. 
  • Second, the oil companies are producing a product with enormous short term benefits, and what were originally long-range and speculative drawbacks. As Mike said, the knowledge that intolerable global risks were built into the fossil fuel business model must have been obvious to some people within the organization, but it's hard to identify what the organization as a whole knew or should have known. That one's own business, and a mightily impressive one, is ultimately also destructive is surely something people will be slow to understand.
  • Third, while the tobacco companies were exclusively promulgating pseudoscience to support their model, Exxon was not. Big oil is a legitimate presence at the same annual AGU meeting where American climate science comes together.
To be sure, on the other hand, pseudoscience on climate has certainly been produced in copious proportion, largely by by dubious non-profits, some of which were modestly but directly supported by Exxon. I think, presuming that any shred of civilization survives the coming bottleneck, that it will be historically important to determine to what extent this is true, and to find legally and ethically sound ways of discouraging the organized promulgation of agenda-driven pseudoscience.

I am not insensitive to the echoes of this position in what Lamar Smith is doing to NOAA which the Texas Observer summarizes as "to ferret out out how — not whether — politically motivated government scientists are using what Smith believes are “skewed” numbers."

The issue really lies in the disconnect between what science actually says and what the body politic understands. From the outside, there is an easily perceived symmetry between what Lamar Smith says about Thomas Karl and what Mike Mann says about Exxon. The adjudication of this question, which is harassment and which legitimate investigation, depends crucially on what the science actually says. And yet, we don't want the courts deciding that - lawyers deciding what science is legitimate obviously fraught with risk. If the courts err in such a judgment, it could lead directly to Lysenkoism, wherein totally bogus theories are enshrined in law.

I have, until recently, been an enthusiastic supporter of Bill McKibben, whom I always thought of as (like Hansen) balancing a serious and measured disposition with a horrified comprehension of the long-term ethical travesty that our current civilization is based upon. But his targeting of Exxon as scapegoat goes too far. With this he's stopped seeming to me the reluctant activist and more the political gamesman.

The problem is that blaming Big Oil is not the way out of our quandary. We cannot shut these industries down. Not only do they represent significant investment that we cannot afford to throw into chaos, they are also legitimate and crucial stakeholders in the energy problem. We have to work with the incumbents in the energy industry, not against them. We have to understand the constraints under which they operate, some of which they can;t afford to be frank about. While those of us in the most developed countries need to consider the possibility of moving to less energy-intensive approaches to life, we also need to understand that the world will need more, not less energy to proceed to a state of civilization and sane governance, where daily life is not fraught with risk of deprivation and violence.

This is achievable at the same time as decarbonization. There are no serious technical obstacles. But making enemies of the incumbent powers in the energy industry is not the way to do it.

In the end, an oil major can more easily sustain an investigation than a science team; they are plenty lawyered up already. What to NOAA is an upheaval must at the present time seem to Exxon as an irritant. But on the other hand, this analogization of the oil industry and the tobacco industry can be taken too far. The fossil fuel business model must be replaced by an energy business model, but the road for the big producers must be made easy, not hard, or they will fight tooth and nail, and bring us down along with them.

That corporations are entities with free will is an absurd legal fiction that does enormous damage.

They are animated by people, but the people are fungible and replaceable. A corporation is a machine which responds to the marketplace and the legal and social environment. Our objective cannot be to destroy the crucial components of industry. Rather we should be looking for ways to motivate them to act collaboratively.

It would be great to get to the bottom of the climate BS industry. I think we will find that corporations like Exxon played a minor role, and that it's more rich and socially malign oil billionnaires as individuals who are behind the production of manipulative pseudoscience. But if prying at Exxon offers a way to investigate, I think I have to support it. I am not convinced that a huge amount of culpability is going to end up on their shoulders, though, and frankly, I hope that it won't.

On the other hand, McKibben's developing posture that the oil industry must be destroyed is a turn very much for the worse. The history of scapegoating is not a pretty one. In the end, the oil industry is us. We have to forgive Big Oil and offer it paths to move on without undue disruption, just as we have to forgive ourselves and design our own transition.

Big Oil itself increasingly understands this. The rest of us should do so as well.

Our task is to energize the world in the near future while minimizing the (already inevitably large) losses to our descendants over times to come. Defeating organized denial is a part of that task, but breaking the energy industry in pursuit of that goal is a catastrophically disproportionate strategy.

Tightened up version of this rant at Medium entitled "Investigate Exxon, but Blame Yourself"


Tom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tony Goodfellow said...

C'mon, I'm not convinced.

The majority of Australians either don't think climate change is happening or think that humans have no part in it

The average person doesn't read science journals.

This year CO2 increased in australia by 33%

You say "breaking the energy industry..."

...Meanwhile the coal's still burning...(and I might add it's still possible to get a cigarette from the local shop - you exaggerate and in doing so create a straw man that you then tear down).

All your piece does is give ammo to an already well funded climate denial/confusionist industry who are *still* operating to protect/maintain their interests.

I think the Scopes Trial would be more accurate comparison instead of Lysenko. The science won in that court and it helped educate many americans about evolution. Although I understand your fear about enshrining "bogus theories" in law, however I think it's misplaced, the science and evidence is solid and it is through law that progress will be made similar to tobacco. It will face law sooner or later and to not act because of a fear of losing is weak... e.g.

How can people make a rational choice about climate change when it's been manipulated by misinformation?

"The problem is that blaming Big Oil is not the way out of our quandary." Who said that it was? It might be a tiny step forward.

Quote, Sorcewatch:

"Between 1995 and 2005, Exxon Mobil spent $16 million to "bankroll more than 40 groups to quell the claims of global warming.

During 2002, ExxonMobil donated $5.6 million to public policy organizations which share its agenda, either on climate change denial or general extreme free market advocacy."


There are many issues to be confronted, such as campaign finance reform, they will all need to be addressed if society will act in its own best interest...if you have a better 'theory of change' then offer it because the "let's just sit in my office and and say facts" isn't working on a broader scale because the "facts" are being drowned out by propaganda ( Perhaps it's best to say that the scientific 'theory of change' is to inform policy makers and has nothing to do with another theory of change which aimed at voters draw their attention to practices of misinformation or to another group investors to the need to keep 90% of the coal in the ground through highlighting the risks as McHibbens is doing - both are different "theories of change" with differs goals targeting different people. It is more complex than you portray.

Sorry I don't usually comment on blogs (I know its futile) but I found your piece was a bit rich.


IrememberMobil said...

What Mr. Goodfellow said, including the futility part. Here’s the fact-free version:
As your premise seems to be that the oil and gas industries are too big to fail, I cannot escape the suspicion that you intend to bring a knife to a gunfight. If your point is that we’re in a horrible global mess and the best transition we can make will require time and gradual change and that energy companies including oil companies will need time to transition in order to avoid an even bigger mess, then I understand your argument, but god and the devil dwell in the details. If my memory of English lit is intact, to paraphrase Mephistopheles, “Why, this is political, nor are you out of politics – yet.” I therefore think that your criticism of Mann and McKibben is woefully premature. As for blaming ourselves, I’ll consider doing that when I own as many politicians, government agencies, lobbyists, fake research foundations and p.r. firms as the coal, oil and gas industries, and can rest assured that I have had overwhelming influence over crafting and enforcing the exact laws and government regulations that are intended to control my activities and safeguard the public good. Are the slaves to be blamed for the rise of the Confederacy? And speaking of the Civil War, I have not heard of anyone surrendering in this particular conflict (was Senator Inhofe struck by the blinding light of solar power on the road to Damascus?), so your implicit call to bind up the nation’s wounds is also premature.

Ric said...

I was surprised at the part about there being no serious technical obstacles to decarbonization while preserving abundance. I didn't know (or had forgotten) that you were such a thoroughgoing cornucopian. Have you previously defended that position at length?

Michael Tobis said...

I'm not a cornucopian in that I do not believe wealthy societies can sustain economic growth. But I don't think we need major cutbacks.

The key to plan is well-known and in some communitiues considered an established consensus - electrify everything and produce electricity without net carbon emissions. I for one am perfectly okay with nuclear but I don't care how this is done. If the fossil fuel guys come up with a sequestration method that works, more power to them. Maybe someone comes up with scalable storage, and we can go 100% renewable. Maybe fusion comes online. Much industry can swithc to dispatchable production rather than dispatchable energy. But nukes are already deployment ready and prove the case.

I would also 1) replace most animal protein with legume protein and end meat that isn't wild-caught or free-ranging and 2) provide a universal non-means-tested income and universal health care so that people are not desperate to find employment, destructive or otherwise. But these are less urgent.

The biggest loss in such a scenario is aviation, which has to move to biofuels to be sustainable, and that is something that has to be limited, so it probably has to be cut back (made into a luxury). We can bring back surface travel, though.

The oceans are a mess, and this program would have to be implemented quickly to avoid huge further damage from acidification.

There are many other sustainability problems to be solved besides the carbon one, but the carbon issue is most urgent, and technically solvable.

I get a bit less optimistic daily, as there are increasing amounts of irreversible damages occurring or committed. But we're still a long way from the point where we have a guaranteed failure of capitalist civilization, and I think we should try very hard to avoid it.