Beginning in the 1970s, Exxon conducted research that confirmed the occurrence of climate change, and that the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to it.
But--at the direction of then-CEO Lee Raymond--the company kept the research quiet. Then it spent the better part of two decades funding groups that denied the science of climate change.
That's the conclusion of a recent series of reports, which appear to have the company--now ExxonMobil--hot and bothered.
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ExxonMobil is attacking the media outlets that published these reports, which indicates it views the situation as a crisis in the making, argues Quartz.
And that concern may not be unfounded.
Politicians and social-action groups are calling for investigations into ExxonMobil's activities, arguing that they constitute deception over a potential public health risk.
Offshore Oil Rig
That would put ExxonMobil in the same position as tobacco companies, which in the 1950s and '60s conducted internal research that showed tobacco to be a health hazard and highly addictive.
They suppressed this evidence, and funded public campaigns saying otherwise. The companies were eventually prosecuted for hiding the risks of smoking.
The charges against ExxonMobil rest on a series of reports from the online newsletter Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, based on a trove of publicly-accessible but little-known company documents.
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They include roughly a decade's worth of climate-change studies, published beginning in 1977.
The studies consistently lined up with what has largely become the consensus of the mainstream scientific community--that the planet is heating up, and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely to blame.
But beginning in the 1980s, the company embraced a policy of emphasizing the controversy of climate-change science, which ramped up in the 1990s with a campaign to discredit findings that indicated the occurrence of climate change.
ExxonMobil's attitude has softened somewhat. In 2009, under current CEO Rex Tillerson, it endorsed the idea of a carbon tax.
It denies that it deliberately hid evidence of climate change, and officials have called Inside Climate News an "activist" organization, and accused it of biased reporting.
In response to the reports, 40 environmental and social-action groups drafted a letter demanding a Federal investigation into whether Exxon squelched evidence of climate change.
Similar demands were also made by three Democratic presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is already investigating the company, reports The New York Times.
But the case may not be as clear cut as it was with the tobacco companies.
Oil well (photo by John Hill)
And while the company has funded some dubious research, its own researchers' findings have generally lined up with those of other climatologists.
But if a case can be made against ExxonMobil, it could open up a new legal front in the war over climate change.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Green Car Reports thanks our tipster, who prefers to remain an International Man of Mystery.]