In 1977 ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly-traded fossil fuel company (Exxon) asked its in-house scientists to study the impacts of the fossil fuel industry on climate change. They reported that greenhouse gas emissions from the production and consumption of fossil fuels had been and would continue to be the principal contributor to climate change.
Eleven years after Exxon management received this advice, public concern over climate change had increased and governments were promoting international action to reduce climate change and its outcome – global warming. To preserve markets for the fossil fuels it produced, Exxon sought to reduce public concern over the risks of climate change. To do so, it deployed significant public relations resources to create doubt whether the risks were as severe as presented.
Exxon employed two distinct avenues in its marketing efforts.
It gave substantial financial support to “think tanks” which publicly questioned the link between fossil fuels and global warming. It also financially assisted sceptical scientists who had criticized the conclusions reached by the great majority of experts. Many of these sceptics confidently claimed that the changing climate was a natural process that had been functioning for millennia. Others questioned whether the research establishing the cause of climate change had been conclusively demonstrated. If not, considerably more research was required before any active steps were taken. The mantra of these sceptics was: “Science is not settled!”
This mantra was quickly adopted by politicians and investors in fossil fuel energy.
As the impacts of climate change became more pronounced, Exxon searched for a new public relations message that would erase its public image as a “merchant of doubt!” 4RG questioned this public relations strategy in its blog of July 18, 2012:
“Given its prior conduct, could Exxon ever avoid public mistrust and resistance to the future exploitation of its fossil fuel reserves?”
In its efforts to regain public trust, Exxon adopted the language of “sustainability“;
” . . the process of maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. “
In 2016 a shareholder’s resolution sought to force Exxon management to publish “transparent” reports on the financial consequences to Exxon of its measures to limit climate change. Exxon’s management successfully defeated this resolution, but the next year shareholders re-submitted the resolution. This time it passed!
In 2017 Exxon stated that it would be conducting annual assessments to identify issues that, in the view of the company’s management and its external stakeholders, have the potential to significantly affect “sustainability” performance.
The next year Exxon again reported on “sustainability”, commenting that Exxon’s primary responsibility is to produce the energy and products the world needs in a responsible manner. It adopted the thirteenth sustainability goal promulgated by the United Nations: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
Exxon announced that it would continue to focus its efforts on providing the energy the world needed, while simultaneously addressing the risk of climate change by reducing emissions, helping consumers reduce theirs, and advancing research to find new low-emissions technologies for the future.
Sustainability is a very broad and poorly defined concept. Many shareholders did not consider that Exxon’s support for sustainability was sufficient. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) supported another shareholder resolution that Exxon define its future emissions targets. UCS noted that the request for these targets showed investors want Climate Action – not Platitudes.
Exxon refused to accept targets and is opposing the resolution.
In its public statement supporting this resolution, the UCS noted that
” As recent climate science assessments have made clear, fossil fuel companies must rapidly and dramatically slash global warming emissions if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change-such as inundated coasts, prolonged droughts and heat waves, and more frequent and severe storms.
Scientists, elected leaders and communities around the world are demanding immediate action and investors are giving ExxonMobil a clear directive on what the company needs to do.
So far Exxon has not taken any steps. We will find out in the near future whether Exxon is seriously committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.