Column: Exxon Mobil learns the cost of misleading the public

A refinery owned by Phillips 66 in Oklahoma. Exxon, a larger oil company, has faced demands from environmental groups that it deceived the American public by denying climate change. (AP)

Many environmental and social justice groups have been demanding a federal investigation of Exxon Mobil over the past week. These groups claim that the massive oil company has deceived the American public, regarding the risks of climate change, to protect their profits.

While it has not yet been proven that Exxon Mobil engaged in any dishonest practices, such as withholding scientific information, critics are comparing the company to the tobacco industry, who hid the risk of smoking and was later fined billions of dollars. 

Whatever actions that Exxon Mobil did or did not take against climate change would only be punished if they were done with an “intent to deceive.” Unless there was compelling evidence that the company attempted to lie to the public about the safety and environmental impact of their product, there would legally be no way to penalize them. Simply funding research that seeks to attribute climate change to factors other than gas would likely not lead to prosecution because of free speech under the First Amendment. 

There is some contradictory evidence as to whether Exxon Mobil has attempted to disprove or discredit climate change.  In many cases they have supported research about climate change and even backed several policies aimed at addressing the issue.

According to a New York Times article, “From the time the scientific community first began worrying about the climate issue in the 1970s, the company financed research on the topic, with its scientists generally supporting an emerging consensus that fossil fuel emissions could pose risks for society.” It was also noted that scientists working for the company have contributed to many scientific papers about climate change. Exxon even endorsed a tax on carbon dioxide emissions in 2009.

Despite this indication that Exxon Mobil has aided the fight against climate change, there is also evidence that the company has opposed it. In the 1990s, Exxon fought against the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that committed countries to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The treaty was based on the premise that climate change exists and that man-made carbon dioxide emissions have caused it.

The company also financed right-leaning ideological organizations that attacked climate science and encouraged doubts that climate change was as serious as most scientists believed it to be. Recent news reports have found that Exxon went through with these political activities even though their own scientists had informed them of the risks of climate change. 

It is difficult to know for sure whether Exxon was committed to combatting climate change, committed to profits or something in between. So far, none of this evidence allows for Exxon to be charged in U.S. court. All of the steps they took to discredit climate change were perfectly legal, even if immoral.  There is no penalty for anything they did, despite the fact that some would see their apparent utilization of their massive resources to fight against climate science as a crime against humanity. From a logical point of view, using their considerable influence to fight progress on climate change is a dangerous act against humanity and our planet. 

From a logical point of view, using their considerable influence to fight progress on climate change is a dangerous act against humanity and our planet.

Should it be a crime to ignore science and jeopardize the future of the planet for self-gain? Or should the right to free speech trump any damage that influential people or groups could do? Currently, free speech comes first in the minds of many people. However, there is no doubt that many powerful people, organizations and companies have fought against climate change measures and therefore have some responsibility for the adverse effects that could end up killing millions of people.

From media channels seeking to improve ratings, to companies seeking to secure profits, to politicians trying to gain the favor of certain industries, there is no doubt that many have further contributed to climate change through their resistance for no reason other than personal gain. 

No more bickering about how climate change measures will hurt our economy or how climate change isn’t real. Because the longer people wait the more people are dying and suffering in the future.

At this point, it doesn’t matter whether Exxon Mobil is guilty or not. What matters is that we do something about it. It’s going to take a great deal of effort, and possibly some sacrifices, from all kinds of people to get this under control. And it is our responsibility to fix this. We can’t continue to stall and wait because at some point we will reach the point where the damage is irreversible and there are catastrophic effects on humanity. No more bickering about how climate change measures will hurt our economy or how climate change isn’t real. Because the longer people wait the more people are dying and suffering in the future. 


Jacob Kowalski is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.