Summary: Thirty-two House Democrats this week sent a letter to the CEOs of Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, and Peabody Energy posing 15 questions about the companies’ (alleged) funding of a “massive campaign of [climate] denial and disinformation.” The gist of the letter, which presumes guilt and demands confessions, is captured by the old joke question: “When did you stop beating your wife?”
In a letter sent this week to the CEOs of Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Peabody Energy, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and 30 other House Democrats ask numerous questions about the companies’ (alleged) role in funding a “massive campaign of denial and disinformation” to hide the terrible “truth” about global warming from policymakers and the public.
I reproduce the questions below and provide model answers the companies are welcome to use or adapt at their pleasure.
Q1: When did your company first become aware that using fossil fuels could result in climate change and warming of the planet?
A: The question assumes the idea of anthropogenic global warming is of recent vintage. In fact, the potential of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to warm the Earth was first estimated by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896. English engineer Guy Callendar made more observationally-constrained estimates in his 1938 study, “The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature.” Unlike many scientists (and non-scientists) today, Callendar did not assume anthropogenic climate change is inherently dangerous:
In conclusion it may be said that the combustion of fossil fuel, whether it be peat from the surface or oil from 10,000 feet below, is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power. For instance the above mentioned small increases of mean temperature would be important at the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favourably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure (Brown and Escombe, 1905): In any case the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.
Since your letter refers to recent journalistic exposés of “what Exxon knew” about climate change, we assume you’re asking what our scientists knew in the 1970s and 1980s. Our answer (h/t David Middleton) is that some of our scientists knew then what NASA scientist James Hansen knew in 1988 — that CO2 emissions would cause two-to-three times more warming than actually occurred.
Figure explanation. Red: Hansen’s business-as-usual (no climate policy) scenario. Orange: Hansen’s emission freeze at 1980s level scenario. Yellow: Hansen’s drastic emission-reduction scenario. Light blue: Remote Sensing System (RSS) satellite temperature record. Dark blue: University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) satellite temperature record. Although emissions increased as much as in Hansen’s BAU scenario, observed temperatures are lower than in Hansen’s drastic emission-reduction scenario. Source: John Christy
Some of our scientists may have known then that climate models are accurate and reliable about the big picture. We know better now.
Figure explanation. Global average mid-tropospheric temperature variations (5-year averages) for 32 models (lines) representing 102 individual simulations. Circles (balloons) and squares (satellites) depict the observations. On average, modeled warming is three times faster than observed warming.
Q2: What did your company do with this information?
A: The ’80s stuff we took with several grains of salt. After all, even the IPCC was not sure anthropogenic global warming had begun in 1990. The IPCC’s First Assessment Report (FAR), published in 1990, stated (p. 6):
The size of the warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.
Even the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (SAR), published in 1995, did not claim to know what the journalistic scolds claim Exxon knew 15 years earlier. It famously concluded (p. 22):
The balance of evidence, from changes in global mean surface air temperature and from changes in geographical, seasonal and vertical patterns of atmospheric temperature, suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.
Although expressing greater certainty than the FAR, the SAR’s iconic formulation is still not an assertion of what is known, only what the “balance of evidence” “suggests.” As the SAR explained:
Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors.
Q3: Did your company fund organizations that denied climate change or sought to spread uncertainty about climate change?
A: That is a loaded question. The phrase “spread uncertainty” suggests the manufacturing of unwarranted doubts. The charts above show there is good reason to doubt the confident assessments of “mainstream” or “consensus” science. Worse, agencies and organizations that retail climate science often peddle pseudo-science, employ debating tricks, and conveniently ignore the IPCC when its assessments reassure rather than frighten.
Climate change is fraught with uncertainties. There are uncertainties about the feedbacks that determine how much warming will result from a given increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, uncertainties about how increases in global temperature will affect weather patterns and ice sheet dynamics, and massive uncertainties about how such changes will affect public health and welfare. We are proud to have funded organizations that challenge false certainties about those important issues.
We are not aware of funding organizations that denied climate change. No informed person thinks that climate is static or that greenhouse gases do not have a warming influence. We have funded organizations that view coercive de-carbonization as either a costly exercise in futility or a “cure” worse than the alleged disease.
Q4: Did your company oppose the Kyoto Protocol?
Yes, as did the U.S. Senate, which preemptively rejected the Kyoto Protocol by a vote of 95-0.
Q5: What state and federal legislation to mitigate climate change has your company opposed?
A: We oppose state and federal legislation that would rig energy markets through such policies as cap-and-trade, renewable energy quota, and bans on drilling, mining, and permitting.
Q6: Did your company, or organizations your company funded, forge letters to Congress regarding climate change?
A: We are aware that an unscrupulous PR firm called the Hawthorn Group sent forged grassroots letters to a dozen House members urging them to oppose the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. The bill passed the House anyway. What killed Waxman-Markey was not the forgeries but broad public opposition to a stealth energy tax.
Q7: Did your company, or organizations your company funded, secretly fund a supposedly independent scientist or scientists to deny or spread uncertainty about climate change?
A: All our contributions to research and advocacy organizations are matters of public record.
In future communications, please define “independent.” You seem to be using circular logic, whereby any researcher receiving financial support from a fossil-fuel company is by definition not independent, only “supposedly” so.
We would remind you that federal agencies spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of times more on climate-related research and advocacy each year than all fossil-fuel companies have spent in a quarter century. That gravy train directly benefits hundreds of politicians, thousands of bureaucrats, legions of federally-funded researchers, hundreds of rent seekers, and scores of agency-allied advocacy groups.
Contrary to the narrative your letter espouses, it is federal funding, not the fossil-fuel industry, that endangers scientific independence. President Eisenhower presciently warned of this peril in his Farewell Address:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Q8: Did your company, or organizations your company funded, create fake grassroots organizations to deny or spread uncertainty about climate change?
A: Again, we suspect you are using circular logic and imply that any grassroots organization we fund is, ipso facto, fake. To help clarify what is “fake,” we’d like your assessment of the following facts. In June 2014, the American Lung Association ran an ad campaign accusing opponents of EPA’s Clean Power Plan of seeking to put toxic air in babies’ lungs. ALA had received more than $24 million from EPA in grants. Would you describe ALA as a genuine or fake grassroots organization?
Q9: Did your company, or organizations your company funded, promote uncertainty about climate science?
A: You seem to be asking whether we, or organizations we have funded, manufactured uncertainty. The answer is no. Some organizations funded by our company have revealed and spotlighted uncertainties that some interests would prefer remain hidden from policymakers and the public.
Q10: Is your company continuing to fund misinformation regarding climate science either directly or through third parties?
A: We’ve heard that question before. It usually goes like this: Have you stopped beating your wife?
Q11: Will you release your company’s past scientific data and findings regarding climate change?
A: Maybe when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy gets around to producing the PM2.5 data she promised to release as a condition for the Senate confirming her appointment. On second thought, we will reveal no documents or information that, in a government agency, would be considered “pre-decisional.”
Q12: Does your company believe the use of fossil fuels is contributing to global warming? If yes, have you made public statements to that effect?
A: Sure. Greenhouse gases have a greenhouse effect. We also believe fossil fuels have made, and continue to make, indispensable contributions to human health and welfare. Indeed, affordable, plentiful, reliable fossil fuels make the climate safer and the environment more livable.
For example, drought historically was the most lethal form of extreme weather because it limits access to food and water. In the 1920s, drought killed an estimated 472,000 people worldwide. Since the 1920s, roughly 90% of all industrial CO2 emissions entered the atmosphere and the world warmed by about 0.8°C. If fossil-fueled development were “unsustainable,” we would expect skyrocketing drought-related mortality. Instead, drought-related deaths and death rates plummeted by a spectacular 99.8% and 99.9%, respectively.
What made the decisive difference are technologies (mechanized agriculture, synthetic fertilizers, refrigeration, plastic packaging) and capabilities (motorized transport, modern communications, emergency relief programs) that depend on fossil fuels and the associated wealth-creating activities.
Q13: What state or federal legislation to mitigate climate change has your company supported?
A: We support legislation to allow hydraulic fracturing on public lands and remove antiquated impediments to liquefied natural gas exports. According to the Breakthrough Institute, natural gas has avoided 17 times more U.S. CO2 emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal combined.
Q14: Does your company support the science-based 2 degree Celsius temperature target to limit dangerous climate change?
A: According to CarbonBrief.Org, the 2ºC threshold began as an “intuition” in a 1975 study by economist William Nordhaus. It first attained “consensus” status when proclaimed in a press release by the European Council of environmental ministers in 1996. The threshold is more in the nature of expert opinion rather than a robust scientific finding.
Whether or not a particular threshold is appropriate depends in part on the costs and risks associated with achieving it. According to the European Union, limiting global warming to 2ºC above pre-industrial times will require the world to cut CO2-equivalent emissions 60% below 2010 levels by 2050. Analysis by the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy reveals that under the EU proposal, developing countries, which already account for most of the world’s annual emissions and where fossil-fuel consumption is growing rapidly, would have to make extreme sacrifices.
Suppose industrialized countries magically cut their emissions to zero. To meet the 60-by-50 target, developing countries would still have to cut their emissions 35% below current levels. If, less unrealistically, industrialized countries cut their emissions by 80%, developing countries would have to cut their current emissions almost in half — 48% below 2010 levels.
Bear in mind that billions of people in developing countries have little to no access to modern commercial energy, the vast majority of which comes from fossil fuels.
So staying within the 2ºC threshold, if we accept “consensus” science, would require putting vast energy-starved portions of humanity on an energy-diet. That is a prescription for humanitarian disaster, and we cannot endorse it.
Now the good news. The actual — not the modeled — climate system is already on track to keep global temperatures under the 2ºC threshold. Yes, things may change, but the warming rate in the lower atmosphere during the 37-year satellite record is ~0.11ºC per decade.
Q15: What is your company’s business plan for reducing emissions consistent with this safe climate target?
A: As the preceding answer suggests, our business plan is already consistent with the safe target because the observed warming rate is consistent with the target.
Also please realize that if temperatures were increasing as fast as climate models forecast, our business plans would make no measurable difference.
Cato Institute scientists Patrick Michaels and Chip Knappenberger have constructed a “Handy Dandy Carbon Tax Calculator” using MAGICC, a climate model simulator developed by the University for Atmospheric Research with EPA funding. It works like this. You select a region of interest (USA alone or entire industrialized world), the reduction in CO2 emissions to be achieved (0% to 100%), and the assumed sensitivity of the climate system (1.5ºC to 4.5ºC). Then you hit “submit,” and presto, the Calculator tells you the amount of warming averted.
Substantial recent research indicates climate sensitivity (how much warming results from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration) is 2ºC or less. But let’s assume it’s 3ºC — the “best estimate” in the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). What happens if a very aggressive carbon tax or combination of climate policies eliminates all U.S. CO2 emissions by 2050?
According to MAGICC, global warming is reduced by 0.05ºC in 2050 and 0.137ºC in 2100. Such tiny changes in global temperatures would likely make no detectable difference to weather patterns, crop yields, polar bear populations, or any other climate-related indicator people care about.
Again, that’s if America becomes a zero-emission economy. No possible modification of our business plans (including shutting down our companies) would achieve more than a tiny sliver of those insignificant reductions in global temperature.