ExxonMobil: Profit at the Planet's Expense

It was perhaps mere coincidence that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest, stark assessment report on the same day ExxonMobil and Shell reported 2006 net earnings—$39.5 billion and $25.4 billion, respectively—that broke all previous corporate profit records. In fact, the two companies’ annual profits since 2004 have been so massive that they now claim the top 5 spots in the all-time corporate profit league. Exxon’s profit more than tripled between 2002 and 2006.

Exxon management is famous for its ruthless efficiency, celebrated on Wall Street as an extraordinary capitalist success story. But the corporation’s success is symbolic of the perpetuation of a fossil fuel-centered economy that threatens to unhinge the planet’s climate system. Fat shareholder returns and a powerful fossil fuel industry is one side of the coin. The other, dark side of the coin is the prospect of coastal areas drowning as sea levels rise, more cities facing a fate like New Orleans, crops withering in worsening drought, people turned into “environmental refugees.”

Charting a different course will of course depend on different priorities, habits, and policies not just in the business sector, but also among governments and citizens. Western countries need to blaze a new trail, demonstrating that economic success and human wellbeing can be attained without frying the planet. Countries like China and India need to avoid Western follies and leap-frog past the technologies of the fossil age.

But ExxonMobil still seeks to undermine climate consensus. The same day that the IPCC pronounced a more than 90 percent scientific certainty that climate change is due to human actions, the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that an ExxonMobil-funded ideological outfit, the Washington, DC-based American Enterprise Institute, offered scientists and economists $10,000 each for articles that spread doubt about the IPCC report. The fundamentals of climate science are no longer in doubt, but those who profit massively from the current doomsday course have a vested interest in sowing obfuscation--and very deep pockets indeed.

The IPCC report makes it clear that a fundamental change in energy policy is urgent. Even if carbon emissions were to stop overnight, the planet is already on course toward a future marked by climate instability. But continued business as usual invites an even more dramatic degree of disaster vulnerability. It will remain difficult to chalk up any particular disaster event to climate change. But on the whole, many regions and communities of the world will be exposed to more numerous and more ferocious “natural” disasters—particularly if human actions continue to contribute to environmental degradation in other ways, such as deforestation. The cost of Exxon's obfuscation couldn't be any higher.