The Advent of Climate Crime

By Bruce E. Johansen

President Obama rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline. You know that, of course.

Something you may not know is that, the same day, November 6, New York State’s attorney general announced an investigation of ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors for lying about the effects of climate change. This may be more important, in the long run, than defeat of one pipeline.

Hey, I thought upon first reading of the investigation, don’t members of ExxonMobil’s board have a constitutional right to lie on company time? They do it often, don’t they? Isn’t this how things work in a world where power is as power does?

A Paradigm Change

Then I realized that perhaps I was witnessing an important political and legal change here. Applied to climate change, this is a new use of the law, and (like Obama’s action on the pipeline) it reflects a paradigm shift in thinking about the need to take dramatic action on climate by important people with power to shape the course of events—that is, people unlike professors, journalists and activists, whose roles are purely descriptive and advisory.

We are talking here about criminal indictments of important people for lying about the effects of global warming—in an official capacity—after they had been briefed on the science. ExxonMobil engaged in damaging behavior knowing better (with malice, in legal language). This can lead to indictment for various forms of negligence and fraud.

I am old enough to remember a time when my first college classroom (at the University of Washington in Seattle) contained ashtrays. Many people smoked tobacco, and they smoked it nearly everywhere. This was 1968, five years after the U.S. Surgeon General had issued a report linking smoking with harmful medical maladies. A very lively debate had ensued, with tobacco companies maintaining that smoking was fun and harmless. Later, legal investigations found that members of tobacco company boards had been briefed on the harm that smoking was doing, but had set out after that to tell the public otherwise. They lied, did damage and paid for it legally.

I am also old enough to have developed an interest in global warming 20 years ago, when such activity was largely regarded as the province of a few scientists and some fuzzy-headed environmental activists. Since then, accumulating evidence has convinced many other people that we need to do something quickly to avert climate catastrophe.

Evidence Accumulates

Wind and solar power are spreading rapidly, and unit costs are falling. At the same time, scientists are modeling the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a near certainty (with a 20-foot worldwide sea-level rise), the cod fishery has collapsed off New England (the water is too warm), and 2015 will be the warmest year worldwide by a substantial margin over last year’s record heat. Other scientists are calculating the proportion of fossil-fuel companies’ reserves that will have to remain un-combusted to keep the Earth habitable in coming centuries. The template of a new reality is evolving.

And, of course, a lively debate has ensued. A half century after tobacco executives maintained with straight faces that smoking was harmless fun, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, whose pockets bulge with oil-industry cash, stood on the U.S. Senate floor holding a snowball, repeating the right-wing mantra that global warming is a gigantic hoax staged by scientists stuffing their pockets with grant money. (At least he was not smoking a cigar.) One cannot be a serious Republican in our time without chirping that Party Line. It’s all political theater, in a line of work where lying is a way of life. Climate change denial is every bit as nonsensical as arguing that the sun rises in the west, the Earth is flat and the Moon is made of green cheese. And yet Republican politicians shamelessly recite these climate lies, deliberately sowing confusion.

In half a century, perhaps, people will throw rotten tomatoes at pictures of Inhofe and the board members of ExxonMobil (et al.) in the “Greenhouse Gas Museum” as floods roll into New York City and our iconic corn goes sterile in scorching summer heat. Everyone will know by then who lied to whom, and with what effect, and the law will have evolved to confirm the new reality. That evolution is already beginning, although, as one account in the New York Times reminded us, “successful prosecutions are far from assured.”

ExxonMobil is Not Alone

Internal documents at Exxon-Mobil illustrate that even as one in-house memo stated that “fossil fuels contribute most of the CO2” that was rapidly heating the Earth, another memo instructed company officials to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions.” “There was a concerted effort by multiple American oil companies to obscure the emerging climate science consensus throughout the 1990s,” Paul Bledsoe, a former White House aide to President Bill Clinton on climate issues, told the New York Times. “This group may be vulnerable to legal challenge.” “Exxon Mobil is not alone,” said Stephen Zamora, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. “This is not likely to be an isolated matter.”

“It’s not surprising, given its army of first-rate scientists and engineers, that Exxon was aware as far back as the 1970s that carbon dioxide from oil and gas burning could have dire effects on the earth,” commented Timothy Egan in the New York Times. “Nor is it surprising that Exxon would later try to cast doubt on what its experts knew to be true, to inject informational pollution into the river of knowledge about climate change… But what is startling is how a deliberate campaign of misinformation—now disavowed by even ExxonMobil itself—has found its way into the minds of the leading Republican presidential candidates.”


Egan, Timothy. “Exxon Mobil and the G.O.P.: Fossil Fools.” New York Times, November 5, 2015.

Krauss, Clifford. “More Oil Companies Could Join Exxon Mobil as Focus of Climate Investigations.” New York Times, November 6, 2015.

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December 17th 2015

Doug Paterson - Listen to my friend and colleague, Bruce. He has been one of the most informed and consisted scholar/thinker on global climate change for a very long time. Keep up the good work, Bruce!