By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007
When it comes to the issue of climate change, Exxon Mobil says it has been misunderstood.
"Many people want to stick us in a bucket that says we want to deny this," said the company's vice president for public affairs, Kenneth P. Cohen, during a conference call this week. "That is flat wrong."
Cohen said that the world's largest publicly traded oil company, long the leading corporate symbol of skepticism about global warming, has never denied the existence of climate change. He added that "the global ecosystem is showing signs of warming, particularly in polar areas" and "the appropriate debate isn't on whether the climate is changing but rather should be on what we should be doing about it."
The modest statement, coupled with the disclosure last year that the company is no longer funding a Washington think tank critical of climate change actions, is reshaping the oil giant's role in congressional efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.
While Cohen says that Exxon Mobil hasn't changed its position, many people in the environmental and scientific communities say the company's stance marks at least an evolution, if not an about-face.
"I think that their position on the science of global warming has definitely changed," said Dan Lashof, deputy director of climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They found that it was untenable to be in a position of casting doubt on whether global warming is happening and whether pollution is responsible for that."
"There's a very long paper trail," said Andrew Logan, director of the oil program at Ceres, a Boston-based group trying to marshal shareholders to press corporations on environmental issues. Now, Logan said, "If they're shifting their rhetoric away from debating the existence of the problem and toward solutions, that is important and I think a step forward."
In an earlier interview, Cohen said that with Congress's sights set on greenhouse gases, the oil giant wants "to be part of those discussions." He said that Exxon Mobil had met with policymakers to "lay out first principles" -- using market forces, not picking winners and weighing warming risks against the costs of action -- without endorsing any particular measure. He said an endorsement from Exxon Mobil would probably be death to any legislative proposal.
Asked whether the company would favor a cap-and-trade method of limiting greenhouse gases, Cohen said, "The devil's in the details. That's neither a yes nor a no. It's a definite maybe."
Exxon Mobil has a lot at stake. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the carbon dioxide emitted by the end users of all of Exxon Mobil's products is greater than the emissions of all but five countries.
The company has been the poster child of denial among those convinced of global warming. It opposed the Kyoto climate change treaty. In 2001, it pressed the Bush administration to remove an outspoken scientist from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2005, a White House official accused of altering scientific reports to cast more doubt on global warming went to work for the company.
The company has also been accused of financing policy groups as surrogates for sowing doubts about the causes of global warming. The Competitive Enterprise Institute received about $2 million over seven years. Cohen said that Exxon's foundation, which he heads, decided in 2005 to cut funding, though that came to light only last fall.
"There is a tension between those who believe in markets and those who act in markets," said CEI's president, Fred L. Smith Jr., who said he had not discussed the funding cutoff with Exxon Mobil. Businesses, he added, were "pragmatic organizations," not "ideological."
"The fact that we were supporters of some of those groups had become a real distraction to the issue at hand, which is how do we produce the energy the world needs without more greenhouse gas emissions," Cohen said this week.
But many critics say that the company's public statements played up doubts about climate change.
Exxon's 2006 report on "Tomorrow's Energy" said that "the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere poses risks that may prove significant for society and ecosystems." But on the same page, it said that "gaps in the scientific basis for theoretical climate models and the interplay of significant natural variability make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate change might be the result of human actions."
At the annual shareholder meeting last May, the testiest moment came when chief executive Rex W. Tillerson responded to a question about the company's skeptical stance on climate change in the face of a growing scientific consensus. Tillerson said that "scientific consensus" was an "oxymoron."
Now the oil giant says it has gotten a bad rap. It points to $100 million it has given to a climate change program at Stanford University. Cohen also cites the 40 papers Exxon's scientists have written about climate change for peer-reviewed journals.
"Exxon's scientists do excellent work," said Robert H. Socolow, a physics professor and co-director of a carbon mitigation project at Princeton University.
More climate data has also emerged. "There is increasing evidence that the earth's climate has warmed on average about 0.6 degrees centigrade in the last century," Cohen said in a recent e-mail. He said "the risks to society and ecosystems could prove to be significant, so despite the areas of uncertainty that do exist, it is prudent to develop and implement strategies that address the risks."
With the change in climate in state legislatures, Exxon Mobil and other major companies also face the prospect of a multiplicity of regulations if Congress doesn't act first. "One thing heavy industry cannot live with is a patchwork quilt of regulations," Cohen said.