After being quiet for months, the #ExxonKnew campaign team was back to their cherry-picking ways last week when they tried to seize on a single chart —out of literally thousands of documents – to malign an energy company on the impacts of climate change.

For those that need a quick refresher, two publications, InsideClimate News and the Columbia School of Journalism, were paid by the Rockefeller Family Fund and others to investigate ExxonMobil’s publicly available documents. The purpose? To spark a campaign alleging that the company knew climate change was real and happening, yet covered it up before the rest of the general public knew about it.

The latest effort to make #ExxonKnew trending again is built off an excerpt of one graph in a report that Marvin B. Glaser, a former Environmental Affairs Manager at Exxon, wrote to brief a group of employees on the greenhouse effect – in 1982. Much to the activists’ dismay, the rest of the 46-page report proves that the #ExxonKnew claim just doesn’t hold up.

First, The Claim

Activists are pointing to a graphic from a 1982 Exxon report showing both atmospheric CO2 levels and global temperatures rising over time. A point of clarification: this is exclusively an Exxon – not ExxonMobil – document as Exxon and Mobil did not merge into one company until 1999.

This 1982 report complements, activists claim, news out this month that shows “scientists recorded the first ever carbon dioxide reading above 415 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory. They’ve been measuring carbon dioxide levels continuously since 1958 at that location, but ice cores and other data show that it’s not just the highest carbon dioxide has been in 61 years of data.”

Because this data point matches up with the graphic from the report, activists are claiming that this is foolproof evidence that ExxonMobil “knew” about the impact climate change would have on our environment, yet did nothing to try and stop it.

A Look at Who Is Making the Claim

Interestingly, the first person to seize on this claim was co-founder Jamie Henn, a longtime member of the #ExxonKnew team.


A few hours later, a Bloomberg reporter tweeted out his own take, to which Henn responded, “great minds think alike.”

Other anti-fossil fuel groups were quick to pounce on this, publishing blogs that centered on the content in Henn’s initial tweet. This includes Earther, Grist, and ThinkProgress.

What Did the Full Document Actually Show?

Let’s take a look at the full Exxon document Henn pulled his graphic from.

The graph comes from a 1982 document that InsideClimate News cited in its 2015 #ExxonKnew series, and was intended “to familiarize Exxon personnel” with the “CO2 Greenhouse Effect” because the issue was “receiving increased attention in both the scientific and popular press as an emerging environmental issue” (emphasis added). As such, while it did include company research, the report was largely made up of the conclusions from other non-Exxon studies, a list of which is included in a ten-page bibliography at the end of the document.

Instead of relying on secret company knowledge, the Exxon document cites many foundational climate science studies by major names like James Hansen and Charles David Keeling. Hansen, of course, is perhaps most well-known for his 1988 congressional testimony on climate change. Keeling, three of whose papers are cited in the report, developed the famous Keeling Curve, which graphs atmospheric CO2 levels from 1958 to the present.

At the time of Exxon’s report, climate science was far behind where it is today. This is reflected in the document, which explains at the outset that “there is currently no unambiguous scientific evidence that the earth is warming” (emphasis added). Though the report goes on to explore relevant ongoing research, it is honest about the many areas of climate science that were poorly understood at the time, referring to climate change impacts as “uncertain” or “speculative” five times and pointing to the need for further study on issues like the effect of oceans on global temperature regulation.

Given this, it’s no wonder the report finds that “[m]aking significant changes in energy consumption patterns now to deal with this potential problem amid all the scientific uncertainties would be premature in view of the severe impact such moves could have on the world’s economies and societies.”

From the text of the report, it is clear that in 1982, Exxon and many scientists were uncertain about the connection between atmospheric CO2 and global warming. Furthermore, much of what Exxon did know came from publicly accessible scientific research, not secret company files.

There They Go Again

Once again, the #ExxonKnew team has done their best to make hay out of this one chart. Outlets and organizations closely associated with the #ExxonKnew campaign have pushed this false claim through their echo-chamber, stripping this graph out of its context and misleading the public about Exxon’s climate research.

In reality, the report they cite actually confirms that the #ExxonKnew campaign was always dubious, in that it proves that other scientists were making similarly public observations as ExxonMobil.