Exxon Lied, People Died — Or Something – Investor's Business Daily

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The heat is on, not because summer beckons, but instead because of a pressure campaign now being aimed at the new California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra. An alliance of environmentalists, plaintiff attorneys, public-sector spending interests, public officials, and others is attempting to induce him to investigate the fossil-fuel industry in general and Exxon in particular.

The argument is that Exxon supposedly knew long ago that increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations would engender a series of climate catastrophes, which purportedly already are visible; but then misled the public writ large and its own investors over decades about those risks in order to protect the value of its fossil-fuel assets.

Evidence of this perfidy is asserted to exist in a number of internal memorandums at Exxon, Shell and other firms, reflected, for example, in Exxon’s internal recognition that rising GHG concentrations created climate risks, and in Shell’s decision to increase the height of a North Sea drilling rig in order to withstand rising seas, even as the industry proclaimed uncertainty about the future climate effects of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Please allow me to translate all that: Exxon and other fossil-fuel companies “knew” things decades ago about which the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to this day reports (page 14) as large uncertainties. That “knowledge” was based upon climate models that remain very poor in their actual ability to predict temperatures and climate phenomena.

Accordingly, Exxon “knew” that increasing GHG concentrations would cause about twice as much warming as has actually occurred! And: Making investments in the face of uncertainty about the nature and magnitude of future dangers is evidence of duplicity.

Wow. When you pay an auto insurance premium, is that evidence that you “know” you will cause an accident? Or do you do so out of caution?

But never mind. Let us focus instead on the common assertion that the dangers of GHG emissions already are “significant and growing” and that Exxon knew it decades ago. It is absolutely true that anthropogenic climate change is “real” in the sense that increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations are having a detectable effect, important evidence of which, perhaps counterintuitively, is declining temperatures in the lower stratosphere.

But the temperature records are not consistent with a looming crisis view. Atmospheric temperatures have been roughly flat since 2002. (1998 was a strong El Nino year, and so a few years of cooling followed). Largely because of another very strong El Nino, 2015-16 was hot, but surface and atmospheric temperatures have declined sharply since then.

More generally, the temperature record since the late 19th century does not correlate well with increasing GHG concentrations. No one claims, for example, that the warming observed from 1910 to the mid-1940s was caused by man.

Global temperatures appear to be on a longer-term upward trajectory, but the degree to which that trend is man-made is not known; the Earth since roughly 1850 has continued to emerge in fits and starts from the Little Ice Age.

Increases in sea levels have been roughly constant at about 3.3 mm per year since the early 1990s, despite increasing GHG concentrations. There is a close correlation between sea levels and the El Nino/Southern Oscillation.

The Arctic sea ice has been declining, although more slowly in recent years, while the Antarctic has been gaining mass. There has been no trend in total U.S. tornado activity since 1954, and a declining trend in strong-to-violent tornadoes.

There has been no trend in the frequency of tropical cyclones since the early 1970s, no trend in the frequency of global hurricanes, and no trend in tropical accumulated cyclone energy (crudely, the destructiveness of cyclones and the cyclone season). The annual number of U.S. wildfires shows no trend since 1985. The Palmer Drought Severity Index shows no trend since 1895. There is no correlation between U.S. flooding and increasing GHG concentrations.

And IPCC in its latest report does not support (Table 12.4) the various assertions about catastrophic future impacts of increasing GHG concentrations.

And so the argument that “Exxon knew” that apocalypse was looming is preposterous. Can anyone doubt that this political campaign is designed to extract many billions of dollars from the fossil-fuel sector in a repeat of the 1998 tobacco shakedown?

In a constitutional republic governed by the rule of law, public officials are not supposed to pick out a politically unpopular group and then try to find ways to hammer it. Instead, upon discovering actual evidence that a crime has been committed, those officials are supposed to gather additional facts leading them to file charges against the parties suspected to have committed those crimes, individuals who enjoy a presumption of innocence until convicted in a court of law governed by the rules of due process.

Many seem to believe that none of that matters because they dislike the oil industry. They will applaud politicized prosecutions a lot less when they find themselves the targets of big, powerful government.

  •  Zycher is the John G. Searle scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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