January 1, 2025, Irving, Texas: Exxon Mobil is proud to announce that its exit from the extraction and production of non-renewable resources is now complete. Back in 2015 the company began its 10-year journey out of fossil fuels by committing itself to a bold set of changes that have transformed the company and indeed the world.
This is the rosy view with which Paul Klein and Milinda Martin started an article with the provocative title “In the Future, Companies Will Survive Only if They Help Solve Big Social Problems”, last Dec 4 2014. They think that the new imperative for business leaders will be to embrace the idea that the viability of their businesses depends on solving the world’s most pressing societal issues.
We predict that 2015 will mark the beginning of a long-term transition of the role and purpose of the world’s largest public companies and the value chains they control. This shift will start with an acknowledgment that despite years of implementing initiatives designed to make the companies more “responsible,” real progress on climate change and other global issues has remained incremental. The new imperative for business leaders will be to embrace the idea that the viability of their businesses depends on solving the world’s most pressing societal issues.
Back to reality. At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist explained Exxon’s leaders that “there is a general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” It was July 1977, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.
Within months the company launched its own research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming. Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate change denial.
For nearly three decades, many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have knowingly worked to deceive the public about the realities and risks of climate change. Their deceptive tactics has been exposed in a set of seven “deception dossiers”— a collection of internal company and trade association documents that have either been leaked to the public, come to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.
The documents show that:
- Companies have directly or indirectly spread climate disinformation for decades;
- Corporate leaders knew the realities of climate science—that their products were harmful to people and the planet—but still actively deceived the public and denied this harm;
- The campaign of deception continues, with some of the documents having surfaced as recently as in 2014 and 2015.
Leading oil giants’ behaviour is similar to cigarette companies that repeatedly denied harm from tobacco and spread uncertainty and misinformation to the public. It is similar to Volkswagen cheating about emissions. And I would say it is also similar to the brutal resistance to sharing economy in Europe in the name of unfair competition.
If you think about it, what’s curious is that more or less all business start out with a social purpose of some kind. And more or less all business get corrupted down the road. The age of business innocence is too short, and the dark side of the force too attractive.
But why? Why couldn’t big oil companies invest in new energy? Why couldn’t VW invest in better engines? These are not obvious examples of Christensen’s dilemma. This is outright resistance to change in the face of scientific evidence. Is it really cheaper to fabricate a hoax? How long can a business continue to operate against the general interest? And how long does it take the market to assess and respond to new information?
Let’s assume for a moment that Paul and Melissa’s prediction comes true and, in 2025 the oil industry has completely turned upside down. That would mean the transition would have taken about 50 years, since Exxon first realized they were on the evil side of the force.
50 years strikes me as too long a time!
All these energy and transport companies and industries are not only polluting the environment, they are also producing another kind of perhaps even more dangerous pollution: intellectual and scientific pollution(*). This sort of smog can last suspended in the air for too long, blinding us from the reality that surround us, and undermining our capability to judge and act.
Let’s face it: intellectual pollution is cheap to produce and very difficult to clean up. Therefore, it is a profitable investment for those who need a veil to cover their treacherous operations. I prefer not to think of what may be lurking behind intellectual smog!
(*) Robert Proctor defines “agnogenesis” to be the deliberate production of ignorance in the form of strategies to deceive (Proctor, Robert, and Londa L. Schiebinger, eds. Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford University Press, 2008.)