Exxon sees the light?

Did scientific evidence finally convince Big Oil that climate change is a problem? Don't be silly

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 11, 2007 6:11PM (EST)

In one solitary sentence in an article titled "Exxon Softens Climate-Change Stance" the Wall Street Journal today sums up how government and capitalism intersect in the United States. After quoting Kenneth Cohen, Exxon's vice president for public affairs, as acknowledging that "we know enough now -- or, society knows enough now -- that the risk is serious and action should be taken," the Journal's Jeffrey Ball stabs to the heart of the matter:

The question is what kind of action. The economic reality is that some companies will win from a carbon constraint and some companies will lose, depending on how the regulation is written.

Those who woke up on the naive optimist side of the bed this morning might be inclined to see Exxon's new stance as a sign that the company has finally seen the light, has finally been been swayed by scientific data, and is at last ready to do what's necessary to ensure that humans don't make the planet unlivable. Cohen tries to spin it that way, arguing that only now have "climate-science models that link greenhouse-gas concentrations to global warming" become more "reliable."

But that's just insulting nonsense. Exxon is run by smart people whose goal is very simple -- to maximize stock price and profits. Their first line of defence was to do everything possible to delay any kind of action whatsoever that might make burning fossil fuels a more expensive proposition. Thus, the massive funding for climate skeptics, and the hardline stance that global warming isn't actually happening, or if it is, it's not because humans are doing anything wrong. But it was never a question of whether Exxon executives believed the data; it was always a matter of what strategy best served their corporate interests. A carbon tax or any other scheme that forced the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would hurt Exxon's bottom line.

It's not the climate change modeling improvements that have changed Exxon's mind. It's the political reality. It's Barbara Boxer chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee instead of James Inhofe. It's California passing one law after another aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When California talks, oil companies have to listen.

But all this really means, as the Journal's article implies, is that the battlefield has moved to a new location, not that the war has been won. Now Exxon will use all its mighty resources to shape any ensuing federal legislation to suit its interests. In other words, it will attempt to gut it.

Does this constitute progress? Perhaps on some small level, it is a victory for rationality and civilization that Exxon has decided to stop funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute. But the money that isn't headed to CEI is likely headed to lobbyists just as craven in their eagerness to make sure Exxon's agenda is incorporated in the law of the land.

There is no victory in this war -- just an endless game of whack-a-mole. So keep your sledge-hammer ready.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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