Members of the European Parliament will seek to question ExxonMobil for the first time for allegedly hiding the dangers of climate change from the public through a misinformation campaign that lasted decades.
Joint members of the European Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee and the petition committee said they will question fossil fuel industry representatives about their role in promoting climate change denial, but particular attention will be paid to Exxon. The company has been under investigation by at least two state attorneys general in the United States since 2015 after investigative reporting detailed the company’s history of studying climate science while misleading the public about its risks.
One of those states, New York, recently turned that investigation into a lawsuit against Exxon for securities fraud, for allegedly misleading investors about what it knows about climate risks to the company’s bottom line.
The European Parliament members say they want to question Exxon about keeping the public in the dark about what it knew about climate change since at least the 1970s and whether it knowingly misled the public with false reports, a claim the company has repeatedly denied.
“Hiding information and misleading the population about the extent and risks of climate change for decades is unacceptable, and fortunately people speak up against these abuses now more than ever before,” said Ana Miranda, a Green Party member of the European Parliament from Spain.
“The European Parliament will not tolerate these violations, and hopefully this will serve as an example to others.”
The hearing, slated for March 21, was apparently spurred by a petition filed in 2016 by Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental nonprofit seeking to “hold ExxonMobil accountable for its climate cover-up.”
“We thought we would want to bring the story to Europe as well because we know that ExxonMobil is active in Europe,” said Frida Kieninger, a campaign officer in Food & Water Watch’s Europe office. who signed the petition organized by Food & Water Watch.
The petition calls for European lawmakers to look into Exxon’s practices in Europe, where the company owns gas and oil fields, and where it has spent millions of dollars in lobbying efforts.
“The fact that we are almost too late to tackle climate change is the result of lobbying and the extensive lies from the fossil fuel industry, ” said Molly Scott Cato, a Green Party member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom.
“It’s incredible that people who have families themselves, and children and grandchildren, would hold back from tackling climate change and basically tell lies about it. What we need is for them to be exposed as climate change deniers.”
Exxon representatives declined to comment for this story.
Geoffrey J. Supran, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, detailed Exxon’s misinformation campaign in a peer-reviewed academic study of the company’s 40-year history of climate change communications.
Together with Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, Supran examined Exxon’s internal memos dating back to the 1970s in which company scientists discussed climate change. He also looked at the paid content the company published in major newspapers.
“What we discovered were systematic discrepancies between, on the one hand, what the company said about climate change privately and in academic circles, vs. on the other hand, what it said to the general public in the New York Times and elsewhere,” Supran said.
“Our analysis shows that ExxonMobil has misled the public about climate science and its implications, and it did so by contributing quietly to the climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it.”
Supran, who has also testified in the Philippines Human Rights Commission investigation into fossil fuel industry culpability, said the findings in the Harvard study have potentially far-reaching legal implications for Exxon. He also said he’s willing to present those findings before the upcoming European Parliament hearing if invited.
“This is not rumor, this is not hearsay, this is not gossip,” he said. “This is well-established fact documented by the world’s experts, scholars and journalists who study this history.”
“Fossil fuel interests, including ExxonMobil, specifically, have for decades understood the basics of climate science and its implications for humanity and for their business security, and yet then they turned around and spent decades perpetuating disinformation and denial in order to confuse the public, sabotage science and undermine policy for their own profits.”
In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy set up a science research program that studied carbon emissions’ impact on climate. The program, led by scientist Michael MacCracken, included scientists from academia, government, and the oil industry, primarily Exxon, focused on discovering the potential climatic effects of increasing carbon dioxide. MacCracken recalled working with Exxon scientists who became aware of the issue of climate change in their work. The company also acknowledged the issue in its shareholders’ meetings, he said.
But MacCracken said Exxon changed its tune toward science in the 1990s.
“Then they were out to making everything seem uncertain—as if public decisions don’t involve uncertainties all the time. On this issue, there are going to be uncertainties. And they basically just played those up tremendously,” MacCracken told Climate Liability News.
“The industry has gotten very focused on pointing to uncertainties and delaying any policy action.”
European lawmakers say they will seek to question more companies than just Exxon, but the world’s largest oil company will likely get most of the attention.
Official parliament minutes lists the upcoming hearing as an “action on a multinational oil company for climate change denial,” without mentioning Exxon directly.
Kieninger said a goal for the hearing is to inquire about Europe’s power in challenging polluters and perhaps pave the way for legislation giving parliament jurisdiction to launch prosecutions.
“This is not a very strong tool, but there is the possibility that members of parliament will make an initiative report and try to propose something that could later translate into a legislative proposal,” she said. “I think it’s a good starting point.”
Lawmakers are now working on filling the roster of speakers that will be invited to the hearing.
“It’s my intention to absolutely push for Exxon to be invited,” said Bas Eickhout, a Green Party member from The Netherlands, where Exxon has a presence in the Groningen region.
Eickhout said decisions about the speakers will likely be made in January.
Exxon representatives can turn down an invite. The European government doesn’t have subpoena powers over the company and therefore cannot force it to attend the hearing. But Eickhout is confident public pressure will compel Exxon to be in attendance.
“These companies don’t want to be getting bad press, and they will for sure get it if they don’t show up,” he said.
UK representative Molly Scott Cato agreed and said public pressure could embarrass the company into participating. She also said she has a question ready for the company’s representatives, if they show up, at the hearing:
“How do you feel about the fact that you held back climate change policy until we get to the point where human civilization is at risk, and the possibility for your grandchildren to live a normal life, as we would consider it today, is no longer guaranteed because of your lies?” Scott Cato said.