The European Union Parliament applauded young climate activist Greta Thunberg but declined to punish Exxon for failing to appearThe European Union Parliament heard young climate activist Greta Thunberg speak on Tuesday about failing to address climate issues, but also declined to sanction Exxon for alleged climate deception. Photo credit: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

The European Parliament decided against revoking Exxon’s lobbying badges after determining the company had not been formally invited to attend a hearing on climate denial communication held last month.

The decision was made on Tuesday by the Quaestors of the European Parliament, a small group of Members of Parliament (MEPs) responsible for administrative and financial matters. They said because Exxon had not been officially summoned, under Parliamentary rules, the oil giant could not be sanctioned for its absence.  

“I’m deeply disappointed that ExxonMobil will continue to have the right the haunt the corridors of the Parliament, spreading their disinformation about climate change and blocking the action we need to take to protect the planet for future generations,” said Molly Scott Cato, an MEP from the Greens/European Free Alliance party. She said MEPs, who had wanted to examine how the company has influenced European climate policy, should issue Exxon a legally watertight official invitation and give it a choice; be accountable for its climate deception or lose access to Parliament.

The hearing, which was the first-ever held by a major government body looking into climate deception by Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, was convened by Parliament’s committees on the environment, public health and food safety and petitions.

Exxon was notified of the hearing in February by a committee secretariat, who sent an email to an Exxon official asking the company to “explore the availability and interest of a representative participating as a speaker” in the hearing. A draft program was attached that listed Exxon chief executive Darren Woods as one of the speakers.

Exxon declined to participate, instead sending a letter to the committee chairs stating it was “constrained from participating because of ongoing climate litigation in the United States.”

In the letter, the company said allegations that it deceived the public on climate change are “distortions of ExxonMobil’s nearly 40-year history of climate research.” The letter also included a scathing critique of Harvard researcher Geoffrey Supran, who testified at the hearing about his extensive research into Exxon’s deceptive communications about climate.

After Exxon failed to attend the March hearing, several MEPs requested the withdrawal of Exxon’s lobbying badges.

The company then sent a separate letter to the president and secretary general of the European Parliament, stating that the withdrawal of its lobbying badges would violate the rules of Parliament.

“Although there were discussions in the weeks preceding the hearing about whether ExxonMobil should be invited, neither ExxonMobil nor any of its representatives were formally summoned or invited to attend,” Exxon wrote in its letter.

The rules of Parliament state that lobbying badges can be revoked if a company fails to “comply with a formal summons to attend a hearing” but include no definition of what constitutes a formal summons.

“Their claim begs the question: why did they send a letter declining to attend if they weren’t invited in the first place?” Supran said. “It’s disappointing to see one of climate politics’ rogue agents continue to have backdoor access to EU politicians.”

Supran, along with Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, reviewed Exxon’s internal memos and public climate change communication and published a peer-reviewed study that found Exxon deceived both policymakers and the public by undermining the understanding of climate science.

The EU effort to hold Exxon accountable for its allegedly deceptive communication was organized by Frida Kieninger and the non-profit Food and Water Europe in 2016, after investigative reporting in the U.S. revealed that while the oil internally knew for decades about the harm its products were causing to the climate, it publicly worked to cast doubt on climate science, including the findings of its own scientists.  

Kieninger, along with hundreds of EU citizens who signed a petition in support, maintains that Exxon’s campaign of climate denial has harmed the environment, public health, agriculture, water sources, tourism, energy and transportation.

“This sends an unfortunate legitimizing signal to fossil fuel interests everywhere: You can mislead the public and delay action for decades, you can refuse to stand accountable, and you will get away with it—at least for now,” Supran said.

Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The decision came on the same day that Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg spoke before a separate meeting of MEPs and EU leaders in Strasbourg and was applauded for her leadership of youth-led protests calling for stronger climate action. Thunberg implored officials to “use cathedral thinking,” referring to the overwhelming response to the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

“Our leaders need to start acting accordingly because at the moment they are not,” said Thunberg.

“If our house was falling apart our leaders wouldn’t go on like we do today,” she said. “If our house was falling apart, you wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment,” she said.

“I have read that some parties do not even want me standing here today because they so desperately do not want to talk about climate breakdown,” said Thunberg, adding that officials can ignore her, but cannot wish away the gravity of the problem.

“You cannot ignore the scientists or the science or the millions of school-striking children who are striking for the right to a future. I beg you—please do not fail on this,” she said.

Lynn Boylan, an MEP from Dublin, pledged her support to Thunberg and said she is deeply disappointed with EU politics.

“The political groups that wanted to stop you from addressing them are the same political groups that have decided against revoking access to ExxonMobil to the parliament. You speak truth to power, Greta. ExxonMobil spent millions subverting the truth,” said Boylan.

Supran said while he was disappointed with the outcome, the hearing set an important precedent.

“This was the first time, anywhere in the world, that lawmakers convened expressly to hear expert testimony about the history and consequences of climate change denial by the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “As with the history of tobacco, this was just the first hearing. It won’t be the last.”

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