New research shows that ExxonMobil predicted rising temperatures with astonishing accuracy, even though it tried to downplay climate change. It includes shocking data visualizations that show just how much ExxonMobil was aware of the climate crisis it was creating.

There’s been a litany of evidence about how ExxonMobil rejected mainstream climate science, even though the company’s own research and internal communications acknowledged that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming. A paper published in Science today provides the first comprehensive review and analysis of decades of ExxonMobil climate model data. And the company’s projections for how much global temperatures would rise over the years were pretty much on the dot.

“What’s pretty shocking is the accuracy and skill of their insights.”

“What’s pretty shocking is the accuracy and skill of their insights. They didn’t just vaguely know something about global warming … They knew as much as academic researchers,” says Geoffrey Supran, a research associate at Harvard University and lead author of the new paper. “Arguably, they knew all they needed to know to begin to take action and warn the public. But of course they didn’t.”

ExxonMobil’s forecasts for future global temperature increases match up very well with the actual events. This is based on its past predictions. The Verge reproduced one figure from the new research paper below to illustrate how accurate ExxonMobil’s predictions for global warming.

The graph above summarizes all ExxonMobil’s global warming projections for 1977 to 2003 (gray lines), superimposed onto a red line showing real-world temperature increases.

The red line indicates how much global average temperatures have changed over time as a result of greenhouse gas emissions trapping warmth. The gray lines represent ExxonMobil’s global warming projections. The colors of the lines range from light gray to dark gray, with lighter colors representing the company’s early research starting in the late 1970s to darker gray representing the company’s more recent estimates in the early 2000s. Solid lines signify predictions ExxonMobil scientists reached using their own models. Dashed lines refer to third-party research ExxonMobil researchers reproduced in company documents.

ExxonMobil was able to predict how much global warming would result from the sale of its petroleum products. The world has warmed up by 1.2 degrees Celsius since the preindustrial era. That might seem like a small change, but it has triggered more severe heatwaves, droughts, storms, and flooding that we’re forced to live with today.

“When I first plotted this graph and all these prediction lines just fall right around this red line of reality, it’s pretty startling that they were equipped with this knowledge years before I was even born,” Supran says. You can check out his team’s newly published research to see more real-world observations overlaid on top of surprisingly accurate company documents.

On average, Supran and his colleagues give ExxonMobil’s climate models a pretty high “skill score” (a metric also used in meteorology to rate weather forecasts) of about 72 percent. For comparison, that’s even more accurate than global warming projections that noted NASA scientist James Hansen presented to Congress in 1988. Hansen is a legend in the climate community for being the first to raise the alarm about climate change.

ExxonMobil has a reputation for denial of climate science even though it was actually moving forward. The company sought to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect,” according to a 1988 internal memo and continued to characterize climate models as “unreliable” into the early 2000s.

In 2015, landmark investigations by Inside Climate News (and the Los Angeles Times) had revealed many documents that showed that the company had spent decades studying the effects of climate change, but still sowed doubts about climate science. This reporting led to the #ExxonKnew scandal and dozens of lawsuits ExxonMobil has faced from cities, counties and states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts. These suits claim that oil giants deliberately misled people about climate change in order to protect their own interests.

“This issue has come up several times in recent years and, in each case, our answer is the same: those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions,” Todd Spitler, a senior advisor of corporate media relations for ExxonMobil, wrote to The Verge in an email. Spitler references a 2019 decision by a New York State Supreme Court judge who ruled in ExxonMobil’s favor, finding that the state didn’t have enough evidence to show that the company misled investors.

ExxonMobil still faces other lawsuits

ExxonMobil continues to face other lawsuits. The new research published today could provide more ammunition for the suits against ExxonMobil. The paper analyzes all of the company’s now publicly available climate projections between 1977 and 2003 (many of which came out of the journalistic investigations). So far, much of the focus of #ExxonKnew has been on the discrepancy between the company’s internal and external messaging on climate change. But Supran and his colleagues wanted to do a full assessment of what the company’s climate data actually showed.

“This kind of evidence that succinctly and statistically captures everything they knew in one number and one graph probably could be compelling… complementary to more qualitative forms of evidence that lawyers typically rely on,” Supran says. “And then, of course, there’s also the court of public opinion where I suspect that simple visuals proving that Exxon knew and misled on climate may prove powerful.”

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