Bill McKibben's article is based on a report by a team of writers for the LA Times and Inside Climate, who, in the interests of transparency, posted many of their documents here. Here's some of what they say.
"Bad News" Letter (1978)
Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation. This team must be recognized for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management.
Probable Legislation Memo (1979)
Clearly, it is in our interest for such legislation to be based on hard
scientific data. The data obtained from research on the global damage
from pollution, e.g., from coal combustion, will give us the needed
focus for further research to avoid or control such pollutants. We should
be prepared for, and ahead of the government in making the public aware
of pollution problems.
Natuna Environmental Concerns Letter (1983) - This entire letter is worth reading to see Exxon's considerations for the environment.
PR Plan for Exxon's CO2 Research (1980)
I. Communications Objectives
- To demonstrate Exxon's initiative in applying its scientific and other resources to help improve understanding of environmental matters
- To establish Exxon's credibility as a leading authority on CO2/greenhouse science, particularly among opinion leaders who are not scientists.
- To help bring about better public understanding of the CO2/greenhouse effect.
From the LA Times article, some examples of open discussion with the scientific community circa 1990:
Ken Croasdale, senior ice researcher for Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, was leading a Calgary-based team of researchers and engineers that was trying to determine how global warming could affect Exxon’s Arctic operations and its bottom line. / “Certainly any major development with a life span of say 30-40 years will need to assess the impacts of potential global warming,” Croasdale told an engineering conference in 1991.
[Another Exxon advisor] described the company’s internal effort to study the effects of global warming as a competitive necessity: “If you don’t do it, and your competitors do, you’re at a loss.”
Greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels,” Croasdale told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991. “Nobody disputes this fact,” he said, nor did anyone doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.
An extended open water season, Croasdale said in 1992, could potentially reduce exploratory drilling and construction costs by 30% to 50%. / He did not recommend making investment decisions based on those scenarios, because he believed the science was still uncertain. However, he advised the company to consider and incorporate potential “negative outcomes” ...
The collection of documents also shows evidence of a far better-known strategy by Exxon: the public attack on climate science and FUD campaigns that began in 1999. This has included objections to scientific opinion and funding of what is properly called climate denialism.
But I see no evidence that Exxon was trying to suppress climate change information when the field was first starting out in the 1980s, unless if there was a vast conspiracy involving fake internal documents. On the contrary, their initial intent, in that distant age when large corporations were being treated harshly by regulators, was to use company data to look like responsible leaders in scientific control of climate pollution.
In fact, the LA Times team does not claim that there was a conspiracy to suppress results, but merely discusses these two different periods in modern history: the cooperation with the scientific community circa 1980, and the bald-faced rejection of its consensus circa 2000. Bill McKibben's article unnecessarily conflates these two periods to create the illusion of a conspiracy.