Some environmentalists have recently claimed that Exxon did research on global warming and then suppressed the results. For example, Bill Mckibben writes this in the Guardian:

Exxon knew all that there was to know about climate change decades ago, and instead of alerting the rest of us denied the science and obstructed the politics of global warming.

...knowingly, they helped organise the most consequential lie in human history, and kept that lie going past the point where we can protect the poles, prevent the acidification of the oceans, or slow sea level rise enough to save the most vulnerable regions and cultures.

Exxon, in response, suggests that the allegations are based on cherry picking and that a disinterested read of the whole corpus of material shows the allegations are untrue. Read the documents, they say and:

Reading the documents shows that these allegations are based on deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various ExxonMobil employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers. These statements were taken completely out of context and ignored other readily available statements demonstrating that our researchers recognized the developing nature of climate science at the time which, in fact, mirrored global understanding.

Who is right? Did Exxon suppress important research on climate science?

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    Couple of minor points: I don't see why the "politics" tag is relevant to whether a company suppressed the results, which if true would be for economic, rather than political reasons. I'm not sure that Exxon suppressed important research on climate science, did they come up with anything fundamental that wasn't already known? – Dikran Marsupial Oct 24 '15 at 18:21
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    Happy to lose "politics" if it doesn't quite fit. It seemed to characterise the claimed behaviour (but not well). Also, the point of the question is to address whether Exxon actually did suppress anything (whether they repeated well-known work is only partly relevant but they could hardly be accused of suppressing well-known facts). – matt_black Oct 24 '15 at 18:31
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    I think the key point is whether they knew those well-known facts, rather than that their research came up with something fundamentally new or important and they suppressed that. I have to say, it doesn't seem very interesting either way, the idea that a company might be a bit reticent when it came to scientific facts that might have a negative impact on their profitability doesn't seem that unusual to me. As I understand it, the documents have been made available. It might be better to question one particular issue so the context could be discussed to show any cherry picking. – Dikran Marsupial Oct 24 '15 at 18:39
  • Brian Dunning did some research on this for Skeptoid episode 487, About That 1970s Global Cooling.... He references an 2015 Inside Climate News investigation quoting a 1978 Exxon climate scientist memo, actually saying In addition, the international significance of the proposed programs will enhance the Exxon image in the public domain and provide great public relations value. What happened with that memo, you can maybe research from there. – Jan Doggen Oct 28 '15 at 8:19

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

  1. To demonstrate Exxon's initiative in applying its scientific and other resources to help improve understanding of environmental matters
  2. To establish Exxon's credibility as a leading authority on CO2/greenhouse science, particularly among opinion leaders who are not scientists.
  3. 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.

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    NB there is no claim in the question that "Exxon was trying to suppress climate change information when the field was first starting out in the 1980s". The claim is that they knew the science decades ago, and "helped organise the most consequential lie in human history" - the date is attached to the first half of the claim, and not to the second. Your answer seems to establish, with credible sources, that that claim is true. – EnergyNumbers Oct 29 '15 at 13:07

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