Pharyngula

They knew

The tobacco industry knew that cigarettes were both addictive and carcinogenic. They sold them anyway, and hired professional obfuscators and lobbyists to bury the truth.

Now we know that the oil industry is the same way. Exxon knew how much carbon was buried in oil reserves. They knew how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere. They were able to calculate in 1979 what burning all that oil would do to the carbon dioxide concentration.

exxonknew

They knew. They didn’t care what its effects were. They only cared about their bottom line.

You know, the future is going to look back on rabid capitalism as one of the damning pathologies of our history.

Comments

  1. #1 SteveP
    United States
    September 23, 2015

    I tend to share your view of unfettered capitalism, however I also think that things like peer group and cultural pressures, authoritarianism, and the need to support oneself and ones family can result in similar outrages under any economic system. To me, the word capitalism is just an inadequate descriptor used to talk about the current state of human business and politics. It is my belief that all the various control freaks, psychopaths and other dip shits who populate our modern business management structures and who create outrages like this have analogs in other lands, other cultures, and other economic systems.

    We need to shut down the climate denial noise machine and this newly publicized information will help.

  2. #2 DanD
    MA, USA
    September 24, 2015

    “Exxon knew how much carbon was buried in oil reserves. They knew how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere. They were able to calculate in 1979 what burning all that oil would do to the carbon dioxide concentration.”

    The first two sentences are supported by the highlighted passage, but the third is not. It’s clear from the remaining sections that there is uncertainty about how much CO2 will be absorbed by the oceans and biosphere.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing their behavior, and I’m pretty certain that they did know that the answer to that uncertainty was a sufficient amount to produce a bad result. But I try not to argue from facts not in evidence.

  3. #3 GregH
    September 25, 2015

    DanD, that’s not true. Henry’s Law has been around for more than 100 years.

  4. #4 DanD
    September 29, 2015

    Which is very useful for determining the amount of dissolved gas in a steady state system. The ocean isn’t a steady state system, it’s an actively mixed system of varying temperature, pressure, and salinity, and includes noticeable biological sequestration of dissolved carbon. All of these factors affect the rate of carbon absorption.

    To clarify, in a dead calm freshwater ocean with no life, you would reach the point dictated by Henry’s law, at the surface, very quickly, but it would still take additional time for it to diffuse all the way through. Add in non-uniform mixing (wave action and currents), and that will be a little faster. Add in salinity, and the total will be less. Cool it down and more dissolves, warm it up and some comes out.

    Add in life that is sequestering carbon, and it gets even worse. Now mix it all up together and spread it over 71% of the earth’s surface, and Henry’s law means, roughly, nothing.

  5. #5 GregH
    September 29, 2015

    You know, it’s possible to look at big things and do relatively accurate bulk estimates of chemical behaviour. You can do this for the ocean using Henry’s Law and see how much CO2 there is in the ocean, and guess where it’s going. It’s not super-accurate, but it is educational.
    More here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry's_law

    And if you’re up for a discussion about how to do this to get a handle on the effects of human CO2 emissions, here:
    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/henrys-law/

  6. #6 DanD
    September 29, 2015

    No, it’s not. That’s an estimate of how much additional CO2 the ocean gives up as it warms, it’s a poor one, and it’s wrong both as an estimate due to temperature and with regards to the fact that the ocean is a net CO2 sink (as the author himself admits).

    That’s pretty clear evidence that you can’t actually use Henry’s law in this case.

    The exact ability of the oceans to absorb CO2, and the effect of temperature on that absorption is still one of the unknowns of climate science. It’s just that, at this point, we know fairly definitively that the answer is “not enough”. I would suggest that Exxon probably knew (or at least strongly suspected) that back then as well, but it’s not conclusively shown by the document shown.

  7. #7 John Jorgensen
    Tucson, AZ
    September 30, 2015

    It’s not as if ocean absorption, hence decreasing pH, isn’t a deleterious side-effect in its own right. The point is they knew enough but did not care what the risks were to life on the planet, not when so much profit was to be had.

  8. #8 tomas
    London
    October 1, 2015

    The highlighted section only talks abut the expected change in the atmospheric concentration of CO2.

    The important part, about the implications has been truncated.

    Moreover, that paragraph talking about the implications begins “there has been a vast amount of speculation”

    – speculation.

    There isn’t a lot smoke emanating from this particular gun. Find us a memo from the Chairman of Exxon stating that he believes burning his company’s product places the planet at risk due to dangerous climate change.

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