What Exxon Knew Then Is What We Know Now

Look at the graph at the top of the post.

This is a graph from the now famous Exxon documents that date to 1981, explaining how Exxon scientists were projecting global warming with continued release of the greenhouse gas CO2 into the atmosphere. There is a lot written about that work which remained secret until just a few days ago. The timing of this expose is interesting because it comes at about the same moment as a call to use US RICO laws to investigate and possibly prosecute those who seem to have been conspiring for a long time muddy the waters about the science of climate change in order to put off taking action that might financially hurt Big Petrol. (See also this.)

There are several interesting things about this graph. First, it was made in the 1980s, which proves that an IBM Selectric can make graphs. But never mind that. The graph shows the range of global surface temperature (vertical axis) over time (horizontal axis) in the past and future. If there was no effect from the human generated greenhouse gas CO2, global surface temperature would range, and had previously ranged, between about a half a degree C (Kelvin in the graph, but one degree K is one degree C) above and below a hypothetical baseline. However, given the influence of human generated greenhouse gas, the temperature rises.

When I saw this graph, I was reminded of several other graphs, such as the current surface temperature graphs showing rather shocking warming over the last few decades (since the Exxon graph was first typed). I was also reminded of the IPCC projections for warming, and the Hockey Stick graph of Mann, Hughes and others. It is notable that Exxon scientists, even before the marriage of the increasingly refined paleo-record with the increasingly detailed instrumental record that clearly demonstrated global warming, essentially had it right.

So I decided to see how right they were. To do this I made a graph that I'll call a "Thumbsuck Estimate" (a phrase I picked up working in South Africa) of what the instrumental record of global surface warming, the IPCC projections, and Exxon ca 1981 indicated. My source graphs, other than the one shown above, included a graph of NOAA's instrumental record (moving 12 month average) put together by my colleague John Abraham to include the most recent data:


And the graph found in Michael Mann's book, "Dire Predictions" showing the instrumental record and the various IPCC projections.

For all three graphs, I estimated the center line of the variation indicated (the midpoint of the range shown on the Exxon graph, the midpoint of the range of IPCC estimates, the midpoints of relevant clusters of observed temperature values from NOAA) using simple interpolation with the help of a graphic application with moveable guides. I then recorded the available numbers (using years that matched across the graphics) in a spreadsheet, and specified for each data series a second order polynomial. The reason I used the second order polynomial is simply that the data consist of two parts, the background (roughly, pre-industrial though not quite) variation in surface temperature, and the upward swing of surface temperatures under anthropogenic global warming. By using the polynomial I'd get a curve that approximated this transition without using fancy statistics. Thumbsuck methodology.

This is the graph I got:


Notice that Exxon 1981 had it right. The revelations of the Exxon research, and the fact that it was kept secret and all that, is an interesting story. And, that story will develop over coming days, week, and months. But I don't want to lose track of the other story, in some ways even more interesting. How surprised should we be, after all, that a major corporation would both look into and ignore, possibly even repress, the science associated with their primary activity? Not at all, really. But what is surprising is that we (and by "we" I mean scientists who have studied climate change) have understood the basic problem for a very long time, and decades of research have confirmed early findings, and of course, added important details.

With respect to the existential nature of global warming, we knew then what we know now, in broad outline.

(See this post for the tie in between a recent call to RICO various players in the fossil fuel industry and these revelations about Exxon.)

There are some great uncertainties associated with anthropogenic climate change. For example, we don't know how much sea levels will ultimately rise, or how long that will take. We don't actually know in detail what will happen to specific coastlines that are inundated. We don't know everything we need to now about how weather, especially as it relates to important endeavors such as food production, will change. We know it has already changed and will change more, but we can't at this point confidently predict exactly what will happen, where, and when. And there are other things we don't know.

But the basic relationship between greenhouse gasses and surface temperature rise, given a certain (not small but not huge) amount of variability, is something we do have a good idea of. Our knowledge of this problem predates concerted efforts by science deniers to distract, ignore, and avoid the science. The actual amount of surface temperature increase given a certain amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses added to the atmosphere is of course subject to multiple variables, and I don't want to give the impression that we know the precise march of surface temperatures over time. But if you stand back a way, squint just a little, and look at what science could have said in 1981 and what it says now, they are pretty much the same.

See also this from Weather Underground

NOTE: If you want a larger resolution version of my Thumbsuck graph, click here, then click on the graph.

More like this

This is going to cause a LOT of schizophrenia in the science denier camp...

Who the hell do we accuse NOW???

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

Pardon the snarky but my quota has been building over the last month, too much smoke, kept me inside.
No, not a Selectric. They didn't do curves and the lines were too long. I was doing that kind of graph on a computer (IBM 709) in 1965 and by 1968 I was making pretty pictures on an HP Plotter. In 1972 I was using a terminal (Selectric with an electrical "bustle" on the back end). It worked good for text (at about 150 baud) but you just couldn't get those lines to curve or slant properly. The long dashes with little breaks were really difficult to do. However digging up this old smoking gun is really great. When I next get the chance I will use it.

Attacking someone's views is not the best way to convince them of your point but an outright, premeditated lie is another story.

By Bryan Bremner (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

I suspect the lines were drawn with a pen, and the type with a Selectric (Helvetica?) either on the graph or on that clear sticky stuff we used to type on and then apply.

We are not going to be sure until we find the original.

It bears repeating: Uncertainty is not your friend.
Anyway, it looks like some troubled line work with a Rapidiograph. The lettering possibly like a mix of techniques... inconsistent font size, maybe some typewritten paste-up with help from a copier (probably not photostated)... and some Leroy or transfer type even?

I'm guessing done by a hasty office jockey with some basic skills.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

Sorry to be that guy but it's just Kelvin, not degrees Kelvin.

Exxon (blushes, shuffles feet...): "Aw, shucks. It was nothin'. Anyone coulda done it."

Curved lines were easy with Letraset Border tapes.

By doug rogers (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

So let me play a bit of Devil's advocate here (not really):
Ok, EXXON did some really great climate science from the late 1970's right on through to who knows when, and turned out some strikingly accurate projections. But instead of acting on them (which I guess was the original goal), they instead, apparently went on a mission to cast doubt about their (and by proxy, other's) research.
But maybe, just maybe, what they were REALLY up to, was to keep up the steady BAU build up of Co2, just to make ABSOLUTELY sure, that their research was correct. I mean, after all, isn't that what scientists do? Test their hypotheses?

By skeptictmac57 (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

Golly, I do so love your graph; I'm glad I'm not near the Heartland Institute Church to hear all the exploding heads detonate. I see that ExxonMobile has issued an "explanation" for their behavior.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

So what options did the poor dears at Exxon have? Let's see. Declare their product detrimental to continued human existence? Renounce the profit motive for something better? Put on sack cloth and ashes?

Coming up with a revolutionary new product to save their collective business asses and save humanity at the same time was just a little bit more than the over paid high functioning Exxon/Esso/Mobile Chem E's and MBA's of the day could deal with. So instead, they doubled down on stupid. Yeah stupid!

In the future, Exxon will morph into a small specialty chemical supplier,nothing more . It will become a tiny shadow of its former self.

Can't wait!

So what options did the poor dears at Exxon have? Let’s see. Declare their product detrimental to continued human existence? Renounce the profit motive for something better? Put on sack cloth and ashes?

D) Not fund anti-science cults to attack and persecute scientists.

E) Not fund anti-science cults to fabricate doubt about observed reality.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

In reply to by SteveP (not verified)

The unimaginative, change fearing, political/business/economic system of the day did not allow these clowns to make a leap to the next level which would be, I don't know, to declare that they were going to henceforth devote all their efforts towards providing the world with energy that would not end up flooding cities and destroying agriculture with its waste products. Heck, any executive that proposed such an idea would have been put in a straight jacket.

The fact that some number of people at Exxon supported lunatic think tanks that clouded public thinking on this issue is repugnant but not surprising to me. The control freaks, psychopaths, and sycophants who run such an organization probably couldn't think of anything else to do to stabilize the sands of opinion that were continually undermining the stability of their gigantic darling cash cow. So they invested in opinion catalyzers to shore up the foundation of their company. And their relatively small investment bore lots of ugly fruit.

So now, today, we have all sorts of emotionally manipulated people scurrying around figuratively throwing acid at the scientific establishment and making life miserable for good, decent people who want to understand what is going on and who just want to do the right thing.

What some number of people at Exxon did was wrong and will have repercussions for years to come and it should be punished where possible . There is some doubt in my mind that our justice system can find any way to prosecute these monsters, as they have sown weed seeds of confusion and discord quite heavily in the populace. And they are, after all, among the wealthiest corporations in the world , and they own lawyers and opinion swayers who are slicker than snot on a teflon door knob. But I am really glad that someone is trying, and hope that we can at least change the level of discourse in our life times. Because right now, we are headed to a mad max world where scientists and thinkers are at risk and corporate mad men are screwing things up worse and worse.

Have a nice day

The top image looks like it was drawn with a technical pen (Rotring, Staedtler-Mars, Rapidograph or the like), over typed text. I don't see the shadows from the edges of acetate stickybacks or Letraset. Unless the draughtsman had a really good hand, the smaller arrows were traced through a template, which had raised bars to keep the ink from smearing. The large open arrows may have been traced, too. There were that sort of flow chart templates. The curves were probably drawn against a french curve, or one of a set of ship's curves. Notice that the draughtsman missed joining the curve and line cleanly just above Temp 2/ Year 2100.

What precisely was the source of the Exxon graph? The link under the graph refers to page 2 of an article by Michael Mann about the Inside Climate News investigation. Neither Mann nor Inside Climate News shows that graph, so far as I can tell? I'm concerned that the graph could be a fabrication. We need to know its provenance.

By Joel Huberman (not verified) on 27 Sep 2015 #permalink

I forgot to check "Notify me of follow-up comments by email" when I sent my previous message about the provenance of the graph. Please let me know. Thanks!

By Joel Huberman (not verified) on 27 Sep 2015 #permalink

Smoking doesn't cause cancer,
Sincerely, Phillip Morris.

Bill McKibben was just arrested at ExxonMobil gas station in order to get word about this. Here's what he wrote just before police came:

"In the 28 years I’ve been following the story of global warming, this is the single most outrageous set of new revelations that journalists have uncovered. Given its unique credibility—again, it was the biggest corporation on earth—ExxonMobil could have changed history for the better. Had it sounded the alarm—had it merely said ‘our internal research shows the world’s scientists are right’—it would have saved a quarter century of wheel-spinning. We might actually have done something as a world before the Arctic melted, before the coral reefs were bleached, before the cycles of drought and flood set fully in."


From Reuters:

The Rockefeller Family Fund said on 23 March 2016 it will divest from fossil fuels as quickly as possible and "eliminate holdings" of Exxon Mobil Corp, saying the oil company associated with the family fortune has misled the public about climate change risks.

The U.S.-based charity will also divest its coal and Canadian oil sands holdings. Though the endowment has a modest $130 million in total assets, the move is notable because a century ago John D. Rockefeller Sr. made a fortune running Standard Oil, a precursor to Exxon Mobil.

In a letter posted on its website, the Rockefeller Family Fund said Exxon's conduct on climate issues appears to be "morally reprehensible."

(The oil industry's response was typically craven...)

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 23 Mar 2016 #permalink

More government bullies picking on little Exxon.

"More government officials are asking what Exxon Mobil knew about climate change.

Attorneys general from Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands announced Tuesday that they would join Eric T. Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, in his investigation into whether Exxon Mobil lied in decades past to investors and the public about the threat of climate change.

The additional participation was announced during a news conference at Mr. Schneiderman’s offices in Lower Manhattan announcing support from 15 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Attorneys general from Vermont, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, Connecticut and the Virgin Islands, as well as former Vice President Al Gore, attended the event.

While none of the other officials present, aside from Maura Healey of Massachusetts and Claude Walker of the Virgin Islands, announced inquiries of their own, Mr. Schneiderman said, 'not every investigation gets announced at the outset.' ”

By cosmicomics (not verified) on 29 Mar 2016 #permalink