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Earlier this year our organization, the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF), announced that it would divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. We mean to do this gradually, but in a public statement we singled out ExxonMobil for immediate divestment because of its “morally reprehensible conduct.”1 For over a quarter-century the company tried to deceive policymakers and the public about the realities of climate change, protecting its profits at the cost of immense damage to life on this planet.
Our criticism carries a certain historical irony. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, and ExxonMobil is Standard Oil’s largest direct descendant. In a sense we were turning against the company where most of the Rockefeller family’s wealth was created. (Other members of the Rockefeller family have been trying to get ExxonMobil to change its behavior for over a decade.) Approached by some reporters for comment, an ExxonMobil spokesman replied, “It’s not surprising that they’re divesting from the company since they’re already funding a conspiracy against us.”2
What we had funded was an investigative journalism project. With help from other public charities and foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), we paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to try to determine what Exxon and other US oil companies had really known about climate science, and when. Such an investigation seemed promising because Exxon, in particular, has been a leader of the movement to deny the facts of climate change.3 Often working indirectly through front groups, it sponsored many of the scientists and think tanks that have sought to obfuscate the scientific consensus about the changing climate, and it participated in those efforts through its paid advertisements and the statements of its executives.
It seemed to us, however, that for business reasons, a company as sophisticated and successful as Exxon would have needed to know the difference between its own propaganda and scientific reality. If it turned out that Exxon and other oil companies had recognized the validity of climate science even while they were funding the climate denial movement, that would, we thought, help the public understand how artificially manufactured and disingenuous the “debate” over climate change has always been. In turn, we hoped this understanding would build support for strong policies addressing the crisis of global warming.
Indeed, the Columbia reporters learned that Exxon had understood and accepted the validity of climate science long before embarking on its denial campaign, and in the fall of 2015 they published their discoveries in The Los Angeles Times.4 Around the same time, another team of reporters from the website InsideClimate News began publishing the results of similar research.5 (The RFF has made…
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