The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon

Exxon: The Road Not Taken

by Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr., David Hasemyer, and Lisa Song
InsideClimate News, 88 pp., $5.99 (paper)

What Exxon Knew About the Earth’s Melting Arctic

an article by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch, and Susanne Rust
Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2015

How Exxon Went from Leader to Skeptic on Climate Change Research

an article by Katie Jennings, Dino Grandoni, and Susanne Rust
Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2015

Big Oil Braced for Global Warming While It Fought Regulations

an article by Amy Lieberman and Susanne Rust
Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2015

Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science

a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2007, available at www.ucsusa.org
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, at the World Gas Conference, Paris, June 2015
Pascal Sittler/REA/Redux
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, at the World Gas Conference, Paris, June 2015

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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