Exxon Knew about Climate Change in the 1970s, But Still Helped Block Kyoto Protocol in the '90s

09_16_15_Exxon Climate Change
An Exxon gas station is pictured in Arlington, Virginia January 31, 2012. Jason Reed/Reuters

Exxon Corporation learned about the implications of climate change long before it was a household concept, but years later the company shifted gears to promote doubt and block an international agreement to address the issue, according to an investigation published by InsideClimate News on Wednesday.

In the late 1970s, executives at Exxon heard from a company scientist that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuel could eventually warm the planet to a catastrophic degree, sparking the company to invest in cutting edge carbon dioxide research throughout the 1980s, according to InsideClimate.

"Present thinking," wrote Exxon senior scientist James Black in 1978, "holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." And in 1982, Edward David, Exxon's head of research, echoed that sentiment, saying "few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation."

But by the late 1980s and 1990s, the company's policy shifted. It was now at the forefront of efforts to portray the science on climate change as not settled enough to take action, writes InsideClimate.

For example, in 1989, Exxon helped found a group called the Global Climate Coalition (which also included Shell and British Petroleum, among others) that sought to stop federal efforts to curtail fossil fuel emissions. The group would eventually help persuade the U.S. not to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first international attempt to curb emissions, according to InsideClimate.

"Let's agree there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond," Exxon CEO Lee Raymond said in a speech before the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing in October 1997, InsideClimate reports.

Exxon told InsideClimate that its research has always "been solidly within the mainstream of the consensus scientific opinion of the day and our work has been guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads," adding that the company believes climate change is real "and warrants action."