Did scientific confirmation of climate change sneak up on the world, with only a few lonely academics toiling away on the issue? Not hardly. In fact, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, cutting-edge research on climate change was conducted by none other than Exxon Corp. The oil giant even equipped one of its supertankers, the Esso Atlantic, as an oceanic laboratory to measure for CO2 in the air and water.
The company’s studies confirmed the role of fossil fuels in global warming, and Exxon researchers warned top executives of the potentially catastrophic effects. Then the company went into denial mode. “After a decade of frank internal discussions on global warming and conducting unbiased studies on it, Exxon changed direction in 1989 and spent more than 20 years discrediting the research its own scientists had once confirmed,” wrote InsideClimate News, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit news organization, in a groundbreaking series in 2015 titled Exxon: The Road Not Taken.
The impact of the series, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and the winner of a dozen other awards, was reaffirmed Wednesday when New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the company, now Exxon Mobil, accusing it of defrauding investors by downplaying the financial risks the company faces as a result of climate change.
“Exxon built a facade to deceive investors into believing that the company was managing the risks of climate change regulation to its business when, in fact, it was intentionally and systematically underestimating or ignoring them, contrary to its public representations,” Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a prepared statement. In its own statement, Exxon said it “looks forward to refuting these claims as soon as possible and getting this meritless civil lawsuit dismissed.”
A team of InsideClimate News journalists spent eight months reporting their series in in 2015, producing an epic tale that spanned four decades and was populated by characters including Exxon scientist Henry Shaw, whose own children were steeped in their father’s global-warming research. “I knew what the greenhouse effect was before I knew what an actual greenhouse was,” David Shaw, Henry’s son, told the reporters.
InsideClimate News published its series in September 2015. The following month, the Los Angeles Times published its own series on global warming and Big Oil, reaching similar conclusions. In November of that year, news of New York’s investigation broke when then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive documents.
After the New York lawsuit was filed this week, InsideClimate News founder and publisher David Sassoon told The Bridge: “Our team was awfully proud yesterday. The lawsuit is a direct result of work our small, non-profit newsroom published three years ago about one of the most powerful companies in the world. Who says journalism doesn’t matter anymore?”
InsideClimate News, which has offices in Downtown Brooklyn and reporters in other cities, started in 2007 as a blog by Sassoon and co-founder Stacy Feldman. In 2013, the growing organization won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its series The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of.
The news organization, which describes itself as non-partisan in its coverage, supports itself through donations from foundations and its readers. What was once a blog is now staffed by seasoned journalists recruited from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, ProPublica, Los Angeles Times, and Bloomberg News.
Even with such a pedigreed staff, it all comes down to the effort, says Sassoon. “It requires hard work and dedication to produce a nine-part series like we did. It’s how we work every day, and how journalists around the country work every day. That’s the most important thing to remember.”
Editor’s note: In 2017, InsideClimate News co-published The Bridge’s story on the effects of climate change on one Brooklyn neighborhood, Red Hook vs. the Rising Tide.