The most epic (and literal) gaslighting of all time

Bill McKibben

Mar. 5, 2024

Exxon--is it possible?--hits a new low

I’m listening to John Coltrane through my headphones as I type, in an effort to stay calm enough that I don’t just start sputtering. You might want to do likewise as you read.

Because last week the CEO of Exxon gave an interview that amounts to an attempt to pawn off the climate crisis on everyone else, and also to map out the road he sees ahead—a road that involves wasting huge amounts of money subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. Darren Woods was talking to Fortune magazine reporter Michal Lev-Ram and editor Alan Murray, who began by explaining that Exxon was a group of charming “Texas tough boys” before teeing up one of the classic softball questions of all time. Some people, he said, were thinking that perhaps Exxon wasn’t entirely “serious about addressing climate change. Tell me why they’re wrong."

Well, Woods explains, Exxon is a molecule company, by which he means it’s interested in transforming molecules—’and they happen to be hydrogen and carbon molecules’—to ‘address the needs of our society.’ What he’s saying, quite explicitly, is that Exxon is not an electron company, i.e. a company interested in building out wind or solar power. And when Fortune asks him why not, he lets slip the basic truth of our moment: “we don’t see the ability to generate above-average returns for our shareholders.”

For everyone who’s ever asked themselves, why isn’t Exxon (and Chevron and the rest) leading the charge to renewable energy, there’s the answer: you can make money doing it, but not as much as they’ve made traditionally. That’s because the sun and the wind deliver the energy for free, and all you need is some equipment to turn it into electrons. But Exxon controls the molecules—that’s what oil and gas reserves are. And that control means they can make outsize profits—as long as they can persuade the world to keep burning stuff.

And it’s the story of that persuasion where Woods’ words go from galling to really really gross. Because he explains to his nodding interlocutors that the world “waited too long” to start developing renewables. Or, in his particular brand of corporate speak: “we’ve waited too long to open the aperture on the solution sets terms of what we need as a society.”

Just to recite the relevant history, as quickly as possible. Forty years ago, Exxon’s scientists learned all there was to know about climate change—they forecasted the temperature in 2020 with remarkable accuracy. And the company’s executives believed them—among other things they began building their drilling rigs higher to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was coming, and plotting out which corners of the Arctic they would drill once it melted. What they didn’t do was tell the rest of us: instead, they helped erect a huge architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that kept us locked for three decades in a sterile battle about whether or not global warming was ‘real,’ a fight both sides knew the answer to from the outset. But one side was willing to lie.

Here’s Woods’ predecessor Lee Raymond speaking to a crucial Chinese petroleum congress right before the Kyoto treaty negotiations. After insisting that climate science was dubious at best, and saying he thought the earth was cooling, he added: “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”

What Woods is saying now is, he was wrong. It mattered a lot. It cost us huge swaths of our planet. We “waited too long.” But never mind, the important thing is that we made “above-average returns.”

To keep those returns coming, Exxon—working mostly through Senator Joe Manchin (D-Pollution)—larded the Inflation Reduction Act, which was supposed to be about electrons, with as many gifts as possible for molecules. That’s what the taxpayer money for carbon capture and other such schemes is all about: a way to keep burning stuff, at a moment when it would be cheaper to just let the sun burn. Remember: Exxon has trillions of dollars in oil and gas reserves. We no longer need it, but they need it—and they can game our political system to keep us using it.

(The fact that something can be too cheap is hard to grasp, but it’s the central insight of a fascinating new book, The Price is Wrong, due out next week from the political economist Brett Christophers. I’ll write more about it in the future but the basic point is that “we cannot expect markets and the private sector to solve the climate crisis while the profits that are their lifeblood remain unappetizing.” The alternative, of course, is to have government handle this basic survival task—but of course government too often remains in the hands of ‘the private sector.’)

Woods’ remarks aren’t the only example of this kind of shamelessness. The coal industry recently released an anti-renewable energy video, for instance, as part of its “Coal Hard Truth” campaign with the catchy title “Not So Fast.” “A global transition to renewable forms of energy is well underway, but are we moving too fast to a future filled with unknown compromises? What are the consequences of rushing to renewables?” The consequences of rushing to renewables are, we chop a degree or two off the eventual temperature of the earth, save millions of people a year who die from breathing the smoke from burning fossil fuels—and cost the coal industry money. Hence the video asking us to “hit pause.”

But it really has been, above all, the Exxon story start to finish. They were the biggest company on earth when we learned about climate change, and they have been the biggest single obstacle to change. The hard-hitting journalists at Fortune, before they got to asking him how he relaxes, queried Woods about “the core, you know, values or aspects of the [Exxon] culture that you feel like are really consistent?”

The thing that “brought me to this company is integrity,” Woods said. “Not just being honest and ethical, but being intellectually honest and saying the hard things.”

Thank God for John Coltrane. Our job is to stay calm enough to keep taking on these gentlemen with all we’ve got, till their political power is broken and we have a fighting chance.