OPINION | ART HOBSON | Fossil fuel industry faces lawsuits over what they knew, hid about climate change

Fossil fuel companies predicted warming in 1950s

I've been involved with global warming since the 1970s when I began developing a new kind of physics course called "Physics and Human Affairs" that is still taught on the University of Arkansas campus. My first textbook for the course, published in 1982 and sold nationally, included science-related social topics such as global warming, energy resources and nuclear weapons, and was considered oddly unique in this regard.

During the 1970s and through the turn of the century, most Americans were highly skeptical that global warming was happening or could happen. Many thought the human impact on the global environment was far too small to be important globally.

The fossil fuel industry did all it could to promote this mistaken popular view. The industry created powerful propaganda organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition, which comprised most giants of the fossil fuel and automotive industries, to propagandize for such views.

Yet it has recently been revealed that leading members of the GCC were secretly far ahead of those of us who were warning of this threat during the 1970s and '80s. Exxon Oil Corp. and other fossil fuel companies knew as early as the 1950s that global warming was being baked into the near future, and that fossil fuels had everything to do with it. Throughout 1980-2010, when industry did its utmost to disparage global warming, their own research showed quite accurately that temperatures would increase and that disaster would result from the policies they were promoting.

In January, the journal Science published a study titled "Assessing ExxonMobil's global warming projections." It exposes the duplicity of the fossil fuel industry in denigrating global warming and simultaneously conducting accurate research showing the problem to be real. One of the Science study's co-authors is Naomi Oreskes, a member of the Department of Science History and the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at Harvard University. You may have heard of her. She authored the wonderful book "Merchants of Doubt" exposing how a handful of pro-industry scientists obscured the truth about tobacco, global warming and other issues.

ExxonMobil, Total Oil Co. and General Motors had their own internal models and their own climate scientists, whose forecasts as early as the 1950s showed that global warming was real and disastrous. It was only decades later, during the 1990s, that the United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change began to publish reports that (unknowingly) confirmed these secret findings. Meanwhile, the industry's mouthpiece, namely the powerful GCC, continued to intentionally lie.

Among other evidence, the authors of the study somehow managed to obtain three graphs developed by ExxonMobil scientists in 1997, 1982 and 2003. The first shows the most probable atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the most probable temperatures during 1960-2100. The presently known real data for 1960-2023 bears out these predictions, and the future predictions (2023--2100) agree well with the International Panel on Climate Change's predictions.

The second graph shows the expected global temperatures from 1900 to 2100 under 12 different assumed scenarios. Five of these scenarios were published by others during 1977-2003, and seven were calculated (using computer models) internally by fossil fuel scientists. The internal predictions agree well with the openly published scientific predictions.

The third is an ambitious attempt to determine and graph the average global temperature for the past 125,000 years, and to compare this historical record with ExxonMobil scientists' prediction of temperatures during the coming 25,000-year period. I've seen a lot of shocking global warming predictions, but ExxonMobil's predictions lead the list. Past temperatures (which are difficult to either determine historically or calculate theoretically) vary between the two glacial lows 125,000 and 25,000 years ago and the highs of the brief interglacial periods such as we experience today. ExxonMobil's graph shows a rise of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) from 20,000 years ago to today's interglacial temperatures. Then, during the future 25,000 years, the graphs show a fast predicted rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and then 25,000 years at this higher temperature. If this prediction occurs, it implies a radical alteration of the past 2 million years of alternating glacial and interglacial periods, and a warmer period that differs considerably from anything Homo sapiens has experienced. Current IPCC models do predict something like a 2-degree rise soon, but not necessarily 25,000 more years at the higher temperature.

ExxonMobil and other companies have lied to the world for decades, with disastrous effect. Cities, counties and states are suing fossil-fuel companies for this. I hope Northwest Arkansas will join that crowd.