The 1990s were a critical decade for actionon climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post:“Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)
Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusionsabout the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of. In 2012, during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson asserted that the company sees climate change as “an engineering problem” with “engineering solutions.” Three years later, in 2015, Tillerson, who would later serve as Secretary of State under President Trump for a little over a year, explained, “Our plan B has always been grounded in our beliefs around the continued evolution of technology and engineered solutions to address and react to whatever the climate system and its outcomes present to us.”
Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering.