#McKibbenknows that #Exxonknew is well-orchestrated political theatre. Will American voters get the message?
If you’re wondering why NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating Exxon Mobil about 40-year old climate change research, look no further than Bill McKibben’s #Exxonknew campaign and the doomed Keystone XL pipeline project.
There is a reason Al Gore was on the stage March 29 with Schneiderman and 15 other Democratic state AGs to announce that, “Our offices are seriously examining the potential of working together on high-impact, state-level initiatives, such as investigations into whether fossil fuel companies have misled investors about how climate change impacts their investments and business decisions,” as Schneiderman put it.
Bull hooey. This is a political exercise to support the #Exxonknew campaign – as well as the Obama Administration’s climate policies, something the AGs freely admit – which was started by McKibben, founder of 350.org and the same eco-activist who turned the Keystone XL pipeline project into a global environmental cause.
McKibben single-handedly revitalized the American environmental movement, giving it a purpose and vitality not seen sine the 1970s, according to Bob Wilson, a geographer at Syracuse University who studies the modern environmental movement.
“It has been very difficult to organize around climate change because it is so abstract, so seemingly far in the future. Here was a concrete, solid thing to focus on, something to rally the grassroots around,” Wilson told iPolitics.com.
It sure as hell did. So well that President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada’s cross-border application last fall. So well that the environmental movement is now a major political force in American politics, backed by big money from wealthy donors and charities, endorsed by Hollywood celebrities, and very well organized on the ground.
But Keystone XL is deader than day old mackerel and we all know that movements always need The Next Big Thing.
Enter McKibben’s Next Big Thing, #Exxonknew. The crux of his argument can be found in an op-ed he wrote for The Guardian in Oct. He makes two main points.
One, that Exxon knew as early as the 1970s that humans were causing climate change and global warming. Further, that America’s richest corporation hid that knowledge and actively funded climate change denial for decades.
Two, had we known the supposedly awful truth of climate change 40 years ago, we might have acted sooner, developed and adopted renewable energy technology much quicker, and kept atmospheric CO2 within acceptable limits, thereby saving the world from imminent catastrophe.
McKibben’s argument is ridiculous, even on a prima facie basis.
Exxon Mobil says it will vigorously defend itself if the AGs decide to sue. Suzanne McCarron, VP of public and government affairs, took aim at McKibben et. al.
“Contrary to activists’ claims, our company’s deliberations decades ago yielded no definitive conclusions. As our scientists determined at the time, many important questions about climate science remained unanswered, and more research was required,” she said in a statement on the company’s website.
“Accordingly, Exxon, and later ExxonMobil, continued research at leading universities, and also engaged in the public debate surrounding policy responses to the emerging science.
But let’s assume for a moment that Exxon did know definitively about climate change dangers. What, realistically, was it obligated to do?
Warn consumers not to buy its own product? One could argue that acting contrary to its own business interests would have harmed investors and shareholders, the very thing the AGs are accusing it of.
And while funding climate denial may appear reprehensible today to eco-activists like McKibben, the very same investors and shareholders – as well as consumers – can hold the Exxon Mobil to account by dumping stock or not buying its products if they choose. To date, that hasn’t happened.
Suing the company seems to be a case of taking broadswords to butterflies, as Mark Twain put it.
And what about the claim that Exxon delayed the development of renewable energy technology? As preposterous as the climate change accusation.
Technology development and diffusion simply doesn’t work that way.
For instance, solar panels are cheap now because Chinese manufacturing prowess has driven down costs. But China wasn’t a manufacturing powerhouse 40 years ago. Could American manufacturing have accomplished the same feat? The answer is above my pay grade, but I doubt it.
Technology progresses in a cumulative fashion, with many improvements and innovations that need to be field and market-tested, then refined in the next generation of the project. Eventually, if the technology continues to evolve, it becomes competitive with the dominant technology and competes in the marketplace. Eventually, it becomes the dominant technology.
The process takes decades, with many fits and starts, successes and failures.
McKibben errs when he assumes that Exxon could have somehow come out of the climate change closet in the 1970s and launched wind and solar – or electric vehicles or smart grids or utility-scale battery storage or any of the thousands of related technologies required to make clean energy work on a large scale – on a straight line to technical and market success.
But #Exxonknew, just like the anti-Keystone XL movement, isn’t about facts or science.
#Exxonknew is about providing another “concrete, solid thing to focus on, something to rally the grassroots around”.
On that basis, it should be opposed. The American public deserves reasoned debate about climate change and energy policy – something it’s currently not getting during the Democrat and Republican primaries – not political movements fueled by irrationality, fear, and the drive for political gain.
#McKibbenknows that #Exxonknew is well-orchestrated political theatre. Now, will American voters get the message?