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Climate Hustle

In 1982, Exxon accurately predicted global warming

Posted on 19 June 2019 by dana1981

The Cato Institute, a Koch-founded and fossil fuel-funded think tank, has shut down its climate science-denying ‘Center for the Study of Science.’  The Center was led by Patrick Michaels, who has a long history of grossly misrepresenting climate science research, most notably in 1998 Congressional testimony during consideration of the Kyoto Protocol international climate agreement (which US Congress never ratified).  In that testimony, Michaels showed a version of James Hansen’s 1988 global temperature projections, but deleted the two scenarios in that study that most accurately represented real-world greenhouse gas emissions in order to create the misperception that Hansen had dramatically overestimated global warming.  That testimony could certainly be considered perjury, and yet Cato continued to employ Michaels for another 20 years.

ExxonMobil is on the list of Cato’s fossil fuel funders, but as Inside Climate News discovered, the company’s own scientists conducted serious climate research in the 1980s.  There was a stark contrast between Exxon’s own internal climate science research and the climate misinformation produced by the think tanks that the company subsequently funded.  To summarize,

  • In the early 1980s, Exxon’s own scientists accurately predicted the ensuing global warming to within a margin of 20%;
  • Exxon’s predictions were consistent with those made by mainstream climate scientists;
  • In the late 1980s, Exxon began funding think tanks whose scientists inaccurately predicted that temperatures would remain essentially unchanged;
  • These findings highlight the fact that Exxon knew about the dangers of global warming and yet quietly gave tens of millions of dollars to groups that tried to convince the public otherwise.

Exxon’s Quality Climate Science Research

Exxon’s scientists reported their findings to company management, including in a 1982 technical review of the greenhouse effect by Exxon’s Environmental Affairs Programs manager M.B. Glaser.  The document included a chart showing Exxon’s predictions about how much atmospheric carbon dioxide and average global temperatures would increase in the subsequent decades.  It predicted that by 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would rise by about 80 parts per million (ppm) to reach 418 ppm; within about 10 percent of the actual increase based on current measurements (410 ppm globally and 415 ppm at Mauna Loa, Hawaii).

Exxon’s document predicted that this increase in carbon dioxide would cause global surface temperatures to rise by 0.85 degrees Celsius (°C), or 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) from 1982 to 2019.  In reality, temperatures have risen by about 0.7°C (1.3°F) over that period – only about 20 percent less warming than Exxon’s remarkably accurate prediction.

Throughout the 1980s, all of Exxon’s internal science was consistent with the expert consensus on human-caused global warming. 

Exxon-Funded Climate Misinformation Campaign

However, Exxon began to make deep cuts to its climate research budget in the 1980s.  Toward the end of that decade, the company ramped up its public relations campaign to sow uncertainty about the expert climate consensus, increasingly funding think tanks like the Cato Institute.  Cato’s scientists, including Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen, have a long history of making very wrong climate claims and predictions that conflicted the Exxon’s internal science.

For example, Michaels said in January 1999 that there was “absolutely no warming trend whatsoever from when the satellite measurements began (January 1979) through the end of 1997 … Starting with 1998, there will almost certainly be a statistically significant cooling trend in the decade ending in 2007.”  He later claimed in 2013 that “it's a pretty good bet that we are going to go nearly a quarter of a century [1996 to 2020] without warming.”  And in 2018 Michaels said that global temperatures will warm about 1.5°C (2.7°F) in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which “would put total human warming to 2100 right around the top goal of the Paris Accord, or 2.0°C” if we continue with business as usual.  Anticipating that so little warming would result from so much fossil fuel consumption is an exceptionally rosy outlook.

Yet Richard Lindzen’s predictions have been even rosier.  In a 1989 talk, Lindzen argued that “I personally feel that the likelihood over the next century of greenhouse warming reaching magnitudes comparable to natural variability [a few tenths of a degree Celsius] seems small.”  And in 1995 he claimed with remarkably high certainty that global temperatures will only warm 0.3°C (0.54°F) in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  That’s about one-tenth as much warming as both contemporaneous and current climate models have predicted the increased greenhouse effect will cause.  When confronted with the fact that global temperatures have already risen 1°C (1.8°F), rather than reconsidering his beliefs, Lindzen rejects the data, much like his 1989 comment that “the data as we have it does not support a warming [from 1880 to 1989].”

Evaluating Global Warming Predictions

While Michaels and Lindzen have never made quantitative global temperature predictions, we can use their past comments to piece together what their predictions would have looked like.  Unlike Exxon’s internal scientists, they have both cast doubt on past warming and predicted minimal future warming.  While Exxon’s internal scientists’ predictions were quite accurate, those who they have quietly funded to sow doubt in the public mind were not.

Exxon-funded predictions

Global average surface temperature measurements from NASA (blue) compared to predictions in Exxon’s 1982 technical review and as reconstructed based on comments made by Richard Lindzen in 1989 and Patrick Michaels in 1999 and 2013.  Dashed lines represent reconstructions; Lindzen and Michaels are not known to ever have made quantitative global temperature predictions.

Mainstream climate scientists have made numerous global temperature projections similar those in Exxon’s 1982 document.  For example, some global warming predictions by mainstream climate scientists include Broecker (1975), Hansen et al. in 1981 and 1988, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007.  Easterbrook (2008) and Akasofu (2010) are two of the few climate contrarians who have made quantitative temperature predictions.  Details about each of these are documented in my book Climatology versus Pseudoscience and at Skeptical Science.

In general, the temperature projections by mainstream climate scientists have been similar to those made by Exxon scientists in 1982, predicting between 0.4°C and 1°C (0.7–1.8°F) warming from 1980 to 2018 as compared to the observed 0.5°C (0.9°F).  The contrarians, on the other hand, predicted anywhere from 0.3°C (0.55°F) cooling to a minimal 0.07°C (0.13°F) warming during that period.

The accuracy of Exxon’s 1982 prediction – and in fact its overestimation of the subsequent warming – yet again illustrate that the company knew about the dangers its product posed to public health via climate change.  The accuracy of mainstream climate scientists’ predictions – especially in comparison to the failed predictions made by climate contrarians – suggests that we ought to start heeding the warnings of the former group and ignoring the climate denial advanced by the latter using funding from culpable donors like Exxon.

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. You would think that a fossil fuels company like Exonn knowing there was a global warming problem while knowingly funding think tanks pretending there wasn't a global warming problem infringes some form of law because it's making a misleading representation. I suppose Exonn Mobil would claim they didnt instruct the think tanks on what findings to make and sneak out of culpability that way. Its all so annoying, and some people probably think Exonn was being clever which annoys me even further.

    One can infer Exonn thought humanity could live with the warming they predicted, and so decided on a sort of bargain with the devil, but Exonn probably had a very limited idea on the implications of that warming. Only an exercise on the scale of the IPCC can really determine the full picture and we know its worse than originally thought.

    It certainly brings home how companies are driven purely by profit and have no ethical standards or conscience. While I generally support capitalism in principle, all this looks increasingly unsustainable as an economic model.

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  2. nigelj,

    I agree, and would add that 'popularity' as a measure of success also shares in the blame for the harmful things that have been happening.

    Being Helpful to Others, being altruistic, is a way of thinking and behaving that every human can develop.

    Competition for status based on popularity and profitability without Helpful Altruism effectively governing what is going on is destined to develop harmful unsutainable results. And being able to get away with misleading marketing 'unpenalized', can amplify how harmful the results will be, especially by increasing the resistance to correction of awareness and understanding.

    Advertising/Marketing/Education (similar things), that helpfully altruisticly honestly improve awareness and understanding are Great. Any other type of promotion/teaching can obviously be incredibly harmful.

    The climate science case makes that rather common sense understanding undeniably clear, at least to anyone who is not divisively confirmation biased into motivated reasoning, critically trying to think of a way to get away from that awareness and understanding.

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  3. Has anyone seen the Global Sea Ice figures lately? I think we should call 911 ...

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  4. I will note, however, that the volume figures don't seem as bad- which I must admit I can't explain.

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  5. Should fast-ice along the north eastern sea route br disappearing this fast?

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  6. Washinton Post :Temperatures leap 40 degrees above normal as the Arctic Ocean and Greenland ice sheet see record June melting

    Sure is quite something. Seems to be a big stationary high over the arctic. I wonder if the reduction in temperature differential from equator to the arctic due to climate change is causing highs to build up and hang around over the arctic? Absolute pure speculation.

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  7. Bozzza @5: There is nothing normal about this. The immense area of free water North of Siberia, the one next to Severnya Zemlya, all of the Alaskan and Yukon coasts ice free, most of that of the Northwest Territories except for the vicinity of Victoria Island. Although things slowed down a bit in June this year, the extent is pretty much on par with the 2012 extent after it had experienced its abrupt June decline. Add to that the nearly absent ice in the Bering sea through the winter. As NSIDC says, the stage is set. Even though it is early in the season, it is hard to see how this year could not be very close to 2012. Any major wind event will likely yield to a new record low.

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  8. bozzza @3,

    I check the NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis reasonably regularly, particularly their Charctic Interactive Sea Ice Graph. And I occasionally look at the Arctic ROOS data presentations.

    Comparing the current year at this date with other years in the easy to work with Charctic interactive tool, this year at this time is very similar to 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

    Each of those years have very different final minimums. And some years that had less ice area loss by this time of year ended up with very low minimums (2015 and 2007).

    A lot of variation of rate of ice loss can happen. This year's ice area loss rate recently levelled off from June 12 to June 17 (almost no change of extent through those dates. So if you were looking at data before June 12 it certainly would have looked like 2019 was on track to have a lower minimum than 2012.

    A long time ago I read a caution about forecasting sea ice minimums based on the data up to this time of year. I would wait at least one more month before feeling fairly sure about what the minimum would likely be this year.

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  9. OPOF is right, it is impossible to predict the minimum extent that far in advance with any kind of accuracy. From what I have seen  while following sea ice over the years, it appears that weather events, especially winds that scatter the ice and flush it to the South, are major determinants of the final minimum.

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  10. "I'll be be back!" ( amonth, lol!)

    Arctic Sea Ice Area - 23/6/19

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Please limit image widths to 450.

    [PS] This is also somewhat offtopic. The weekly news roundup thread would be more appropriate.

  11. "You would think that a fossil fuels company like Exonn knowing there was a global warming problem while knowingly funding think tanks pretending there wasn't a global warming problem infringes some form of law because it's making a misleading representation."


    They were following the law which requires them to act as fiduciaries to those who buy shares of the company. I don't like their conduct in this instance and I believe they could have followed the fiduciary law without contributing to denialist think tanks, but they aren't free to publicly disparage their own product.  

    If Exxon had began a campaign which had the affect or even intent of convincing the public to not buy their product, management would then be putting their interests above the people that entrusted their cash to the company. Such managers would be self-branding to jump ship to the next generation of energy company, whatever that turned out to be, while trashing the value of share investors bought.  The company belongs to the owners (anyone who buys shares), which is in turn mostly retirement funds. Managers are prohibited from working against the shareholders. 

    Fiduciary duty doesn't, at least in my mind, require political action using misleading or deceiving tactics to promote the shareholder's interests, and I think that people in responsible positions have a moral duty to interpret the laws in a moral way, e.g. "Let your yes be your yes, and your no be your no", etc.  Unfortunately the idea of being honest and placing anything above material success, fame or reputation is considered horribly old-fashioned, possibly racist or at least colonial now.  

    From my idealist perspective, Exxon made a sad turn.  In contrast, the company has an excellent record in their core business.  Exxon began a comprehensive safety culture after the Valdez grounding and are known to have above-industry standards for drilling and shipping of oil.  They could have complemented that by starting a renewables division while removing themselves from the public discussion of the climate issue.  But ideals like that melt pretty fast in the heat of politics and paychecks, it was probably never going to happen. 

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  12. DrivingBy @11, good points and I  agree.

    I feel companies have a moral duty to keep shareholders informed of looming problems like that oil is impacting the climate, but I would agree it is the shareholders decision as to what to do about things.

    But companies do also have a legal duty to inform shareholders if there are potential financial implications and I think some oil companies have been sued on their failure to do this. I stand to be corrected.

    The oil companies may not have broken the law, and have a duty to shareholders and to maximise profits,  but it shows how the profit motive and paychecks crush any idealism and worse is having some real damaging effects on the environment. Perhaps the problem could be solved with laws that require greater transparency with shareholders on problems, and laws that prohibit funding think tanks if there is a possible conflict of interest. However real change is probably going to require a change of attitudes and some way of putting environmental goals on an equal footing as profit goals at the very least. Im not sure if this could be done with the law or is something that may emerge as a more voluntary thing. Some companies are at least trying this. 

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  13. In approximately 1972-73 I attended a seminar at St. Louis University presented by their Physics Department. I was working for an HVAC manufacturer and was mainly interested in ideas to help model and forecast what type of furnaces we would need by fuel source, oil, natural gas, or electric.  It was well understood at that time that burning fossil fuels increased earth's temperature. The extent and the possible ramifications would come later. Of course, this was pre Chernobyl (and Three Mile Island) so the recognized alternative to meet growing energy needs was predicted to be nuclear, with a strong preference for solar if storage solutions could be developed. 

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  14. During the 1970's there was also a scare about a possible impending ice age or cold period, as temperatures had fallen a bit, although this was only a view among a minority of scientists. In the original research Svante Arrhenius envisaged deliberately burning fossil fuels to stop an ice age.

    The point being perhaps as industry knowledge of global warming increased in the 1970's 1) the full implications were not apparent and 2) it was brushed off as a useful way of preventing an ice age. Eventually the problems of global warming sunk in and recent research indicates 1.5 degrees of warming is quite enough to stop the next ice age. It's a silly idea anyway because even if we could prevent the next ice age, its unlikely we could do anything about the one after that and so on. The current warming issue is the real problem, and we can do something about it.

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