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Exxon's Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels' Role in Global Warming Decades Ago

Posted on 16 September 2015 by Guest Author

This is a re-post of some amazing investigative journalism by Inside Climate News

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation's headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world's use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

"In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," Black told Exxon's Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon's leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon's Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.  Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

"Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed," Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. "Present thinking," he wrote in the 1978 summary, "holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical."

Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon's ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company's understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.

This untold chapter in Exxon's history, when one of the world's largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN's reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon's innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The documents record budget requests, research priorities, and debates over findings, and reveal the arc of Exxon's internal attitudes and work on climate and how much attention the results received.

Of particular significance was a project launched in August 1979, when the company outfitted a supertanker with custom-made instruments. The project's mission was to sample carbon dioxide in the air and ocean along a route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.

In 1980, Exxon assembled a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate's sensitivity to the buildup  of carbon dioxide in the air. Working with university scientists and the U.S. Department of Energy, Exxon strove to be on the cutting edge of inquiry into what was then called the greenhouse effect.

Exxon's early determination to understand rising carbon dioxide levels grew out of a corporate culture of farsightedness, former employees said. They described a company that continuously examined risks to its bottom line, including environmental factors. In the 1970s, Exxon modeled its research division after Bell Labs, staffing it with highly accomplished scientists and engineers.

In written responses to questions about the history of its research, ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said that "from the time that climate change first emerged as a topic for scientific study and analysis in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil has committed itself to scientific, fact-based analysis of this important issue."

"At all times," he said, "the opinions and conclusions of our scientists and researchers on this topic have been solidly within the mainstream of the consensus scientific opinion of the day and our work has been guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads. The risk of climate change is real and warrants action."

At the outset of its climate investigations almost four decades ago, many Exxon executives, middle managers and scientists armed themselves with a sense of urgency and mission.

One manager at Exxon Research, Harold N. Weinberg, shared his "grandiose thoughts" about Exxon's potential role in climate research in a March 1978 internal company memorandum that read: "This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind."

His sentiment was echoed by Henry Shaw, the scientist leading the company's nascent carbon dioxide research effort.

"Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation," Shaw wrote to his boss Edward E. David, the executive director of Exxon Research and Engineering in 1978. "This team must be recognized for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management."


Irreversible and Catastrophic

Exxon budgeted more than $1 million over three years for the tanker project to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. It was a small fraction of Exxon Research's annual $300 million budget, but the question the scientists tackled was one of the biggest uncertainties in climate science: how quickly could the deep oceans absorb atmospheric CO2? If Exxon could pinpoint the answer, it would know how long it had before CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere could force a transition away from fossil fuels.

Exxon also hired scientists and mathematicians to develop better climate models and publish research results in peer-reviewed journals. By 1982, the company's own scientists, collaborating with outside researchers, created rigorous climate models – computer programs that simulate the workings of the climate to assess the impact of emissions on global temperatures. They confirmed an emerging scientific consensus that warming could be even worse than Black had warned five years earlier.

Exxon's research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked "not to be distributed externally," it contained information that "has been given wide circulation to Exxon management." In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming "would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion."

Unless that happened, "there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered," the primer said, citing independent experts. "Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible."

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Like others in the scientific community, Exxon researchers acknowledged the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of climate science, especially in the area of forecasting models. But they saw those uncertainties as questions they wanted to address, not an excuse to dismiss what was increasingly understood.

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Comments 1 to 26:

  1. Just the same corporate behaviour:

    - Asbestos


    Any others?

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  2. Lead, particularly leaded gasoline.

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  3. Agricultural pesticides

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  4. Sugar.

    When the WHO was established after the Second World War, one of their first reports included mention of the dangers of sugar in diet.  The US sugar industry was outraged; at their behest the US government blackmailed the WHO into deleting reference to sugar in exhange for the funding the US had promised.

    Also, DDT.

    Think of the vilification to which the chemical industry subjected Rachel Carson after she published her book "Silent spring".

    Any others?

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  5. Other examples, let me count the ways. Rather than count them all I will present an example and an explanation for why there are so many of them.

    In the late 1970s when the need to dramatically reduce sulphur emissions was clearly understood, a significant number of wealthy US people and the industries they invested in declared that, unlike Europe, the US economy would not survive the technically possible reduction of SO2 because of 'the cost'. Even now the US standards for sulphur in diesel fuel are below the levels in Europe. That keeps the more efficient and cleaner diesels of Europe off the roads in the great US of A.

    The reality is they simply wanted to get as much unfair economic advantage as possible by getting away with the least acceptable behaviour. That is also why they continue to burn so much coal in the US (and Alberta, and Australia)

    That desire to get away with the least possible acceptable behaviour fueled efforts to expand the rate of extraction and sale of Oil Sands in Alberta to irresponsible levels taht are now declared to be a perception of prosperity that cannot be allowed to diminish.

    And that unacceptable desire fuels the development and prolonging of all manner of unacceptable activity. The potential to win through the ability to create perceptions of popular support contrary to the understandable unacceptabilty of pursuits of profit is evident in almost every "area of economic pursuit".

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  6. There is more untold history about Exxon, namely that Exxon was the first US company to seriously invest in solar power R&D, and became the first major purchaser of solar power technology in the 1970's. In the '90's an even greater wave of investment in solar technology manufacturing from many major oil and gas companies (including Shell and BP) laid the foundation for solar power technology as we know it today.

    Exxon also invested heavily in nuclear power, as did many other fossil fuel companies.

    However, neither solar power not nuclear power were able to compete with the bargain basement fossil fuel prices which persisted until the early 2000's, so their investments in solar and nuclear ended up being multibillion dollar losses. In the case of nuclear, persistent, international antinuclear propaganda made commercialising the advanced 4th generation technologies pioneered by these oil companies even harder than it already was. Hence virtually all solar and nuclear business components were spun-off and the fossil fuel companies returned to their core business as we know it today.

    This is just to say that the history described in this article is incomplete and misleading. The article paints a picture of an evil industry callously disregarding the hazards of co2 emissions and hindering the solution to these hazards. In reality, things are not as cut and dried. The poor economics of solar power and the extraordinary resistance to nuclear power application (no matter how advanced, sustainable or safe) have been important factors defining the history of the fossil fuel industry, which cannot be said to have not tried to develop zero-carbon energy sources that could compete with fossil fuel. They did in fact try quite seriously, and they lost billions doing so.

    While it may be psychologically desireable for some to believe that Exxon and other fossil fuel companies are Satan's bedfellows, such an understanding does not necessarily contribute to an accurate perception of reality.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link. However, I will repeat (again) that you must avoid sloganeering. I frankly think you will stand a better chance of maintaining your posting privileges here if you avoid the temptation to turn every comment into a pro-nuclear statement.

  7. Joris van Dorp. Are you suggesting Exxon acted responsibly all along? And why the stab on 'psychological desirability', when you could also stick to the facts?

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  8. IMO, the transcript of Black's speech shows that, while he acknowledged much of the prevailing science, there was also already a clear 'skeptical' slant. The word 'uncertainty' is everywhere, he argues that the polar ice caps would likely be unaffected, and he even claims that the atmospheric CO2 increase might be natural rather than caused by fossil fuels... despite covering the fact that the atmospheric increase rate was roughly 50% of the fossil fuels emissions rate - which indeed proves that fossil fuels are responsible for 100% of the atmospheric increase.

    Basically, it seems like Exxon was willing to spend money on global warming research so long as they could convince themselves that they might not be causing it or that it might not be too bad. Once they'd established otherwise they stopped funding research and started funding disinformation.

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  9. Joris van Dorp #6 — I think I agree with what you wrote. However, I would venture that corporations (or more accurately, the folks who wind up running them) tend to balance their short-term and long-term interests and those of the outside world inconsistently and differently. An interesting example is the US automobile industry and air pollution.

    In the 1950’s, Arie Haagen-Smit established the link between automotive exhaust and Los Angeles air pollution. (He later became the first Chairman of the California Air Resources Board. First he was nominated by CA Gov Ronald Reagan, then he was fired a few years later by CA Gov Ronald Reagan for speaking truth to power.)

    Thru the 1960’s, the automotive industry denied the cause-and-effect, “persuading” the US government to agree. In the early 1970’s, there was a massive change of attitude in the auto industry. At that time I was working at the GM Tech Center (in Warren MI). All of a sudden engineers were taken from other areas and put to work on fighting automotive air pollution. (I was taken from development of novel forms of shipping cars from assembly plants to dealers.) Some novel ways to reduce or even eliminate pollution were under development, several of which we engineers felt were highly promising. Unfortunately, the most promising would involve long development times and costs. In not too much time the catalytic converter was chosen because it could be made to work within the mandated time frame. (We engineers referred to it as “the Catholic converter” and several deletable expletives. It was and is a kludge.)

    Had the R&D work begun in the 1950’s, history would have turned out different and much economic + personal trauma might well have been avoided. (At least as far as automotive air pollution is concerned. Peak Oil (et al), Global Warming, they’re other stories.)

    By the way, the GM Tech Center is still a worthy place to visit, look around at and enjoy, even today. But the guys (all guys, back then) who decided to do nothing but deny and then do a Chairman Mao type great-leap-forward all retired rich and today are buried in the finest, most prestigious cemeteries.

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  10. Betlem #7 I'm suggesting that Exxon (like other major FF companies) attempted to find alternative energy sources but did not find them. They were left with two choices:

    1. Get out of the fossil fuel business and be praised for a day or two by environmentalists, while their competitors take over their market share and global fossil fuel polution would continue anyway.

    2. Stay in the fossil fuel business and try to make the best of it, generating revenues and jobs for the american people.

    They chose the second option. What option would you have recommended?

    @Dcrickett #9. That's a recognisable annecdote. It makes a lot of sense.

    N.B It is true that I am a supporter of nuclear energy technology development and implementation. I believe that this technology is the only credible hope humanity has of eliminating GHG emissions and solving the totality of the energy/climate nexus in a timely fashion, thereby securing our common future in a bona fide way. I know from personal research and twenty years of talking to people in all walks of life and in all civil societal capacities, that the single most important barrier to rational and effective nuclear power development is fear, uncertainty and doubt. And I know that this fear, uncertainty and doubt is manufactured by antinuclear propaganda organisations which for the most part constitute well known major environmental organisations. I know this for a fact. I request to not be unfairly censored or banned again for holding this to be the honest truth to which I would swear under oath on the lives of my family and children. Thank you.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Joris, I argued for your reinstatement here because I think you have valuable things to contribute to the discussion and because I hoped you would in future abide by the comments policy. The earnestness, honesty or even the correctness of your beliefs does not give you some right to boorishly inflict those beliefs into every conversation nor give you licence to ignore the policy here. Furthermore, you are asking for your views to be respected but when I see words like "propaganda", I have grave doubts about your ability to respectfully discuss the topic with someone holding different views just as honestly.

    If I am interested in the debate about nuclear power, I go to BraveNewClimate. For discussions around the science of climate change, I come here. I strongly suggest you do likewise.

    Abiding by the rules in not optional here. Before you press the "post comment" button, you need to review your comment for compliance with the comments policy. If the topic is not about nuclear power, then chances are that any comment on nuclear power is offtopic and in breach of rules. If you want respect, then show respect. Should this prove too onerous, then your posting privileges will be removed.

  11. Joris van Dorp #10. There was a third choice. There was also the choice NOT to get into the desinformation business and NOT to start discrediting each and every critical voice.

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  12. Part II is here.

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  13. I too am concerned about Joris' ability to participate in a constructive fashion. I see words like "bona fide", "honest" and "truth" all loaded with emotional content, all that tend to be heavily used by, fo instance, candidates running for elections. This is obviously a discussion for another thread, but there are alternatives to nuclear for GH free baseload. As for Exxon, them "loosing" a few billions over a project that had a lot of merit is not going to make me shed a tear. They only lost because their expectation was that it would return within  certain time frame. If they had stayed the course, they would have eventually had a good investment. Now we could get into the debate about the merit of being in this world for the long run, vs considering quaterly reports.

    Furthermore, I find it funny that one would be so outraged by what he considers a "fear, uncertainty and doubt" campaign on a given subject, while ready to find excuses for a corporation that has done exactly that for decades. Honesty cuts both ways.

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  14. Joris @10...  If Exxon had come out at the time stating that their research showed that CO2 emissions were a serious problem, as their research clearly did show, then the entire dynamic of the discussion would have changed for the entire FF industry, and for the entire world.

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  15. Other oil companies, like BP and Shell, decided much earlier to get out of the business of promoting science denial. Exxon did not have to obfuscate nor go into voluntary liquidation. The world's energy infrastructure is so vast that even with the best imaginable climate policies it will take decades before we can wean ourselves off oil and gas.

    None of the big oil companies deserve a merit badge (they all fund lobby groups to delay regulations), but Exxon does merit being singled out as the worst.

    It has disappointed me that oil and gas companies have not done more to develop and promote carbon capture and storage. This technology would allow them to extend the lifetime of their core compentency of getting carbon out of the ground, while providing an opportunity for getting paid again for putting the carbon back. Of course for CCS to work economically (there are huge political obstacles and technical challenges, too) requires hefty carbon pricing. That would result in a reduction in the short term of demand for hydrocarbons (and thus the price received by the oilcos), while the economic benefits of a growing CCS business to the oilcos would be longer term. The short-term benefit always wins over the long.

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  16. As a past environmental regulator, industry has varied in their acceptance of scientific evidence of the hazards associated with their core business. The list of examples where they denied the facts is long and the list of examples where the wiled eyed environmentalists overstated the hazzards is short. Exxon and other industries could have accepted the scientific facts as early as 1988 when James Hansen testified to Congress on the scientific validity of climate change. Then instead of funding a myriad of organizations to foment public opinion that there was a conspiricy by scientists to line their pockets with Federal grant dollars they could have supported Federal grants to improve carbon free methods to produce electricity, fuel automobiles (or improve gas milage), supply energy for manufacturing processes etc. Industry lobbied congress to avoid a cap and trade bill for CO2 (equivalents) even though this is very succesful for acid rain pollution. By selecting a date in 1990 is likely that research could have allowed a near zero CO2 emissions in 2020 or 2030 with little adverse economic impact. It is unlikely that zero CO2 emissions are easily achievable within my lifetime especially since the industry funded lawyers and lobiests continue to be succesful with politicians that are in the majority.

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  17. @13. What alternatives are there to nuclear for baseload? There are none which are remotely competitive or abundant enough. Hydro and biomass are limited resources. Fossil CCS is an option, but only temporary and hard to mandate globally. solar and wind paired with storage is a no-go, due to the cost of storage. Only nuclear does the job. Why deny this?

    @14. Exxon did come out with their research findings at the time. It was the basis of their decision to invest in clean energy, and they used their research to convince shareholders of the need to invest in developing alternatives. To suggest that they hid this research is nonsense.

    That said, I think this discussion will go nowhere if it is denied that nuclear power has suffered from negative PR campaigning by antinuclear groups. If anything, the only way to understand why nuclear has not already solved the global climate/energy problem is this wellfunded, decades-long running negative PR. To deny the role of antinuclearism is to misunderstand why nuclear stopped expanding in the '70's and 80's.

    The decision by the moderater to deny that nuclear (and by extension humanity) has been a long-term victim of antinuclear propaganda means that the discussion about solutions to climate change on SkS remains meaningless, fruitless and not up to the task. We will be discussing solutions forever, while the world burns.

    I notice that many commenters are free to assert the most obvious untruths about energy and energy technology, but that only I - when I mention nuclear - get warned about it, despite the fact that I have never posted anything on SkS or elsewhere that is not backed up by solid evidence and clear reasoning. So it seems that antinuclearism is endemic in SkS moderation. Get your act together SkS!

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] This is final warning. This deleted because it is offtopic. If you cannot comprehend this and insist on talking nuclear on unrelated threads, then you will not post here.

  18. @16. Fossil industry leaders are not against solving climate change, but they are against the idea that unilaterlally enforcing investment in uncompetitive technologies is going to solve climate change. Only *global* carbon regulation has any hope of success. Individual nations attempting to become zero-carbon by using uncompetitive technologies will merely weaken their own economies, not solve the AGW problem. As Kyoto has demonstrated, attempting to reduce carbon emissions unilaterally merely stimulates energy intensive industry to move to other countries. And that's exactly what happened. China became the worlds manufacturer by massively increasing the burning coal. Kyoto countries gained the psychological satisfaction of achieving some paper promises, but the AGW problem is global and Kyoto did absolutely nothing to solve it.

    This is why some fossil fuel companies have aided and abetted climate 'skeptics'. They view the policy proposals coming out of popular sustainability sentiment as being ineffective, inappropriate and harmful.

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  19. Joris,

    You are off topic and provide no sources for your absurd claims.  I responded to your false claim that renewables cannot provide baseload power here.

    In response to your false claim that nuclear has suffered from bad press, nuclear proponents need to stop whining.  Where I live in Florida the utility executives do not care at all about Greenpeace and they control the decisions.  Your claim is false on it's face.  Stop wasting our time.  The more you rant, the less people listen to you.

    Nuclear is not being built because it is uneconomic.  The current plants being built in the West are grossly overbudget and way behind schedule.  I have seen the Norway plant described by a nulcear engineer as "unbuildable".  So much for generation three.  Wind is cheaper than existing nuclear in most of the USA already, how could nuclear possibly pay for a new plant that takes a decade to build?

    Only Barry Brook, who is an ecologist not a nulcear engineer, publishes papers suggesting nuclear can be useful.  He estimates that by 2060 half of electricity can be supplied by nuclear.  This is too little too late.  He does not estimate any costs, probably becasue it is too expensive.  Renewable is ready to provide all power, ten times as much as estimated for nuclear by optimists who are not even nuclear engineers.  If you cannot find published papers to support your wild claims go away.

    I read a lot of papers about nuclear while doing the background for the renewable review linked above.  People who research future energy supplies have given up on nuclear.  It is uneconomic and cannot be built in the time necessary to do anything about AGW.

    If you want to post about nuclear, write an OP supporting nuclear and cite data.  Invariably nuclear proponents go quiet when they have to provide data.  Provide peer reviewed, supporting data or go away.

    Joris should be banned for wasting our time with no supporting data.  His willingness to bet his family is not evidence.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Thank you commenting in the appropriate place. Part of comment moved there too. And yes, Joris has been invited to submit an article instead of spamming other topics.

  20. There is plenty of solid scholarly work on the nuclear option for solving AGW. Barry Brooks did one a few months ago. There are a few others before that. The least SkS could do mention them in the news roundup. What is stopping SkS? It's no wonder that the SkS readership seems to have bought into the 'renewables will save us' mantra that Michael Sweet holds so dear.

    Here's the paper by Brook. Put it up as an article on SkS and let's have a grownup discussion.

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] At this point you're just repeating yourself, which is slogoneering and against SkS policy.

    [DB] Joris has voluntarily recused himself from any further participation in this venue.

  21. Re-reading Bill McKibben's "The End of Nature" has led me to find an interesting timing link between the 'change of heart and mind" of the Exxon Executive and the UN.

    In 1987 the UN sponsored report "Our Common Future" was published. Starting to read this document, it seems to be the sort of thing that would send the leadership of an industry like the one that Exxon 'excelled in' into battle-mode. It also reaffirms my perspective about the damaging types of development encouraged by the current social-political-economic systems.

    Almost all systems, from democratic free-market capitalist to dictatiorial and communist, consider the growth of perceptions of prosperity to be deserving of being created and maintained, even if those leading the charge of development in unsustainable and damaging directions could understand how unacceptable they are. Those are fighting words - to those type of people.

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  22. As usual, Dilbert makes the point concisely:

    Pinocchio doing the backstroke in Satan's septic tank

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  23. ""

    That was gold!

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  24. Calls for a RICO investigation getting louder;

    The Nation


    Think Progress

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  25. Well it looks like these bad, no good, terrible Greenpeace activists got the real thinking out of some of Exxon's top level people. One could say that was the real McCoy...


    Interestingly, the individual in question seemed more peeved about falling for it than anything else: "deeply embarrassed by my comments and that I allowed myself to fall for Greenpeace’s deception."

    The theory that Exxon is merely trying to defend itself against extremists is looking less and less plausible.

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  26. And an opinion piece from Newsweek resulting from the unintentional disclosure I linked above:


    The underlying reality is unescapable and very simple: there is no long term future for humans on this planet that includes continued, industrial scale use of fossil fuels. Everyone knows it. The ones profiting from it just want to make sure they extract every last little penny before they are forced to change.

    I don't say this lightly. I come from a culture that values speed and skill at handling machines powered by fossil fuels. When I was growing up, the coolest thing one could do was riding motorcycles, doing Rallye racing or flying airplanes. I am a pilot, flight instructor, love to fly and I still love to ride motorcycles. However, reality does not change according to our preferences, despite what some would have the crowds believe.

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