Monday, January 29, 2007

Climate Change Conversations with ExxonMobil, Part 1: Reaching a Tipping Point?

A strange thing happened to me last Friday: I participated in a conference call that put humble bloggers like yours truly in a conversation with Ken Cohen, the Vice President of Public Affairs for ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.

The topic of the day? ExxonMobil's position on climate change and public policy solutions, which the oil giant's VP for Public Affairs apparently felt it necessary to take an hour and fifteen minutes of his busy schedule to clarify for the members of the blogosphere (a full list of participating bloggers can be found at the end of this post).

And what is Exxon's postition on climate change these days?

"We believe climate change is a serious issue and that action must be taken,” Cohen said during the conference call.

Mr. Cohen even came suprisingly close to endorsing a particularly policy approach - the carbon tax - over another - the cap and trade approach currently favored by most policy proposals (including several bills currently introduced to the 110th Congress, as well as the proposals of the United States Climate Action Partnership, USCAP, and it's industry and environmental member organizations).

"Most economists who have looked at this issue would come away saying a carbon tax makes the most sense," Cohen said. "It’s the most efficient policy, the most sector-neutral. It doesn’t favor or disfavor one part of the economy over another."

That's right, Exxon now seems to be singing a different tune on climate change than they have been as recently as several months ago.

Mr. Cohen argued repeatedly that this was not, in fact, a new position, but rather that Exxon's position on climate change has been consistently misunderstood. Cohen maintained that Exxon's opposition to the Kyoto protocol specifically has been mistakenly equated to an opposition to any action seeking to address climate change.

However, it seems to me that even if this is the case, Exxon has had ten years since the Kyoto Protocal was negotiated to clarify it's position on climate change, and considering that the world's largest publicly traded company certainly has access to the best PR firms in the world, either they did a very poor job of correcting this misunderstanding, or they didn't consider it important enough to correct.

Either way then, it is still quite significant that Exxon is now taking this opportunity to publicly clarify its position on climate change, and to bloggers at that.

I'll get into the details of Friday morning's discussion with Mr Cohen in a post to follow sometime tomorrow, but first it's worth taking a moment to unwrap the significance of the simple fact that this conversation even occured...

A Tipping Point?

The fact that ExxonMobil spent an hour and fifteen minutes discussing climate change mitigation solutions with a group of bloggers is a clear sign of a rapidly shifting political landscape.

  • In 2005, ExxonMobil gave $5.7 million to 39 groups that, according to a 2006 British Royal Society report, 'misrepresent the science of climate change,' including the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The British Royal Society report was echoed by a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists released earlier this month, which further details Exxon's funding of organizations employing tobacco lobby-style tactics to spread disinformation and confusion regarding climate change science or solutions. According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

    (To be fair, Mr. Cohen also pointed out that Exxon has funded a variety of organizations, including those engaged in research into climate change mitigation technologies, including Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project, the US EPA's "Smartway" Transport Partnership and others).

  • In the first quarter of 2006, ExxonMobil quietly issued their latest policy and science research funding figures, showing that they had now stopped funding these organizations, a decision Cohen said was reached sometime in 2005, but not publicly announced at the time (a major PR mistake if you ask me!).

  • In the beginning of 2007, ExxonMobil is now saying that they they "believe climate change is a serious issue and that action must be taken."

    After Friday morning's conversation, I'm not at all convinced that ExxonMobil will become a valuable ally in the push to enact comprehensive climate change mitigation policies. But the simple fact that they are apparently no longer actively standing in the way of action is a huge step forward, in my opinion.

    It is a sign that ExxonMobil now clearly understands that a position of denial concerning global warming is simply an untenable position. They've apparently seen the writing on the wall: climate change policies are inevitable.

    Be it this year, the next, or even the one after that, the United States will soon join most of the rest of the world and enter into a new carbon constrained age by enacting policies capping or taxing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon now knows that the policy debates occuring today are not to be trifled with and that they had better attempt to get their input in and shape the policies to their benefit.

    And Exxon's new-found interest in climate change policy solutions isn't the only sign of a shifting policital landscape.

    Last Monday, the heads of 10 major U.S. corporations teamed up with four leading environmental organizations to form the United States Climate Action Partnernship, calling on Congress and the president to support mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions "at the earliest practicable date." The group included the chief executives of Exxon's competitor, BP America, as well as GE, Duke Energy, DuPont, PG&E, Alcoa and others [full list on the USCAP website].

    The corporations have joined together with Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the World Resources Institute. USCAP has put forward a series of policy recommendations designed to cut U.S. annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 to 30 percent below today's levels in just 15 years, with the ultimate goal of a 60-90% reduction over today's emissions levels by 2050 (this is based on the scientific consensus that we must stabilizeatmospheric CO2 levels at 450-550 parts per million to avoide global temperature increases in excess of 2 degress C (3-4 degrees F) and the dangerous climate change that will result).

    Then, on Tuesday, President Bush issued his State of the Union address, in which he finally acknowledged, "the serious challenge of global climate change."

    Sure, it was just a throw away line in his speech (although it did elicit a spontaneous standing ovation from many in the audience, which in turn elicited a priceless smirk on President Bush's face). Just like Exxon deserves little praise for it's new position on climate change, the president deserves little credit for including this one line in the address (why should we praise them for finally admitting what practically everyone else has been saying for years? Actions speak much louder than words Mr President - and Mr. Cohen).

    However, both subtle shifts in position are significant indications that we are now reaching a tipping point on the path to climate change action.

    As Tom Yulsman of Prometheus: the Science Technology Weblog, another participant in the conference call, writes:
    An earthquake occurs when enough strain builds up along a fault line, causing the ground on opposites sides to suddenly break free and shift violently. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a steady build up of strain along the fault line marking the divide between the science of global warming on one side, and public, corporate and political perceptions on the other. The scientific evidence clearly linking human activities to a warming climate has been pulling hard on the fault for years, causing some creep but no major release.
    Over the past year, we have seen that faultline strain more and more, and now, perhaps, we are seeing the first signs of tremors.

    Is a true earthquake soon to come?

    A New Media Age

    The fact that Exxon had this conversation with bloggers and not the mainstream press is also significant (as of yet, I have not seen any mainstream press focused on clarifying Exxon's climate change position).

    Perhaps Time Magazine was right when they selected 'You' as the 2006 Person of the Year, citing the growing influence of web-based, people-powered media like blogging!

    You know we live in a new and decidedly more democratic age of media and communication when an executive of the world's largest company sees fit to not only take notice of the blogosphere, but also actively seek out bloggers to talk to (representatives of APCO Worldwide, a global PR firm, set up Friday's conference call and contaced the bloggers who participated in the call).

    If this is a tale of David and Goliath, than perhaps we haven't yet slain the giant, but we've certainly made him take notice of our little slingshot. Our blogs have now given us a big enough megaphone that, collectively, we can bend the ear of the world's largest companies, a not unsignificant change from a short three or four years ago.

    Participants in ExxonMobil Conference Call (and their Blogs):

  • Yours truly (of course): WattHead: Energy News and Commentary
  • Tom Yulsman, Prometheus: the Science Policy Weblog
  • Susan Smith, Environmental Law Prof Blog
  • Stuart Staniford, The Oil Drum
  • Maria Surma Manka, Green Options
  • Ken Cohen, Vice President of Public Affairs, ExxonMobil
  • Pam Franklin, Online Marketing Strategist, APCO Worldwide

  • Stay tuned for Part Two, where we'll get into the details of 'he said, she said'...

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