Doing the right thing on climate change

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Jeanne Sparks was published in the Santa Maria Times on Oct. 9, 2015:

People have debated mankind’s influence on climate since Aristotle’s time. The debate among non-scientists continues.

However, leading climate scientists no longer debate. Numerous studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree — humans are causing global warming.

The first calculations of the effect of carbon dioxide on climate change were made in the 1800s. By the late 1950s, scientists were arguing that carbon dioxide emissions could have radical effects on climate. By the 1970s, 62 percent of publishing scientists were predicting global warming.

Back then, even oil giant Exxon was concerned.

In 1977, senior company scientist James Black told Exxon management, “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.”

In 1978, Black reported that independent researchers estimated a doubling of carbon dioxide would increase average global temperatures by four to five degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 18 degrees at the poles.

Exxon responded by pouring millions into cutting-edge research, outfitting a supertanker to monitor ocean and air temperatures and creating climate-change models.

One manager wrote in 1978: "This may be the kind of opportunity ... to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind."

By 1982, Exxon recognized that staving off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” A company primer said: “There are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible."

Exxon’s president of research and engineering, Edward David, told a global warming conference financed by Exxon in 1982 "few people doubt the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation. I'm generally upbeat about the chances of coming through this most adventurous of all human experiments with the ecosystem.”

How uplifting to hear that management of a multi-billion-dollar corporation believed it could change course and share a bright future with people and the planet, even if it meant changing its business plan.

Unfortunately, it did not last.


In the mid-1980s, collapsing oil prices resulted in Exxon cutting its staff, including many working on climate.

In 1988, NASA’s climate expert testified in Congress, leading a senator to declare, “Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend.”

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound. That same year, Exxon, Shell, British Petroleum and others formed the Global Climate Coalition to oppose action on climate change. The GCC helped persuade the U.S. not to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Exxon also began spending millions on organizations that cast doubt about climate change. As the science became more certain, Exxon cast more doubt.

In 2008, under pressure from shareholders, the corporation announced it would end support for some prominent groups. Still, decades of disinformation have confused many.

Imagine if Exxon had kept doing the right thing, how different things might be right now. Still, it’s not too late. It’s time to listen to the scientists and take action.

Visit to read about Exxon’s actions on climate change. Attend the Central Coast Sustainability Summit at UCSB. On Oct. 14, leaders will share information on energy and water issues (

Do your own research and check out “This Changes Everything,” documentary and book, and the websites:,, and

Jeanne Sparks is associate director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.