Monday, February 12, 2007

Climate Change Conference Call with Ken Cohen, ExxonMobil Vice-President for Public Relations

This afternoon I was lucky enough to be part of a conference call of left-of-center bloggers with Ken Cohen, Vice-President for Public Relations at ExxonMobil. We got together to discuss ExxonMobil's shifting position on climate change. The other bloggers on the call were Robert Farley from Lawyers, Guns, and Money; Matt Stoller from My DD (his write-up on the call is here), Julie Marsh from The Parental is Political, and Mark Nickolas from Bluegrass Report.

ExxonMobil has the reputation of being the most important corporation against the idea of human created climate change. Cohen takes issue with this, but it's legitimate. As huge supporters of the Bush Administration and funders, both past and present, of organizations devoted to fighting these ideas, ExxonMobil has done great damage to the efforts to fight climate change.

ExxonMobil claims that their position has been severely misrepresented and that they are in fact leaders in creating new climate-change fighting technologies. This conference call is part of their effort to change their public image. Rather than recap the whole phone call, I am going to cover a few points I think are particularly important concerning the call, ExxonMobil, and climate change.

1. ExxonMobil's Public Image

As I just mentioned, ExxonMobil has long funded organizations that support people like Sallie Baliunas, an astrophysicist connected with at least 9 ExxonMobil funded organizations. She produced a 2003 paper denying climate change. She was rigorously attacked by real climate scientists yet until recently, her work was used by ExxonMobil. Dr. James McCarthy, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said of ExxonMobil, "It's shameful that ExxonMobil has sought to obscure the facts for so long when the future of our planet depends on the steps we take now and in the coming years."

Ken Cohen takes exception to this characterization of his company. Yet, while it may be true that ExxonMobil has given a lot of money to researching better technologies that would wean us off our petrochemical economy, it is impossible to deny that their image comes from their own actions.

To give them credit, they stopped funding the worst climate change deniers, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, at the end of 2005. But at the same time, they still fund the American Enterprise Institute, who recently offered scientists a $10,000 reward to dispute parts of the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4th Assessment Report, which stated that there was over 99% certainty that humans are the root cause of climate change. I asked Cohen if it was appropriate for a company who claims to be fighting climate change to fund such an irresponsible organization. His response was that ExxonMobil had nothing to do with this action and that their funding is less than 0.5% of AEI's operating budget. Even if this is true, it does not let ExxonMobil off the hook from secondary responsibility. While many companies give money to AEI, not all of them have reputations as climate change deniers, nor do all of them directly contribute to climate change like ExxonMobil. If ExxonMobil is serious about fighting climate change, the first step they must take is separating themselves from groups like AEI if they insist on denying climate change.

Second, ExxonMobil must take a more pro-active stance in promoting the importance of fighting climate change. Matt asked Cohen if ExxonMobil would begin a PR campaign to fight climate change. Doing so seems like a great idea. It would accomplish actual good and it would serve to improve ExxonMobil's reputation. Yet I did not get any sense that Cohen was inclined to push for this activity. They seem to think that promoting new technologies and distancing themselves from the worst of the deniers is enough. And it is most certainly not.

2. Politics

Of course, another way ExxonMobil could improve their public image is to lobby Republicans on climate change. ExxonMobil has long been an enormous supporter of the Republican Party, with approximately 80% of their political donations going to Republicans. Moreover, they have been huge contributors to the Bush administration. Their influence on the party cannot be overestimated. Coming out openly and attacking James Inhofe and other climate change deniers in Congress would be a huge step and would gain ExxonMobil massive public credibility on this issue. Cohen claims that they are talking to Republican members about climate change. I'm not sure how to take that. What seems quite clear to me is that even if ExxonMobil is not actively fighting climate change ideas at this point, it is very low on their priority list.

Cohen said that they had trouble finding Democrats they could support because ExxonMobil believed in free markets, blah, blah, blah. I find it quite hard to believe that a Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, or Barack Obama presidency will destroy the fortunes of this giant corporation. And boy, that Bill Clinton era sure was disastrous to American business! Despite the partisan absurdity of Cohen's statement, it tells us a lot about ExxonMobil's priorities. They are going to continue supporting Republicans because they want unregulated energy exploration and to pay minimal taxes. This is what drives ExxonMobil's policy. Climate change is clearly far, far below these two things on their priority scale. Ultimately, they don't seem to care enough about climate change to make any real changes in their political donations or lobbying.

I understand that ExxonMobil is a corporation and that entity exists to make money for stockholders. But in order for us to take them seriously on climate change, they need to make it an equal priority to the profit motive--or at least in the same ballpark. As I stated above, they could solve a lot of their image problem if they made the right political moves. They could, for instance, tell James Inhofe, publicly or privately, that if he makes one more statement saying that climate change isn't happening, that not only will the company not give him money for his reelection campaign, but that they will fund his Democratic opponent to the fullest extent within the law. If a Democratic lawmaker centered his public image on attacking ExxonMobil's profits and lobbied for a high tax on their profits, you can bet the farm that the company would do everything in their power to destroy that politician. Until they take similar steps on climate change, their words ring hollow.

The larger point here is this. If ExxonMobil really wants to become leaders on climate change and to create a new image, they could take real actions. But right now, it seems to be a whole lot of words and not a lot of action. Defunding the climate change deniers is a good first step and should be noted. But it is not enough, especially considering the company's past actions. They have the power to create real political change around climate change but I didn't hear anything today to make me think they cared enough to make that happen.

3. The Moral Imperative

Matt kind of went off on Cohen, claiming that ExxonMobil's recent turn was politically motivated. Cohen responded that Matt thought this was some kind of moral issue.

I thought that was the key point of the conversation. Climate change is a moral issue. Any meaningful action on climate change must contain a deep moral conviction for two major reasons--1) It is such a huge problem that it will take great commitment to fight it and 2) the transformation of the Earth that climate change will create means that anyone who cares about the future of the human race and the planet's environment must take action. Climate change cannot simply be tackled with slight policy shifts. That will do nothing. It is going to take massive political will, the willingness to forego profit for a while, and changes in the production and consumption of everything humans use every day. Anything short of that will at best slightly delay climate change's effects and more likely do nothing at all.

Right now, ExxonMobil clearly does not feel that climate change has a moral side to it. It's just another policy to them. Now, you might say that they are a corporation and thus are immune to moral-based actions. But for ExxonMobil and many other corporations, low taxes and free market ideology clearly have a moral component to it. Thus, when corporations find it in their interest, they show all the moral outrage of the most committed activist.

What Ken Cohen and ExxonMobil need to understand is that climate change is the most important issue of the 21st century. With each passing year, the effects become more obvious and the damage to humans, animals, and plants become more severe and irreversible. Unless the corporation, and the rest of the petroleum industry for that matter, become committed to fighting climate change with everything they have, human society as we know it will change radically. I'm not much of an apocalyptic guy. But the changes will be so massive--rising sea levels, droughts, floods, hurricanes, desertification, crop failures, insect infestations, wildlife depletion, heat waves, etc., etc.--that everything we know about this planet is in jeopardy.

Climate change is a moral issue. ExxonMobil, despite their recent policy shifts, are far away from prioritizing it as such. Until they do, they will continue to lag in efforts to fight the problem and their reputation will rightly suffer.

4. Conclusions

ExxonMobil does deserve a bit of credit. They are finally listening to basic science. They have defunded some of the worst climate change denying organizations. They are reaching out and trying to say that climate change is a problem. These are useful baby steps.

But they have far to go. Not only must they make climate change central to their lobbying and funding priorities, but they need to work on reversing the environmental problems they have personally created that are exacerbating climate change. An excellent example of this is the destruction of the Louisiana bayous by shipping lanes for oil companies. These bayous used to shelter New Orleans from the worst damage from hurricanes. We saw what happened to the city when those bayous could no longer serve that functions. With climate change creating more severe hurricanes, those bayous are necessary for the survival of Louisiana. ExxonMobil needs to act on both the primary and secondary causes and effects of climate change and act upon them. Until they do, it is hard to take their talk as much more than empty words.

ExxonMobil is one of the world's largest corporations. In 2006, they made $39.6 billion in profits. That is $4.5 million each hour. They have the resources to become true leaders on climate change. We should criticize them for their past actions. But those don't matter much now. There's nothing that can be done to reverse the past. What matters is what ExxonMobil does from this day forward. They have the power to make real change. Their reputation, both in the present and the future, rests on the choices they make right now.