For months, a protest movement known as "Exxon Knew" has been rallying for an official investigation, a call to action inspired by reports that Exxon had confirmed the risks of catastrophic climate change — only to deny and undermine those findings for decades publicly. This week that investigation arrived.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched the probe late Wednesday (and CNBC confirmed it Thursday afternoon), subpoenaing the company — now known as the ExxonMobil — and demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents related to climate research.
A global scientific consensus says that greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet, roiling the atmosphere and threatening the world as we know it with irreversible damage. If economies keep burning the oil, gas, and coal that produce the majority of these gases, the climate could become unmanageable within decades, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
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At issue in the New York state investigation is whether ExxonMobil — one of the world's biggest oil companies — confirmed the climate destabilizing role of carbon emissions but misled the public about what they knew. Investors are also a potentially wronged party: the New York attorney general is looking at whether the company prepared shareholders for how a policy response to climate change could hurt the company's oil business.
"We have received a subpoena for production of documents relating to climate change from the attorney general of New York and are assessing our response," Exxon said in a statement to CNBC. "We unequivocally reject allegations that ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of ExxonMobil's nearly 40-year history of climate research that was conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."
In the past year, separate major reporting projects by the Union for Concerned Scientists, the nonprofit InsideClimate News, and a team from Columbia University and The Los Angeles Times have set down a timeline for what the energy company knew and when it knew it. The reports suggest that the company's scientists had confirmed the dangers of climate change as early as 1977, more than decade before NASA scientist James Hansen briefed Congress and activist Bill McKibben wrote a bestselling book for the general public.
The New York state investigation follows rising calls for action not only from activists, but from the three leading Democratic presidential candidates and many members of Congress. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was the first to speak up, tweeting on Oct. 16: "We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let's do the same for oil companies & climate change."