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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton became the latest voice in a growing chorus of public officials and candidates for the nation's highest office calling for the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to investigate how much, and how early, ExxonMobil knew about the impacts of fossil fuel burning on the climate — and whether their subsequent deception on the issue was criminal.
When asked on Thursday by climate activists at a community college in Berlin, New Hampshire whether the DoJ should investigate, Clinton said, "Yes, yes they should … there's a lot of evidence they misled people."
Separate investigations released this fall by the website InsideClimate News and by the Los Angeles Times draw on different caches of internal documents and interviews with ex-employees, but paint a similar picture: Exxon had been aware of climate change since at least 1977. Then, according to one of the documents, the company's senior scientist told the a management committee that there was "general scientific agreement" that the "most likely" way humankind influenced the Earth's climate was by burning fossil fuels.
Working initially with the government, Exxon scientists pioneered some of the earliest climate change research, sailing company ships fitted to measure carbon in the ocean in the early 1980's, and they predicted that fossil fuel-driven climate change would increase global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius this century — an estimate which holds up strikingly well to current scientific understanding.
But that same company scientist also warned of a "five to 10 year" window before "critical" decisions about changing our energy usage would be needed. Rather than pushing to recommend those changes, which their own science deemed necessary to prevent dangerous levels of global warming, Exxon, which merged with Mobil in 1999, worked to discredit the growing scientific consensus around climate change, sowing seeds of doubt that helped render climate deals with teeth untenable for years to come.
A large collection of environmental groups, civil rights organizations, and indigenous peoples' movements issued a joint letter today Friday calling for a DoJ investigation.
"Given the damage that has already occurred from climate change — particularly in the poorest communities of our nation and our planet — and that will certainly occur going forward, these revelations should be viewed with the utmost apprehension," they wrote. "They are reminiscent — though potentially much greater in scale — than similar revelations about the tobacco industry."
And although one recent poll found that fewer Americans than ever — regardless of political party — doubt manmade climate change, those alleged Exxon-sewn doubts linger, especially among members of the Republican Party.
Two Democratic Congressmen from California, Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, were the first to call for an investigation on October 14th, calling the allegations in the articles "immoral" if true. Clinton's main Democratic contender, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, echoed the call in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch last week.
"These reports, if true, raise allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry's actions — conduct that led to a federal racketeering conviction," Sanders wrote. "Based on available public information, it appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse.
Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, also running for the Democratic Party nomination for the White House, tweeted his support on October 16th: "We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let's do the same for oil companies & climate change."
ExxonMobil has dismissed both of the reports, and InsideClimate News as ideologically driven, but they face other battles. On Thursday, senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island wrote ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, noting that they've been following the twin investigations, but are on the company's trail for a different reason.
They drew a link between Exxon's public withdrawal from organizations that funded climate change denial, with the increase in anonymous funding to a group called Donors Trust, which distributed $80 million between 2003 and 2014.
The pair of senators pointed to Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, who has said Donors Trust does "double duty" by concealing the identity of contributors while funding the climate change denier apparatus.
The senators challenged Tillerson to reveal how much, if any, Exxon contributed to Donors Trust, and if the company matched any employee donations.
"The correlation between ExxonMobil's decision not to fund some groups openly associated with climate change denial, and the increase in funding from a group that does, is 'suggestive of an effort' to simply reroute its support," they wrote.
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom