Mark McCaffrey's picture

Doing the Math

UPDATE: Exxon Mobil is one of the signatories of a document from the business community supporting the Next Generation Science Standards, which include climate change and human impacts on the environment as integral components. -MM

As glaciers around the world, including the Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau, Alaska, experience "glacier leap" with accelerated melting (and a new hook for tourism—see the glaciers before they disappear!), we can reflect on the fact that America's leading energy company, then Humble Oil, now the giant Exxon Mobil, proudly informed us in an ad in the February 2, 1962 issue of Life Magazine that they were generating enough energy every day to melt seven million tons of ice a day!

Impressive...and over fifty plus years, 365.25 days a year, it adds up to some 128 billion tons of ice. Add the more than doubling of population and carbon emissions over the past fifty years and we're talking about boat loads (technical term) of melted ice.  

In recent years, Exxon Mobil, concerned about the nation's math and science illiteracy, has invested $125 million in the National Math and Science Initiative—and then spent millions more advertising their support of this effort. The Initiative, which focuses on elite students in Advanced Placement courses, does not support the Next Generation Science Standards because they include "controversial" issues like climate change and evolution, according to Lynn Gibson, a spokesperson for the initiative. ("There's greater questioning today than ten years ago" about climate change, she observed.)

And while we’re on the subject of Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest energy company, whose earnings in 2012 were $44.9 billion on revenues of $482.3 billion, spends an estimated $300 million a year on media. This is a fraction of Exxon's profits but more than all National Science Foundation funds for K12 science education last year and more than twice what Exxon put into the National Math and Science Initiative.

Exxon Mobil—notwithstanding its ancestor's 1962 ad implying the company was proudly engaged in geoengineering of glaciers—officially accepts the science that attributes currents changes to the climate system to burning fossil fuels and related human activities. Exxon scientists are involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Exxon reports its emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project, and is on record backing a carbon tax.

But in practice, Exxon continues its long legacy of casting doubt on the causes, effects and risks of climate change.

In a recent This American Life episode called "Hot in My Backyard", Ken Cohen, a spokesmen for Exxon Mobil, deferred to an energy expert at MIT on questions of whether the basic assumptions and math on the 350.org "Do the Math" divestment campaign, designed to encourage colleges to divest from fossil fuel investments, were accurate.

The expert confirmed that we are heading for a 5 degree mean increase in global surface temperatures by 2100 over pre-industrial levels at the rate we are going. That's not just warming, that outright heating. What was left unsaid is that the degrees are in Celsius, not Fahrenheit, meaning 9F/5C—a fact likely lost on many American listeners.

We contacted the expert, John Reilly of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT Center for Environmental Policy, who confirmed that the figures were in C, not F, and that we're heading toward another four degrees Celsius of heating this century, adding to the ~.8C that has already occurred.

That's big news: Exxon Mobile and many others in the energy industry accept 5C/9F as the heating we'll reach by 2100 as we burn fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow.

Given the dire implications of the findings, it is little wonder that manufactured doubt and denial has held sway in our nation for so long. We may opt to filter such information through our own denial mechanisms; what sociologists call motivated avoidance and willful ignorance to avoid the true horror of the situation.

If Exxon Mobil—or any of the rest of us—are really serious about the importance of math and science education in preparing young people for the future, we need to get real. Climate and energy need to be taught throughout the curriculum in grade and age appropriate ways in order to provide the nation with the knowledge and knowhow to make informed climate and energy decisions.

Promoting Advanced Placement courses—which do not cover climate change in any substantial way—will not dig us out of the hole.  Exxon Mobil's CEO Rex Tillerson has suggested:

It requires a lot of education, requires taking an illiterate public—illiterate in the sciences, engineering and mathematics—and trying to help them understand why we can manage these risks. And that's a very intensive, almost one-on-one process—town by town, city council by city council, state by state. So it takes a while. And we're not particularly aided in our efforts by the broad-based media, because it's a lot sexier to write the fear stories than it is to write the here's-how-you-manage-it story.

Is it fair for Tillerson to blame the media and poor science education for people's confusion on the issues when Exxon has historically supported doubt and denial? And, as Bill McKibben asks, it is ethical to defend a business model based on burning up all the fossil fuels in their portfolio that will substantially contribute to a 5C world? 

We think not.