Exxon lobbyists have been caught out laying bare how they work to delay climate action, but why do so many advocates of bolder climate policies refuse to take a tougher line against their opponents?
There is a glorious scene near the start of the jet black satire Succession when Kendall Roy briefly achieves his life-long goal of replacing his overbearing billionaire father as CEO of the family's media conglomerate. He is approached by his sister's ingratiating fiance Tom Wambsgans who attempts to delicately broach the topic of a scandal that is brewing in the company's cruise and theme park division. "You know what my dad always said?" Kendall replied. "He'd say he loved all his employees, but he particularly loved the guys who ate the shit for him and he never even knew it." The topic is duly closed. Plausible deniability is maintained.
I was reminded of this fictional scene yesterday, as the Exxon board rushed to distance itself from the comments made by two senior executives - one a current employee, the other employed by the company up until earlier this year - who were recorded providing a detailed explanation of their various lobbying efforts to block and delay climate action in the US to undercover reporters from Greenpeace's Unearthed website.
REVEALED: How Exxon held back climate action for decades, and is still doing it today. We went undercover with Exxon's lobbyists to expose the truth. Watch and share. pic.twitter.com/yICeai1Sop— Unearthed (@UE) June 30, 2021
"Comments made by the individuals in no way represent the company's position on a variety of issues, including climate policy and our firm commitment that carbon pricing is important to addressing climate change," said Exxon chief executive Darren Woods in a statement, while failing to clarify precisely which of the "variety of issues" raised by Exxon's lobbyists were apparently unrepresentative of Exxon's approved lobbying strategy. "The individuals interviewed were never involved in developing the company's policy positions on the issues discussed," he continued, again raising more questions than answers. "We condemn the statements and are deeply apologetic for them, including comments regarding interactions with elected officials."
Of course, Exxon's official statements are by definition an admission of management failure. Either the board approved tactics it apparently abhors that undermine its stated commitment to work "on finding solutions to climate change", or it did not have adequate control over some of its most influential and important executives who were pursuing detailed and hugely consequential strategies that they supposedly developed off their own back. It is fair to ask, which is it? Although either way, it constitutes supremely poor management that will further damage the company's hugely tarnished reputation.
There will now be serious questions asked as to what the board knew and when, as reporters, campaigners, and investors attempt to ascertain the credibility of the 'rogue lobbyist' defence. But regardless of who exactly developed the campaign of obstruction and delay elucidated by Keith McCoy and Dan Easley the end results are the same: watered down climate legislation and spending programmes, a deadlocked Congress, the continued circulation of climate denialist talking points, and oil industry endorsements of carbon pricing policies that are never backed up by a serious attempt to build support for such measures.
What the footage and Exxon's subsequent response confirm are two things that everybody already knew. Fossil fuel lobbyists are using every trick in the book and calling in every favour to stymie the Biden administration's plans for full spectrum climate action. And those lobbyists and the various "shadow groups" they work with then operate just far enough removed from their paymasters so as a veil can be drawn over their precise activities. "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest," remains the unofficial motto of lobbyists everywhere.
But if there is little that is surprising about this whole sorry affair (beyond the ease with which seasoned public affairs professionals were tricked into shooting their mouth off about topics of the upmost seriousness) there is still a shocking absence at the heart of the response that is so predictable it is rarely commented upon. As expected, campaigners, journalists, and politicians have rushed to condemn the tactics exposed by Unearthed, but across the business community there is a studied silence. Some investors will likely make their displeasure known at the next AGM and a handful of progressive business groups may step up their use of Exxon as a prime example of all that is wrong with the fossil fuel industry, but for the vast majority of business leaders the omerta will be maintained.
This silence is strange when you think about it. A large and growing band of multinational businesses have made the pursuit of net zero emissions absolutely core to their long term strategies. They have lobbied for more effective climate policies and increased green infrastructure spending, while warning their business is facing existential climate-related risks. Now a company that has a long track record of undermining decarbonisation strategies has been caught erecting further barriers to a transition that many businesses regard as crucial. And yet condemnation comes there none.
There is an obvious and understandable reluctance to criticise a business that many CEOs will still regard as part of their peer group. But there comes a point at which silence becomes counterproductive.
Back in 2014 E3G's Tom Burke wrote a piece for BusinessGreen setting out his theory that the business world was divided into two camps: the climate makers and the climate takers. The climate makers were the polluters that would determine the level of warming we face this century and the takers were the many other businesses that would have to live with the consequences of escalating climate impacts. The climate takers are many times more numerous than the makers, but it is the makers that have pumped billions of dollars into lobbying so as to ensure they can continue to pollute for as long as possible, heaping further damage onto their corporate peers.
More than six years on and little has changed. The net zero movement has helped to mobilise increasingly vocal support for ambitious climate policies from leading corporates, but the ranks of climate takers still struggle to match the influence and spend of Exxon and its pals.
I recently interviewed former Google and Facebook sustainability exec Bill Weihl who now heads up the ClimateVoice campaign, which is calling on the Silicon Valley giants to beef up their lobbying operations in support of climate action to provide a much needed counter-weight to the pollutocrats. You have to wish them well in their mission, because as it stands the reluctance of corporates and investors who are nominally opposed to Exxon's tactics - including, apparently, Exxon's own CEO - to throw everything they have got at securing genuinely ambitious climate policies remains one of the biggest brakes on the net zero transition.
Exxon will not be brought down by this scandal. The management will likely lean a little more heavily into its still badly underpowered transition strategy and perhaps keep a slightly closer eye on the activities of its lobbyists. But the broader strategy will almost certainly remain intact - gas positioned as a bridge fuel regardless of how badly it busts through carbon budgets, inadequate progress on renewables, hydrogen, and carbon capture, warm words on carbon pricing (which remains a good idea) but little meaningful action, and the continued nurturing of the deep political divisions in the US that make genuinely ambitious climate policies all but impossible.
As a result the myriad climate takers - that is to say every other business on the planet - will continue to suffer. But why should they want to suffer in silence?