A Government Scientist Warned About Climate Change in 2001. Exxon Mobil Sought to Have Him Removed.
As the 20th century drew to a close, Michael MacCracken was part of a team of U.S. government scientists investigating a threat to the 21st.
“From 1997 to 2002, I was in charge of helping make the first climate assessment on the U.S. — what would be the impacts,” MacCracken, then senior scientist of the federally mandated U.S. Global Change Research Program, says in Doubt, the second episode of the three-part FRONTLINE docuseries The Power of Big Oil.
The assessment, released in 2000, warned of “significant climate-related changes that will affect each one of us” and predicted that, without major intervention, temperatures in the U.S. would “rise by about 5-9°F (3-5°C) on average in the next 100 years.”
For MacCracken, the takeaway was clear. In archival footage from 2000 that appears above, he said, “If we really want to do something significant to slow this, so that our grandchildren don’t face a changing world, we’re going to have to do a substantial movement away from the key fossil fuels of coal and oil, particularly.”
Then, in January 2001, just days into the George W. Bush administration, a headline-grabbing report MacCracken had participated in for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released. It cited “new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”
Exxon Mobil, then the world’s largest privately held oil company, was quick to intervene.
A company lobbyist sent the Bush administration a fax, as previously reported by Inside Climate News, recommending McCracken and several others who worked with the IPCC be removed. The letter accused them of scientific bias and described some of them as “Clinton-Gore carryovers with aggressive agendas.”
“Exxon didn’t like the science that was coming out. And so, was basically calling for a complete replacement of those who were leading the scientific enterprise,” MacCracken says.
Within two years, the scientists Exxon Mobil had named — including MacCracken — would retire or be replaced.
Looking back, MacCracken says, “Exxon Mobil tried to control the discussion of the United States. And then put off the problem: ‘We’ll make our profits now and will slowly change, but we won’t do anything urgent enough, as the science was indicating.’”
MacCracken did not go quietly. When his term ended, he sent Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil’s CEO at the time, a pointed letter of his own: “While my departure may be satisfying to Exxon Mobil,” he wrote, “I can assure you that this will not make the scientific challenge of climate change and its impacts go away. That 150 countries unanimously agree about the science of this issue is not because of some green conspiracy but because of the solid scientific underpinning for this issue. … To call Exxon Mobil’s position out of the mainstream is thus a gross understatement.”
In response, MacCracken received a letter from a VP at the company, saying: “we regret that you apparently don’t understand the company’s actions and activities related to this complex issue. Possible human induced climate change is a long term risk that we at Exxon Mobil take very seriously.”
“They had to say something,” MacCracken says, chuckling.
Exxon Mobil’s response to the 2001 IPCC report is one of several intersections between major energy companies and U.S. government officials explored in The Power of Big Oil, Part Two: Doubt. Even as the scientific evidence grew more certain about climate change in the new millennium, Doubt examines the fossil industry’s efforts to instill uncertainty.
In three episodes, the docuseries traces that history across 40 years and multiple presidential administrations, investigating the lengths to which the industry went to cast doubt on the science, influence public perception and block action from the 1980s to the present day.
Exxon Mobil declined to grant FRONTLINE an interview but said in a statement that it “has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks.”
For the full story, watch The Power of Big Oil, Part Two: Doubt, above. Part One: Denial and Part Two: Doubt are now streaming at pbs.org/frontline, in the PBS Video App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. Part Three: Delay premieres May 3, 2022, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings) and will also be available to stream.
The Power of Big Oil is a FRONTLINE Production with Mongoose Pictures in association with BBC and Arte. The series producer is Dan Edge. The producer and director of episode 1 is Jane McMullen. The producer and director of episode 2 is Gesbeen Mohammad. The producer and director of episode 3 is Robin Barnwell. The editorial consultant is Russell Gold. The senior producers are James Jacoby and Eamonn Matthews. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.