Fossil Fuel Giants Should Be Terrified of Becoming the Next Big Tobacco

ExxonMobil can afford the monetary damages at stake in a suit from New York State. But its reputation might not survive.
A photoshopped ExxonMobil logo that is falling apart.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

One of the world’s largest and most powerful oil companies wants it to be known that it thinks anybody suing it for climate change is wasting their time.

“ExxonMobil did nothing wrong,” the company’s attorney Theodore Wells said during a recent New York State Supreme Court trial brought by the state’s attorney general to determine if the company misled its investors over risky climate investments. “The evidence will show that the allegations in the complaint are bizarre and twisted and not connected to the reality of the truth.”


But a growing wave of lawsuits are accusing Exxon of lying to people about the dangers of climate change. For instance, the fossil fuel giant ran a 1997 ad in the New York Times saying that climate science is “uncertain” even though one of its own scientists had years earlier warned internally of potentially “catastrophic” impacts from global heating. And as those suits pile up, some experts think the company and the wider industry are much more concerned than they are publicly letting on.

“They fear the narrative at the center of these cases more than anything,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, a legal advocacy group. “In terms of short-term immediate stuff they have to deal with, these cases are by far the number-one concern of the industry because of all the potential ramifications.”

Some of those ramifications are financial. Cities like Honolulu are looking to sue fossil fuel companies to help pay for billions of dollars worth of damage to coastal infrastructure caused by rising seas. A ruling against Exxon in the ongoing New York case, which might come in the next few weeks, could force the oil major to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. But that’s not exactly devastating for a company that earned close to $21 billion last year.

The bigger potential danger for Exxon is already materializing: widespread public recognition that the company knew about the catastrophic dangers of global warming and then spent millions of dollars to sow doubt around the science. At a certain point, so much evidence could emerge in support of this narrative that the company loses any authority to dictate or influence regulations affecting the future of its industry. The risk isn't so much financial as it is political. If Big Oil becomes universally regarded as toxic, there would be immense public pressure for legislators to dissociate from it, much as they have with other disgraced industries.


“It’s safe to say that the tobacco industry is not going to be writing public health policy in the United States, nor is the opioid industry for that matter, and I think it’s a similar notion here,” Wiles said.

At this point it’s fair to ask what public credibility on climate change a company like Exxon could possibly be clinging to. Don’t wide swathes of the population already distrust the oil industry? That’s true, Wiles explained, but people’s animosity towards Big Oil tends to be passive and resigned. They know that oil companies and their lobbyists can be kind of slimy, but they don’t have a clear sense of how things could be any different.

“When you tell people that oil companies are being sued because they lied, that they knew about climate change 40 years ago, they wrote it all down, they called it potentially catastrophic, they were really worried about it, but then instead of doing the right thing they ran this massive disinformation campaign,” Wiles said, “you tell people that, and the intensity of the dislike for oil companies essentially doubles.”

This is what the Center for Climate Integrity found when it surveyed close to 17,000 Americans earlier this year. After hearing about Big Oil’s efforts to conceal life-saving science on global temperature rise from the public, respondents who view companies like Exxon as “very” or “somewhat” responsible for the climate emergency go from 67 to 83 percent, with the “very” responsible category rising from 23 to 42 percent.


And this seems to be true across party lines. “Despite other ideological divisions, when voters learn about Big Oil’s disinformation campaign, 91% of Democrats, 78% of Independents, and 73% of Republicans support holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for the costs associated with climate change,” reads a summary of the poll findings.

If these findings are accurate, it could explain some of Exxon’s behavior. The company’s lawyer has on the one hand called climate litigation against it “a cruel joke.” Yet when the company last year said it would support a national price on U.S. carbon emissions—a move that CNN reported “could allow the company to shape legislation”—the announcement came with a gigantic catch: Exxon wanted immunity from all future federal and state climate litigation.

Being held liable in court of lying to the public about climate change and profiting from delaying society’s response is a potentially irreversible blow to Exxon's brand, one that could potentially make it harder to retain political allies, thereby reducing its ability to influence future climate legislation that could put it out of business.

“Do I think they’re concerned? I think they’re terrified. And I think they should be,” said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the nonprofit legal organization the Center for International Environmental Law. “I think this poses a really profound threat to the industry and that’s precisely why they’re fighting this so vigorously.”

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.