Oil giant ExxonMobil is under criminal investigation in New York over claims it lied to the public and investors about the risks of climate change. Now Exxon is fighting back against the journalists who exposed how it concealed its own findings dating back to the 1970s that fossil fuels cause global warming, alter the climate and melt the Arctic ice. Students at Columbia Journalism School collaborated with the Los Angeles Times on two of the exposés. Exxon accused the students of producing inaccurate and misleading articles. In its complaint, Exxon also referred to the “numerous and productive relationships” ExxonMobil has with Columbia—Exxon has donated nearly $220,000 to the school. On Tuesday, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, responded to Exxon’s critiques after an extensive review. Our guest Bill McKibben has been following the Exxon exposés closely. In October he was arrested after staging a one-man protest at a local Exxon station. He held a sign reading, “This pump temporarily closed because ExxonMobil lied about climate.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to the oil giant ExxonMobil. It’s under criminal investigation in New York over claims it lied to the public and investors about the risks of climate change. Now Exxon is fighting back against the journalists who exposed how Exxon concealed its own findings dating back to the 1970s that fossil fuels cause global warming, alter the climate and melt the Arctic ice. Students at Columbia Journalism School collaborated with the Los Angeles Times on two of the exposés. Exxon accused the students of producing inaccurate and misleading articles. In its complaint, Exxon also referred to the, quote, “numerous and productive relationships” ExxonMobil has with Columbia—Exxon has donated nearly $220,000 to the school.
On Tuesday, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, responded to Exxon’s critique, written to Columbia’s president, after an extensive review. Coll wrote, quote, “Your letter disputes the substance of the two articles in a number of respects, but consists largely of attacks on the project’s journalists. I have concluded that your allegations are unsupported by evidence. More than that, I have been troubled to discover that you have made serious allegations of professional misconduct in your letter against members of the project [team] even though you or your Media Relations colleagues possess email records showing that your allegations are false,” Coll wrote.
Well, our guest, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, has been following the Exxon exposés closely. In October, he was arrested after staging a one-man protest at his local Exxon station in Vermont. He held a sign reading, “This pump temporarily closed because ExxonMobil lied about climate.”
Bill McKibben, you’re a journalist yourself. Talk about the significance of ExxonMobil writing this letter of complaint to the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who then turned the letter over to Steve Coll, also a leading journalist, who did an investigation of Columbia Journalism School students.
BILL McKIBBEN: So, Exxon is never very subtle, and this was a particularly heavy-handed instance of it. Their letter to Columbia can only be described as thuggish. It carried every kind of implication about how they would do one thing or another to them if they didn’t get satisfaction. But I think they might think twice before they do it again. The letter that came back from Steve Coll at Columbia was a six-page masterpiece of dissection. It sort of shows what happens when real reporters go up against PR people. It was remarkable, Amy.
These stories—I mean, this is just Exxon trying to kick up smoke around the edges. There’s no problem with the stories. They’re incredibly powerful, incredibly true, and so salient to where we sit today. If Exxon had told the truth about what it knew 25 years ago, we would not be needing to have COP21. We would have, sometime around COP3 or 4, really gotten down to work as a planet. And this problem wouldn’t be solved yet, but we wouldn’t have wasted 25 years in phony debate.
AMY GOODMAN: And we did an extensive look at this on Democracy Now! on the investigation of both InsideClimate News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic organization, and Los Angeles Times, which, of course, has also won many Pulitzers. But the evidence that—they had top scientists. They were deeply concerned about this, doing very good work, and saw climate change as real. But then what happened?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, then they—instead of acting on their knowledge, they instead set up the architecture of denial and disinformation. There was a remarkable piece that came out, a study that came out in Nature yesterday, documenting the fact that the money from Exxon and the Koch brothers constituted the sort of epicenter of denial. This was one of these big data analyses that traced the links between thousands of different organizations and newsletters and front groups, and they traced it back to Exxon. That’s why the secretary of state yesterday, John Kerry, in a pretty rare moment, in Rolling Stone really let loose on Exxon and said that it was—if these allegations were true, it was worse than the tobacco industry and a betrayal of everything that it meant to be a responsible corporation.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the New York state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, launching a criminal probe into ExxonMobil?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, you can be sure that Exxon is taking it seriously because yesterday they hired one of the most expensive lawyers in the country, Theodore Wells, most recently famous for having written the Deflategate report about the New England Patriots in last year’s football season. Theodore Wells, from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind in New York, is now Exxon’s—on retainer for Exxon to try and battle these allegations. But good luck to him, because the evidence, down there in black and white, is pretty stunning. Remember, at the best, no one is saying—I mean, the best that anyone is saying is that Exxon was merely morally reprehensible, not outright criminal. That’s the best defense that anybody has mounted for them so far.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re not talking about a civil probe, we’re talking about a criminal probe. This could land Exxon officials in jail?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, who knows? I mean, they haven’t said—at the moment, they’re just subpoenaing documents. We’re still at the beginning stages of this. And, of course, the great hope is that other attorney generals—Kamala Harris in California, for instance—will, we hope, join in at some point, and that the Department of Justice—360,000 Americans have petitioned the Department of Justice, asking them to investigate Exxon.
AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of ExxonMobil writing the letter to the president of Columbia University, in it mentioning the amount of money they have given to Columbia, do you see this as an attack on freedom of the press?
BILL McKIBBEN: Oh, I mean, who knows what precisely they had in mind? But Exxon has attacked the freedom of thought of an entire planet for 25 years. They knew the truth, and they hid it. They told people things that they knew not to be true. There is no more devastating attack on the freedom of thought than that.