Exxon scientists accurately predicted global warming from burning fossil fuels. Exxon's climate research decades back painted an accurate picture of global warming, according to a new scientific paper. Still, the oil company continued climate-denying policy efforts.

Exxon climate predictions were accurate decades ago. Still it sowed doubt

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Scientists from ExxonMobil accurately predicted that burning fossil fuels would lead to the global warming that the world is now experiencing. That's according to a new study in the journal Science. But despite having very good information, Exxon funded a decades-long campaign to cast doubt on human-driven climate change. Jeff Brady from our Climate Desk is here to tell us more. Hey, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I believe I'm correct in saying we have heard some of this before, that ExxonMobil knew that burning fossil fuels would worsen climate change. What exactly is new now?

BRADY: Yeah, the difference is it's clear ExxonMobil was working with some really good information about climate change. For the first time, researchers at Harvard University and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research analyzed ExxonMobil's global warming predictions from 1977 through 2003. Then they compared that to what's actually happened, and the two line up very closely. Geoffrey Supran is the lead researcher. He's now a professor at the University of Miami.

GEOFFREY SUPRAN: Specifically, what we've done is to actually put a number for the first time on what Exxon knew, which is that the burning of their fossil fuel products would heat the planet by something like 0.2 Celsius every single decade.

BRADY: And that's pretty much what happened. Supran says the information ExxonMobil had was as good or, in some cases, even better than what independent scientists and governments were predicting. Still, the company spent decades casting doubt on climate science, and that helped delay action on climate change.

KELLY: ExxonMobil has defended itself vigorously, I think it's fair to say, from claims like this in the past. What is the company saying about this new study?

BRADY: ExxonMobil says this research is right in line with what it's heard in the past and says that the conclusion that Exxon knew about climate change and did nothing is wrong. Exxon says its understanding of climate change developed right alongside the broader scientific community. A spokesman explained in a statement that critics are looking at the company's internal policy debates and recasting them as a disinformation campaign. But the company says it's committed to being part of the solution to climate change and the risks it poses.

KELLY: Jeff, let me turn you to a legal question. Lawsuits have been filed against companies like ExxonMobil for damages related to global warming. Do we know how this new research might affect those cases?

BRADY: Yeah. This evidence adds research or adds evidence. Well, this research adds evidence to the more than 20 states and local governments bringing those damage cases. We're also seeing a new round of racketeering lawsuits, one recently from Puerto Rico communities. That - they - those claim that fossil fuel companies, industry groups and others all conspired to mislead the public about the effects of their products. And law professor Karen Sokol says considering all that litigation, this research is compelling. She says ExxonMobil had a duty to share what it knew with the public and policymakers because, you know, that's how science works.

KAREN SOKOL: Imagine that world and the different trajectory that consumers, investors and policymakers would have taken when we still had time versus now, when we're entrenched in a fossil fuel based economy that's getting increasingly expensive and difficult to exit.

BRADY: She says this new research provides significant evidence of the kind of deception and lawbreaking that many of the lawsuits allege.

KELLY: And, Jeff, just give us a quick overview of what the status of these lawsuits is now.

BRADY: Yeah, the cases are slowly making their way through the courts. State and local governments are filing new cases. But, you know, this is big, complicated litigation. It's often compared to those tobacco lawsuits a generation ago. It's been slowed down a little bit by questions about things like where the court cases should be heard. But we're going to be hearing about these cases for years to come.

KELLY: Jeff Brady of NPR's Climate Desk, thank you.

BRADY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "GUNSHOWERS")

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