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Climate Action is Needed Whether Exxon Likes it or Not.

(Photo: Tim Aubry/Greenpeace)

Last week, we were among a handful of organizations who received a letter signed by 13 members of Congress claiming that we may be violating Exxon’s right to free speech. They’re requesting that we divulge any communication we may have had with state officials and many private organizations with regard to looking into what Exxon knew about climate change and when. At face value this request is a threat to constitutional rights. The signers of the letter clearly want to send a message that advocacy organizations and others should only pursue their rights to petition the government, exercise free speech and enjoy freedom of association at their own peril. In short, it’s a blatant attempt to use governmental power to find and deter anyone that shares our values and wants to join us in our efforts.

This all comes as Exxon’s shareholders gather in Dallas, Texas today for their annual meeting, presenting us with a perfect opportunity to spotlight the company’s deception and hold them accountable in the public eye. And in the coming months, there will be many more efforts, including urging more Attorneys General to launch investigations in their own states, and continuing to build the political power of the growing, diverse climate movement, so that we can achieve the successes at the local, national, and international level that are so desperately needed.

As Gandhi’s famous saying goes, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. It is a pitched battle, but one whose time has come. The decades-long attempt by Exxon to deceive the public around the existence of climate change has now entered the fight stage, and it’s about time, since we certainly need to start winning, and soon.

"The decades-long attempt by Exxon to deceive the public around the existence of climate change has now entered the fight stage, and it’s about time, since we certainly need to start winning, and soon."

Record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather events, and the increasing criminalization of activists fighting extraction, are all signs of the growing seriousness of climate change. On top of that, the power of corporations over our government and democracy is at its most pronounced in history. Inequality has reached its highest levels, also spurred on by the lack of government oversight on companies like Exxon. And many communities have been living with the pollution, local control, toxins, and environmental racism that the fossil fuel industry is known for.

Here’s how this all got started: Six months ago we learned from Pulitzer-prize winning reporters that Exxon knew everything there was to know about climate change in the 1970s. Instead of warning the rest of us or changing their business model, they poured their resources into climate-proofing their new drilling rigs for sea level rise and bankrolled almost a half century of climate denial.

Then, last fall, state Attorneys General, beginning with New York’s Eric Schneiderman, launched investigations into Exxon for fraud based on reports showing how long it knew about climate change, and the preparations it began to make to shore up its own operations, while publicly casting doubt on the existence of climate change. What’s more, Exxon has profited enormously while contributing to the climate crisis, with CEO Rex Tillerson’s recent “pay cut” bringing his salary down to 500 times that of the national median household income.

There have been many excellent attempts to expose this, including a campaign ten years ago that mapped the network of think tanks connected to Exxon money, including the American Petroleum Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institution, Cato Institute, and more. There have been films and books, like “Merchants of Doubt” and Dark Money (about the Koch Brothers, but the playbook is quite similar).

Of course we have formed stronger alliances by collaborating with other groups ever since Exxon’s deceit was brought to light. Our voices are stronger and more effective when we join in a collective fight. Together, we’ve been doing everything we can to bring Exxon to justice, and the results are massive: Already 500,000 people have asked the nation’s legal authorities to investigate the #ExxonKnew scandal, four Attorneys General have announced ongoing investigations, and the Department of Justice has referred the case to the FBI’s criminal division.

We will continue to work as representatives of civil society to hold Exxon, and other fossil fuel companies, accountable for decades of deep deception — for denying us a generation’s worth of time for climate action. The House Committee members that wrote to us need to know that the list of “collaborators” is much more robust than the eight organizations who received the letter. In fact, there are hundreds of city and state volunteer groups, climate justice advocate groups, frontline communities, people of faith, public officials, students, labor unions, and international NGOs that are working together calling for deep and meaningful change and accountability. The millions of individuals involved in these “coordinated attempts” adds up to a social movement. The House Committee on Science has named a small fraction of the climate movement. Whether this was intentional or not, they should know that there is an unwavering widespread movement calling for a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels.

Our goal is clear: to hold Exxon accountable for what may be one of the greatest corporate wrongdoings in history. We’re not backing down, no matter how much they try to intimidate us.

Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard is the executive director of Greenpeace USA, founder of the Story of Stuff Project, and has spent more than twenty years investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues. She is the author of  "The Story of Stuff."

May Boeve

May Boeve

May Boeve is the executive director of Previously, May co­-founded and helped lead the Step It Up 2007 campaign, and prior to that was active in the campus climate movement while a student at Middlebury College. May is the co-­author, with Bill McKibben, of "Fight Global Warming Now" (2007).

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