This article originally appeared in the Weekly Standard online on March 14, 2016 as well as in the print edition.
In January the Los Angeles Times reported that California attorney general Kamala Harris is investigating ExxonMobil for securities fraud and violation of environmental law. Harris hasn’t confirmed this, but leaks from her office say they are building a case on the premise that Exxon (back in the 1980s before its merger with Mobil) downplayed the risks of global warming. The idea is that Exxon knew global warming to be real but hid its knowledge, propping up share prices by giving investors false confidence and blocking profit-hobbling regulations. Harris follows in the footsteps of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who subpoenaed Exxon in November on a similar quest.
The investigations are based on the observation that Exxon took some steps, such as raising the level of its off-shore drilling platforms, consistent with the possibility that global warming might cause sea levels to rise. But Exxon has billions of dollars tied up in its oil exploration and extraction. The mere fact that the company may have taken precautions against a remote danger doesn't mean the company believed the risk to be likely, let alone certain (any more than buying life insurance means one expects to die soon).
And how, one might also ask, could Exxon have had knowledge of a catastrophic rise in ocean levels when that catastrophe hasn't even happened? Scientists who invested heavily in predictions of steeply rising sea levels have been scrambling of late to explain why the oceans have only crept up at the rate of 2.2 millimeters a year (a pace far below what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once confidently said would come to pass).