TERRY PRONE: Protection of shareholders has dire consequences for ‘expendables’

As early as 1977, Exxon researchscientists warned company executives that carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere due to burning of fossil fuels.

Archived notes of presentations made to senior executives in the ’70s and early ’80s establish beyond reasonable doubt that Exxon were ahead of the posse, when it came to having an undertanding of climate change, writes Terry Prone


IT IS the most fantastic material, let’s admit that, for starters. It’s a mineral, with the property of fire-resistance. Extreme fire resistance. In the ancient world, once the thing was mined, it was woven into table cloths and table-napkins. Had a messy dinner party with food ground into the fibre and red wine spills? No problem. The slaves would just strip the table and toss the cloths in to the fire. A few minutes later, with all stains burned off, the coth would be back to its pristine white state.

Similarly, wrapping the dead in the white cloth before placing them on the funeral pyre was good housekeeping because the white cloth kept the ashes of the corpse from mingling with the ashes of the wood making up the fire.

The only minor problem was that the slaves who mined asbestos and the slaves who handled it every day tended to sicken and die a bad death. For a long time, their owners just went “Well, that’s slaves for you — so difficult to get good help, these days.” Then an association was noted. Strabo, the Greek geographer, talked of a “sickness of the lungs” affecting slaves who wove asbestos fabric. Pliny the Elder called, what was later to be known as mesothelioma, “the disease of slaves” and observed that some slaves made themselves masks in the hopes of not breathing in asbestos fragments. God love them, they hadn’t a hope. Asbestos fibres, subjected to any abrasion, divide off into dozens of tinier fibres, any single one of which, inhaled, would spell death for the working slave.

As far as their owners were concerned, it didn’t much matter if slaves died off in their 20s or early 30s, because they tended to have a short life anyway, and for another, there were plenty more where they came from. They were ‘the expendables’. Nobody kept secret the information that asbestos in some way killed people. They didn’t need to. It was simply forgotten.

However, when, in the early twentieth century, the use of asbestos as an insulator in buildings and weaponry exploded, a real need to conceal negative data emerged. The big asbestos miners and manufacturers in the United States knew that asbestos carried a huge mortality rate. Workers died, breathless and in agony, sitting up all night astraddle kitchen chairs, arms slung over the back of the chair in a vain effort to get oxygen into lungs irrevocably corrupted by ingested asbestos fibres. The companies commissioned research to give them the medical facts behind the deaths of their workers. They had the data. And, once they had it, they buried it and denied it for decades.

If the data had been published, compensation would have been demanded by workers, although that compensation might have been manageable, given that those workers were, akin to the Grecian and Roman slaves, utterly dependent upon their masters because of where they lived and how uneducated they were. Born into poverty, they were grateful for asbestos-mining jobs, and went into the mines generation after generation, despite the evidence in front of them. Lack of choice will do that. They were the twentieth century ‘expendables’.

Decades after thousands of deaths, the records were outed, as was the fact that the companies involved had known the medical truth, ignored it in the interests of profit and continued to work people to certain death. They danced in lockstep, did those companies, with the tobacco firms, which also had peer-reviewed examinations of the causative link between their product and the deaths of millions, and which resolutely concealed and denied them.

But those, of course, were the bad old days of the last century, and it coudn’t happen now. Except, of course, for General Motors, which, last Thursday, was ordered to pay roughly a third of a year’s income to the families of victims of a deadly fault in their cars, about which they had known even before the cars went on sale. A faulty ignition switch incorporated in GM cars caused the deaths of 120 people. GM knew the switch didn’t work reliably before they sold the car. They knew it didn’t work when reports and complaints came in. They knew it didn’t work when drivers began to die — they had to have known, because they settled with the lawyers representing the dead drivers. But they shrouded the whole issue in secrecy and continued to sell their killer product. The dead drivers were twenty first century ‘expendables’.

And now comes Exxon. According to the Pulitzer-winning Inside Climate New, which has devoted a team of journalists to the story over eight months, the oil company has knowingly concealed, denied and obscured vital information about the inevitability of climate change and its lethal consequences. It did this, even though its own scientists had presented the information to the corporation long before “global warming,” “climate change” or “climate justice” became part of the international public discourse.

“As early as 1977,” says Inside Climate Now, “Exxon research scientists warned company executives that carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere due to burning of fossil fuels. During the 1980s, due to falling oil prices and economic pressures, Exxon began to push back on their own discoveries, saying that science was inconclusive on man-made climate change. Exxon currently denies ever doing the research.”

That one’s not going to fly, thanks to the thousands of documents unearthed by the reporters. Some of the early research was published in peer-reviewed journals. Archived notes of presentations made to senior executives in teh ’70s and early ’80s establish beyond reasonable doubt that Exxon were ahead of the posse, when it came to having an undertanding of climate change, its causes and its likely effects on rainfall, weather patterns, and — by inference — on economies across the world. Exxon knew. Exxon knew because they invested in their own research. And then Exxon decided, like the asbestos manufacturers and Big Tobacco and General Motors, that a little learning is a dangerous thing and let’s forget we ever knew about that bad stuff.

This voluntary amnesia about an archive full of studies and data allowed Exxon to successfully fight a bunch of legislative proposals to cut emissions which might at the same time have cut the corporation’s profits. Knowing the facts, Exxon invested heavily in groups dedicated to undermining a truth which has already killed people and will kill a lot more of us before climate change comes to a conclusion. The international community, in other words, constitutes the expendables in this case.

This is more than a high moral ground issue. This is an issue of corporate law. Essentially, every member of the board of any public company has, as his (and very occasionally, her) primary duty the protection of shareholder value. That’s their job. That’s their justification for concealment of data which is in the public interest.

It is time international governments changed that and put a duty of care to their citizens above the duty of care to shareholders.

Born into poverty, they were grateful for asbestos-mining jobs, and went into the mines


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