The assignment was simple: find out what energy companies knew about climate change, and when they knew it. InsideClimate News (ICN) reporter Neela Banerjee was initially skeptical they’d find any significant evidence that fossil fuel companies knew about the dangers of global warming. “At first, we thought, this was ridiculous,” she says. “We are not going to find anything.” As the nonprofit news organization’s team began to work through congressional testimony and talk to climate scientists, however, they found mention that oil giant Exxon has not only been involved with climate change research, but had actually published studies in peer-reviewed journals in the 1980s.
One Exxon scientist, Henry Shaw, had even published studies as far back as the late 1970s. When Banerjee and her colleagues tracked down his research, they discovered Exxon had fitted out one of its supertankers with sophisticated equipment to monitor carbon dioxide in the ocean and the atmosphere at a time when few scientists were studying global warming at all. Though Shaw had passed away, the reporters discovered document after document showing how Exxon’s scientists had agreed that emissions from fossil fuel companies were warming the planet, putting humans at risk. “It was astounding,” Banerjee says.
InsideClimate News published its findings in a nine-part series, “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” in fall 2015, detailing the extent of Exxon’s scientific research, as well as how the company covered it up after it turned in the 1980s to suddenly denying climate change existed. The story earned ICN a nomination for a Pulitzer in Public Service and it was a winner or a finalist for practically every other environmental and investigative award last year.