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Science & Environment

Inside The Climate Change Dispute Between Exxon Mobil And Rockefeller Family

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil is accusing one of America's best known philanthropic families, the Rockefellers, of using their wealth and influence to mastermind a conspiracy against ExxonMobil. To find out more, we reached John Schwartz, a science writer for The New York Times. He joined us from New York, and I asked him to walk us through Exxon's allegations.

JOHN SCHWARTZ: They're saying that the Rockefeller family through funding lots of private organizations and encouraging attorneys general has been at the center of a network of activism that has gone after ExxonMobil both for its past research and its present statements and past statements about climate change. And they used the word conspiracy in saying it, and the attacks have gotten pretty fierce.

SINGH: It's not unusual for them to use the word conspiracy or is it?

SCHWARTZ: It's not the kind of language that you normally hear from corporations, but Exxon when challenged can be pretty tough. Now, the point of contention is over how much Exxon actually knew. There's a whole hashtag and activist movement built around the idea that Exxon knew uniquely that climate change had catastrophic consequences for the planet and used this knowledge both to improve its processes and to plan its - for instance, floating platforms and stuff like that, but that it also fought climate change regulation and fought action in Washington by funding activist groups, by funding groups that would spread doubt about whether climate change is real or not to emphasize the controversy.

SINGH: How is the Rockefeller family responding to ExxonMobil's accusations?

SCHWARTZ: You know, they're very private people. I mean, Rockefellers have run for office, but they don't generally go out and make big public statements about things. And, in this case, as they've increasingly come under fire, they've decided to fight back.

And so David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman who runs the Rockefeller Family Fund, they together wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books that lays out the Rockefeller family positions over time, how they've tried to work with Exxon quietly as large shareholders to get the company to change its ways and then talked about their funding and who they funded and why, what they're doing is civic engagement and not a conspiracy. And so they are going out and, you know - and standing their ground.

SINGH: You know, John, your article points to irony in these claims because much of the family's wealth actually comes from John D. Rockefeller's founding of Standard Oil which later became ExxonMobil. So how does this generally - taking a step back - how does this generally square with the family?

SCHWARTZ: Well, first of all, they are fully conscious of the fact that Rockefellers going against Exxon is news in and of itself. And they hoped that the weirdness of that would propel the story, and it has. Look, they got in the New York Times, OK? You know, it's - it is an attention-getting stand for them to take, but it is not a stand inconsistent with the way the family has been over the last few generations that they have been very big in conservation, environmental protection and very, very focused on climate change both in their personal work and their philanthropies since the '80s.

You know, when they talk about their - like David Kaiser's great-great-grandfather John D. Rockefeller and other members of the family I've spoken with, what they say is, look, he was a very smart person. If he were alive today, he wouldn't be betting everything on fossil fuels, and he would be looking toward moving into renewable and alternative energy because those things are going to be the profit centers of the future. And he was always looking toward the future.

SINGH: That's New York Times science writer John Schwartz. John, thank you so much for joining us.

SCHWARTZ: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.