Working Together on Climate Change: Thoughts from a Journalist

Last year, a foundation run by the famed Rockefeller family quietly gathered a group of environmental activists, trial lawyers and political operatives in its Manhattan office to continue a campaign that is rather surprising for oil-fortune heirs: to take down ExxonMobil.

This issue had already captured headlines, as vocal activists spoke out and reports from the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News were published, alleging the company had led a decades-long conspiracy to cover-up climate science. The issue immediately attracted the attention of journalists like myself who care deeply about environmental safety and justice.

But, soon after, the Wall Street Journal reported on a leaked meeting agenda from the Rockefeller Family Fund that heighted an escalating battle between ExxonMobil and members of the Rockefeller family, heirs of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil fortune — a company that, ironically enough, is the origins of Exxon.

As a journalist, the story set up a blockbuster headline: a family fighting the very company that helped make them one of the wealthiest families in the country. But, soon enough, the story began to dissolve.

The Rockefeller Family Fund then took their fight public and directly at ExxonMobil when its head, Lee Wasserman, signaled in the pages of the New York Review of Books that the foundation was not backing down from this misguided crusade, despite a growing chorus of criticism, including from Rockefeller family members who question the prudence of the attacks on the company and worry about sullying the reputation of a family long known for its political temperance and compromise.

For its part, the company’s response was vigorous, including bringing legal action against the state attorneys general who have opened investigations against the company at the urging of radical environmental groups that are, as it turns out, heavily funded by the Rockefeller family.

The irony is that the company is being criticized in some quarters for doing just what it should do: defend its reputation and, more than that, the integrity of its business. The company’s critics — again, paid allies of the Rockefellers — are attacking ExxonMobil as a corporate bully picking on the Rockefeller foundations funding the attacks, as well as the activist groups doing the family’s bidding.

A notable criticism came from Kara Alaimo, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University who essentially lectured ExxonMobil for going too far in its own defense. That, frankly, doesn’t sound like a public relations advice. It sounds more like a plea to ExxonMobil to capitulate.

Indeed, Ms. Alaimo’s analysis completely misses the fundamental point: the Rockefeller family picked the fight with ExxonMobil — not the other way around. And any legal response from the company was just that, a response — and one undertaken in self-defense, not aggression, as Ms. Alaimo would like the public to believe.

Instead of pushing back against the claims made by the Rockefeller family and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Ms. Alaimo claims that Exxon should release all documents requested by Schneiderman in his investigation of the company.

But here’s the thing. The company has long been open about what its scientists have learned about the origins of climate change and has even published the finding publicly. And now it is handing over even more documents under a subpoena issued by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has been accused of pandering to his environmental constituents by opening the investigation.

There is nothing that will undermine environmental movement quicker than tossing around accusations that are unsupported by clear facts. In a time of increased media scrutiny and “fake news,” it’s strange the Rockefeller family would deploy environmentalists to fight this fight.

Time and again, Exxon has publicly acknowledged climate change and is working on developing alternative energy sources apart from fossil fuels. Indeed, the company has made significant contributions to the study of alternative energy resources.

For the Rockefeller family to run an increasingly discredited campaign against ExxonMobil not only undermines the family’s standing. It misses the bigger picture. With ExxonMobil’s efforts to develop alternative fuel sources already underway, wouldn’t it make sense for the family and its network of paid activists to join with the company to focus on the real issue: How do we solve climate change together?


Hazel Trice Edney is the editor-in-chief of Trice Edney News Wire and the former editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and Edney is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Howard University.

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