Stage 1: Denial. Once the proud front line of the anti-warming fight, pretty much everyone has abandoned this absolutist position except for some guerillas too far gone or out of touch to get the message. What does it mean for Exxon? Business as usual.
Stage 2: We didn’t do it. Sure the glaciers are thinning like Cheney’s hair, but that’s because of the sun. Or maybe volcanoes or just the natural world shifting around all on its own. Some influential thinktanks still hang onto this line, although others have given up trying to come up with a plausible mechanism that doesn’t involve CO2. What does it mean for Exxon? Conveniently, business goes on as usual.
Stage 3: How I learned to stop worrying and love the heat. So what if CO2 is heating the planet? Relax, it’s good for you. Though bold, this tactic contradicts what people can see with their own eyes and makes a laughingstock out of anyone who seriously tries it. It’s a desperation move. What does it mean for Exxon? Year end bonuses, a humanitarian award is named in Exxon’s honor.
Stage 4: Spectering. In this stage denialists acknowledge that CO2-driven warming is a major problem. The real magic at this stage comes in taking “leadership” on the issue away from people who might do some good. First comes the calls for more research, preferably multi-decade studies and climate models that are no good unless they correctly predict every sunny day in Seattle for the next hundred years. Then cut the research budget, shuffle resources away from Earth observation and edit any report that makes it through. When that fails to keep a lid on public opinion, throw together a blue ribbon panel made up of petrobusiness executives and petrolobbyists to come up with some incredibly weak tea proposals. See: late-period George Bush (I and II); John McCain. What does it mean for Exxon? Voluntary guidelines. That’ll show them.
Stage 5: Apathy. At some point most denialists will acknowledge that warming is real, we caused it and maybe we should have done something serious back when solutions were still practical. But gosh, the problem has grown so severe, gasoline over $5 a gallon, stagflated recession, war and a national debt crisis mean that can’t realistically deal with it any more. Oh well, mea culpa. Try to hide your shock when denialists jump to 5 as the other fallback positions become untenable. What does it mean for Exxon? A red-eyed James Inhofe and the thirteen other Senate Republicans will beg Congress to focus on the future and not who sold their country out for a palmful of silver. Majority Leader Feingold will thank Inhofe for his input and vote to rename Capitol urinal pucks ‘Inhofe Cakes.’ Public opinion will waver between hearings and opening a wing at Guantanamo, but the energy crisis will be too severe to do much besides some very stern letters.