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Why the Rockefellers are spending their oil fortune to end fossil fuels

When the Rockefeller Foundation launched a high-profile campaign last month to support climate solutions, the move gained attention for two reasons: the $1 billion-plus size of the pledge and the name attached to it.

The Rockefeller name has been synonymous with the oil industry since John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s Standard Oil Company became the dominant source of petroleum in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. Today, however, many of Rockefeller’s heirs and the philanthropies they founded are using one of the world’s most storied oil fortunes to help end the use of fossil fuels.

“There is an irony to it,” the Rockefeller Foundation’s Joseph Curtin acknowledged in an interview with Newsweek, but he added that he sees a “logical consistency” in applying oil wealth to climate action. “I feel that we’ve an extra responsibility almost to address the climate change challenge on that basis.”

As managing director for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Power & Climate team, Curtin will lead programs to reduce the use of coal-fired power in Asia and speed deployment of battery storage for renewable energy on electric grids. Other projects will include renewable energy mini-grids in developing countries, climate-smart infrastructure, and nature-based solutions for carbon removal and climate resilience. The new strategy will direct about 75 percent of the group’s grants over the coming five years into climate action, all of it funded by a fortune that sprang from oil wellheads.

“I see the Foundation’s $1 billion climate solutions commitment as entirely consistent with John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s philanthropic ideals,” Rockefeller family member Daniel Growald told Newsweek in an email exchange.

Growald is a great-great grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and works in clean energy investment and entrepreneurship. He said climate change was unknown when Rockefeller started the oil business. Now that we know fossil fuels have “placed humanity on a collision course,” he said, it makes sense to direct the family wealth into solving problems that come from oil extraction.

“Rather than being somehow wrong for money earned from oil to be used to fund a world beyond oil, it’s what we should hope to see more of in society: That successive generations use their resources to correct harms only recently brought to awareness, and we evolve our goals in step with our consciousness,” Growald wrote.

Newsweek spoke with representatives of the three major Rockefeller philanthropies and some of their high-profile grant recipients about the ways that this historic fossil fuel fortune can help bring about a cleaner energy future, even when it means confronting the oil giant that grew from John D. Rockefeller’s business.

Tackling Exxon

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. started Standard Oil in 1870 and at one point controlled roughly 90 percent of oil production in the U.S., becoming one of the world’s richest people.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard’s monopoly power violated antitrust law, and the company broke into several smaller ones. In 1972, one of those companies became Exxon and in 1999 Exxon merged with another Standard spin-off, Mobil Oil. Today, Exxon Mobil is the world’s largest publicly traded oil company with $413 billion in total revenue last year, an increase of nearly 45 percent from the previous year.

Rockefeller established the foundation that bears his name with a $100 million endowment. His children and grandchildren started other charitable groups, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1940 and the Rockefeller Family Fund in 1967.

All three of those philanthropic organizations are now engaged in large-scale climate action campaigns, and some of that work challenges Exxon Mobil.

“It was certainly, from my perspective, an act of courage to go directly at the source of the family’s wealth, but it also came from a sense of responsibility,” Rockefeller Family Fund Director Lee Wasserman told Newsweek.

Exxon Mobil, perhaps more than any other oil company, has come under criticism not only for its greenhouse gas emissions but due to revelations about what the company knew about the impacts those emissions would have. That information is now public thanks, in part, to the Rockefeller family.

“They have, I think, a particularly important sense of standing to call out the company and the horrific conduct that they’ve been engaged in now for all these decades,” Wasserman said.

Scholarship supported by the Rockefeller Family Fund helped to disclose how Exxon kept secret its own internal science on the coming effects of climate change and worked to obfuscate public knowledge about climate change.

“Exxon Mobil systematically misrepresented what they knew about climate change and misrepresented what mainstream scientists were saying,” science historian and author Naomi Oreskes said to Newsweek.

The Rockefeller Family Fund supported Oreskes’ work at Harvard University, where she is the Henry Charles Lea professor of the history of science and an affiliated professor in earth and planetary sciences.

Building on groundbreaking investigative journalism by the nonprofit Inside Climate News, Oreskes published peer-reviewed studies to establish a firm public record of Exxon’s behavior. Her most recent work with co-author Geoffrey Supran, published in January in the journal Science, shows that Exxon had remarkably accurate climate modeling decades ago that predicted some of the very conditions we are now experiencing.

“Exxon Mobil executives explicitly said that climate models weren’t accurate or precise enough to be able to predict what would happen,” Oreskes said. “Their own scientists were telling them, ‘Well, actually, we really do know.'”

Oreskes’ research has been cited as evidence in lawsuits seeking to hold Exxon Mobil accountable for damage from climate change, and the Rockefeller Family Fund also supports some of the plaintiffs in those suits. Wasserman said the fund has given grants to two nonprofits litigating some of the climate cases.

Oreskes said she would like to see more business leaders doing what the Rockefeller family has done, coming to grips with changing realities.

“That would be my hope for the companies that John D. Rockefeller created but, sadly, our work has shown that’s not what the companies are doing,” she said.

When contacted for comment, an Exxon Mobil media relations representative responded with the following statement: “We are focused on the future and our role in the energy transition, which is rooted in our efforts on investing $17 billion in real solutions to reduce emissions—ones that will have a real, sustainable impact on people and the planet.”

On October 11, Exxon Mobil announced the $59.5 billion purchase of Texas-based shale oil company Pioneer Natural Resources. Industry analysts say that shows that the company has no intention of moving away from oil for at least another decade.

Celebrating Change

A third major Rockefeller philanthropy, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has been investing in clean energy and climate action for more than a decade. A company spokesperson told Newsweek via email that it expects to make nearly $29 million in climate-related grants this year, continuing a long tradition of conservation spending.

One frequent grant recipient is the climate activist group, which was co-founded by environmental journalist Bill McKibben in 2008. Named for a safer concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million, the group has chapters in 70 countries and has adopted online organizing techniques to target fossil fuel producers with protests and pressure campaigns. A review of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s disclosure records shows a little more than $2 million in grants to the group over 12 years.

“I think they understood from the start the power of their name to help people understand the necessity of this transition,” McKibben told Newsweek via email.

In addition to directing their spending toward climate action, the Rockefeller groups have also shifted their income streams by divesting from fossil fuel interests. The Rockefeller Foundation announced its move away from fossil fuel investments in 2020, following similar action by the Rockefeller Family Fund in 2016 and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 2014.

McKibben recalled attending an event in 2014 to announce the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s divestment.

“I remember thinking, the oldest oil fortune on Earth has decided that oil is not the future in any way; we’re getting somewhere,” McKibben said.

McKibben noted that the Rockefellers aren’t the only oil heirs to put their money into climate action. For example, Aileen Getty, an heir to the Getty Oil fortune, uses her foundation and public profile to support climate solutions. The Pew Charitable Trusts have also funded numerous projects on climate policy and clean energy over the years. The Pew family fortune originally derives from Jospeh Pew’s Sun Oil Company, now Sunoco.

“Remember, the whole point of movements is to convince people to change,” McKibben said. “When people, and families, do change then we celebrate.”

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