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Rockefellers profited on fossil fuels. These days, they're taking aim at the industry


John D. Rockefeller was one of the richest Americans ever. He made his wealth through fossil fuels. And his company, Standard Oil, was so dominant that the U.S. government broke it up into 34 different companies. Over a century later, some of his descendants are fighting some of the companies that descended from Standard Oil's monopoly. Rockefeller foundations have contributed heavily to causes fighting climate change, including support for more than 30 lawsuits across the U.S. against ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies.

A recent Wall Street Journal report characterized the feud between Exxon and the Rockefellers as intensifying. With us now is Miranda Kaiser. She is a fifth-generation Rockefeller and is leading this effort as president of the Rockefeller Family Fund. Welcome.

MIRANDA KAISER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So, Miranda, the Rockefeller Family Fund is funding this wave of litigation, and Exxon is named in all of these lawsuits. Can you just start by helping us understand what specifically do these lawsuits seek?

KAISER: Well, each lawsuit is different, of course, on different legal grounds and according to what state it's been filed in. But the underlying cause of our litigation is that Exxon knew 40 years ago that their business and their product was something that was going to significantly harm the Earth's ecosystem and cause millions of people to suffer. And they aggressively lied about it in order to keep making money. They've spent millions of dollars on campaigns to confuse the public about climate change and keep us passive so that they could keep doing business as usual. They should have to pay for the damages that they have caused, and they should stop lying and become part of the solution.

SUMMERS: I have to imagine that the irony is not lost on you that the foundation that is seeded with your great-great-grandfather's money is now attempting to effectively undo his business legacy.

KAISER: That's true. And maybe some people think it's ironic, but to me, it seems like the obvious course of action. My family has benefited so enormously from the wealth that my great-great-grandfather created through his business model. And I think it would be really morally wrong if we didn't do something at this point to bring attention to the problems created by oil and gas and try and make everyone aware of the problems and come together around the solutions.

SUMMERS: A spokesperson for Exxon called your campaign, and I'm quoting here, "somewhere between privileged and unethical" and told the Wall Street Journal, quote, "it does nothing to lower emissions." What's your response?

KAISER: Well, that statement was actually somewhat incomprehensible. But I think that for one of the world's largest and richest and most powerful companies to be throwing around accusations of privilege is somewhat ironic. And I also think that we all have to do our part in reducing climate change in whatever way we can. And the members of my family have a specific obligation, in my opinion, to do that, but we also have a specific platform that we hope people will listen when we say that this is a real problem and that it has to stop.

SUMMERS: I'm sure you're aware that Exxon stock hit a record price in April and announced record profits last year. Is this campaign working so far?

KAISER: I think it is working. I know that they have had record results and record profits, and it sort of makes me sick to my stomach that they're continuing to profit so much from this business. But I do think that world opinion is changing, and I think that the cases against Exxon and other oil companies are making headway. And my hope is that the politicians will start listening to this, and they'll realize that these CEOs do not deserve a place at the table until they start telling the truth about what they've done and until they're willing to start paying for the damages they've caused and becoming a real part of the solution.

SUMMERS: Miranda Kaiser is the president of the Rockefeller Family Fund. Miranda, thank you for your time.

KAISER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.