How Daniel Ellsberg Opened the Door to One of the Most Consequential Climate Stories of Our Time

The whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers was undaunted by the challenge of finding out what the oil industry knew about carbon emissions and global warming.

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Daniel Ellsberg speaking to reporters during a recess in his federal trial in Los Angeles in May 1973. Ellsberg was accused of illegally copying and distributing the Pentagon Papers relating to the Vietnam war. A judge dismissed the charges. Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.
Daniel Ellsberg speaking to reporters during a recess in his federal trial in Los Angeles in May 1973. Ellsberg was accused of illegally copying and distributing the Pentagon Papers relating to the Vietnam war. A judge dismissed the charges. Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

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Editor’s note: David Sassoon, Inside Climate News’ founder and publisher, wrote this appreciation of Daniel Ellsberg after he died on Friday at 92. Ellsberg disclosed in March that he was suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and had just months to live.

In October 2014, Daniel Ellsberg opened the door to one of the most consequential climate stories of our time. I know because Inside Climate News was able to publish it a year later. We were both attending the same invitation-only journalism conference at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University when we met. On my flight to Phoenix, I had seen his name on the list of attendees, and hours later I found myself at the opening dinner, talking to him as we filled our plates with food at the buffet and found an empty table. There were a hundred journalists around us and I had him to myself for half an hour.

I was not out to get a story. I mostly wanted the honor of meeting him and to thank him for what he had done, which I did. He graciously nodded, but he didn’t want to talk about himself. He wanted to know about Inside Climate News. He had never heard of us. Without bragging I let him know right away that we had won a Pulitzer Prize. He was pleased to hear that. The recognition had allowed our remote non-profit newsroom to double in size – to twelve people. What were we working on now? I didn’t have a good answer. We were tiny and no match for oil industry misinformation, I said. He listened to my lamentations with a kind and gentle demeanor, like a favorite uncle or guardian angel. 

Well then, he said, you should find out what the oil companies knew, and when they knew it. The look on my face asked how the hell are we going to do that, and he answered me. “You’ll find people of conscience in every corporation.” Like him at Rand. His words turned on a light inside my head, a sudden illumination. “We’re on it!” I said. He was pointing me to the most consequential climate story anyone could tell. “We’re on it,” I repeated. If our newsroom could locate the answers to the questions Ellsberg posed, the climate crisis would be on its way to being confronted.


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Our conversation got interrupted by a line of people wanting a word with Daniel Ellsberg. I went to bed and hardly slept.

The gathering we were attending had no agenda. It was deliberately an “un-conference.” People who wanted to lead a session posted a sticky note on a wall, and through some democratic process, rooms got filled. Ellsberg’s sticky: the three most important stories that need telling in the coming year. One concerned the torture of prisoners in Iraq. I can’t remember the second, but the third was the one we had discussed together over dinner. He said to the standing-room-only crowd of reporters and editors cramming his room that we really need to expose what the oil companies knew and when they knew it. He went on about it for a while. I had a seat toward the front of the room and pretended to look bored. That was the last time I saw Daniel Ellsberg in the flesh.

Not much later in New York, at a rare in-person gathering of ICN’s scattered staff, I pitched the project, and saw that same look on their faces: how the hell are we going to do that? Hadn’t Daniel Ellsberg hastened the end of the Vietnam War with a Xerox machine? But everybody already knows the oil companies are lying, what would it prove? I managed to convince a small team to start scratching at the most powerful corporations in the world to find their people of conscience. 

Nine months later our team that came to include David Hasemyer, Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, John H. Cushman Jr. and Paul Horn began publishing an investigative series called Exxon: The Road Not Taken. Its nine articles totaled more than 24,000 words and were accompanied by a trove of smoking gun internal company documents.  The first story opened with an account about James F. Black, a senior company scientist, who stood before Exxon’s Management Committee and told them that the burning of fossil fuels—the product they sold—was warming Earth’s climate and could eventually endanger humanity. It was 1977, more than a decade before James Hansen would warn Congress and the world about global warming. During that period bursting with moral opportunity, Exxon executives chose the easy path to profits. They worked at the forefront of climate denial and manufactured doubt about the truth their in-house scientists had confirmed. 

Soon after we published The Road Not Taken, it spawned the hashtag #ExxonKnew. A coalition of state attorneys-general launched an investigation of the oil giant. (The company has been in courtrooms ever since, fighting off liability under the glare of the documents we published.) At the Paris COP in 2015, we were hero journalists. The following year we were named finalists for another Pulitzer Prize.  All great outcomes, to be sure, but of insufficient consequence. The climate crisis is still raging like a hurricane fueled by a hot sea of lies. Tens of millions of lives in the coming century are still at stake. 

“Almost no single revelation will cause significant change by itself,” Ellsberg said in a recent Washington Post video, explaining how the truth needs allies in persistence. “But in combination with other information—other truth-telling—courage is contagious.” 

Last March, Ellsberg announced that he was dying of terminal cancer, and in April I saw him at another journalism conference engaging in other truth-telling, his life’s calling. He was appearing at the Reva and David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism via Zoom from his home nearby. He was cheerful, didactic, impassioned—still spreading the contagion of his courage. He was sharing a screen with Reality Winner, a whistleblower sixty years his junior. They had come to speak on a panel about how government is using the Espionage Act to criminalize journalism; also, in parallel, about how journalists routinely burn their whistleblower sources, exposing them to capture, then “cover the martyr they just created,” as Winner put it. They were leveling a searing critique aimed directly at their audience sitting in the auditorium. 

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Would they blow the whistle again, the moderator asked? “Absolutely, I would not do it again, one hundred percent, zero out of five stars,” Winner replied. For his part Ellsberg said he felt very great regret that he didn’t release the Pentagon Papers sooner. “Don’t wait till the bombs are falling,” he said to any would-be whistleblower that might hear his words. “Don’t wait till thousands more have died.” 

The panel concluded and ahead of two standing ovations, Bob Rosenthal, head of the Center for Investigative Reporting, delivered a farewell tribute. He told a story you don’t want to miss (at 1:01:06), and recommended that we read Ellsberg’s 2002 book called Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. So I picked up the hefty volume, and it became a kind of vigil for me, the pages dwindling as Ellsberg slipped away over the next seven weeks.  

His book is an unsparing self-examination resonant with moral clarity.  He explains why he, a former Marine and hawkish cold warrior, decided to risk a lifetime in jail to end a war built on lies he was once satisfied to tell. It is the chronicle of a hero’s journey, who travels the road not taken, as Robert Frost described:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – 

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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