Shell Knew Fossil Fuels Created Climate Change Risks Back in 1980s, Internal Documents Show

Scientists working for Shell warned the oil giant decades ago about the climate change risks posed by fossil fuels, new documents show. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A trove of documents shows the oil company’s scientists urged its leaders to heed the warnings. That could now play into lawsuits over global warming.

By John H. Cushman Jr. - Apr 5, 2018

Internal company documents uncovered by a Dutch news organization show that the oil giant Shell had a deep understanding, dating at least to the 1980s, of the science and risks of global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions.

They show that as the company pondered its responsibility to act, Shell's scientists urged it to heed the early warnings, even if, as they said, it might take until the 2000s for the mounting evidence to prove greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were causing unnatural climate change.

"With the very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then before doing anything," company researchers wrote in a 1988 report based on studies completed in 1986. "The potential implications for the world are, however, so large that policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part."

Otherwise, a team of Shell experts said, "it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation."

For the next decade—as the emerging science was becoming increasingly robust, and as international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions gained steam and calls for action grew more urgent—the company persisted in emphasizing the lingering uncertainties of climate science and the costs of ambitious policies, the documents show.

Shell's own "review of the scientific uncertainty and the evolution of energy systems indicates that policies to curb greenhouse gases beyond 'no regrets' measures could be premature, divert economic resources from more pressing needs and further distort markets," a February 1995 management brief advised.

The documents were unearthed by the journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent, whose investigative article was published on Thursday in Dutch. Many of the documents, along with explanatory notes, were released on the Climate Files website, where researcher and climate advocate Kert Davies maintains extensive archives. To get their work before a broader audience, they shared embargoed copies of the documents.

What Shell Knew & What It Means for Lawsuits

Just like researchers at other oil and gas companies, notably Exxon, Shell's scientists and managers understood, before the general public, that uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions could eventually put its core businesses at risk—and alter ecosystems and put much of the world's population in peril.

The accretion of evidence complicates the industry's position as Big Oil defends itself in a broadening array of climate-related litigation.

On Wednesday, Dutch environmentalists said they plan to sue Royal Dutch Shell to force it to cut its oil and gas investments and production. Donald Pols, director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie, said the company "should take its responsibility to stop wrecking the climate."

Responding to the litigation, Shell said that it has long embraced climate change science and strongly supports the Paris climate agreement aimed at limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less. But it said that meeting that target is a complex social challenge, that energy is important to the global quality of life, and that the issues should not be tackled in court. Rather, it called for sound government policy and a cultural shift toward green energy.

Shell is already a defendant in other court cases.

The key legal question in much of the litigation is whether the companies understood risks of global warming well enough, and early enough, to be held accountable for damages that are already occurring and are likely to grow.

'Major Social, Economic, Political Consequences'

The Shell documents released so far don't address in significant detail questions of liability or whether Shell was properly disclosing risks to shareholders.

Litigators are sure to note a brief, but telling, remark in the 1988 document: The fossil fuels Shell consumed and sold at the time "account for the production of 4 percent of the CO2 emitted worldwide from combustion." Two tables broke the data down.

"In the light of the possible effects of an increase in greenhouse gases, it is important to examine the likely political responses to expressions of environmental concern," Shell's report said.

The emerging problem "could have major social, economic and political consequences," it said—a powerful enough upheaval to be "the greatest in human history."

By then, Shell had to be acutely aware of the growing political repercussions of its contribution to the climate problem. After all, the 1988 document was circulated just as NASA scientist James Hansen testified in Congress that global warming had already arrived and had to be dealt with urgently.

Shell's What-If Scenario: East Coast Hurricanes

Over the decades, Shell spent considerable effort generating what-if scenarios to help it grope its way forward.

In one, a 1998 planning document carrying the acronym TINA (for "there is no alternative"), the company even imagined events in the year 2010 after violent and damaging storms wreaked havoc on the East Coast of the U.S.

"Although it is not clear whether the storms are caused by climate change, people are not willing to take further chances," the document speculates. "After all, two successive IPCC reports since 1995 have reinforced the human connection to climate change."

"Following the storms, a coalition of environmental NGO's brings a class-action sit against the U.S. government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done," the scenario states.

How Shell's Thinking on Climate Changed

Shell's documents of the era, like papers from Exxon at the time that were published in 2015 by InsideClimate News, are full of passages about the uncertainties that surrounded the emerging science. A nuanced reading suggests that Shell, then as now, gave more attention to the need for global action on climate, and did so earlier, than Exxon.

To this day, the company opens the door a bit wider to a more responsive approach to the climate crisis. But its current thinking continues to generate debate over whether its vision is ambitious enough.

The Dutch archives trace the evolution of the company's thinking over years of considerable climate policy turmoil.

For example, Shell participated in the work of the Global Climate Coalition, founded in 1989 to fight the Kyoto Protocol, only to leave it 10 years later over irreconcilable differences over the protocol's emissions targets, which Shell embraced.

All the while, concentrations of carbon dioxide moved inexorably upward. Children born since that time have never lived through a year in which the world's climate was cooler than the previous average.

One passage from 1988, even though written in a dry corporate style, reads now like an evocation of this perspective across the generations.

"The changes in climate, being considered here, are at an unaccustomed distance in time for future planning, even beyond the lifetime of most of the present decision makers but not beyond intimate (family) association," it said.

In other words, it said you might not see the results of your decisions, but your children and grandchildren might.

In the Mid-1990s, Straddling the Line

In a 1995 "management brief" on climate change that stressed its "major business implications for the fossil fuel industry," Shell conceded the "general consensus" of its human causes while making a nod to what it called "well-grounded scepticism." It said "a definitive, unequivocal position on the science of global warming ... quite simply is beyond current capabilities."

Still, it suggested that "over the next decades, renewable forms of energy can gradually become competitive," and it projected that "CO2 emissions could peak at about 10 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) a year before the middle of the next century and decline." (The figure Shell predicted for the eventual emissions peak is equivalent to 36.4 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e). Global emissions from energy and cement reached 32.5 GtCO2 last year.)

The next year, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was publishing its second major assessment of climate science, Shell found itself in a delicate balancing act between accepting the scientific consensus and arguing that there was still too much uncertainty to dictate aggressive action.

"Although climate change is a long term issue, today's responses do not have to be long term," Shell argued. "'Irreversible' actions need to be avoided."

'An Evolutionary, Not a Revolutionary Process'

In hindsight, it's possible to say that this ambivalence would prove costly.

And the litigation over who should pay these costs will hinge on how jurists today read this kind of document from the past—along with any more evidence yet to emerge from these lawsuits.

It's not so much that any one document contains a smoking gun. It's rather that the steady accumulation of documents, which is bound to continue, will build up the weight of the evidence.

In that way, the legal question resembles the scientific question Shell addressed in a 1995 document called "Is Climate Change Occurring Already?"

"Detection of a human induced change in the earth's climate will be an evolutionary and not a revolutionary process," it said. "It is likely that a slow accumulation of evidence, rather than a 'smoking gun,' will indicate man-made emissions as the cause of some part of the observed climate change."

Editor's note: This story has been changed to convert Shell's 1995 forecast of eventual peak greenhouse gas emissions from gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) to gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), a standard conversion, for purposes of comparison to the International Energy Agency's current data.

About the Author

Jack Cushman

John H. Cushman Jr.

Jack Cushman is an editor and reporter for InsideClimate News. Before joining ICN, he worked for 35 years as a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., principally with the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Cushman has written extensively about energy, the environment, industry and military affairs, also covering financial and transportation beats, and editing articles across the full spectrum of national and international policy. He served on the board of governors of the National Press Club and was its president in the year 2000. He is the author of "Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change." Follow @jackcushmanjr


Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago

A new investigation shows the oil company understood the science before it became a public issue and spent millions to promote misinformation

Exxon Knew about Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago
The company’s knowledge of climate change dates back to July 1977, when its senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic.  Credit: Getty Images/MARS

Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation from InsideClimate News. This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.  

Experts, however, aren’t terribly surprised. “It’s never been remotely plausible that they did not understand the science,” says Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University. But as it turns out, Exxon didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon even spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time, meaning that Exxon was truly conducting unprecedented research. 

In their eight-month-long investigation, reporters at InsideClimate News interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists and federal officials and analyzed hundreds of pages of internal documents. They found that the company’s knowledge of climate change dates back to July 1977, when its senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic. “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," Black told Exxon’s management committee. A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees—a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." In other words, Exxon needed to act.

But ExxonMobil disagrees that any of its early statements were so stark, let alone conclusive at all. “We didn’t reach those conclusions, nor did we try to bury it like they suggest,” ExxonMobil spokesperson Allan Jeffers tells Scientific American. “The thing that shocks me the most is that we’ve been saying this for years, that we have been involved in climate research. These guys go down and pull some documents that we made available publicly in the archives and portray them as some kind of bombshell whistle-blower exposé because of the loaded language and the selective use of materials.”
One thing is certain: in June 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen told a congressional hearing that the planet was already warming, Exxon remained publicly convinced that the science was still controversial. Furthermore, experts agree that Exxon became a leader in campaigns of confusion. By 1989 the company had helped create the Global Climate Coalition (disbanded in 2002) to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change. It also helped to prevent the U.S. from signing the international treaty on climate known as the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 to control greenhouse gases. Exxon’s tactic not only worked on the U.S. but also stopped other countries, such as China and India, from signing the treaty. At that point, “a lot of things unraveled,” Oreskes says.

But experts are still piecing together Exxon’s misconception puzzle. Last summer the Union of Concerned Scientists released a complementary investigation to the one by InsideClimate News, known as the Climate Deception Dossiers (pdf). “We included a memo of a coalition of fossil-fuel companies where they pledge basically to launch a big communications effort to sow doubt,” says union president Kenneth Kimmel. “There’s even a quote in it that says something like ‘Victory will be achieved when the average person is uncertain about climate science.’ So it’s pretty stark.”

Since then, Exxon has spent more than $30 million on think tanks that promote climate denial, according to Greenpeace. Although experts will never be able to quantify the damage Exxon’s misinformation has caused, “one thing for certain is we’ve lost a lot of ground,” Kimmell says. Half of the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere were released after 1988. “I have to think if the fossil-fuel companies had been upfront about this and had been part of the solution instead of the problem, we would have made a lot of progress [today] instead of doubling our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Experts agree that the damage is huge, which is why they are likening Exxon’s deception to the lies spread by the tobacco industry. “I think there are a lot of parallels,” Kimmell says. Both sowed doubt about the science for their own means, and both worked with the same consultants to help develop a communications strategy. He notes, however, that the two diverge in the type of harm done. Tobacco companies threatened human health, but the oil companies threatened the planet’s health. “It’s a harm that is global in its reach,” Kimmel says.

To prove this, Bob Ward—who on behalf of the U.K.’s Royal Academy sent a letter to Exxon in 2006 claiming its science was “inaccurate and misleading”—thinks a thorough investigation is necessary. “Because frankly the episode with tobacco was probably the most disgraceful episode one could ever imagine,” Ward says. Kimmell agrees. These reasons “really highlight the responsibility that these companies have to come clean, acknowledge this, and work with everyone else to cut out emissions and pay for some of the cost we're going to bear as soon as possible,” Kimmell says.

It doesn’t appear, however, that Kimmell will get his retribution. Jeffers claims the investigation’s finds are “just patently untrue, misleading, and we reject them completely”—words that match Ward’s claims against them nearly a decade ago.


Shannon Hall

Shannon Hall is an award-winning freelance science journalist based in the Rocky Mountains. She specializes in writing about astronomy, geology and the environment.