By Jessica Corbett / Common Dreams
Reporting on a cache of documents published over the weekend shows Shell knew about the impact of fossil fuel even earlier than previously revealed, potentially bolstering legal efforts to hold Big Oil accountable for the global climate emergency.
The reporting from DeSmog and Follow the Money is based on Dirty Pearls: Exposing Shell’s hidden legacy of climate change accountability, 1970-1990, a project for which researcher Vatan Hüzeir compiled 201 books, correspondence, documents, scholarship, and other materials.
Hüzeir—a climate activist, Erasmus University Rotterdam Ph.D. candidate, and founder and director of the Dutch think tank Changerism—collected the documents from former Shell staff, people close to the company, and private and public archives from January 2017 and October 2022.
Following explosive revelations about what ExxonMobil knew about fossil fuels driving global heating, investigations in 2017 and 2018 uncovered that Shell’s scientists privately warned about the impact of its products in the 1980s.
However, as Follow the Money detailed, the newly unveiled records show that “Shell already began collecting knowledge about climate change in the 1960s. The company not only kept well abreast of climate science, but also funded research. As a result, Shell already knew in the 1970s that burning fossil fuels could lead to alarming climate change.”
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Faced with a global oil crisis, rather than using its climate information to publicly sound the alarm and shift to cleaner practices, the company “focused instead on a nonsustainable profit model,” launching Shell Coal International in 1974.
The following year, a study Shell was involved with warned that “increases in the CO2 content of the atmosphere could lead to the so-called greenhouse effect… which would be enough to induce major climatic changes.” Three years later, another report warned that “the continued burning of fossil fuels will lead to a manifold increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration.”
A confidential study from 1989 states that if the global temperature rises more than 1.5°C—the target of the Paris climate agreement that came decades later—then “the potential refugee problem… could be unprecedented. Africans would push into Europe, Chinese into the Soviet Union, Latins into the United States, Indonesians into Australia. Boundaries would count for little—overwhelmed by the numbers. Conflicts would abound. Civilization could prove a fragile thing.”
Duncan Meisel, executive director of the campaign Clean Creatives, which targets advertising and public relations firms that work for fossil fuel companies, declared Monday that “what these new documents show is incredibly disturbing.”
“In the 1980s, Shell scientists laid out two pathways for the planet: one where energy companies undertook a smooth transition to clean energy and one where fossil fuel demand continued to rise, creating ‘more storms, more droughts, more deluges,'” he summarized. “Since the publication of that forecast, Shell has pushed at every turn to create more fossil fuel demand, creating exactly the devastating outcomes they predicted.”
The Center for Climate Integrity said the records provide the world “more damning evidence” that the company knew its business model was having disastrous impacts on the world and its people. As the group put it: “They knew. They lied. They need to pay.”
Along with the two initial media reports, some of the Shell materials have been published by the Climate Files database.
“Although these first articles refer to only 38 of the many more documents amassed for Dirty Pearls, they tell the story of Shell having engaged in what I call ‘climate change uncertaintism’ and ‘climate change negligence,'” Hüzeir said in a statement. “The former points to Shell’s keen willingness to emphasize scientific uncertainty about the potential of global warming in its public reporting, even though scholarly consensus on the future reality of a warmer world was already forming at the time.”
“The latter points to Shell’s negligence of its own in-house knowledge of potential global warming in public reporting, although express consideration of that knowledge was to be reasonably expected,” he added. “Both treatments were political in the sense that they served to push for fossil fuels and especially coal, over renewables, as the culturally preferred sources of energy for the foreseeable future. This is despite Shell’s awareness of possibly dangerous climate change associated with unabated fossil fuel combustion. Both treatments were strategic because, by extension, they protected Shell’s hydrocarbon-based business model.”
Hüzeir stressed that “the exposure of these two early distinct corporate political treatments of climate change repositions Shell’s later markedly aggressive response to global warming in the 1990s and 2000s as a second phase in Shell’s developing relationship with global warming. First came climate change negligence and uncertaintism, and then, as global warming was entering public consciousness and significant uncertainties about its reality became insignificant in the 1970s and 1980s, then came climate change denialism and doubtism.”
A spokesperson for Shell said:
The Shell Group did not have unique knowledge about climate change. The issue of climate change and how to tackle it has long been part of public discussion and scientific research that has evolved over many decades. It has been widely discussed and debated, in public view, among scientists, media, governments, business, and society as a whole. Our position on the issue has been publicly documented for more than 30 years, including in publications such as our Annual Report and Sustainability Report.
Meanwhile, researchers suggested to DeSmog that the documents could help with climate-related litigation against Shell.
“This impressive history shows for just how long climate issues were known by Shell personnel,” said Ben Franta, senior research fellow in climate litigation at the University of Oxford. “Despite internal awareness, the company systematically downplayed the problem to the public, instead promoting more and more fossil fuel use despite the dangers. Now, five decades later, Shell continues to dawdle and delay.”
University of Miami professor Geoffrey Supran, known for his research into ExxonMobil, similarly said that “this report winds back the clock even further on Shell’s long history of climate knowledge and deception.”
“It reveals that Shell was ahead of the curve both in terms of its growing understanding, in private and academic circles, of the threat of climate change and unburnable fossil fuels, yet also in terms of its public dismissal of those realities,” he added. “These findings add fuel to the flames of efforts to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their decades of climate damages and denial.”
During Russia’s war in Ukraine, Shell has joined Big Oil peers including Chevron and ExxonMobil in making massive profits. After recording a record $40 billion profit in 2022, Shell announced that its former CEO, Ben van Beurden, took home $11.7 million last year, up from $7.9 million the previous year.
As Bloomberg highlighted in February, “The company’s record profits won’t significantly accelerate its low-carbon ambitions.” After putting about $3.5 billion into renewables along with projects that many climate groups call “false solutions,” accounting for about 14% of total capital expenditures in 2022, Shell decided to keep its spending in such areas the same for this year—which, as Voxpointed out, is “less than half of what the company invests in oil and gas exploration and extraction.”
The company has chosen not to ramp up clean energy investments despite increasingly urgent warnings from climate scientists and energy experts that humanity must keep fossil fuels in the ground and shift to renewables to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global heating. As Meisel said Monday, “Shell is still pursuing the exact scenario that they knew would cause global disaster.”
Shell is also compelled to act by a May 2021 Dutch court order to cut carbon emissions 45% by 2030, compared with 2019 levels. Later that year, the company announced plans to move its tax residence from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom, and last year, it appealed the historic decision. Follow the Money noted that “in the meantime, Shell must carry out the court’s ruling.”
Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams.