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Shell sold out the planet for short term profits, new documents show
A newly published trove of documents from researcher Vatan Hüzeir tells the story of Shell’s early climate knowledge and deception.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
“The potential refugee problem… could be unprecedented. Conflicts would abound. Civilisation could prove a fragile thing,” reads a 1989 prediction for the future if greenhouse gas emissions and global warming went unchecked. That warning didn’t come from an environmental group or governing body — it came from oil giant Shell.
The confidential Shell publication, titled “SCENARIOS 1989 - 2010,” is just one in a new cache of internal documents, reports, academic studies, videos, correspondence, and other newly published materials that lay bare Shell’s early and advanced knowledge of climate change — and how the megapolluter chose to publicly undermine climate science for the sake of a short-term haul.
Unearthed by Dutch researcher Vatan Hüzeir and first reported last week by DeSmog and Follow the Money, the documents show that Shell had a precise understanding of the horrors that unrestrained fossil fuel use would let loose on people, wildlife, and the planet. They’re the latest additions to a growing trove of evidence that could be used in ongoing investigations and legal efforts to hold Shell and other oil giants accountable for their coordinated campaigns of climate deception.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways:
As early as the 1970s, Shell knew its products would have devastating consequences.
Shell invested significant time and resources to develop an accurate understanding of climate change and its risks as far back as the 1970s, Hüzeir’s research shows. In 1972, the company helped climate scientist Hubert Lamb establish the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Four years prior, Shell explained to Lamb that the company was hoping to find “the most effective way of coping with the effects of seasonal variations on demand for oil.”
Throughout the mid to late 70s, the company continued to fund studies from think tanks and academic hubs to learn more about the harm their products would cause to people, economies, and the environment. One 1975 Shell-backed report 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, a Shell-sponsored think tank produced a report projecting the “drastic economic consequences” climate change would have on the U.S. corn belt and predicted “severe stresses on human societies.”
“They were structurally building knowledge up about climate change,” Hüzeir said, explaining the company was motivated by a desire to protect its assets in a warming world.
In 1983, an academic article co-sponsored by Shell acknowledged that combustion of fossil fuels was the primary driver of rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. The article predicted that by the year 2025, that concentration would range from 440 to 600 parts per million (ppm). That projection proved remarkably prescient: we’re at 420ppm today, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that CO2 levels will reach approximately 470 ppm in 2025 (right within Shell’s prediction).
But Shell saw that climate change could mean “pluses” for their business, too.
Shell’s research also led the polluter to believe that the greenhouse effect might benefit their business — for instance, by freeing up access to fossil fuels that had previously been trapped behind ice. As Hüzeir put it, “Shell saw [that knowledge] as a way to improve its bottom line.”
In 1981, Tom Wigley, director of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit that Shell had helped establish, gave an in-depth lecture on climate change at a university symposium. Wigley told the room that the “substantial seasonal melting of the Arctic sea ice” meant “easier access to high latitude fossil fuel deposits could, perhaps, be counted as a significant ‘plus’ in terms of the overall impact of CO2.” That same year, Shell gave Wigley £10K to research the impact of climate change on demand for oil.
Three years later, Shell obtained a patent for an offshore structure that would allow them to drill for oil in previously unreachable regions of the Arctic.
At the same time, Shell was downplaying science and promoting the growth of fossil fuels.
While conducting all this internal research, Shell simultaneously funded work that sowed doubt about climate science and pressed for more reliance on fossil fuels.
A 1977 report that Shell funded and staffed, which pushed for more government investment in coal, reassured readers that “Too little is known” about the impacts of burning fossil fuels to determine “the true effect.”
In 1979, the managing director of Shell Coal International complained in suggested edits that another industry-backed report about coal was “RATHER NEGATIVE…WOULD LIKE SEE MORE POSITIVE TONE” and “RISKS ABOUND IN ALL ENERGY DEVELOPMENTS. WHY SINGLE OUT COAL?” The final version of the report, entitled “COAL — Bridge to the future,” said that “the present state of knowledge about CO2 effects on climate does not justify action to…delay the expansion of coal use.”
In Shell’s 1981 film, “Time for Energy,” the company doesn’t mention climate change at all — but pushes for a buildout in coal infrastructure as the only way to “safely” meet the world’s future energy demands while disparaging renewables.
Facing a fork in the road, Shell chose planetary destruction.
Shell outlined two future paths: one in which uninhibited fossil fuel emissions would essentially cause the downfall of humanity, and another where greenhouse gas emissions would peak around the year 2000, ushering in a “sustainable world.” You can probably guess which one they chose.
Which brings us back to the company’s 1989 internal scenario for an increase in temperature over 1.5 degrees Celsius, titled “GLOBAL MERCANTILISM.” Shell predicted a slew of disastrous effects — from “more violent weather - more storms, more droughts, and more deluges” to the disruption of ecosystems, so that “many species of trees, plants, animals and insects would not be able to move and adapt."
The company warned that the impact on humans, especially in the Global South, would be particularly catastrophic. “Perhaps those in industrial countries could cope with a rise in sea level… but for poor countries such defences are not possible,” the report said.
The same year it constructed these scenarios, Shell joined the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) — a fossil fuel industry front group formed explicitly to fight climate action. Evidence of the GCC’s efforts to spread climate disinformation is cited in many of the U.S. climate accountability lawsuits in which Shell is now a defendant.
Shell is still choosing to defy climate science and deceive the public for the sake of profits. After raking in $40 billion in profits last year, the company said it would pause its renewable energy investments — which, according to a recent SEC complaint, were intentionally misleading to begin with. And as we covered last week, the company is rapidly expanding its petrochemical operations in order to ensure continued demand for fossil fuels.
But this new cache of evidence could help efforts to finally hold the oil giant to account, Hüzeir said: “My expectation is that these documents mean that Shell will be in the courtroom in the foreseeable future.”
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