New documents released online and published by a Dutch news website reveal that, like ExxonMobil Corp., Shell Oil also knew the truth about global warming at least 30 years ago, but continued to dig up and sell more oil and gas anyway.
Although the company is now investing more heavily in renewable energy compared to other oil majors, such as Exxon, it continues to sell fossil fuels worldwide, which, when burned to create energy, are the main cause of global warming and its related hazards, such as extreme weather events and sea level rise.
The documents, posted online at the Climate Files website and the Climate Investigations Center, show that Shell researchers were remarkably prescient about how global warming would play out, and the eventual legal ramifications for oil companies given the warnings.
Remarkably, one of the Shell reports – published in 1998 – gamed out a scenario in which, in the year 2010, “…Violent storms causes extensive damage to the eastern coast of the U.S.”
The report was off by just two years.
This scenario essentially projected Superstorm Sandy, which occurred in 2012 and devastated the New Jersey shore while also putting lower Manhattan under water. That storm helped prompt a new wave of climate activism in the U.S. that has continued to build.
The Shell petroleum refinery on Bukom Island off Singapore.
Describing the ramifications of such extreme weather events, the report states: “Although it is not clear whether the storms are caused by climate change, people are not willing to take further chances,” the report states. “The insurance industry refuses to accept liability, setting off a fierce debate over who is liable: the insurance industry, or the government. After all, two successive IPCC reports since 1995 have reinforced the human connection to climate change.”
The 1998 report envisioned class action lawsuits filed after these storms against the government and fossil fuel companies, because these entities ignored what scientists “(including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done.”
Right now, in fact, the fossil fuel industry is facing a rising tide of lawsuits stemming from their role in contributing to climate change. These include a novel lawsuit brought by a group of young Americans against the federal government for failing to act on climate change, which is set to go to trial in the coming months. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland, among others, are seeking financial compensation from major oil companies like Chevron for damage from sea level rise. And Exxon is under investigation from the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York for misleading their shareholders and the public about climate change.
Many of these cases are known by the hashtag #ExxonKnew, based on documents showing what Exxon executives were told about climate science.
It’s likely that these newly revealed Shell documents will show up in some of these court cases, because they show that Shell was aware of the risks of climate change but didn’t change its business practices accordingly.
Activists have seized on the Shell documents as evidence that the oil industry writ large is guilty of studying climate science and then continuing to contribute to the problem, while in some cases misleading the public about the science during the process.
Julia Olson, center, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which is aiding a climate lawsuit against the federal government.
Image: Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP
“Had they merely been candid with the world, we could have gotten to work then, and while global warming would not yet be ‘solved,’ we’d be well on the way. Instead they appear to have chosen the path of hedging, minimizing, and diverting—and given the stakes, this was both tragic and immoral. Shell knew. And now we do too,” said Bill McKibben, a co-founder of the environmental group 350.org.
Precise calculations made in 1986
Another newly-revealed Shell climate document that’s likely to play a role in ongoing court cases dates back to 1986, in which company researchers went so far as to quantify the company’s own contribution to global emissions of greenhouse gases. Shell researchers calculated it as 4 percent of the world total emissions of carbon dioxide, the main long-lived greenhouse gas, at the time.
That same report showed that the company had been producing climate change reports via a working group since at least 1981. The 1986 document included clear warnings about what Shell, and the world at large, would face from continued burning of fossil fuels.
The report indicates that Shell was on board with what mainstream climate scientists have concluded, but members of the Trump administration disagree with — that fossil fuel burning is causing climate change.
“Although CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere through several natural processes… the main cause of increasing CO2 concentrations is considered to be fossil fuel burning,” the report found.
It repeatedly notes that public opinion could turn against fossil fuel companies for contributing to global warming:
“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,” the report said. “The changes may be the greatest in recorded history. They could alter the environment in such a way that habitability would become more suitable in the one area and less suitable in the other area. Adaptation, migration and replacement could be called for. All of these actions will be costly and uncertain, but could be made acceptable.”
The report details many of the climate change impacts we’re dealing with today, including sea level rise, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events.
A flooded street in Hoboken, New Jersey on October 30,2012.
Image: Corbis via Getty Images
Interestingly, the 1986 report advised Shell to take action on climate change early, since by the time clearly recognizable effects would be occurring, it will be “too late” to prevent damage.
“With very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything,” the report found. “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.”
Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said the documents put Shell — which has been investing more aggressively in renewables compared to Exxon — in the same category as the Texas-based oil and gas giant, when it comes to studying climate change and then ignoring its own findings.
“Shell, like Exxon, understood 30 years ago that failing to act on climate change could cause irreversible damage to our planet. And like Exxon, Shell chose not to act,” Wiles said in a statement.
“The documents eerily predict the extreme weather disasters and court battles over liability that we are seeing today.”
Shell for its part says that it is in favor of efforts to rein in carbon emissions, including through the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
“The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades,” the company said in a statement.
“We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy to everyone. Successfully navigating this dual challenge requires sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers. It requires cooperation between all segments of society.”
This story was updated to include a statement from Shell.
This story was updated to clarify the defendants in the youth climate case.