What Big Oil knew about climate change in 1959
Four years ago, I traveled across America, visiting historical archives. I was looking for documents that could reveal the hidden story of climate change – and in particular, when the big coal, oil and gas companies realized the problem and what they knew about it.
I looked at boxes of papers, thousands of pages. I started to recognize typewriter typefaces from the 1960s and 1970s and marveled at the readability of past calligraphy, and got used to squinting when it wasn’t so clear.
What these documents revealed is now changing our understanding of how climate change has become a crisis. The industry’s own words, as my research has revealed, show that companies were aware of risk long before most of the rest of the world.
On October 28, 2021, a congressional subcommittee questioned executives from Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute about industry efforts to minimize the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Exxon CEO Darren Woods told lawmakers his company’s public statements “are and always have been true” and that the company “does not spread misinformation about climate change.”
Here’s what corporate documents from the past six decades show.
In a former Delaware gunpowder factory – now a museum and archives – I found a transcript of a 1959 petroleum conference called the “Energy and Man” Symposium, held at the Columbia University in New York. As I leafed through, I saw a speech by a famous scientist, Edward Teller (who helped invent the hydrogen bomb), warning industry leaders and others gathered against global warming.
“Every time you burn conventional fuel,” Teller explained, “you create carbon dioxide.… Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect. If the world continued to use fossil fuels, the ice caps would start. to melt, raising sea levels. Eventually, “all the coastal towns would be covered,” he warned.
The gist of the report is that there is still time to save the peoples of the world from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out.
1959 was before the moon landing, before the Beatles’ first single, before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the first modern aluminum can was ever made. It was decades before I was born. What else was there outside?
In Wyoming, I found another speech in Laramie University archives – this one from 1965, and from an oil executive himself. That year, at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, the main organization of the American petroleum industry, the group’s president, Frank Ikard, referred to a report entitled “Restoring the quality of our environment” that had been published. a few days earlier by President Lyndon Johnson’s team of scientific advisers.
“The gist of the report,” Ikard told the industry audience, “is that there is still time to save the peoples of the world from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out. He added that “one of the report’s most important predictions is that carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas at a rate such as by now. year 2000, the heat balance will be so modified so as to cause marked climatic changes.
Ikard noted that the report revealed that a “non-polluting way to power cars, buses and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.”
As I reviewed my findings in California, I realized that before the Summer of Love in San Francisco, before Woodstock, the height of the ’60s counterculture and all those things that seemed like old history to me, the Oil industry leaders had been privately informed by their own executives that their products would end up altering the entire planet’s climate, with dangerous consequences.
Secret research has revealed the risks to come
While I was traveling the country, other researchers were also working hard. And the documents they found were in some ways even more shocking.
In the late 1970s, the American Petroleum Institute had formed a secret committee called the “CO2 and Climate Working Group,” which included representatives from many major oil companies, to privately monitor and discuss the latest developments in the industry. climate science.
In 1980, the task force invited Stanford University scientist John Laurmann to brief them on the state of climate science. Today we have a copy of Laurmann’s presentation, which warned that if fossil fuels continued to be used, global warming would be “barely noticeable” by 2005, but by the 2060s would be ” catastrophic effects on a global scale ”. That same year, the American Petroleum Institute called on governments to triple worldwide coal production, insisting there would be no negative consequences despite what it knew internally.
Exxon also had a secret research program. In 1981, one of its executives, Roger Cohen, sent an internal memo observing that the company’s long-term business plans could “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the world population) “.
The following year, Exxon completed a comprehensive 40-page internal report on climate change, which almost accurately predicted the extent of global warming we’ve seen, as well as sea level rise, drought and more. Again. According to the front page of the report, it was “widely distributed to Exxon management” but was “not to be distributed externally.”
And Exxon kept it a secret: We only know of the report’s existence because investigative journalists from Inside Climate News found out in 2015.
Other oil companies also knew the effects of their products on the planet. In 1986, the Dutch oil company Shell completed an internal report of almost 100 pages, predicting that global warming from fossil fuels would cause changes that would be “the biggest in history”, including “destructive floods” , the abandonment of entire countries and even forced migration across the world. This report was stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” and was only uncovered in 2018 by Jelmer Mommers, a Dutch journalist.
In October 2021, myself and two French colleagues published another study showing through company documents and interviews how the Parisian oil major Total was also aware of the catastrophic potential of global warming as early as the 1970s. Despite this take of conscience, we found that Total then worked with Exxon to cast doubt on climate change.
Big Oil’s PR backbone
These companies had a choice.
In 1979, Exxon had privately studied options to prevent global warming. He found that with immediate action, if the industry moved away from fossil fuels and instead focused on renewables, fossil fuel pollution could start to decrease in the 1990s and a major climate crisis could be avoided.
Today, most oil companies avoid outright denial of climate science, but they continue to fight fossil fuel control and present themselves as clean energy leaders.
But the industry did not follow this path. Instead, colleagues and I recently discovered that in the late 1980s, Exxon and other oil companies coordinated a global effort to challenge climate science, block fossil fuel controls, and maintain their products. in circulation.
We know this from internal docs and words from industry insiders, who are now starting to share what they’ve seen with the public. We also know that in 1989 the fossil fuel industry created what is called the Global Climate Coalition – but it was not an environmental group as the name suggests; instead, he worked to cast doubt on climate change and lobbied lawmakers to block clean energy legislation and climate treaties throughout the 1990s.
For example, in 1997, the chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, William O’Keefe, who was also executive vice-chairman of the American Petroleum Institute, wrote in the Washington Post that “climatologists don’t say burn oil , gas and coal regularly heat the earth ”, contradicting what the industry has known for decades. The fossil fuel industry has also funded think tanks and biased studies that have helped slow progress.
Today, most oil companies are reluctant to categorically deny climate science, but they continue to fight fossil fuel control and present themselves as clean energy leaders even though they still invest the vast majority of their money. investments in fossil fuels. As of this writing, climate legislation is again blocked in Congress by a lawmaker with close ties to the fossil fuel industry.
People around the world, meanwhile, are feeling the effects of global warming: strange weather, changing seasons, extreme heat waves, and even wildfires like they have never seen before.
Will the world experience the global catastrophe that the oil companies predicted years before I was born? It depends on what we do now, with our slice of history.
This article was updated on October 28, 2021, with quotes from the audience.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.