The fossil fuel industry knew about climate change decades ago and they lied about it
One of the most shocking revelations pertaining to climate change in recent years is the way in which the fossil fuel industry has, for decades, intentionally buried climate science, threatened scientists, obfuscated, lied, manipulated public opinion, and spent millions doing so. This, to me, is utterly unthinkable. It is terrible to act in a way that damages the planet. But to continue destructive practices, knowing the consequences and burying the truth of these consequences, is truly abhorrent.
This is not conjecture. More and more evidence has come out in recent years detailing how much these companies knew and the extent to which they hid this information. Just this year, research published in the academic journal Science came out with new information on Exxon’s nefarious activities (this was before their merger with Mobil which took place in 1999). It was proven beyond doubt that from as far back as the 1970s, Exxon was doing extensive research into climate change and global warming. In fact, surveying Exxon’s academic and internal papers, it seems that around 80% of these stated that climate change is both real and human-caused. Much of this research has proven to be remarkably accurate. We now know that their models predicted that the planet would warm by about 0.2C every decade, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuel products.
Despite being aware of this excellent modelling work done by their own research division and published in internal reports, Exxon’s leadership publicly perpetuated the belief that predictions about the severity of climate change were inaccurate and overblown. Between 1989 and 2004, they paid The New York Times for numerous advertorials, with readership in the millions, that cast doubt on the veracity of climate science and the proof that climate change was caused by human action. In the same period, they spent over $30 million on funding climate denier groups, easily proven by a look at their tax returns.
Shell does not fare any better
Shell’s scientists were doing research into the potential of global warming from as early as 1962 when they produced a major report stating unequivocally that global warming was caused by humans and posed a serious threat to earth’s climate. In later years, the man who chaired the report, Bottcher, would receive more than 750,000 euros from Shell, becoming a leading climate change denier. In 1988, an internal Shell publication warned that global temperatures were likely to rise far beyond 1.5C, and painted a vivid picture of the disastrous consequences that would ensue if this were to happen. They described the terrible consequences for plants and animals that would arise from “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather”, and then the horrific repercussions for humans. It is worth quoting in full:
The changes would, however, most impact on humans [sic]. […] Perhaps those in industrial countries could cope with a rise in sea level (the Dutch example) but for poor countries such defences are not possible. The potential refugee problem in GLOBAL MERCANTILISM 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. Civilisation could prove a fragile thing.
After reading this, I had to take a long walk to quell my anger. It is unthinkable that Shell executives could read those words, disregard them, and take no action to mitigate these threats. In fact, quite the opposite; the following year, they, along with numerous other fossil fuel companies, founded the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a fossil fuel lobby group that pushed climate change denial propaganda and intentionally undermined climate science, claiming that “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood”.
Shell also joined the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade group that spent approximately $5 million funding “independent” researchers to publicly cast doubt on the veracity of climate science. This despite the fact that all the way back in 1968, API scientists predicted that a significant rise in CO2 in the atmosphere would have catastrophic effects on the planet and that the most likely cause of this rise was the fossil fuel industry.
These crimes by Shell and ExxonMobil are just the tip of the iceberg; there is extensive evidence of similar crimes committed by them and other fossil fuel companies. The logical next question is of course, how have they gotten away with this? Why have they not been made to pay for their heinous behaviour? To understand this, you need only follow the money. Between 2007 and 2014, ExxonMobil donated $1.87 million to Republicans in the US Congress who deny climate change. In fact, they also donated $100 000 to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign back in 2001. Bush was elected in January and, in March, withdrew from the Kyoto protocol. Keep in mind that this is just ExxonMobil; you still have to factor in the financial backing given by all the other major fossil fuel companies. The economic and political power that these multi-billion dollar corporations wield is astronomical.
All this being said, though, after a big exposé in 2015, there has been a huge increase in public outrage and shareholder activism. Protests have called for fossil fuel companies to be held accountable and for financial institutions to divest from the industry. There has also been a surge of lawsuits filed against the industry for their part in climate change and for hiding what they knew all along. These legal battles are complex in many ways, reminiscent of the legal cases against big tobacco companies that covered up the health risks of smoking. They have met with much resistance from Republican congresspeople that often stall the process. Republican House Committee Chairman, Lamar Smith, for example, has been doing his utmost to stop an investigation by the attorney generals of Massachusetts and New York into ExxonMobil. This is not particularly surprising given that he has received almost $685,000 in campaign funding from the fossil fuel industry during his career.
The lawsuits against the industry giants are expected to take years to conclude. We can only hope that the companies will get their just desserts. But even if they do, there is no rolling back the clock. According to scientists, a safe level of global atmospheric carbon is below 350 parts per million (ppm). In 1968, when Exxon first started doing climate research, the global CO2 level was 323ppm. Adjusted for inflation, that year, Exxon’s annual gross profit was $10 billion. Shell’s gross profit was $2.5 billion. Today, the global CO2 level is 421ppm. ExxonMobil’s gross profit for 2022 was $55.7 billion. Shell’s was $100 billion.