What Big Oil knew about climate change, in its own words

inline exxon climate change report 1982

4 years in the past, I traveled round America, visiting historic archives. I used to be searching for paperwork which may reveal the hidden historical past of climate change—and in explicit, when the main coal, oil, and fuel corporations turned conscious of the issue, and what they knew about it.

I pored over containers of papers, hundreds of pages. I started to acknowledge typewriter fonts from the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s and marveled on the legibility of previous penmanship (and bought used to squinting when it wasn’t so clear).

What these papers revealed is now altering our understanding of how climate change turned a disaster. The business’s personal phrases, as my research found, present corporations knew about the chance lengthy earlier than many of the remainder of the world.

On Oct. 28, 2021, a Congressional subcommittee questioned executives from ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute about business efforts to downplay the position of fossil fuels in climate change. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods instructed lawmakers that his firm’s public statements “are and have at all times been truthful” and that the corporate “doesn’t unfold disinformation concerning climate change.”


Right here’s what company paperwork from the previous six many years present.

Shocking discoveries

At an outdated gunpowder manufacturing unit in Delaware—now a museum and archive—I discovered a transcript of a petroleum convention from 1959 known as the “Energy and Man” symposium, held at Columbia College in New York. As I flipped by, I noticed a speech from a well-known scientist, Edward Teller (who helped invent the hydrogen bomb), warning business executives and others assembled of worldwide warming.

“Everytime you burn typical gasoline,” Teller explained, “you create carbon dioxide. . . . Its presence in the ambiance causes a greenhouse impact.” If the world stored utilizing fossil fuels, the ice caps would start to soften, elevating sea ranges. Finally, “all of the coastal cities can be lined,” he warned.

1959 was earlier than the moon touchdown, earlier than the Beatles’ first single, earlier than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, earlier than the primary trendy aluminum can was ever made. It was many years earlier than I used to be born. What else was on the market?

In Wyoming, I discovered one other speech on the college archives in Laramie—this one from 1965, and from an oil government himself. That yr, on the annual assembly of the American Petroleum Institute, the principle group for the U.S. oil business, the group’s president, Frank Ikard, talked about a report known as, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” that had been printed only a few days earlier than by President Lyndon Johnson’s group of scientific advisers.

“The substance of the report,” Ikard told the industry audience, “is that there’s nonetheless time to save lots of the world’s peoples from the catastrophic penalties of air pollution, however time is operating out.” He continued, “One of the crucial essential predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s ambiance by the burning of coal, oil, and pure fuel at such a charge that by the yr 2000 the warmth steadiness will likely be so modified as presumably to trigger marked modifications in climate.”


Ikard famous that the report had discovered {that a} “nonpolluting technique of powering vehicles, buses, and vehicles is more likely to develop into a nationwide necessity.”

As I reviewed my findings again in California, I noticed that earlier than San Francisco’s Summer season of Love, earlier than Woodstock, the height of the ’60s counterculture and all that stuff that appeared historic historical past to me, the heads of the oil business had been privately knowledgeable by their very own leaders that their merchandise would finally alter the climate of all the planet, with harmful penalties.

Secret analysis revealed the dangers forward

Whereas I traveled the nation, different researchers had been onerous at work too. And the paperwork they discovered had been in some methods much more stunning.

By the late Seventies, the American Petroleum Institute had shaped a secret committee known as the “CO2 and Climate Task Force,” which included representatives of lots of the main oil corporations, to privately monitor and focus on the newest developments in climate science.

In 1980, the duty pressure invited a scientist from Stanford College, John Laurmann, to transient them on the state of climate science. Immediately, we have now a copy of Laurmann’s presentation, which warned that if fossil fuels continued for use, international warming can be “barely noticeable” by 2005, however by the 2060s would have “globally catastrophic results.” That very same yr, the American Petroleum Institute known as on governments to triple coal manufacturing worldwide, insisting there would be no negative consequences, regardless of what it knew internally.

Exxon had a secretive analysis program too. In 1981, certainly one of its managers, Roger Cohen, despatched an internal memo observing that the corporate’s long-term enterprise plans may “produce results which is able to certainly be catastrophic (at the very least for a considerable fraction of the earth’s inhabitants).”

The subsequent yr, Exxon accomplished a complete, 40-page internal report on climate change, which predicted nearly precisely the quantity of worldwide warming we’ve seen, in addition to sea-level rise, drought, and extra. In line with the entrance web page of the report, it was “given large circulation to Exxon administration” however was “to not be distributed externally.”

And Exxon did hold it secret: We all know of the report’s existence solely as a result of investigative journalists at Inside Climate Information uncovered it in 2015.

Different oil corporations knew the results their merchandise had been having on the planet too. In 1986, the Dutch oil firm Shell completed an internal report almost 100 pages lengthy, predicting that international warming from fossil fuels would trigger modifications that might be “the best in recorded historical past,” together with “damaging floods,” abandonment of complete international locations, and even compelled migration all over the world. That report was stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” and solely brought to light in 2018 by Jelmer Mommers, a Dutch journalist.

In October 2021, two French colleagues and I printed one other examine displaying, by firm paperwork and interviews, how the Paris-based oil main Total was also aware of worldwide warming’s catastrophic potential, as early because the Seventies. Regardless of this consciousness, we discovered that Whole then labored with Exxon to unfold doubt about climate change.

Big Oil’s PR pivot

These corporations had a alternative.


Again in 1979, Exxon had privately studied options for avoiding international warming. It discovered that with fast motion, if the business moved away from fossil fuels and as a substitute centered on renewable power, fossil gasoline air pollution may begin to decline in the Nineties and a significant climate disaster might be averted.

However the business didn’t pursue that path. As a substitute, colleagues and I lately discovered that in the late Eighties, Exxon and different oil companies coordinated a global effort to dispute climate science, block fossil gasoline controls, and hold their merchandise flowing.

We all know about it by inside paperwork and the phrases of business insiders, who at the moment are starting to share with the general public what they noticed. We additionally know that in 1989, the fossil gasoline business created one thing known as the Global Climate Coalition—nevertheless it wasn’t an environmental group just like the title suggests; as a substitute, it worked to sow doubt about climate change and lobbied lawmakers to dam clear power laws and climate treaties all through the Nineties.

For instance, in 1997, the World Climate Coalition’s chairman, William O’Keefe, who was additionally an government vice chairman for the American Petroleum Institute, wrote in the Washington Put up, “Climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, fuel, and coal is steadily warming the earth,” contradicting what the industry had known for decades. The fossil gasoline business additionally funded think tanks and biased studies that helped sluggish progress to a crawl.

[Photo: The Conversation]

Immediately, most oil corporations shrink back from denying climate science outright, however they proceed to fight fossil fuel controls and promote themselves as clear power leaders, though they still put the vast majority of their investments into fossil fuels. As I write this, climate laws is again being blocked in Congress by a lawmaker with close ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Folks all over the world, in the meantime, are experiencing the results of worldwide warming: weird weather, shifting seasons, extreme heat waves, and even wildfires like they’ve by no means seen earlier than.

Will the world expertise the worldwide disaster that the oil corporations predicted years earlier than I used to be born? That is dependent upon what we do now, with our slice of historical past.

Benjamin Franta, PhD, is a candidate in historical past, Stanford University.

This text is republished from The Conversation underneath a Artistic Commons license. Learn the original article.