What 30 years of documents show shell knew about climate science – nationofchange physics c electricity and magnetism formula sheet


These documents show Shell walking backwards. In the 1980s it was acknowledging anthropogenic global warming. Then, as the scientific consensus became more and more clear, it started introducing doubt and giving weight to a “significant minority” of “alternative viewpoints” as the full implications for the company’s business model became clear.

Shell commissioned a study about the greenhouse effect in 1981 by the Climate Research Unit and Dr T.G. Wigley, which was published by the U.S. Department of Environment in 1984. Then in 1988 the confidential report “The Greenhouse Effect” is prepared for the Shell Environmental Conservation Committee. From other source documents we can then follow as senior figures and publications veer between defence of climate science denial positions, faith in technological solutions and “efficiency”, the belief that countries should just adapt to a changing world, and questioning the validity of the scientific process.

As early as 1981 it was able to say unequivocally: “the total emission of 5.3 GtC 44 percent came from oil, 38 percent from coal and 17 percent from gas.” By 1988 it was stating clearly: “the main cause of increasing Carbon Dioxide ( C02) concentrations is considered to be fossil fuel burning.” But come the mid-90s, the company starts talking about a “significant minority” of “distinguished scientists” that cast aspersions of the seriousness of climate change.

As Shell’s position on climate science evolves over time, the contradiction of simultaneously being involved with groups that fund climate denial becomes apparent. The following charts Shell’s knowledge of and public statements on climate change from 1981 to 2002. 1981

Appendix 8 from this report says Wigley had “his feet on the ground” by stressing the uncertainties, but that he was willing to “stick his neck out and say there had been global warming over the last 100 years, that the 0.5 degrees increase is a result of C02 build-up, that we will see a further 1 to 2 degrees warming over the next 40 years…” and much more:

The company recognises that reducing CO2 means moving away from fossil fuels and the company’s own products. The company explicitly believes in the correlation between fossil fuel and economic growth. Burden should fall on government but Shell has own reputation to uphold”

“An overall reduction in fossil fuel use would of course reduce CO2 production and could be achieved by constraint on energy consumption, by improved thermal efficiency and by replacing fossil fuels with eg nuclear power. But such a course of action would imply a major shift in world energy supply and use.”

“There is reasonable scientific agreement that increased levels of greenhouse gases would cause a global warming” and that, “such relatively fast and dramatic changes would impact on the human environment, future living standards and food supplies and could have major social, economic and political consequences.”

In a change of gear, Lodewijk (Lo) van Wachem said there was “still debate about the basic science” around global warming. Van Wachem became director of Shell Oil company in 1979 and chairman of the board in 1982 and so is likely to have seen 1988 document about greenhouse gas effect.

Now the idea of clean coal appears. “A number of clean coal technologies are now also available” and “Other more advanced technologies may enable us to use more cleanly the world’s vast reserves of coal” – this despite the 1988 report which stressed that coal was worse than oil.

“The possibility of climate change brought about by global warming via man-made increases in gases such as carbon dioxide ( CO2) and methane – the enhanced greenhouse effect – is probably the most prominent global environmental issue of today and could have major business implications for the fossil fuel industry.”

“Man’s activities have contributed to emissions of these gases from the use of fossil fuels, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, and have more recently added synthetic greenhouse gases such as chlorofluorocarbons ( CFCs). The increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases has caused concern that this will give rise to an enhanced greenhouse effect resulting in global warming.”

By 1998, Shell’s line is essentially to focus on the uncertainty around the impacts of climate change, despite two decades of internal reports outlining how serious climate change is likely to be. There is still persistent quoting of climate science deniers.

“There is concern that an enhanced greenhouse effect will cause the world to warm up. This could cause a change in climate and local weather patterns, possibly with increased droughts, floods, storms and sea level rise. The average temperature of the earth has risen by about had a degree Celsius over the last century, possibly due in part to human greenhouse gas emissions.”