April 5, 2018 Read More →

Shell Oil Knew of Climate-Change Likelihoods Decades Ago

InsideClimate News:

Internal company documents uncovered by a Dutch news organization show that the oil giant Shell had a deep understanding, dating at least to the 1980s, of the science and risks of global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions.

They show that as the company pondered its responsibility to act, Shell’s scientists urged it to heed the early warnings, even if, as they said, it might take until the 2000s for the mounting evidence to prove greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were causing unnatural climate change.

“With the very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then before doing anything,” company researchers wrote in a 1988 report based on studies completed in 1986. “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.”

Otherwise, a team of Shell experts said, “it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.”

For the next decade—as the emerging science was becoming increasingly robust, and as international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions gained steam and calls for action grew more urgent—the company persisted in emphasizing the lingering uncertainties of climate science and the costs of ambitious policies, the documents show.

Shell’s own “review of the scientific uncertainty and the evolution of energy systems indicates that policies to curb greenhouse gases beyond ‘no regrets’ measures could be premature, divert economic resources from more pressing needs and further distort markets,” a February 1995 management brief advised.

The documents were unearthed by the journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent, whose investigative article was published on Thursday in Dutch. Many of the documents, along with explanatory notes, were released on the Climate Files website, where researcher and climate advocate Kert Davies maintains extensive archives. To get their work before a broader audience, they shared embargoed copies of the documents.

Just like researchers at other oil and gas companies, notably Exxon, Shell’s scientists and managers understood, before the general public, that uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions could eventually put its core businesses at risk—and alter ecosystems and put much of the world’s population in peril.

The accretion of evidence complicates the industry’s position as Big Oil defends itself in a broadening array of climate-related litigation.

On Wednesday, Dutch environmentalists said they plan to sue Royal Dutch Shell to force it to cut its oil and gas investments and production. Donald Pols, director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie, said the company “should take its responsibility to stop wrecking the climate.”

Shell’s documents of the era, like papers from Exxon at the time that were published in 2015 by InsideClimate News, are full of passages about the uncertainties that surrounded the emerging science. A nuanced reading suggests that Shell, then as now, gave more attention to the need for global action on climate, and did so earlier, than Exxon.

To this day, the company opens the door a bit wider to a more responsive approach to the climate crisis. But its current thinking continues to generate debate over whether its vision is ambitious enough.

The Dutch archives trace the evolution of the company’s thinking over years of considerable climate policy turmoil.

For example, Shell participated in the work of the Global Climate Coalition, founded in 1989 to fight the Kyoto Protocol, only to leave it 10 years later over irreconcilable differences over the protocol’s emissions targets, which Shell embraced.

All the while, concentrations of carbon dioxide moved inexorably upward. Children born since that time have never lived through a year in which the world’s climate was cooler than the previous average.

One passage from 1988, even though written in a dry corporate style, reads now like an evocation of this perspective across the generations.

“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,” it said.

In other words, it said you might not see the results of your decisions, but your children and grandchildren might.

More: Shell Knew Fossil Fuels Created Climate Change Risks Back in 1980s, Internal Documents Show

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