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Shell Knew Risks in 1991, But Lobbied Against Climate Action

Catherine Hammond/wikimedia commons

Royal Dutch Shell has emerged as the latest global fossil company that understood the threat of climate change at least a quarter-century ago, but spent the intervening years developing its carbon-intensive oil and gas reserves while funding industry efforts to obstruct climate action.

The evidence comes in the form of Climate of Concern, a 28-minute film the company produced in 1991 that has just recently been “rediscovered,” The Guardian reported yesterday.

“If the weather machine were to be wound up to such new levels of energy, no country would remain unaffected,” the production states. “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”

The film “was made for public viewing, particularly in schools and universities. It warned of extreme weather, floods, famines, and climate refugees as fossil fuel burning warmed the world,” The Guardian notes. “However, since then the company has invested heavily in highly polluting oil reserves and helped lobby against climate action, leading to accusations that Shell knew the grave risks of global warming but did not act accordingly.”

The film’s predictions of temperature and sea level rises and their impacts “were remarkably accurate, according to scientists, and Shell was one of the first major oil companies to accept the reality and dangers of climate change,” note Guardian reporter Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers of The Correspondent, the Dutch online news platform that unearthed the video. But “Shell has recently lobbied successfully to undermine European renewable energy targets and is estimated to have spent $22 million in 2015 lobbying against climate policies.” Even though the video sang the praises of commercial-scale solar and wind technologies that were available in 1991, “the company’s investments in low-carbon energy have been minimal compared to its fossil fuel investments.”

Shell’s conduct evokes the last 18 months of controversy over ExxonMobil’s climate performance, after Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News revealed that top company executives understood the dangers of climate change and its implications for the fossil fuel business in the mid-1970s, but chose to lavish funds on climate denial rather than contributing to climate solutions.

“They knew. Shell told the public the truth about climate change in 1991 and they clearly never got around to telling their own board of directors,” said former Shell and BP advisor Tom Burke of the green think tank E3G. “Shell’s behaviour now is risky for the climate, but it is also risky for their shareholders. It is very difficult to explain why they are continuing to explore and develop high-cost reserves.”