Royal Dutch Shell understood the urgency of climate change as far back as 1988 and knew that its own products were contributing to the problem, according to a trove of company documents uncovered by Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers.
“Shell’s working group knew three decades ago that climate change was real and formidable, warning that it would affect living standards and food supplies and have social, economic, and political consequences,” the Washington Post reports. “The working group also warned that rising sea levels could impair offshore installations, coastal facilities, harbours, refineries, and depots.”
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In light of the revelations late last week, Friends of the Earth Netherlands is already threatening legal action, Grist is speculating that it will now be easier for U.S. cities to sue the colossal fossil for climate damages, and ThinkProgress is reporting that Mobil Oil acknowledged the climate crisis in 1998, the year before it merged with Exxon.
The 1988 report of Shell’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group “calculated that the Shell group alone was contributing 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions through its oil, natural gas, and coal products,” the Post writes. The report, based on a 1986 study and other research dating back to 1981, indicated the effects of climate change would become detectable in the late 20th or early 21st century.
As of 1981, it estimated that 44% of the company’s carbon dioxide emissions came from oil, 38% from coal, and 17% from natural gas.
“By the time global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation,” the report stated. “With fossil fuel combustion being a major source of CO2 in the atmosphere, a forward-looking approach by the energy industry is clearly desirable, seeking to play its part with governments and others in the development of appropriate measures to tackle the problem.”
At the same time, it concluded that “the likely time scale of possible change does not necessitate immediate remedial action.” Even so, “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,” InsideClimate News notes.
“With the very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then before doing anything,” company researchers stated in the 1988 report. “The potential implications for the world are, however, so large that policy options need to be considered much earlier.”
That recommendation contrasted “with Shell’s public stance on climate change during the 1990s, when the company was a member of the Global Climate Coalition,” the Post notes. “The industry group raised doubts about the science of climate change and opposed the Kyoto Protocol, the global agreement reached in 1997 to fight climate change.”
By February 1995, 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,” InsideClimate reports.
On Thursday, Friends of the Earth Netherlands threatened to take Shell to court unless it aligns its business with the goals of the Paris agreement, DeSmog UK’s Mat Hope reports for Climate Home News. Just last week, Oil Change International was out with a blistering critique of Shell’s latest long-term energy scenario and its apparent misunderstanding of the Paris targets.
“Shell’s new report does not provide a stress test, because it describes a future with so much oil and gas that the company faces no stress,” wrote Research Director Greg Muttitt. “The lesson is simple: If you want to know how to fix climate change, don’t ask a company that wants to sell you more oil and gas.”
Friends of the Earth holds Shell responsible for 2% of global carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1894 and 2010, not the 4% of carbon dioxide acknowledged in the company’s own early research. It’s giving the company eight weeks to shift away from a long-term strategy that sees it directing 95% of its investment to oil and gas and only 5% to sustainable energy, The Guardian reports.
The Guardian says FOE-Netherlands’ legal team is led by Roger Cox, “who led and won a landmark climate case in 2015 that insisted the Dutch government should set more ambitious emissions targets.”
“This is the first case we know of in the world that seeks preventive action from a company over climate change,” Cox said. “We are not asking for damages. We want Shell to steer away from its current course and to get in line with the Paris agreement.”
“Science tells us that time isn’t a luxury we have where climate change is concerned,” said Friends of the Earth UK Chief Executive Craig Bennett. “Shell must now move on from its history of Earth-damaging fossil fuel extraction and play a major part in the transition to a sustainable future, to keep temperature rises to near 1.5°C.”
Bennett added that, “currently, Shell and companies like it are acting like big tobacco in decades past, by failing to take responsibility for the harm they cause.”
Grist correspondent Justine Calma says the repercussions could be felt in the U.S., as well, where cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and New York are suing major fossil companies for their share of the cost of foreseeable climate impacts. “The biggest hurdle to their cases wasn’t proving that climate change is a thing—even Big Oil’s lawyers can’t argue that anymore—but that fossil fuel companies can be held legally liable for the damages caused by climate change,” Calma writes. “Shell just made that a lot easier.”
In British Columbia, West Coast Environmental Law is coordinating a series of climate accountability letters from municipalities, asking fossils to cover their share of the cities’ climate adaptation costs.
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