French colossal fossil TotalÉnergies knew about the dangers of climate change as early as 1971, but has spent much of the last 50 years either denying climate science or privately pushing delays in climate action, according to a forthcoming article in the journal Global Environmental Change.
“We show that Total personnel received warnings of the potential for catastrophic global warming from its products by 1971, became more fully informed of the issue in the 1980s, began promoting doubt regarding the scientific basis for global warming by the late 1980s, and ultimately settled on a position in the late 1990s of publicly accepting climate science while promoting policy delay or policies peripheral to fossil fuel control,” write [pdf] authors Christophe Bonneuil, Pierre-Louis Choquet, and Benjamin Franta, in a paper that has been accepted but not yet published by the peer-reviewed journal.
Using archival research and interviews with primary sources, the three authors produced what they call “one of the first longitudinal studies of a major fossil fuel company’s responses to global warming to the present, describing historical stages of awareness, preparation, denial, and delay.”
They say the catalyst for their study was a 1971 article in the company’s in-house magazine, Total Information, that provided “direct proof of Total’s awareness of climate science in 1971.” The story on atmospheric pollution and climate traced humanity’s use of fossil fuels and the “enormous” carbon dioxide emissions that had resulted since the 19th century, and pointed to impacts that are now the stuff of daily headlines—like changes in atmospheric circulation, melting ice caps, and sea level rise.
“The 1971 article published in Total Information was not an isolated warning but rather a moment in which the French oil company’s top executives were exposed to a growing body of scientific work on global warming,” the paper states. The authors lay out an elaborate strategy of delay and deception that they say Total executives pursued instead of taking action on what they knew.
In a release, Notre Affaire à Nous and 350.org said Total should be held accountable for deceiving the public, policy-makers, and its own investors, using strategies that ranged from discrediting and generating doubt around climate scientists, to “fiercely lobbying to prevent any form of regulation of their activities”, to continuing to develop an almost exclusively fossil-focused business—despite their in-house understanding of the disastrous impacts ahead.
“These revelations provide proof that TotalÉnergies and the other oil and gas majors have stolen the precious time of a generation to stem the climate crisis,” the two groups declared. “The dire consequences of climate change we are now experiencing could have been avoided if Total executives 50 years ago had decided that the future of the planet was more important than their profits.”
“The intensive development of new oil and gas projects is a declaration of war against humanity,” added 350.org France Team Lead Clémence Dubois. “Total’s plans to continue developing massive new oil and gas fields in the years to come could end up costing millions of lives. This is only possible though because of the support they receive from the financial sector. From all over the world, we are appealing to the banks: it is time to cut funding to Total.”
The company responded that it “deplores the process” of digging up decades-old evidence without highlighting the “efforts, changes, progress, and investments” it has made since then, writes fossil industry newsletter Energy Voice.
“Energy is life,” Total Chair and CEO Patrick Pouyanné said in May, after the company completed a rebrand to TotalÉnergies, meant to signal its commitment to broaden its focus beyond fossil fuels. “We all need it and it’s a source of progress. So today, to contribute to the sustainable development of the planet facing the climate challenge, we are moving forward, together, towards new energies.”