The full extent to which the fossil fuel industry, companies like Shell and Exxon, knew—as early as the 1970s—how their combustible products were contributing to irreversible warming of the planet, became public knowledge over the last few years. A series of painstakingly researched articles published in 2015 by the Pulitzer-prize winning Inside Climate News revealed an industry totally aware and informed for decades about the inevitable warming certain to occur as more and more carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels was released into the atmosphere.
In fact, the oil industry, and Exxon in particular, had the best climate models available, superior to those relied on by scientific community. And armed with the foreknowledge developed through those models, Exxon and the other oil companies planned and executed an elaborate, cynical long term strategy: to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a comprehensive propaganda effort designed to raise doubts about the existence and cause of climate change, a phenomenon they well knew was irrefutable, based on their own research. By 2016 the industry’s lobbying to discredit the science of climate change had surpassed two billion dollars.
Meanwhile, as newly discovered documents reported in The Guardian attest, the same companies were preparing projections of what type of world they would be leaving for the rest of humanity.
In the 1980s, oil companies like Exxon and Shell carried out internal assessments of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, and forecast the planetary consequences of these emissions. In 1982, for example, Exxon predicted that by about 2060, CO2 levels would reach around 560 parts per million – double the preindustrial level – and that this would push the planet’s average temperatures up by about 2°C over then-current levels (and even more compared to pre-industrial levels).
Shell’s internal projections, made in 1988, were even more ominous, finding that CO2 levels could double as early as 2030.
Shell’s assessment foresaw a one-meter sea-level rise, and noted that warming could also fuel disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, resulting in a worldwide rise in sea level of “five to six meters.” That would be enough to inundate entire low-lying countries.
As it turns out, the Earth passed the 400 ppm mark in 2014, for the first time in 2.5 million years.
Both Shell and Exxon predicted devastating levels of sea-level rise, inundation of massive swaths of arable farmland and vast destruction of the planet’s ecosystems. Shell specifically noted that “new sources of precipitation” would likely be required to compensate for the lack of renewed sources of fresh water. Exxon, not to be outdone, predicted that parts of the American Midwest would be transformed into deserts. The Exxon report, also hidden from the public, was leaked in 2015.
The Shell assessment (which was kept under wraps until it was leaked earlier this year) specifically warned that it was imperative for policy changes to be implemented immediately: “By the time global warming becomes detectable, it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilise [sic.] the situation.”
In short, by 1988 Shell was not only aware of the potential threats posed by climate change, it was open about its own role in creating the conditions for a warming world.
As pointed out in the Guardian’s report, neither Shell nor Exxon ever took responsibility for the destructive impact of their own products. The Shell report specifically placed the onus on governments and consumers to check their thirst for fossil fuels. As the Guardian article points out, that may have made sense except for the fact that both companies then chose to embark on a plan over the next three decades to deliberately disinform both governments and consumers regarding the role fossil fuels played in altering the Earth’s climate:
Although the details of global warming were foreign to most people in the 1980s, among the few who had a better idea than most were the companies contributing the most to it. Despite scientific uncertainties, the bottom line was this: oil firms recognized that their products added CO2 to the atmosphere, understood that this would lead to warming, and calculated the likely consequences. And then they chose to accept those risks on our behalf, at our expense, and without our knowledge.
Put simply, these companies knew what was going to happen, calculated the risk to the future of humanity, then lied about their conclusions, all to protect their profits. Sitting in their boardrooms in the 1980’s, they made a conscious choice to condemn the planet and its people, probably figuring that they would all be dead before the impact of their decision truly manifested itself. They were, quite literally, the men who sold the world.