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

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.

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