Shell oil company knew it was contributing to climate change in 1988

By 1988, a major oil and gas company was not only aware of the potential threats posed by climate change, it understood its own role in creating the conditions for a warming world.

Documents unearthed this week by a Dutch journalist reveal that Royal Dutch Shell recognized in 1988 that it was contributing to climate change — and how difficult it would be to reverse course, according to The Washington Post.

In a report called “The Greenhouse Effect,” the company’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group calculated that Shell was “contributing 4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions through its oil, natural gas and coal products.”

The report also noted that “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, written by members of the working group, predicted the effects would become noticeable in the “the 20th or early 21st century.”

The group’s projections were far-reaching, with warnings about the social and political consequences of climate change, as well as the dangers posed by rising sea levels.

Similar documents by ExxonMobil, oil trade associations, and utility companies have emerged in recent years, though the Shell document is a rare, early, and concrete accounting of climate responsibility by one of the world’s largest oil companies.

In the 1990s, Shell had publicly “raised doubts about the science of climate change” and opposed the Kyoto Protocol, The Washington Post reported.

“We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy to everyone,” the company told the newspaper.

The 1988 study included a warning to take policy action early, even before major changes are observed to the climate: “With very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything. 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.”

Shell’s authors detail additional, specific impacts including the abandonment of cities and countries in low-lying areas (such as Bangladesh) and coral reef destruction, concluding these environmental and socio-economic changes may be the “greatest in human history.”

Friends of the Earth Netherlands demanded the Anglo-Dutch company revise plans to invest only 5% in sustainable energy and 95% in greenhouse-gas emitting oil and gas.

The environmental group said Shell’s business strategy would increase the impact of climate change, especially on the world’s poorest people and those most prone to flooding.

It has given Shell eight weeks to shift to a cleaner tack, after which it says it is prepared to invoke international obligations, human rights treaties and laws on hazardous negligence.


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