Shell also knew

‘Confidential’ Shell document shows oil giant was aware of climate impacts over a generation ago.

Newly uncovered documents show Shell Oil knew about the causes and impacts of climate change in the early 1980s. Credit: Yegor AleyevTASS via Getty Images.
Newly uncovered documents show Shell Oil knew about the causes and impacts of climate change in the early 1980s. Credit: Yegor AleyevTASS via Getty Images.

Dutch oil giant Shell knew about the impacts of climate change as early as the 1980s, according to newly uncovered documents. But as one confidential document shows, Shell also knew the world would not take action quickly enough to stop the effects of climate change.

As time went on, the oil company’s lobbying efforts helped make that warning a reality.

The trove of 38 documents were first unearthed by dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent and also published by Climate Investigations Center. They show that, like ExxonMobil, Shell’s scientists knew about the environmental damage of burning fossil fuels well before the general public was fully aware, and even before the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change was established.

And like Exxon, Shell has worked to stall action to address climate change, including lobbying against European renewable energy targets. In 2015, for example, it spent $22 million lobbying against climate policies, according to nonprofit Influence Map.

Studying climate impacts

According to perhaps one of the most significant documents uncovered — a 1988 Shell document marked “Confidential” and titled “The Greenhouse Effect” — the oil giant had an internal climate science program dating back to 1981.


As the document’s authors acknowledge, fossil fuels are the “main cause” of increasing carbon dioxide emissions. It also lays out detailed analysis of the potential impacts from rising global emissions, including sea level rise, ocean acidification, and human migration.

The document concludes that the energy sector should actively engage to help stop or limit climate change. It also includes a warning: “However, by the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.”

In 1988 Shell warned about the impacts of climate change and the need for the energy industry to help take action to limit global carbon emissions. Credit: Climate Files.
In 1988 Shell warned about the impacts of climate change and the need for the energy industry to help take action to limit global carbon emissions. Credit: Climate Files.

According to a statement by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), these documents detail “a troubling pattern in Shell’s behavior: making declarations about the dangers of climate change while working with other companies to oppose climate action, including by spreading misinformation, then leaving after the damage has already been done.”

In 1991, for example, Shell released a video called Climate of Concern which reiterated the warnings found in this 1988 document. In it, the oil giant states, “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”

A ‘complicated history’

The company’s discourse on climate change, however, started to shift in the mid-1990s. An updated version of The Greenhouse Effect downplayed the science and the company became a member of an industry anti-climate lobby group, the Global Climate Coalition, during the 1990s before the group disbanded in 2001.


Until 2015, Shell was also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is infamous for its efforts to undermine environmental protections and climate action. And it is today still a member of the largest industry group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), which lobbies for oil companies and has also spread climate misinformation.

“Shell has flown below the radar in part because it has been talking a big game on climate for a long time,” Steven Feit, a CIEL attorney, said in a statement. “But these documents reveal a more complicated history.”

The company has recently made moves in an attempt to show it is taking climate change seriously. At an industry conference at the beginning of March, Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden said climate change is its biggest concern. A large part of tackling it, he said, will involve the company focusing more on natural gas — a fossil fuel.

This statement was followed by Shell publishing its “Sky Scenario” at the end of last month, which sets out what it calls a “radical” plan for limiting global temperature rise to “well below two degrees” compared to 1990 levels. Environmentalists, however, criticized the report for being disingenuous; the report maintains the current level of fossil fuel use for decades to come, which fails to seriously challenge the oil giant’s existing business model.

“The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades,” the company said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

“We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future,” it continued, “while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy to everyone. Successfully navigating this dual challenge requires sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers. It requires cooperation between all segments of society.”

Measuring its carbon footprint

The confidential 1988 document also shows Shell quantifying its own products’ contribution to global carbon emissions. According to its analysis, the company counted for 4 percent of global carbon emissions in 1984.

As ThinkProgress revealed earlier this week, Mobil Oil had undertaken a similar effort around this time.

As a newly uncovered video from 1998, published by ThinkProgress, shows, then-chief executive of Mobil, Lucio Noto, acknowledged the impact the company’s product has on rising greenhouse gas emissions. Noto says emissions from its facilities represent “probably only 5 percent of the issue in Mobil’s case. Our customers using our products probably account for 95 percent of those emissions.”

All of these pieces of evidence have important implications for the ongoing climate lawsuits facing companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell, experts argue.


Just this week, environmental group Friends of the Earth warned that it would take Shell to court in the Netherlands if it does not act to limit carbon emissions.

And in the United States, both New York and California are seeking compensation from oil companies, including Shell and ExxonMobil, for the impacts of climate change.

One of the central requirements for those suing these fossil fuel companies, however, is that the plaintiffs will have to be able to prove in court that a particular nuisance — such as sea level rise caused by carbon emissions — can be traced back to the actions of an individual company.

Understanding fossil fuel companies’ calculations regarding the impact of their operations — and their customers’ use of the product — on rising global greenhouse gas emissions will be an important part of proving fossil fuel giants’ responsibility for the effects of climate change.