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Shell Knew Science of Global Warming in 1980s, Kept Silent, Report Says

The Shell Oil Co.'s "Spectacular" sign in Cambridge, Mass. (Catherine Hammond / Wikimedia)

Climate change deniers often make the claim that more research is needed to determine whether fossil fuels are warming the earth. But while the energy industry foments scientific uncertainty, internal research from Royal Dutch Shell confirms that the company knew about the science of global warming decades ago and then hid the knowledge.

Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent unearthed a Shell report from 1988 titled “The Greenhouse Effect” that calculated Shell’s contribution to global warming and anticipated the multinational oil and gas company could be sued in the future over environmental damage.

According to Climate Files:

The confidential report, “The Greenhouse Effect,” was authored by members of Shell’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group and based on a 1986 study, though the document reveals Shell was commissioning “greenhouse effect” reports as early as 1981. Report highlights include:

  • A thorough review of climate science literature, including acknowledgement of fossil fuels’ dominant role in driving greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, Shell quantifies its own products’ contribution to global CO2 emissions.
  • A detailed analysis of potential climate impacts, including rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and human migration.
  • A discussion of the potential impacts to the fossil fuel sector itself, including legislation, changing public sentiment, and infrastructure vulnerabilities. Shell concludes that active engagement from the energy sector is desirable.
  • A cautious response to uncertainty in scientific models, pressing for sincere consideration of solutions even in the face of existing debates.
  • A warning to take policy action early, even before major changes are observed to the climate.

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. Similar documents by [Exxon Mobil], oil trade associations, and utility companies have emerged in recent years, though this Shell document is a rare, early, and concrete accounting of climate responsibility by an oil major.

Mommers partnered with Damian Carrington, The Guardian’s environment editor, to produce a comprehensive investigative report on how Shell has conducted business as usual, investing in fossil fuels for more than 25 years despite knowing about the dangers of climate change.

In fact, in 1991, Shell made a 28-minute film titled “The Climate of Concern” that warned about climate change. De Correspondent made the film public again.

Shell, like Exxon, is on a growing list of oil corporations that have spent millions to mislead the public about climate change while profiting off the destruction of our planet.

On “Rising Up With Sonali,” Truthdig contributor Sonali Kolhatkar spoke about the Shell scandal with Cassady Craighill, media officer for Greenpeace USA.

“This is a big concern for shareholders,” Craighill said. “About a year ago, a different company, Exxon, its shareholders had a big revolt at its annual meeting in Dallas and passed a historic resolution that demanded the company account for climate change and its impact on Exxon’s business model. That was very ill-advised from Exxon’s executives. It was not what they wanted, but the shareholders did it anyways, so these things are very important to these companies. Of course, you and I are thinking about the catastrophe that is climate change and its global impacts, but there is a whole other side of this to audiences like shareholders who know that these products are not sustainable.”

To learn more, visit and read other internal Shell climate documents.

Eric Ortiz
Eric Ortiz is a journalist and innovator with two decades in digital media, Ortiz founded the mobile app startup Evrybit, a live storytelling and reporting tool, as a 2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at…
Eric Ortiz

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