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Shell and Exxon's secret 1980s climate change warnings

Posted on 19 September 2018 by Guest Author

One day in 1961, an American economist named Daniel Ellsberg stumbled across a piece of paper with apocalyptic implications. Ellsberg, who was advising the US government on its secret nuclear war plans, had discovered a document that contained an official estimate of the death toll in a preemptive “first strike” on China and the Soviet Union: 300 million in those countries, and double that globally.

Ellsberg was troubled that such a plan existed; years later, he tried to leak the details of nuclear annihilation to the public. Although his attempt failed, Ellsberg would become famous instead for leaking what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers – the US government’s secret history of its military intervention in Vietnam.

America’s amoral military planning during the Cold War echoes the hubris exhibited by another cast of characters gambling with the fate of humanity. Recently, secret documents have been unearthed detailing what the energy industry knew about the links between their products and global warming. But, unlike the government’s nuclear plans, what the industry detailed was put into action.

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 chart

 Exxon’s private prediction of the future growth of carbon dioxide levels (left axis) and global temperature relative to 1982 (right axis). Elsewhere in its report, Exxon noted that the most widely accepted science at the time indicated that doubling carbon dioxide levels would cause a global warming of 3°C. Illustration: 1982 Exxon internal briefing document

Later that decade, in 1988, an internal report by Shell projected similar effects but also found that CO2 could double even earlier, by 2030. Privately, these companies did not dispute the links between their products, global warming, and ecological calamity. On the contrary, their research confirmed the connections.

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.

Shell’s analysts also warned of the “disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction,” predicted an increase in “runoff, destructive floods, and inundation of low-lying farmland,” and said that “new sources of freshwater would be required” to compensate for changes in precipitation. Global changes in air temperature would also “drastically change the way people live and work.” All told, Shell concluded, “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.”

For its part, Exxon warned of “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.” Like Shell’s experts, Exxon’s scientists predicted devastating sea-level rise, and warned that the American Midwest and other parts of the world could become desert-like. Looking on the bright side, the company expressed its confidence that “this problem is not as significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine.”

The documents make for frightening reading. And the effect is all the more chilling in view of the oil giants’ refusal to warn the public about the damage that their own researchers predicted. Shell’s report, marked “confidential,” was first disclosed by a Dutch news organization earlier this year. Exxon’s study was not intended for external distribution, either; it was leaked in 2015.

Nor did the companies ever take responsibility for their products. In Shell’s study, the firm argued that the “main burden” of addressing climate change rests not with the energy industry, but with governments and consumers. That argument might have made sense if oil executives, including those from Exxon and Shell, had not later lied about climate change and actively prevented governments from enacting clean-energy policies.

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.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. The 1987 UN Report "Our Common Future" included the following stetment making it undeniable what the 'winners/leaders' of the time had been doing:

    "25. Many present efforts to guard and maintain human progress, to meet human needs, and to realize human ambitions are simply unsustainable - in both the rich and poor nations. They draw too heavily, too quickly, on already overdrawn environmental resource accounts to be affordable far into the future without bankrupting those accounts. They may show profit on the balance sheets of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses. We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. They may damn us for our spendthrift ways, but they can never collect on our debt to them. We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.
    26. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations. Most of today's decision makers will be dead before the planet feels; the heavier effects of acid precipitation, global warming, ozone depletion, or widespread desertification and species loss. Most of the young voters of today will still be alive. In the Commission's hearings it was the young, those who have the most to lose, who were the harshest critics of the planet's present management."

    And the success of the fossil fuel industry is the expected result of nations failing to improve the awareness and understanding of their populations. That failure develops myopic worldviews, people caring more about near-term benefits for a small portion of current humanity, caring less about others or longer term interests like the future of humanity.

    And how much better are the Winners/Leaders today ---> many are more aggressively regressive.

    That failure to responsibly lead the improvement of awareness and understanding, failure to improve and expand worldviews to the future of all of humanity, is exactly what John Stuart Mills warned about in "On Liberty" when he was discussing the ability of the elites (winners) in a society to responsibly educate all members of their society. He stated "If society lets a considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences."

    Societies around the planet have not only failed to be led to improved awareness and understanding, many are developing winners who more aggressively fight against the population developing improved awareness and understanding - and they are still able to get away with it.

    In spite of how undeniably harmful to the future of humanity the deliberate misleading of the public regarding climate science actually is, I cannot name a politician who has been brought to trial for deliberately misleading the public regarding climate science, or one that has even just been declared incapable of responsibly performing the duties of their esteemed elected high-office position and been removed from office without having to wait for 'the next election'.

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  2. Yes but a lot of people got rediculously rich in the process so that makes it ok.

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  3. No that many people Jef. Compared to the whole of humanity, very few, in fact. 

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  4. I do not have a problem with some people being wealthier than others.

    People who have been more helpful regarding the improvement of awareness and understanding of what is really going on and the application of that learning to help develop a sustainable better future for humanity should be more highly regarded and rewarded than others.

    The obvious problem is that those type of people are at a competitive disadvantage. People with other interests can easily become bigger winners than they deserve to be, especially when they can abuse the awareness and understanding of the power of misleading marketing to easily tempt people to have a more limited, more myopic, worldview.

    Trying to be a winner in ways that are harmful to the future of humanity needs to be treated like current day harmful pursuits of personal perceptions of superiority relative to others. Those actions are discouraged and penalized. We are starting to see that correction occurring. But there is lots of resistance to those corrections by undeserving wealthy and powerful people, especially in supposedly 'more advanced nations', nations, regions, corporations and communities that have only developed unjustified perceptions of superiority relative to others.

    For societies and organizations to be truly sustainable, they need to develop higher expectations for helpful behaviour by 'their winners and leaders', and correct or penalize the ones who are 'less deserving of their developed perceptions of superiority'.

    Achieving the corrections identified by climate science requires improved awareness and understanding of more than climate science.

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  5. Big companies are amoral. Nothing new here. This applies even to the Pharacutical companies that do give us many life saving products.  They also hide negative results of their research as has been revealed many times.  The argument by the fuel companies that it is the responsibility of governments to take the necessary measures to  protect their people is well taken but the last estimate I have heard, is  that there are at least a hundred lobyists in Washington for every politician and the big companies and rich individuals finance political elections.  Who pays the piper calls the tune.  Until politicians are financed from the exchequer and it is illegal for any person or company to give money for any reason what so ever to a politician, we can forget about them representing us.

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  6. Oil companies such as Exxon do not create oil, nor are they the great producers. That would be Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico and the rest of OPEC.  The oil companies merely respond to demand by doing the in-between work of buying, transporting, stockpiling and in some cases refining. Some oil is extracted by the major oil componies, but few (none?) equal the scale and output of Saudi Aramco, Pemex or PDVSA. OK, post Chavez PDVSA isn't producing as much oil, but that's not due to any environmental enlightenment. China may well muscle in and flip that condition. 

    The whole post cleverly tosses aside something more fundamental: Oil is produced because we demand it. Private oil companies exist only because of the world's voracious demand, and if they went 'Poof' tomorrow state owned entities would expand to replace them, albeit with higher overhead. 

    Most of the world refuses to allow their government to dictate how much energy they consume in the form of food, manufactured products, heated, cooled or humidity controlled homes and asphalt on their roads, and the freight network that hoves all that supports civilization.   When we demand these things by buying them, we cause oil to be extracted, transported and refined.  To not use oil one drop out of society and exist on animal and hand power.  

    It would be nice if suddenly the world's population decided to do as we see fit and not use products, services or forms of energy produced by fossil fuel. People say they would like to do so, but almost no one outside people reading sites like this (maybe 0.5% of the world, if that) will follow up. 

    When there's a demand for a product or service, a few people or nations notice and find a way to fulfill that demand.  Blaming the providers for doing so implies that you are somehow entitled to direct what people want and what they may exchange their time and toil for.  Both the consumers and those who would be the supply to their demand will dissent, and vigorously. 

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Sloganeering snipped.

  7. Driving by @6

    Strawman arguments about companies not making oil, dubious comparisons between a single company and entire countries, stating things everyone knows anyway.

    In addition, it doesn't matter what exonn does or manufactures, that doesn't absolve them of blame for concealing research on climate change from the public. Nobody is above  good ethical standards or consumer law, are they?

    Plus omission of obvious facts and cynical lack of balance. We don't have to just "stop using oil" and become hippies :) There are alternatives to not using oil such as renewable energy.

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  8. William @5, the problem with making it illegal to fund any politician privately is that it entrenches the existing politicians.  If nobody has any advertising funding except for the current politicians (or parties), then voting for anyone else would be playing roulette.

    I agree that you have identified a big problem, but not with the solution.  There is a saying "For every complex problem there is a simple solution, which doesn't work".

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  9. One obvious (for William) example would be the NZ Electoral Finance Act 2007 repealed after only two years with a vote 112/9. Nonetheless, NZ does make it more difficult for corporations to buy elections. You can tell if a democracy is in trouble if you have lobbyists talking directly to politicians (buying favours via campaign funding) instead of trying to influence the electorate.

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  10. Advertising and propaganda are not a problem. The problem is people being harmfully misleading, especially with appeals built to trigger myopic worldview primal human selfish reactions to overwhelm reasonable thoughtful altruistic modern human consideration.

    And the governing objectives of acceptable leadership action need to be understood to be the promotion of improved awareness and understanding of what is really going on (the latest climate science, or any other learning), and the application of that knowledge to improve and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Without that improved awareness and understanding, a society or organization has no real future. And government advertising and propaganda should be legally required to promote that awareness and understanding - for the good of the future, because the free-market certainly cannot be expected to do it.

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  11. DrivingBy @6

    "Oil is produced because we demand it. Private oil companies exist only because of the world's voracious demand, and if they went 'Poof' tomorrow state owned entities would expand to replace them, albeit with higher overhead.

    Most of the world refuses to allow their government to dictate how much energy they consume in the form of food, manufactured products, heated, cooled or humidity controlled homes and asphalt on their roads, and the freight network that hoves all that supports civilization. When we demand these things by buying them, we cause oil to be extracted, transported and refined."

    Oil and all fossil fuels aren't being used on a massive level because the public keeps demanding it, they are still the main source of energy for two key reasons.

    1. A decadal and massively funded campaign on the part of the fossil fuel sector to deny the inherent risks in using fossil fuels on a massive scale.

    2. Huge amounts of money spent to lobby politicians by the fossil fuel sector.

    Lets look at British Columbia alone where I am now.

    $5.2 million in political donations and more than 22,000 lobbying contacts

    In an 8 year period the oil and gas sector paid politicians in BC alone $5.2 million and lobbyed them 22,000 times that's an average of 14 times a day.

    These are products that we know are highly dangerous to keep using at the current scale, the only reason we are still on a course to imminent disaster with fossil fuels is because we are being held there firmly by the fossil fuel sector itself which has effectively captured regulators like the Nation Energy Board of Canada.

    The courts here have ruled that our national energy regulator is captured by the fossil fuel sector.

    After Federal Court quashes Trans Mountain, Rachel Notley pulls out of national climate plan

    The majority of people are not asking for disater, we have been removed from the decision making process by those with a fundamental conflict of interest.

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  12. OPF #10: You wrote:

    Advertising and propaganda are not a problem. The problem is people being harmfully misleading, especially with appeals built to trigger myopic worldview primal human selfish reactions to overwhelm reasonable thoughtful altruistic modern human consideration.

    The second sentence could very well be construed as a description of the  "propaganda" process. What is your working definition of "propaganda"?

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  13. My definition is the simple use of emotional appeal to popularize a message. And I admit the eveolved concept of the term has been severely tainted by the Nasi use of Propaganda.

    So my distinction is that propaganda for harmful intent is unacceptable, especially if the emotional appeal is combined with a deliberately misleading message.

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  14. I would add that I am not really a fan of deliberately misleading messages as part of a government propaganda program, even if the result would be more helpful behaviour of the people influenced by the propaganda.

    Early propagada campaigna against Pot in Canada are an example. Discouraging the use of Pot is helpful, especially dicouraging it among younger people, but the campaign was a dismal failure because it was so grossly inaccurate. The new Pot propaganda campaigns in Canada are entertaining appeals for people to not toke and drive, and avoid combining pot with tobacco because of the effects of combined use.

    And propaganda is government marketing. Governments do not advertise.

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  15. John Hartz,

    On further reflection I am addressing any marketing efforts.

    Advertising and propagada actually have no clear definitions. They can be done to raise awareness or to fool people into wanting or believing something. They can be more understanding/fact-based or more emotional/desire appealing. They can be political or business related. Anyone can believe whatever they want the terms to mean (but Nasi use of the term propaganda definitely still taints perceptions of the term).

    My focus is on distinguishing acceptable vs. unacceptable, based on a Governing Objective of improving awareness and understanding and applying that knowledge to develop a sustainable better future for huamnity. And I consider the Sustainable Development Goals and other UN agreements (like nuclear non-proliferation, and Human Rights) to be sub-objectives aligned with that Governing Objective.

    It would probably be better to use a term like "promotion efforts" when identifying that the important distinction is how helpful they are, with an added understanding that less factual but helpful promotion efforts are not really OK either. The acceptability is a combination of helpfulness to the development of a sustainable better future for humanity and being based on the improved awareness and understanding that has developed (something sounding helpful but not properly based on the constantly improving awareness and understanding needs to be updated/corrected).

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  16. I also dislike misleading rhetoric intensely.  It has always been a part of advertising and general debate, but it seems to have increased in volume in recent years, or maybe I'm just getting old and noticing it more or something. But perhaps the advent of talkback radio and then the internet has amplified it, given it a huge platform in both general discussion and debate,  and in advertising and marketing. This has changed the landscape, and demands a response and better awareness of the problem. 

    I think misleading rhetoric is almost as bad as lying. Its a way people have developed to hide information that stops just short of lying, so they can't be accused of lying. Yet to me its just as unacceptable, assumimg its deliberate or cynical of course.

    Propaganda is formally defined as political information that is often misleading or one sided.  I dont think I could ever call propaganda acceptable, but I agee that advertising is not always a problem, its entirely dependent on how its structured. But then most countries have laws to deal with misleading advertising, and in fact I lodged a complaint once, and the advertisement was removed from television.

    But we don't deal with misleading rhetoric in public discussion so well. I suppose free speech is paramount, but I can only hope for spreading better awareness of the nature and unacceptability of misleading rhetoric and shaming people into using more open and transparent debate.

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  17. nigelj,

    There are a variety of definitions of propaganda (and advertising). And propaganda does not have to be misleading or harmful.

    My 1985 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary defies propaganda as: association or organized scheme for propagation of a doctrine or practice; or doctrines, information, etc., thus propagated.

    Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary currently defines it as: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; or ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause.

    And if it is Capitalized it is: a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions

    So, in the minds of many, propaganda has only negative connotations. But that is a recent development. And it is not a fair re-definition since propaganda can be helpful to the development of a sustainable better future for humanity, but such helpful propaganda from elected leaders can be easily attacked by simply unfairly declaring it to be propaganda.

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