Newly unearthed internal documents from Shell Oil Company provide new insights into what they knew about climate change and when they knew it.
Documents unearthed by Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent are being published today on Climate Files, a project of the Climate Investigations Center. These documents date back to 1988 and show intense interest in climate change internally at Shell.
A “CONFIDENTIAL” 1988 document titled, “The Greenhouse Effect”, details Shell’s extensive knowledge of climate change impacts and implications. It also reveals an internal Shell climate science program dating back to 1981, well before the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded.
The document includes this concise note of precaution,
“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.” (Link)
In another document from 1998, Shell scenario planners predicted that catastrophic weather events and growing public concern would trigger lawsuits against the government and fossil fuel companies.
A section of this scenario titled, “2010- Environment Back on the Front Pages” describes the scene:
While climate change is not a high priority for most people early in the century, NGOs continue to lobby against inaction on the Kyoto protocol…. In 2010, a series of violent storms causes extensive damage to the eastern coast of the US. Although it is not clear whether the storms are caused by climate change, people are not willing to take further chances. The insurance industry refuses to accept liability, setting off a fierce debate over who is liable: the insurance industry, or the government. After all, two successive IPCC reports since 1995 have reinforced the human connection to climate change. (Link)
The scenario goes on to predict class action lawsuits will be based on “what they knew when”:
Following the storms, a coalition of environmental NGOs brings a class-action suit against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done. A social. reaction to the use of fossil fuels grows, and individuals become “vigilante environmentalists” in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action.
…The power, auto, and oil industries see billions wiped off their market value overnight. (Link)
These are just two examples of new revelations unearthed in this trove of information from De Correspondent. We believe these documents will be of significant value to journalists, researchers, lawyers, investors and shareholder activists.
Below are some of the most illuminating documents of the trove, revealing new insights into Shell’s perspective on climate science, climate policy, and corporate responsibility over the past three decades.
If you have documents you would like to share with Climate Investigations Center, please visit our page for instructions on how to get information to us securely.
The full collection of documents can be found on Climate Files and in the timeline below.
Shell Climate Change Files Top Documents
Confidential report, “The Greenhouse Effect,” authored by members of Shell’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group and based on a 1986 study. The document reveals Shell was commissioning “greenhouse effect” reports as early as 1981.
Lecture by Lodewijk van Wachen, Chairman of Shell Supervisory Board.
Report by Shell environmental advisor, Peter Langcake. Distribution unclear.
1995 Shell Management Brief “Climate Change” (February 1995)
Management briefing titled “Climate Change” detailed “The Shell Position” on climate science and policy. Circulated internally.
Internal report authored by Shell’s Peter Langcake. Distribution unclear.
Internal report on future scenarios begun in 1995. TINA stands for “There is No Alternative to adapting to and making uses of the forces of Globalization, Liberalization and Technology. Circulated internally.
1998 Report “Climate Change: What does Shell think and do about it?” (February 2, 1998)
Remarks by Cor Herkströter, Shell Chairman of the Committee of Managing Directors, at World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland.
Public ad campaign builds on an April 1998 Shell special report, entitled “Profits & Principles - does there have to be a choice?” Copies of print ads are included. Distribution unclear
Presented at the “Business and the Environment Programme” Cambridge, England by John Jennings, a Shell Managing Director and Chairman of Shell Transport and Trading Company.
What did Shell know and when? These documents highlight Shell’s knowledge of climate science, the dominant role of fossil fuels in carbon pollution (including the quantification of Shell’s contribution), and the implications to society and the industry.
- Commissioned a “greenhouse effect” report as early as 1981.
- “Although CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere through several natural processes… the main cause of increasing CO2 concentrations is considered to be fossil fuel burning.” (Link)
- Quantified its own products (oil, gas, and coal) were responsible for 4% of total global carbon emissions in 1984. This is one of the earliest examples of carbon accounting by an oil major
- Detailed an analysis of potential climate impacts, including rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and human migration.
- Outlined the company’s “major developments in scientific understanding and the implications for policy formulation.” Recognizing “[t]he threat of climate change [as] the environmental concern with … the greatest significance for the fossil fuel industry,” (Link)
- Expressed skepticism of IPCC science by emphasizing the opinions of skeptics who believed “the concerns over global warming to be exaggerated and misguided.” (Link)
- Recognized the potentially severe consequences for the environment due to “climate change brought about by global warming via man-made increases in gases such as carbon dioxide.” (Link)
- Acknowledged fossil fuels as the source of anthropogenic CO2 emissions which could “give rise to an enhanced greenhouse effect resulting in global warming” and recognized this “could have major business implications for the fossil fuel industry.” (Link)
- Listed agreed upon “scientific fundamentals” including:
- the rapid increase of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution leading to “an increase in radiative forcing” (i.e. higher temperatures),
- the importance of radiative forcing on living organisms which “can tolerate only a relatively small range of temperature,
- and the current unprecedented rate of increase of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations than ever before “experienced during the history of civilisation.”
- Challenged IPCC science by emphasizing the opinions of skeptics who believed “the concerns over global warming to be exaggerated and misguided.” Some of their arguments include: “there is no statistically significant evidence that climate has been affected in the way predicted” and that the effect of greenhouse gases on warming “could be negligible” when other factors are considered. (Link)
- Contrasted the company’s research with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) Second Assessment, new scientific studies, and media reports, drawing stronger conclusions that global warming is linked to fossil fuel use
- Challenged climate science: “Man-made carbon dioxide is only a small fraction of the flux in natural systems. I believe that we are still not in a position to know whether any effect will be good, bad, or indifferent, whether it will be lasting, or whether the earth’s natural processes will restore stability.”
These documents illustrate Shell’s engagement in climate policy. Starting with an early emphasis on precautionary action in the late 1980s, the company begins to resists emerging government mandates in the early and mid 1990s, favoring instead free market solutions. In the late 1990s, it shifts again, breaking from other oil companies by supporting the urgency and need of policy action.
- Discussed 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 warning to take policy action early, even before major changes are observed to the climate.
- Included graphic symbolized how man-made climate change could lead to socio-economic consequences. It also highlighted the power of policy responses to shape those consequences. (Link)
- Conceded the “consequences of global warming could be dramatic” but noted the “major business implications” of climate change, countering that “ill-advised policy measures” would also be “dramatic.” (Link)
- Specified that “government intervention in the process of change, either nationally or internationally, should not distort competitive forces,” stressing that industry’s ability to “finance programmes to reduce its environmental impact depends on its continuing to make a profit.”
- Resisted climate policies beyond “no regrets” measures. Anything more, it deemed, “could be premature, divert economic resources from more pressing needs and further distort markets.”
- Conceded that it is “not possible to dismiss the enhanced global warming hypothesis as scientifically unsound” and that there is “enough indication of the potential risk for governments to address the issue.” However, it cautioned that “any policy measures should take into account explicitly the uncertainties in the science.”
- “…since the balance of scientific evidence suggests a link between climate change and human activity, we have a responsibility to take prudent precautionary action.”
- “…precautionary measures such as the emission limits for greenhouse gases set in train by the Kyoto agreement are necessary.”
- Predicted different policy scenarios and applied the logic of a carbon budget to its analysis of remaining oil, gas, and coal reserves. The company concluded that existing known reserves of oil and gas can be consumed while staying within carbon limits. Note, Shell’s budget located an acceptable carbon threshold at 650ppm; the chart reveals that use of existing gas or oil reserves would be enough to push us past 400ppm.
- Stated, “we believe that prudent precautionary measures are now necessary” despite their principal solutions to CO2 emission reductions involve consuming and extracting more oil and gas.
These documents detail Shell’s struggle with its public brand, social license, and responsibility for climate change. It questions how it should move forward in the face of the growing climate crisis. Shell balanced what it deemed “Profits and Principles”, focusing on natural gas and launching an international renewable energy business.
- Accepted Shell’s role in creating the conditions for a warming world.
- “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.”
- “The duty of industry in the interests of society at large is to ensure that these decisions are based on a correct understanding of the relevant facts” (Link)
- “Industry's ability to finance programmes to reduce its environmental impact depends on its continuing to make a profit. Companies should take the lead when they can; but… they should not be expected to gamble reputation or assets…” (Link)
- Detailed Shell’s complex relationship with climate change by acknowledging the need for action while emphasizing fossil fuels as a large part of the solution.
- Highlighted the production of gas and innovation in renewables as Shell’s path forward.
- Predicted the potential for a lawsuit, “against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done. A social reaction to the use of fossil fuels grows, and individuals become ‘vigilante environmentalists’ in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action …”
- Created a public facing campaign by Shell to improve their image
- “Shell believes that action needs to be taken now, both by companies and their customers. So last year, we renewed our commitment not only to meet the agreed Kyoto targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to exceed them.”
Highlighted Shell’s “major part in the move from oil to gas … planting the seeds of renewable energy … committed to making renewable energy commercially viable.”
1991 Video “Climate of Concern” produced by Shell, first reported by Jelmer Mommers in De Correspondent in February 2017: