#15 Shell Understood Climate Change as Early as 1991—and Ignored It

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

In 1991, Shell Oil Company produced and distributed a twenty-eight-minute documentary titled Climate of Concern. Asserting that climate change was taking place “at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age—change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation,” the film addressed potentially drastic consequences of climate change including extreme weather, flooding, famines, and climate refugees. While commenting that global warming was “not yet certain,” the Shell film stated, “many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible.” The film’s narrator explained that a “uniquely broad consensus of scientists” had issued a “serious warning” in a report to the United Nations at the end of 1990. (The landmark report identified in the Shell documentary was Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment.)

Recently Climate of Concern resurfaced, after Jelmer Mommers obtained a copy of it, and he and Damian Carrington posted it online as part of a joint investigative report for De Correspondent and the Guardian. As Mommers and Carrington documented, instead of trying to combat climate change as the company’s own documentary urged, Shell’s actions since 1991 have often contributed to increasing the negative impact of climate change.

A former geologist who had researched shale deposits with funding from Shell and BP, Jeremy Leggett, told Mommers and Carrington, “The film shows that Shell understood that the threat was dire, potentially existential for civilization, more than a quarter of a century ago.” Mommers and Carrington also quoted HSBC’s former global head of oil and gas, Paul Spedding (now at the think tank Carbon Tracker), who noted that “Shell’s oil production is destined to become heavier, higher cost, and higher carbon, hardly a profile that fits the outlook described in Shell’s video.”

Shell’s documentary addressed the need for action on climate change. When asking how societies could reduce carbon emissions, the documentary identified nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, and wind power as alternative energy options. However, as Mommers and Carrington reported, Shell has consistently undermined the production of renewable energy for its own financial gain. One recent example was documented in an April 2015 Guardian article, which revealed that, in order to ensure that its gas investments would remain lucrative, Shell successfully lobbied to “undermine European renewable energy targets ahead of a key agreement on emissions cuts” reached by the EU in 2014.

Furthermore, Mommers and Carrington wrote, until 2015 Shell was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobby group that denies climate change, and it remains a member of the Business Roundtable and the American Petroleum Institute, “which both fought against Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.” According to Shell officials, it has remained a member of groups that hold different views on climate action to “influence” them, but Mommers and Carrington quoted Thomas O’Neill, from the group Influence Map, which tracks lobbying, who told them that the “trade associations and industry groups are there to say things the company cannot or does not want to say. It’s deliberately that way.”

Mommers and Carrington also presented a “confidential” Shell report, written in 1986, that warned about the possibility of “fast and dramatic” climate changes that “would impact on the human environment, future living standards and food supplies, and could have major social, economic, and political consequences.”

The revelation that as early as 1986 Shell Oil Company had a sophisticated scientific understanding of climate change and its potentially disastrous consequences, as documented by Mommers and Carrington, echoes a July 2015 report in the Guardian. That report featured internal company emails revealing that ExxonMobil knew of climate change “as early as 1981 . . . seven years before it became a public issue.” Despite this knowledge, the Guardian reported, ExxonMobil “spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate [change] denial.”

Jelmer Mommers, “Shell Made a Film about Climate Change in 1991 (Then Neglected to Heed Its Own Warning,” De Correspondent, February 28, 2017, https://thecorrespondent.com/6285/shell-made-a-film-about-climate-change-in-1991-then-neglected-to-heed-its-own-warning/692663565-875331f6.

Jelmer Mommers and Damian Carrington, “If Shell Knew Climate Change was Dire 25 Years Ago, Why Still Business as Usual Today?,” De Correspondent, February 28, 2017, https://thecorrespondent.com/6286/if-shell-knew-climate-change-was-dire-25-years-ago-why-still-business-as-usual-today/692773774-4d15b476.

Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers, “Shell’s 1991 Warning: Climate Changing ‘at Faster Rate Than at Any Time since End of Ice Age,’” Guardian, February 28, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/28/shell-film-warning-climate-change-rate-faster-than-end-ice-age.

Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers, “‘Shell Knew’: Oil Giant’s 1991 Film Warned of Climate Change Danger,” Guardian, February 28, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/28/shell-knew-oil-giants-1991-film-warned-climate-change-danger.

Student Researcher: Clare Charlesworth (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)