Documents detail what Shell knew about climate change in the 1980s.Documents show Shell even modeled a future of climate disasters in the U.S. and potential liability. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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By Karen Savage

Newly revealed documents indicate oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has not only known about the risks of climate change for decades, but has also realized for more than 20 years that it, along with the rest of the fossil fuel industry and perhaps the U.S. government, could be held liable for not acting to prevent further climate damage.

One of the documents, written in 1998, models an eerily accurate scenario of violent and damaging storms hitting the East Coast of the U.S. in 2010.

“Following the storms, a coalition of environmental NGOs brings a class-action suit against the U.S. 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,” the report projects.

The document is one of a trove of 38 discovered and released to the public Thursday by Jelmer Mommers, a climate and energy journalist for the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. The documents are being released on the Climate Files website.

Similar to documents unearthed in 2015 about Exxon’s history of climate science knowledge, these are the first to involve a major European oil company. Several climate experts have reviewed the documents and say they will likely play a significant role in current and future climate change litigation against the Dutch oil giant.

On Wednesday, Friends of the Earth Netherlands / Milieudefensie began the process of filing a legal complaint against Shell to force the company to change its business model to tackle climate change. These documents play a pivotal role in that case.

Taken collectively, the new documents paint a picture of Shell’s climate knowledge and what the company did—or didn’t do—to prevent further climate-related impacts.

“These documents demonstrate that Shell has been on notice for decades about the climate risks linked to its products and that notice is extremely legally relevant,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, who has reviewed the documents. “These documents cover a critical period in the climate debate and they demonstrate the sophistication with which Shell was examining and acknowledging climate issues internally.”

Shell did not directly respond to the substance of the documents when asked for comment on Thursday. “The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades,” the company said in a statement. “We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, 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.”

In perhaps one of the most significant documents revealed Thursday—an internal, confidential 1988 report called The Greenhouse Effect—Shell acknowledged that potential climate change risks “could have major business implications for the fossil fuel industry.”

The company also indicated it was aware that potential climate impacts went beyond its own business, and seemed to grasp the need to deal with the crisis quickly.

“With the very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then before doing anything,” the report said. “The potential implications for the world are however, so large that the policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part.”

In the report, Shell used its own calculations to estimate that its products accounted for 4 percent of the global carbon emissions in 1984.

Muffett said that calculation is significant for pending and future litigation.

“Shell has known precisely how much it’s contributing to global greenhouse emissions on an annual basis–for decades,” said Muffett, who added that the calculation is particularly important in light of the potential to divvy up liability based on market share. It is also similar to the estimate of Shell’s emissions compiled in Richard Heede’s peer-reviewed Carbon Majors study.  

After acknowledging the energy industry’s pivotal role in emissions and the potentially looming global implications, documents show Shell began to focus on what it called the “scientific uncertainty.”

Shell issued an updated version of the report in 1994, dubbed The Enhanced Greenhouse Effect–A Review of Scientific Aspects, which included a new section detailing  “areas of controversy and alternate scientific views.”

Shell said in the report that its opposition to climate policy should not involve the company denying the science, because it is “not possible to dismiss the global warming hypothesis as scientifically unsound … any policy measure should take into account explicitly the weaknesses in the scientific case.”

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also reviewed summaries of the documents and said they show a shift in Shell’s thinking on climate issues between the first Greenhouse Effect report and the updated version in 1994.

“The company goes from saying ‘if we wait until all the scientific questions are answered it may be too late’ to saying ‘we have to wait until all of these scientific questions are answered’,” said Frumhoff, adding that the difference is profound.

Shell acknowledged in an internal management brief in 1995 that climate change was likely the “most prominent global environmental issue of today and could have major business implications for the fossil fuel industry.” The brief also said there was “enough indication of the potential risk for governments to address the issue.”

While acknowledging the risks internally, Shell continued to advocate against any climate action, saying measures to slow climate change “could be premature, divert economic resources from more pressing needs and further distort markets.”

Once again, Shell emphasized scientific doubt. It tried to downplay the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the international scientific consensus, saying “there are a significant minority outside IPCC who take a contrary view, believing the concerns over global warming to be exaggerated and misguided.”

Shell’s sophisticated modeling went beyond energy issues and the economy and addressed society as a whole with reports like the one that predicted storms and legal consequences in the U.S., which was detailed  in the 1998 Shell Internal TINA Group Scenarios 1998-2020 Report. Muffett said that may prove to be key.

“The things that they forecast happening, many of them have happened,” Muffett said. “It demonstrates Shell’s ability to model the future and that ability to model the future also comes with an ability to shape the future when you’re a company as powerful and as central to the economy as Shell was.

“I think courts looking at the documents are going to find that dichotomy between what Shell knew, between the risks it understood to exist and how it chose to respond to those risks very legally relevant.”

Frumhoff gives Shell credit for taking responsibility for the risks of its product more than 40 years ago, but liability questions will revolve around what it did with that knowledge.

“It wasn’t until 2015 that they left the American Legislative Exchange Council … which sowed doubt about climate risks in the U.S. and had an outside influence on climate policy,” said Frumhoff, who added that Shell still belongs to the American Petroleum Institute and the Western States Petroleum Institute, which continue to publicly doubt climate science and lobby against climate action.

“I wouldn’t expect them to leave those organizations, but I would expect them to stand up and vociferously distance themselves from misinformation and misguided lobbying that those groups promote to limit climate action. They don’t do that,” he said.

Climate activist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben told De Correspondent that the documents appear to show that Shell fully appreciated the risks of climate change by the late 1980s.

“Had they merely been candid with the world, we could have gotten to work then, and while global warming would not yet be ‘solved,’ we’d be well on the way,” said McKibben.

“Instead they appear to have chosen the path of hedging, minimizing, and diverting—and given the stakes, this was both tragic and immoral. Shell knew. And now we do too.”

Ucilia Wang contributed reporting for this story.

The documents in this report are available for viewing on the Climate Files website. They were uncovered by Jelmer Mommers, a climate and energy journalist for De Correspondent