Wednesday, September 28, 2022

What Big Oil knew about climate change in its own words

Four years ago, I traveled across America, visiting historical archives. I was looking for documents that could uncover the hidden history of climate change – and in particular when the major coal, oil and gas companies learned about the issue and what they knew about it.

I flipped through boxes of papers, thousands of pages. I began to recognize the fonts of the 1960s and 1970s typewriters, admired the legibility of past handwriting, and got used to squinting when it wasn’t clear.

What these documents have shown is now changing our understanding of how climate change turned into a crisis.

On October 28, 2021, executives from Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and the Capitol Hill American Petroleum Institute are expected to face questions from a congressional subcommittee on the oil industry’s efforts to downplay the role of fossil fuels in climate change. The industry’s own words, I found in my research, show that they knew about risk long before the rest of the world.

Amazing discoveries

At an old gunpowder factory in Delaware — now a museum and archive — I found the transcript of a 1959 oil conference called Energy and Man, a symposium held at Columbia University in New York. Scrolling through, I saw a speech by renowned scientist Edward Teller (who helped invent the hydrogen bomb) warning industry leaders and others in the audience about global warming.

“When you burn conventional fuel,” Teller explained, “you give off carbon dioxide. … Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect. ” If the world continued to use fossil fuels, the ice caps would begin to melt, raising sea levels. In the end, “all coastal cities will be covered,” he warned.

1959 was before the moon landing, before the Beatles’ first single, before Martin Luther King King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the first modern aluminum can was made. This was decades before I was born. What else was there?

In Wyoming, I found another speech in the Laramie University archives – it was a speech from 1965, and it was given by the oil manager himself. That same year, at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, the premier organization of the US petroleum industry, group president Frank Ickard referred to a report titled “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” which had been published just a few days earlier. by a team of scientific advisers to President Lyndon Johnson.

“The essence of the report,” Ikard told the industry gathering, “is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out.” He continued: “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by burning coal, oil and natural gas at such a rate that by 2000 the heat balance will be like this. changed as much as possible to bring about noticeable climate change. “

Ickard noted that the report found that “clean food for cars, buses and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.”

Transportation is currently the main source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, followed by electricity.
David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When I analyzed my California discoveries, I realized that prior to the San Francisco Summer of Love, before Woodstock, the peak of the 1960s counterculture, and what I thought was ancient history, oil executives were privately briefed. their own leaders claim that their products will ultimately change the climate of the entire planet with dangerous consequences.

Secret research reveals upcoming risks

While I traveled around the country, other researchers also worked hard. And the documents they found were, in a sense, even more shocking.

By the late 1970s, the American Petroleum Institute formed a secret committee called the CO2 and Climate Task Force, which included representatives from many major oil companies, to privately monitor and discuss the latest advances in climate science.

In 1980, the task force invited Stanford University scientist John Laurman to brief them on the state of climate science. Today we have a copy of Laurmann’s presentation saying that if fossil fuels continue to be used, global warming will be “barely noticeable” by 2005, but will have “global catastrophic consequences” by the 2060s. That same year, the American Petroleum Institute called on governments to triple global coal production, insisting that there would be no negative consequences despite what he knew from the inside.

What Big Oil knew about climate change in its own words
Slide from a 1980 presentation by John Laurmann to the American Petroleum Institute’s Climate Change Task Force, warning of the global catastrophic consequences of continued fossil fuel use.

Exxon also had a secret research program. In 1981, one of its managers, Roger Cohen, sent a memo in which he noted that the company’s long-term business plans could “lead to consequences that will indeed be disastrous (at least for a large part of the world’s population).”

The following year, Exxon completed a comprehensive 40-page internal report on climate change that almost accurately predicted the magnitude of global warming that we saw, as well as sea level rise, drought and more. According to the first page of the report, it “was widely distributed among the Exxon management” but “was not subject to outside distribution.”

And Exxon kept it a secret: We only know the report existed because investigative reporters Inside Climate News discovered it in 2015.

What Big Oil knew about climate change in its own words
A figure from an Exxon internal climate change report from 1982 that predicts how much carbon dioxide will accumulate from fossil fuels and how much global warming it will cause in the 21st century unless action is taken. Exxon’s forecast has been surprisingly accurate.

Other oil companies were also aware of the impact of their products on the planet. In 1986, the Dutch oil company Shell completed a nearly 100-page internal report predicting that global warming from fossil fuels would cause changes that would be “the greatest in human history,” including “devastating floods,” abandoning entire countries, and even forced migration around the world. This report was marked with the “CONFIDENTIAL” seal and was published only in 2018 by Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers.

In October 2021, two French colleagues and I published yet another study showing through company documents and interviews how Paris-based oil company Total also realized the catastrophic global warming potential back in the 1970s. Despite this understanding, we found that Total then worked with Exxon to raise doubts about climate change.

PR-center Big Oil

These companies had a choice.

Back in 1979, Exxon was privately exploring options for preventing global warming. It has been found that, with immediate action, if industry moves away from fossil fuels and instead focuses on renewable energy sources, fossil fuel pollution could begin to decline in the 1990s and a major climate crisis could be avoided.

But the industry has taken a different path. Instead, my colleagues and I recently discovered that in the late 1980s, Exxon and other oil companies were coordinating global efforts to challenge climate science, block fossil fuel controls, and keep their product flowing.

We know this from internal documents and from the words of industry insiders who are now beginning to share what they see with the public. We also know that in 1989 the fossil fuel industry created what is called the Global Climate Coalition, but it was not an environmental group, as the name suggests; instead, he sowed doubts about climate change and lobbied lawmakers to block clean energy legislation and climate treaties throughout the 1990s.

For example, in 1997, the chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, William O’Keeffe, who was also executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, wrote in the Washington Post that “climatologists do not say that burning oil, gas and coal constantly heats the earth,” which contradicts what the industry has known for decades. The fossil fuel industry has also funded think tanks and biased research that has helped slow progress.

Today, most oil companies shy away from outright denial of climate science, but they continue to grapple with fossil fuel controls and position themselves as clean energy leaders, even though they still invest the vast majority of their investments in fossil fuels. As I write this, climate legislation is again being blocked in Congress by a legislator with close ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Meanwhile, people around the world are experiencing the effects of global warming: strange weather, changing seasons, intense heat and even wildfires like they’ve never seen before.

Will the world survive the global catastrophe predicted by the oil companies years before I was born? It depends on what we are doing now with our piece of history.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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