By Benjamin Franta
Four years ago, I traveled around America, visiting historical archives. I was looking for documents that might reveal the hidden history of climate change – and in particular, when the major coal, oil and gas companies became aware of the problem, and what they knew about it.
I pored over boxes of papers, thousands of pages. I began to recognize typewriter fonts from the 1960s and ‘70s and marveled at the legibility of past penmanship, and got used to squinting when it wasn’t so clear.
What those papers revealed is now changing our understanding of how climate change became a crisis. The industry’s own words, as my research found, show companies knew about the risk long before most of the rest of the world.
On Oct. 28, 2021, a Congressional subcommittee questioned executives from Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute about industry efforts to downplay the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Exxon CEO Darren Woods told lawmakers that his company’s public statements “are and have always been truthful” and that the company “does not spread disinformation regarding climate change.”
Here’s what corporate documents from the past six decades show.
At an old gunpowder factory in Delaware – now a museum and archive – I found a transcript of a petroleum conference from 1959 called the “Energy and Man” symposium, held at Columbia University in New York. As I flipped through, I saw a speech from a famous scientist, Edward Teller (who helped invent the hydrogen bomb), warning the industry executives and others assembled of global warming.
“Whenever you burn conventional fuel,” Teller explained, “you create carbon dioxide. … Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.” If the world kept using fossil fuels, the ice caps would begin to melt, raising sea levels. Eventually, “all the coastal cities would be covered,” he warned.
1959 was before the moon landing, before the Beatles’ first single, before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the first modern aluminum can was ever made. It was decades before I was born. What else was out there?
In Wyoming, I found another speech at the university archives in Laramie – this one from 1965, and from an oil executive himself. That year, at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, the main organization for the U.S. oil industry, the group’s president, Frank Ikard, mentioning a report called “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” that had been published just a few days before by President Lyndon Johnson’s team of scientific advisers.
“The substance of the report,” Ikard told the industry audience, “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 that “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate.”
Ikard noted that the report had found that a “nonpolluting means of powering automobiles, buses, and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.”
As I reviewed my findings back in California, I realized that before San Francisco’s Summer of Love, before Woodstock, the peak of the ’60s counterculture and all that stuff that seemed ancient history to me, the heads of the oil industry had been privately informed by their own leaders that their products would eventually alter the climate of the entire planet, with dangerous consequences.
Secret research revealed the risks ahead
While I traveled the country, other researchers were hard at work too. And the documents they found were in some ways even more shocking.
By the late 1970s, the American Petroleum Institute had formed a secret committee called the “CO2 and Climate Task Force,” which included representatives of many of the major oil companies, to privately monitor and discuss the latest developments in climate science.
In 1980, the task force invited a scientist from Stanford University, John Laurmann, to brief them on the state of climate science. Today, we have a copy of Laurmann’s presentation, which warned that if fossil fuels continued to be used, global warming would be “barely noticeable” by 2005, but by the 2060s would have “globally catastrophic effects.” That same year, the American Petroleum Institute called on governments to triple coal production worldwide, insisting there would be no negative consequences despite what it knew internally.
Exxon had a secretive research program too. In 1981, one of its managers, Roger Cohen, sent an internal memo observing that the company’s long-term business plans could “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
The next year, Exxon completed a comprehensive, 40-page internal report on climate change, which predicted almost exactly the amount of global warming we’ve seen, as well as sea level rise, drought and more. According to the front page of the report, it was “given wide circulation to Exxon management” but was “not to be distributed externally.”
And Exxon did keep it secret: We know of the report’s existence only because investigative journalists at Inside Climate News uncovered it in 2015.
Other oil companies knew the effects their products were having on the planet too. In 1986, the Dutch oil company Shell finished an internal report nearly 100 pages long, predicting that global warming from fossil fuels would cause changes that would be “the greatest in recorded history,” including “destructive floods,” abandonment of entire countries and even forced migration around the world. That report was stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” and only brought to light in 2018 by Jelmer Mommers, a Dutch journalist.
In October 2021, I and two French colleagues published another study showing through company documents and interviews how the Paris-based oil major Total was also aware of global warming’s catastrophic potential as early as the 1970s. Despite this awareness, we found that Total then worked with Exxon to spread doubt about climate change.
Big Oil’s PR pivot
These companies had a choice.
Back in 1979, Exxon had privately studied options for avoiding global warming. It found that with immediate action, if the industry moved away from fossil fuels and instead focused on renewable energy, fossil fuel pollution could start to decline in the 1990s and a major climate crisis could be avoided.
But the industry didn’t pursue that path. Instead, colleagues and I recently found that in the late 1980s, Exxon and other oil companies coordinated a global effort to dispute climate science, block fossil fuel controls and keep their products flowing.
We know about it through internal documents and the words of industry insiders, who are now beginning to share what they saw with the public. We also know that in 1989, the fossil fuel industry created something called the Global Climate Coalition – but it wasn’t an environmental group like the name suggests; instead, it worked to sow doubt about climate change and lobbied lawmakers to block clean energy legislation and climate treaties throughout the 1990s.
For example, in 1997, the Global Climate Coalition’s chairman, William O’Keefe, who was also an executive vice president for the American Petroleum Institute, wrote in the Washington Post that “Climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, gas and coal is steadily warming the earth,” contradicting what the industry had known for decades. The fossil fuel industry also funded think tanks and biased studies that helped slow progress to a crawl.
Today, most oil companies shy away from denying climate science outright, but they continue to fight fossil fuel controls and promote themselves as clean energy leaders even though they still put the vast majority of their investments into fossil fuels. As I write this, climate legislation is again being blocked in Congress by a lawmaker with close ties to the fossil fuel industry.
People around the world, meanwhile, are experiencing the effects of global warming: weird weather, shifting seasons, extreme heat waves and even wildfires like they’ve never seen before.
Will the world experience the global catastrophe that the oil companies predicted years before I was born? That depends on what we do now, with our slice of history.
Benjamin Franta is a doctoral candidate in History at Stanford University.
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Timothy Patrick Welch says
The main driver is co2 production combined with reduced co2 removal capacity.
Deforestation, ocean pollution, and the adoption of the western lifestyle (consumerism) play into the net affect. The question remains is CO2 the overall cause of climate change, or is it a natural cycle. Historical evidence proves that the earths climate is constantly changing by short cycles and long cycles. I believe the effects deforestation and pollution will continue to burden future generations. Anyone have a reliable source of information about how ocean/sea pollution effects the absorption rate of CO2?
Bill C says
CO2 is not the only consideration. As oceans warm sequestered methane in its frozen form, methane hydrate, would be released similar to ice thawing. CO2 is just the “tip of the iceberg” in a domino effect . Although there have been epochs of global warming and cooling in the past, like the carboniferous for example, another natural warming epoch would have the man made warming added on top of that. Methane is 20-30 times more potent than CO2 as a global warming agent.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Interesting, thanks for the info…
Looks like those methane deposits could replace oil when it nears depletion.
To enhance one of the ozone layers, we could collect nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds at ground level and release them from jet planes during flight.
Ray W. says
About 10 years ago, Japan began construction of a research vessel designed to test the possibility of extracting methane hydrates from seafloor deposits. Last year, the United States and Japan announced a joint effort to explore the seafloor off the Alaskan coastline for harvestable methane hydrates. Japan’s energy ministry announced a goal of producing commercially viable methane hydrates energy facilities by 2028. Methane forms a significant component of natural gas. At current costs, natural gas produces electrical energy equivalency to coal at less than half the carbon dioxide emissions and significantly lower costs, which is why Japan is so interested in the technology.
After the Japanese government moved away from nuclear energy production (Fukushima disaster), it began a heavy reliance on coal for its electrical energy needs. Japan is an energy-poor nation, but methane hydrates exist in large quantities off the Japanese coastline.
All of this ignores the obvious. Due to recent technological breakthroughs in industrial-grade solar panels and new designs in wind turbines, energy costs for both forms of production are less than that for even the most efficient natural gas combined cycle facilities. America should be investing heavily in upgrading its energy infrastructure to utilize solar and wind turbine facilities, but we continue to allocate large amounts of our financial resources to subsidize crude oil producers. Capitalism, at its most basic level, would turn our attention to solar and wind turbine facilities, but we keep moving away from capitalist thought at the urging of some of our political leaders, who accept money from traditional petroleum-based energy producers.
Dennis is right and wrong at the same time. Just as American families upgraded their homes after WWII to incorporate central heating and air conditioning, to the extent that a significant majority of homes in America now are either older homes converted to central heat and air or newer homes incorporating climate control technology, the burgeoning Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Chinese middle classes now seek the same thing. It is absurd to think that a newly married Indian family of two young well-educated professionals would not want a climate controlled home. These new homes require relatively large amounts of energy in tropical environments and there a lot more such families in those four countries alone than ever existed in America. Following the American example of reliance on oil and coal to provide energy for those future housing demands will prove disastrous to the climate.
Thinking backwards like Dennis does little good. According to Dennis, we got ours decades ago, without investing in more efficient forms of energy production, so to hell with the rest of the world and the future, too. It does matter what our energy companies knew. When I last researched the issue of “fugitive emissions” from natural gas production some seven or eight years ago, it was estimated that just under 30% of the natural gas extracted in the United States was lost due to flaring at the wellhead, leaking pipelines, and other transportation losses. The methane inhering in natural gas, if not burned, is far more dangerous to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. A deregulated energy industry has little incentive to capture natural gas at the wellhead or repair leaking pipelines.
Carson is just wandering through life fooling himself. He thinks there is only one solution, reforestation, to the exclusion of all other possible solutions. Consider the possibility that there might be hundreds of partial solutions, none of which alone would solve the entire climate problem. In such a scenario, the alleged largest contributor, deforestation, might actually account for a small percentage of the overall problem, since we are consuming nearly 100 million barrels of refined crude oil products per day. In Carson’s perfect or bad world, if we don’t reforest, we should do nothing at all, because there really isn’t really a problem anyway (“so called global warming”).
oh thats right, trump did not read nor understand this stuff …. neither does the flagler trump club
It really do t matter what big energy companies knew. It was the American need for this energy to drive our vehicles and heat or cool our homes. Bottom line, try going without gas and oil.
Deforestation Is the number 1 cause of so called global warming. That is what absorbs all the dangerous CO 2. You can’t take every tree down and put up strip malls and houses . liberals are so wacky, trees and forest are the whole lifeline of the world they are the filters of co2!