Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers
Feb. 28, 2017
Climate change “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”. That was the startling warning issued by the oil giant Shell more than a quarter of a century ago.
The company’s farsighted 1991 film, titled Climate of Concern, set out with crystal clarity how the world was warming and that serious consequences could well result.
“Tropical islands barely afloat even now, first made inhabitable, and then obliterated beneath the waves … coastal lowlands everywhere suffering pollution of precious groundwater, on which so much farming and so many cities depend,” says the film’s narrator, over disturbing images of people affected by natural disasters and famine. “In a crowded world subject to such adverse shifts of climate, who would take care of such greenhouse refugees?”
“It is amazing it is 25 years ago. Incredible,” he said. “It was quite comprehensive on what might happen, what the consequences are, and what we can do about it. I mean, there’s not much more.” He said the predictions for temperature and sea level rises in the 1991 film were “pretty good compared with current understanding”.
“What is really striking is nothing has happened [since] to make you doubt the science as it was stated then,” said Tom Burke, at the green thinktank E3G and a former member of Shell’s external review committee.
But Shell’s actions on global warming since 1991, such as major investments in highly polluting tar sands and lobbying against climate action, have been heavily criticised. In 2015, it was accused of behaving like a “psychopath” by the UK’s former climate change envoy and of being engaged in a cynical attempt to block action on global warming. Even its own former group managing director, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, said in 2015 it was “distressing” that “remarkably little progress” had been made on climate change by Shell and other oil companies.
“The film shows that Shell understood that the threat was dire, potentially existential for civilisation, more than a quarter of a century ago,” said Jeremy Leggett, a solar power entrepreneur and former geologist who had earlier researched shale deposits with Shell and BP funding.
“I see to this day how they doggedly argue for rising gas use, decades into the future, despite the clear evidence that fossil fuels have to be phased out completely,” he said. “I honestly feel that this company is guilty of a modern form of crime against humanity. They will point out that they have behaved no differently than their peers, BP, Exxon and Chevron. For people like me, of which there are many, that is no defence.”
Shell had, in fact, known of the risks of climate change even earlier. A “confidential” company report written in 1986, also seen by the Guardian, noted the significant uncertainties in climate science at the time but warned of the possibility of “fast and dramatic” changes that “would impact on the human environment, future living standards and food supplies, and could have major social, economic, and political consequences”.
In 1989, Shell had already taken the effects of climate change into account in the construction of an oil rig. But in the same year, the so-called Global Climate Coalition (GCC) was formed by the major oil companies, including Shell’s US operation Shell Oil. It lobbied hard to cast doubt on climate science and oppose government action, and in 1998 Shell withdrew, citing “irreconcilable” differences.
However, Shell remained a member of another business lobby group that campaigned against climate action, the American Legislative Exchange Council, until 2015 and remains a member of the Business Roundtable and American Petroleum Institute, which both fought against Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The company has said it has remained a member of groups that hold different views on climate action to “influence” them. But Thomas O’Neill, from the group Influence Map, which tracks lobbying, said: “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.”
Shell has also lobbied directly to undermine European renewable energy targets, a sector it has invested in although at a much lower level than oil and gas. In 2016, Shell launched its New Energies division, with annual spending less than 1% of the total $30bn Shell pumps into oil and gas.
Despite the company’s public support since the 1990s for carbon taxes to drive cuts in emissions, in 2015 it lobbied for exemptions for the electricity it produces and uses, particularly for its offshore oil and gas platforms.
Shell was one of the first major oil companies to acknowledge the need to act on climate change and has long argued that providing affordable energy was vital for the world and its development. The 1991 film anticipated the problem: “How could [developing] countries continue to advance but leapfrog the energy-intensive face of development, by which other nations prospered before its adverse consequences came to light?”
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But in 2015 its own external review committee concluded Shell’s sustainability report did not “adequately convey the urgency of this [low-carbon energy] transition”. Earlier in February, Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden said: “We believe that climate change is real and we believe that action will be needed.”
Burke, a former head of Friends of the Earth, agreed there is a wider problem. “It is too easy to blame it all on Shell for getting it wrong”, he said, as there has been “a broader societal failure”.