A multinational energy company released a stark warning about the dangers in climate change in 1991, then proceeded to ignore its own warnings until 2021 made them impossible to ignore.
The 28-minute video, “Climate of Concern,” was released in 1991 and reportedly meant to be shown as an instructional film. The film’s narrator describes climate change (also referred to at the time as global warming) as a crisis that scientists had already seen looming for some time even by then, which is true:
What they see is not a steady and even warming overall, but alterations to the familiar patterns of climate, and the increasing frequency of abnormal weather. No two scenarios fully agree. But their strange, mesmerizing images of possible futures have each prompted the same serious warning, a warning endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990.
While it was originally intended for public viewing, the film went unseen for more than a decade, before a report in The Guardian brought “Climate of Concern” back to light in February 2017.
According to the British newspaper, the film was first obtained by the Danish outlet De Correspondent, which showed it to researchers who had either helped Shell develop the film or received funding for their work from the oil company. Jeremy Leggett, who researched shale deposits with funding from both Shell and British Petroleum before going on to found a separate company, Solarcentury, said at the time:
The film shows that Shell understood that the threat was dire, potentially existential for civilization, more than a quarter of a century ago.
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. 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 defense.
De Correspondent further reported that as far back as 1986, a Shell company report included warnings that climate change “would impact on the human environment, future living standards, and food supplies, and could have major social, economic, and political consequences.”
But despite that, the company would go on to join other petroleum firms in forming the Global Climate Coalition lobbying group for its own gain, which pushed against further study and policy initiatives into climate change, before leaving in 1998. And Shell also worked with groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Business Roundtable and American Petroleum Institute, which have fought for years against meaningful attempts to further the spread of energy policies that would not harm the environment.
Shell has claimed on its website that it planned to contribute to a “net-zero world” and reduce its emissions in keeping with the goal of the 2016 Paris Agreement seeking to limit global warming worldwide to under 1.5 degrees Celsius:
We are transforming our business to meet our target, providing more low-carbon energy such as charging for electric vehicles, hydrogen and electricity generated by solar and wind power.
We are also working with our customers as they make changes, including in sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, such as aviation, shipping, road freight and industry.
However, the company has continued to draw criticism for its business practices; Amnesty International joined several other activist groups in June 2020 in calling Shell out for “greenwashing their image” while polluting the Niger Delta and leaving local communities without clean drinking water.
“The discovery of oil in Ogoniland has brought huge suffering for its people,” said Osai Ojigho, who would go on to be director of Amnesty International’s office in Nigeria. “Over many years we have documented how Shell has failed to clean up contamination from spills and it’s a scandal that this has not yet happened. The pollution is leading to serious human rights impacts – on people’s health and ability to access food and clean water. Shell must not get away with this — we will continue to fight until every last trace of oil is removed from Ogoniland.”
In January 2021, Shell was ordered to compensate farmers in Nigeria for damages caused by the subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company between 2004 and 2007.
In January 2023, researchers discovered that fellow fossil-fuel company Exxon also knew about the risks of global heating — but, like Shell, publicly refuted that those risks were possible so that they could continue to profit. An abstract reads, in part:
In 2015, investigative journalists discovered internal company memos indicating that Exxon oil company has known since the late 1970s that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Additional documents then emerged showing that the US oil and gas industry’s largest trade association had likewise known since at least the 1950s, as had the coal industry since at least the 1960s, and electric utilities, Total oil company, and GM and Ford motor companies since at least the 1970s. Scholars and journalists have analyzed the texts contained in these documents, providing qualitative accounts of fossil fuel interests’ knowledge of climate science and its implications. In 2017, for instance, we demonstrated that Exxon’s internal documents, as well as peer-reviewed studies published by Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists, overwhelmingly acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. By contrast, the majority of Mobil and ExxonMobil Corp’s public communications promoted doubt on the matter.
Meanwhile, social media platforms do little to curb disinformation about climate change — and even less to rein in lies leveraging climate change in order to generate still more disinformation campaigns.
Update 1/12/2023, 11:56 am PST: Added details about Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp also fully knowing the risks of global warming and suppressing the information. -bb
Update 7/12/2021, 2:56 pm PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here.