Two decades ago, a group of researchers envisioned a violent storm ripping through the East Coast with such force that it would transform young people into climate activists, spark lawsuits and cause government leaders to turn on fossil fuel companies.
They were only off by two years. They also worked for Shell Oil Co.
In 1998, Shell researchers wrote an internal memo about future scenarios that could harm their business. They determined that "only a crisis can lead to a large-scale change in this world," according to the memo, recently uncovered by De Correspondent with a trove of company documents.
The scenario planning process was based on climate science, political realities and economic projections. It suggested that a major storm on the East Coast in 2010 could turn public opinion against Shell and other oil and gas conglomerates, while pushing governments toward strict environmental regulations and investments in renewable energy.
"Following the storms, a coalition of environmental [nongovernmental organizations] brings a class-action suit against the US 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 Shell researchers wrote. "A social reaction to the use of fossil fuels grow, and individuals become ‘vigilante environmentalists’ in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action."
They came close to predicting Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in 2012, killing at least 147 people and causing more than $70 billion in economic damages. The storm hit particularly hard in New York City, inspiring Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to undertake aggressive climate policies. Other states followed. Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sued Shell and four other major oil companies as a way to make them "take full responsibility for the devastation they have wrought" for contributing to climate change. Separately, other parties are suing the federal government for promoting oil and gas consumption in a period of rising temperatures.
The revelations about Shell’s internal deliberations on climate change were contained in a series of Shell documents obtained by De Correspondent, an online investigative news outlet based in Europe, and shared with E&E News. The documents, published online by Climate Files, show that Shell has long recognized that fossil fuels contribute to climate change. The disclosure comes as Shell and other oil companies are being sued by California municipalities for exacerbating sea-level rise.
A Shell spokesman declined to confirm or deny the authenticity of the documents.
According to the documents, Shell recognized in the 1980s that it played a role in global warming and that the threat from rising temperatures was growing. The research determined that the company generated 4 percent of the world’s carbon emissions in 1984, from its production of oil, gas and coal. In a 1988 internal report, marked "Confidential," Shell researchers noted that "the main cause of increasing CO2 concentrations is considered to be fossil fuel burning." By 1988, internal deliberations showed that Shell believed the energy industry had a role to play in climate policy.
"With very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything," said the 1988 document. "The potential implications for the world are, however, so large, that policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part."
Skepticism and masquerades
In recent years, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, as it’s known now, has taken a relatively aggressive stance toward recognizing climate change compared with other oil companies. Last year, the company said it wanted to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2050 and increase its investment in renewables. Last month, it released a report, called the "Sky" scenario, that envisions a world of net-zero carbon emissions by 2070.
Like other energy companies, Shell also has been a member of lobbying and trade groups that promote climate skepticism and oppose climate policy, including in recent years. The company was part of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that raised doubt about mainstream climate science, until 2015. Shell rescinded its membership because of the organization’s position on climate science. In the 1990s, as world leaders were crafting some of the first international climate agreements, Shell joined the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that battled against climate policy. Shell also backed the American Petroleum Institute, which had a coordinated campaign in the 1990s to sow public doubt about climate change.
Shell has a long history of recognizing climate risks, said a Shell spokesman. The company supported the Paris Agreement and other efforts to transition to a lower-carbon future while also increasing energy access, he said.
"Successfully navigating this dual challenge requires sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers," the Shell spokesman said in a statement. "It requires cooperation between all segments of society, not lawsuits that masquerade as climate action and impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change. Cities can be powerful drivers of positive change in the energy transition, but filing lawsuits against the producers of energy that drives the world’s economy, raises living standards and improves lives, is not the answer."
While Shell has a different track record from other oil companies, like Exxon Mobil Corp., the documents show its carefully crafted public persona was different behind closed doors, said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law. He said the documents show that Shell officials began homing in on uncertainty in climate science even as company leaders spoke about the need to recognize climate risks.
"It would put out public statements acknowledging that there were risks of climate change, yet these documents demonstrate that it was simultaneously putting together much more sophisticated talking points to take into negotiations into smaller meeting rooms where it was emphasizing much more clearly all of the key points of uncertainty," Muffett said.
The company used stark language to track the troubling implications of a world that was warming through the use of its products. Researchers said the rate of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere, especially when combined with other pollutants such as ozone and methane, could push global temperatures up by 1.5 to 3.5 degrees Celsius. At that time, they estimated that a real increase in global temperatures could be detectable early this century. In fact, almost all of the years since 2000 have been among the warmest ever recorded.
"By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation," one document says.
Taken together, the documents show that Shell had a sweeping view of climate change risks decades ago, before most of the general public was aware that it existed. In fact, much of the company’s climate research and dire findings have already been proved correct. Thirty years ago, the company identified risks related to sea-level rise, changes in ocean currents and precipitation patterns, all of which has been documented in the years since. The company also understood that climate change could pose major social, economic and political consequences, particularly in low-lying areas. The documents determined that such changes could be the "greatest in human history."
The reports and memos also highlighted scientific uncertainty around climate change at a time when world leaders were crafting international agreements to regulate carbon emissions. A film produced by Shell in 1991, called "Climate of Concern," declared that "waiting for ironclad proof would be irresponsible." But a 1994 document, which was not marked confidential, focused on the arguments of climate skeptics and questioned climate models. It suggested that policymakers, who could use regulations to cut into the company’s profits, should focus on weaknesses in climate science.
"It is thus not possible to dismiss the global warming hypothesis as scientifically unsound; on the other hand any policy measure should take into account explicitly the weakness in the scientific case," they wrote.
‘Major business implications’
Other energy companies also recognized the dangers of climate change decades ago, well before most of the public was aware of the issue. InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed in 2015 that Exxon researchers had known the risks of climate change since the 1970s. Their reporting has sparked an ongoing environmental campaign, called Exxon Knew, and led to an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, both Democrats, about whether the company misled investors on climate risks.
The newest revelations show that Shell had extensive research into climate change for about the same amount of time. The release of the documents could influence the lawsuits filed by eight cities and counties against oil companies for contributing to sea-level rise, said Ann Carlson, co-director of the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Information revealed in the documents about Shell’s global contribution of carbon dioxide emissions could be used against the company, she said.
"When you start getting real percentages of total global emissions from some years going forward, that paints a much more devastating picture about what the defendants knew," Carlson said. "It’s easier for the plaintiffs to say, ‘Oh yeah, we can hold you guys responsible, you caused a big part of the problem’ and they don’t have to pay all of it, but they have to pay their share."
While the documents show that company officials had an awareness that climate change could cause disruptions to life on the planet, researchers were also focused on how an increase in climate regulation could eventually cut into their bottom line.
"The threat of climate change remains the environmental concern with by far the greatest significance for the fossil fuel industry, having major business implications," researchers wrote in a 1994 company report titled "The Enhanced Greenhouse Effect."
The documents show that Shell was unwilling to position itself to address the risks it was grappling with internally and instead chose to embrace uncertainty in science, said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said the solution Shell has drawn on is that the world needs more oil and gas, not that the findings laid out in the internal documents require additional investments into other forms of energy.
"There is still a reluctance, even to this day, to lay out a plan to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to get to net zero emissions, because we know it’s necessary and we want policies in place that support that,’" Frumhoff said. "So they’re still hedging their bets, despite the fact that they knew more than 40 years ago of the serious risks and internally recognized the need for action in a precautionary sense that is obviously a hell of a lot more urgent today."