WASHINGTON (April 13, 2016)—A trove of documents released today by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) reveals that the oil industry was well aware of the potential climate risks of fossil fuels decades earlier than was widely believed. The uncovered industry communications, scientific papers, and oral histories demonstrate that the petroleum industry was conducting climate research as early as 1957 and knew about the potential for catastrophic climate risks by 1968 at the latest.
The documents include a 1957 study, “Radiocarbon Evidence on the Dilution of Atmospheric and Oceanic Carbon by Carbon from Fossil Fuels,” published by scientists working for Humble Oil, a precursor of ExxonMobil. The study looked at how carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans and indicates that scientists affiliated with the fossil fuel industry were not just aware of what happens to the climate when we burn fossil fuels, but were at the leading edge of scientific understanding of it.
"It makes sense that a fossil fuel company conducted sophisticated climate science research early on; as a large corporation, it needed to understand all of the external conditions that might affect its products,” said Kathy Mulvey, Climate Accountability Campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “What’s surprising is that the company chose not to chart a different course for its business based on this knowledge. Instead, ExxonMobil and other major fossil fuel companies embarked decades ago on a coordinated campaign to deceive the public and policymakers about climate change—a campaign that continues today."
Inside Climate News reported on the documents today, which also included a 1968 report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API). In it, scientists stated that carbon dioxide emissions were accumulating in the atmosphere faster than natural processes were removing them and the probable explanation was fossil fuel emissions. The report warned that rising carbon dioxide levels would result in increases in temperature at the Earth’s surface and that significant increases in temperature could have numerous consequences, including causing ice caps to melt, sea levels to rise and oceans to warm.
The report also projected that based on current trends, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could reach 400 parts per million (ppm) by 2000 and tapping all of the then-known recoverable fossil fuel could cause atmospheric concentrations of 830 ppm.
“It’s astonishing to learn that almost fifty years ago the American Petroleum Institute and its member companies sought and received expert advice telling them that continued carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels posed potentially catastrophic risks to the global climate,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at UCS. “While acknowledging scientific uncertainties of that time, the 1968 Stanford Research Institute report to API made clear that there was ‘no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe’ and that companies should ‘work toward systems in which carbon dioxide emissions would be brought under control.’ Fossil fuel companies bear particular responsibility for climate damages—damages that could and should have been averted had they acted to reduce the risks of their products.”
The evidence comes on the heels of an announcement two weeks ago that the Massachusetts and U.S. Virgin Islands attorneys general will join their counterparts in New York and California in investigating ExxonMobil for misleading investors and the public about the reality and risks of climate change. That same week, a bill was introduced in California to extend the statute of limitations under the state’s Unfair Competition Law to enable law enforcement to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for decades of deception and fraud over the scientific evidence about climate change.
In light of this new damning evidence, UCS is calling on fossil fuel companies to:
- Reject disinformation on climate science and policy. Specifically, ExxonMobil should follow the lead of other fossil fuel companies and end its financial support for the climate-denying American Legislative Exchange Council.
- Support fair and cost-effective policies to reduce global-warming emissions.
- Align their business models with a carbon-constrained world. A recent study showed that when it comes to investor-owned companies, the threat of exceeding the 2 degree Celsius target agreed upon by world leaders comes primarily from tapping their new unproven reserves. Oil and gas companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to explore for and develop their unproven reserves, which would extend production for decades to come.