Oil Industry Knew Of Climate Change Dangers For Decades, Documents Reveal

The oil industry was well aware of the science that links fossil fuel emissions and climate change decades ago, according to documents analyzed by a Washington, DC-based non-profit. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) says that the records, amassed over four years of research, reveal the oil industry’s own growing body of knowledge into the field of climate change – even as it publicly continued to cast doubt on its very existence.

CIEL has compiled a mountain of public documents on the oil industry and climate change that include scientific studies and patent documentation, among others. Carroll Muffett, the president of CIEL, spoke to Vice News about what the documents reveal.

“There are numerous points along this path where the industry was on notice that this was a rising risk.”

The story that emerges is that oil industry executives knew about climate change science as early as the 1950s. The oil industry received a definite warning of the potential for climate change disaster some 45 years ago.

null

In fact, the oil industry recognized the role of petroleum in air pollution as early as the 1940s, when the Smog and Fumes Committee was established to fund scientific research into those issues. Impetus for Smog and Fumes came from the growing problem of air pollution in Los Angeles. As the CIEL research reveals, the goal was not purely research and knowledge — it was to shape public opinion so as to help prevent what the oil industry viewed as unnecessary regulation of their business.

The science of climate change has been around for more than a century. Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius helped develop the field of fossil fuel combustion in 1886. Ten years later in 1896, he was first to hypothesize that the then newly developing oil industry’s activities might in fact result in climate change.

It was not the prevailing theory, however, during the first half of the twentieth century. Then, in 1957, a landmark paper by Roger Revelle and Hans Suess of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography became the first to challenge the then-prevailing theory that excess CO2 produced by fossil fuel combustion would be absorbed by the oceans. Two months after their paper was published, the oil industry, represented by scientists employed by Humble Oil — now known as ExxonMobil — published its own paper on CO2 levels and the risk of climate change, casting doubt on the theory. That report by Brannon, et al is the first concrete evidence that the oil industry was aware of climate change risks.

null

It was the first of many subsequent research studies funded by the oil industry that sought to find alternate explanations for rising CO2 levels along with suggesting potential mitigating forces — all while demonstrating a growing expertise in the very subject of climate change. The oil industry established the Stanford Research Institute (SRI,) an organization with close ties to the oil industry. Former employees told the story of how researchers would be hired or fired based on whether they agreed with SRI’s approach of casting doubt on any information that would point at the oil industry’s role in air pollution and climate change.

In 1968, scientists at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) led by meteorologist Elmer Robinson were performing research for the American Petroleum Institute (API) into air pollution as it related to the oil industry. Among other pollutants, they looked into the role of carbon dioxide or CO2. Their work linked the burning of fossil fuels with rising CO2 levels and the researchers warned of the risks of climate change with an overall increase in global temperatures. Their climate change warnings for the oil industry included rising sea levels and melting polar ice caps.

The 1968 report warned that research was urgently needed into the kinds of technologies that could work to bring rising CO2 emissions under control. CIEL has published excerpts from the 1968 report online. Robinson and his team analyzed and cite research that existed at the time, including the 1957 Revelle report.

“In summary, Revelle makes the point that man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes.”

What happened to that 1968 report? The paper was presented to oil industry experts at the World Petroleum Congress in 1971. The following year, the API commissioned what it called a “supplemental” report that downplayed Robinson’s findings on climate change. The supplemental report has often been cited over the years by both the oil industry and climate change deniers even as Robinson’s own conclusions on climate change were ignored.

The timing of climate change knowledge and the oil industry’s alleged role in working to cast suspicion on the underlying science is significant for a number of reasons. Gretchen Goldman, the lead analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke to Vice News.

“Constantly, the public is persuaded that climate change is a new issue, some new theory that is just being tested, just being proved.”

It’s not the first time the question of the oil industry’s complicity in suppressing evidence of the link to climate change has been raised. Oil industry giant ExxonMobil is being investigated by prosecutors in New York State among other jurisdictions in the United States about whether the company’s suppression of climate change and its potential impacts was misleading to investors.

[Image by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]