Moral Low Ground


Shell Warned of Catastrophic Man-Made Climate Change in 1991 Film

(Photo: Pete Williamson/Flickr Creative Commons)

Multinational fossil fuel giant Shell warned about the dangers of man-made climate change in a 1991 company film that concluded “the only safe insurance” against potential catastrophe was a reduction in fossil fuel use and an increase in clean energy.

The Guardian reports the half-hour Shell documentary film uncovered by the Correspondent, titled “Climate Of Concern,” noted “a warning endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990” about the dangers posed by global warming. Increased fossil fuel burning, the film noted, led to “a marked and accelerating increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere” that could lead to severe future crises including famine, floods and climate refugees. The documentary concludes that the only meaning solution to the threat of anthropogenic climate change is a reduction of fossil fuel use and greater development of clean energy alternatives.

“In California solar heat has been successfully harnessed to provide electricity on a commercial scale,” the film’s narrator notes. “So has the power of wind.”

“Faced with such a disturbing scenario, governments are having to consider their response,” the film concludes. “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think the wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance. If the threat of global warming is to be realistically addressed, the future will need to be different.”

The Guardian reports a separate Shell report from 1986, marked “confidential,” states there is uncertainty regarding climate change but warns that “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history”

However, instead of immediate action in pursuit of clean energy alternatives, Shell executives soon came to realize obvious conflicts of commercial interest. The company ramped up its oil and gas exploration, even in the Arctic. It invested heavily in tar sands projects, source of the world’s dirtiest oil. It also joined corporate lobby groups that deny, doubt or downplay the dangers of climate change.

Shell does acknowledge that climate change is real and caused by the burning of fossil fuels. It also invests in clean energy alternatives, even as fossil fuels continue to comprise the overwhelming bulk of its business. The company has also quit ALEC, the conservative commercial lobby known for its climate change denial, and abandoned Arctic and tar sands drilling projects.

Critics have compared the fossil fuel industry’s knowledge and cover-up of man-made climate change to cigarette companies’ concealment of the deadly dangers of smoking. Leading environmentalists were not surprised by the revelation of the 1991 Shell film. “The fact that Shell understood all this in 1991, and that a quarter-century later it was trying to open up the Arctic to oil-drilling, tells you all you’ll ever need to know about the corporate ethic of the fossil fuel industry,” Bill McKibben, founder of the Oakland, California-based environmental group, told the Guardian. “Shell made a big difference in the world – a difference for the worse.”

A spokeswoman for Shell responded that the company’s “position on climate change is well known; recognizing the climate challenge and the role energy has in enabling a decent quality of life. “

“Shell continues to call for effective policy to support lower carbon business and consumer choices and opportunities such as government lead carbon pricing/trading schemes,” the spokeswoman added. “Today, Shell applies a $40 per tonne of CO2 internal project screening value to project decision-making and has developed leadership positions in natural gas and sugarcane ethanol; the lowest carbon hydrocarbon and biofuel respectively.”

Shell was one of the first oil companies to understand the reality of man-made climate change, but it was not the only one. In 2015, leaked documents revealed Exxon, the forerunner of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, knew about climate change and its human causes in 1981 — seven years before it became a public issue — but spent billions of dollars over the following decades on lobbying, misinformation and climate denial science. The company is currently under investigation for allegedly lying to the public about climate change risks, and a federal lawsuit has been filed in connection with the cover-up.

Today, the international scientific community overwhelmingly concurs that climate change is real, that it is caused and exacerbated by human activity and that it poses a possibly irreversible and potentially existential threat to humanity. Fully 97 percent of climate scientists, as well as the national science academies of almost every country on Earth, agree. The Pentagon has warned that climate change is “an urgent and growing threat” to US national security that is “contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.”

With each passing year come official reports that it was the warmest ever recorded. The polar ice caps are melting at a record pace, fueling rising, warming oceans and forcing entire island nations to plan permanent emergency evacuations before they’re swallowed by surging seas. According to a major international study commissioned by 20 national governments, climate change kills 400,000 people per year — including 1,000 children a day — and costs the global economy $1.2 trillion annually. Climate refugees aren’t just a developing world problem — from the Louisiana bayous to the Alaskan tundra, a growing number of Americans are facing life-threatening consequences and heartbreaking choices due to climate change.

The prospects for meaningful action to combat climate change in the United States were dealt a heavy blow by the election of President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” invented by China and who has vowed to reduce environmental protections and pursue an “America First” energy policy. Trump has staffed his administration with many climate change deniers and skeptics, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director Scott Pruitt, a tireless champion of the fossil fuel industry who refuses to say whether climate change is real, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who believes the Earth is actually cooling and chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, former editor of, which has featured posts claiming that climate change is “the greatest-ever conspiracy against the taxpayer” and a “hoax that costs us $4 billion a day.”

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