Oil Industry Knew About Coming Climate Crisis Since 1950s

“Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which helps air absorb heat from the sun. Our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer.”
~Unchained Goddess, film from Bell Telephone Science Hour (1958)

“[C]urrent scientific opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric carbon dioxide increase to fossil fuel combustion.”
~James F. Black, senior scientist in the Products Research Division of Exxon Research and Engineering, from his presentation to Exxon corporate management entitled “The Greenhouse Effect” (July, 1977)

“Data confirm that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels contribute most of the CO2.”
~Duane G. Levine, Exxon scientist, presentation to the Board of Directors of Exxon entitled “Potential Enhanced Greenhouse Effects: Status and Outlook” (February 22, 1989)

“Scientists also agree that atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases (such as C02) are increasing as a result of human activity.”
~Oil industry Global Climate Coalition, internal report entitled “Science and Global Climate Change: What Do We Know? What are the Uncertainties?” (early 1990s)

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”
~Oil industry group Global Climate Coalition’s advisory committee of scientific and technical experts reported in the internal document “Predicting Future Climate Change: A Primer”, written in 1995 but redacted and censored version distributed in 1996 (see UCSUSA’s “Former Exxon Employee Says Company Considered Climate Risks as Early as 1981”)

“Perhaps the most interesting effect concerning carbon in trees which we have thus far observed is a marked and fairly steady increase in the 12C/13C ratio with time. Since 1840 the ratio has clearly increased markedly. This effect can be explained on the basis of a changing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere resulting from industrialization and the consequent burning of large quantities of coal and petroleum.”
~Harrison Brown, a biochemist along with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology submitted a research proposal to the American Petroleum Institute entitled “The determination of the variations and causes of variations of the isotopic composition of carbon in nature” (1954)

“This report unquestionably will fan emotions, raise fears, and bring demand for action. The substance of the report is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequence of pollution, but time is running out.
“One of the most important predictions of the report is carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000, the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts. The report further state, and I quote “. . . the pollution from internal combustion engines is so serious, and is growing so fast, that an alternative nonpolluting means of powering automobiles, buses, and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.””

~Frank Ikard, then-president of the American Petroleum Institute addressed
industry leaders at annual meeting, “Meeting the challenges of 1966” (November 8, 1965), given 3 days after the U.S. Science Advisory Committee’s official report, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment”

“At a 3% per annum growth rate of CO2, a 2.5°C rise brings world economic growth to a halt in about 2025.”
~J. J. Nelson, American Petroleum Institute, notes from CO2 and Climate Task Force (AQ-9) meeting, meeting attended by attended by representatives from Exxon, SOHIO, and Texaco (March 18, 1980)

“Exxon position: Emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect.”
~Joseph M. Carlson, Exxon spokesperson writing in “1988 Exxon Memo on the Greenhouse Effect” (August 3, 1988)

“Victory Will Be Achieved When
• “Average citizens understand (recognise) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of
uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom
• “Media ‘understands’ (recognises) uncertainties in climate science
• “Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch
with reality.”
~American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 memo on denialist propaganda, see Climate Science vs. Fossil Fuel Fiction; “The API’s task force was made up of the senior scientists and engineers from Amoco, Mobil, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Gulf Oil and Standard Oil of California, probably the highest paid and sought-after senior scientists and engineers on the planet. They came from companies that, just like Exxon, ran their own research units and did climate modeling to understand the impact of climate change and how it would impact their company’s bottom line.” (Not Just Exxon: The Entire Oil and Gas Industry Knew The Truth About Climate Change 35 Years Ago.)

[C]urrent scientific opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric carbon dioxide increase to fossil fuel combustion. […] In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. A doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from 1 [degree] to 3 [degrees Celsius], with a 10 [degrees Celsius] rise predicted at the poles. More research is needed, however, to establish the validity and significance of predictions with respect to the Greenhouse Effect. Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.
~James F. Black, senior scientist in the Products Research Division of Exxon Research and Engineering, from his presentation to Exxon corporate management entitled “The Greenhouse Effect” (July, 1977)

Present climactic models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climatic changes within the next 75 years. However, it is not obvious whether these changes would be all bad or all good. The major conclusion from this report is that, should it be deemed necessary to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels to prevent significant climatic changes, dramatic changes in patterns of energy use would be required.
~W. L. Ferrall, Exxon scientist writing in an internal Exxon memo, “Controlling Atmospheric CO2” (October 16, 1979)

In addition to the effects of climate on the globe, there are some particularly dramatic questions that might cause serious global problems. For example, if the Antarctic ice sheet which is anchored on land, should melt, then this could cause a rise in the sea level on the order of 5 meters. Such a rise would cause flooding in much of the US East Coast including the state of Florida and Washington D.C.
~Henry Shaw and P. P. McCall, Exxon scientists writing in an internal Exxon report, “Exxon Research and Engineering Company’s Technological Forecast: CO2 Greenhouse Effect” (Shaw, Henry; McCall, P. P. (December 18, 1980)

“but changes of a magnitude well short of catastrophic…” I think that this statement may be too reassuring. Whereas I can agree with the statement that our best guess is that observable effects in the year 2030 are likely to be “well short of catastrophic”, it is distinctly possible that the CPD scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population). This is because the global ecosystem in 2030 might still be in a transient, headed for much significant effects after time lags perhaps of the order of decades. If this indeed turns out to be the case, it is very likely that we will unambiguously recognize the threat by the year 2000 because of advances in climate modeling and the beginning of real experimental confirmation of the CO2 problem.
~Roger Cohen, director of the Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory at Exxon Research writing in inter-office correspondence “Catastrophic effects letter” (August 18, 1981)

In addition to the effects of climate on global agriculture, there are some potentially catastrophe events that must be considered. For example, if the Antarctic ice sheet which is anchored on land should melt, then this could cause e rise in sea level on the order of 5 meters. Such a rise would cause flooding on much of the U.S. East Coast, including the state of Florida and Washington, D.C. […]
The greenhouse effect ls not likely to cause substantial climactic changes until the average global temperature rises at least 1 degree Centigrade above today’s levels. This could occur in the second to third quarter of the next century. However, there is concern among some scientific groups that once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible and little could be done to correct the situation in the short term. Therefore, a number of environmental groups are calling for action now to prevent an undesirable future situation from developing.
Mitigation of the “greenhouse effect” would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.
~Marvin B. Glaser, Environmental Affairs Manager, Coordination and Planning Division of Exxon Research and Engineering Company writing in “Greenhouse Effect: A Technical Review” (Glaser, M. B. (April 1, 1982)

In summary, the results of our research are in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate. […]
Furthermore our ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature. Indeed, to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.
~Roger W. Cohen, Director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory, memo  “Consensus on CO2 Impacts” to A. M. Natkin, of Exxon’s Office of Science and Technology (Cohen, Roger W. (September 2, 1982)

[F]aith in technologies, markets, and correcting feedback mechanisms is less than satisfying for a situation such as the one you are studying at this year’s Ewing Symposium. […]
Clearly, there is vast opportunity for conflict. For example, it is more than a little disconcerting the few maps showing the likely effects of global warming seem to reveal the two superpowers losing much of the rainfall, with the rest of the world seemingly benefitting.
~Dr. Edward E. David, Jr., president of the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, keynote address to the Maurice Ewing symposium at the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory on the Palisades, New York campus of Columbia University, published in ““Inventing the Future: Energy and the CO2 “Greenhouse Effect”” (October 26, 1982)

Data confirm that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels contribute most of the CO2. […]
Projections suggest significant climate change with a variety of regional impacts. Sea level rise with generally negative consequences. […]
Arguments that we can’t tolerate delay and must act now can lead to irreversible and costly Draconian steps. […]
To be a responsible participant and part of the solution to [potential enhanced greenhouse], Exxon’s position should recognize and support 2 basic societal needs. First […] to improve understanding of the problem […] not just the science […] but the costs and economics tempered by the sociopolitical realities. That’s going to take years (probably decades).
~Duane G. Levine, Exxon scientist, presentation to the Board of Directors of Exxon entitled “Potential Enhanced Greenhouse Effects: Status and Outlook” (February 22, 1989)

* * *

To see more damning quotes from Exxon insiders, see Wikiquote page on ExxonMobil climate change controversy. Here are other resources:

We Made Climate Change Documentaries for Science Classes Way back in 1958 So Why Do Folks Still Pretend Not to Know?
from O Society

Report: Oil Industry Knew About Dangers of Climate Change in 1954
from Democracy Now! (see O Society version)

CO2’s Role in Global Warming Has Been on the Oil Industry’s Radar Since the 1960s
by Neela Banerjee

Exxon Knew about Climate Change 40 years ago
by Shannon Hall (see O Society version)

Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate
by Andrew C. Revkin

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
by Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, & David Hasemyer

The Climate Deception Dossiers
(and full report)
from Union of Concerned Scientists

Exxon Has Spent $30+ Million on Think Tanks?
from Think Tank Watch

How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God
by Brendan O’Connor (see O Society version)

A Timeline of Climate Science and Policy
by Brad Johnson

6 thoughts on “Oil Industry Knew About Coming Climate Crisis Since 1950s

    • The very last link is a timeline. It doesn’t include Joseph Fourier for some reason. But it does show the scientific research going back to the 1860s. Certainly, by the time the oil companies started doing their own research in the mid-20th century, the field of climatology was already well advanced and anthropogenic climate change was widely understood.

  1. Yes. The Dirty vs. Clean Energy Technology Debate has been going on at least that long.

    A viral video clip was making the rounds a few years ago from a 1950s broadcast — perhaps even the Bell Telephone Science Hour — in which it was asked, “Why can’t we get our energy from Old Blowhard here?” (“Old Blowhard” being a reference to the sun.)

    The answer, as we all know, is that changing all that infrastructure would have eaten into fossil fuel industry profits, as it would now, which I gather is why Jeremy Rifkin, et al, are arguing that fossil fuel companies wouldn’t be obsoleted by a change to a clean energy technology structure, but (in fact) could still control both it and its profits under the auspices of a “global authority.”

    • When the 1950s had come around, the oil industry was well established and highly profitable.

      The world wars were fought with oil. The whole reason Japan attacked the US is because the US cut them off from oil. So, oil was the cause of the US then entering the war.

      And since then, so many wars have been fought over oil, largely to maintain oil for the militaries themselves. Modern empire would not be possible as we know it without oil.

      It didn’t matter how destructive it was. Nor the long term consequences. They were never going to give up their power willingly. It was irrelevant what scientists said, including scientists working for the oil industry itself.

      • The whole reason Japan attacked the US is because the US cut them off from oil.

        Well, that certainly “shifted Japanese planning into high gear,” but alongside that is the fact that the US was never actually “neutral,” despite declarations to the contrary, before it officially declared its entry into WWII — the Lend Lease Act and escalating skirmishes with both German and Japanese forces having taken place long before “the day which will live in infamy.”

        I’m sure you know all this and, in fact, the machinations of the second world war are still in the process of coming to light. It’s disturbing, though, how many Americans still believe the attack on Pearl Harbor just fell from the clear, blue sky with no provocation whatsoever on the part of American “elites.”

        • Yeah, I was just emphasizing the centrality of oil. It has been a key component of imperialist aspirations, colonial-style exploitation, and international conflict for a long time now. It isn’t the only factor, but it exacerbated all others.

          The world wars built up for many reasons. And of course the power-mongering between countries and empires had been going on long before that. Still, oil certainly ratcheted everything up into high gear.

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