CIEL: Story of industry knowledge of harms and climate change goes back at least to 1958

In the past year, we’ve uncovered more evidence of the fossil fuel industry’s early knowledge of  climate change. Since the 1950s and 60s — more than half a century ago — companies like ExxonMobil and Shell have been researching climate change and acknowledging climate risks internally. By the 1970s, oil companies were using that knowledge to protect their own investments against potential sea level rise and other climate impacts.

But outside of the inner circle of industry executives, scientists, and engineers, was climate change communicated to the public? Did Big Oil warn the public that burning their products would severely impact the planet — and threaten our long-term survival?

The answer isn’t just “no.” In fact, fossil fuel companies actively worked to control the public’s understanding of climate change for decadeswithholding their climate knowledge and research and sowing doubt about the scientific consensus.

Their strategy of obfuscation was explicit. In 1998, the American Petroleum Council wrote, “Victory will be achieved when… average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science… [and] those promoting the Kyoto treaty [an early agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions] on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”

Decades of public misinformation campaigns fueled by Big Oil — aimed to protect their own profits over our planet’s health — have brought us here: The world has already warmed by more than 1°C, bringing dramatic changes to ecosystems, weather patterns, extreme weather events, and communities around the world. To have even a decent chance of avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we must cut greenhouse emissions nearly in half by 2030 and reach net zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050, according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Every year of delay increases the chance that we’ll overshoot 1.5°C of warming, with the impacts measured in human lives, human rights, and the loss of species and ecosystems.

Around the world, people are suing the companies most responsible for climate change, and each of these cases grows the body of evidence that oil and gas companies knew about climate change for decades and worked to prevent action that would address it.

In the United States, thirteen cities, counties, and states are suing major fossil fuel companies for the costs of climate impacts. Evidence uncovered by CIEL is cited in almost every case. In the Philippines, the national Human Rights Commission is investigating  major carbon-producing companies, which could result in the first legal finding of corporate responsibility for the climate crisis. CIEL testified before the commission and coordinated legal and scientific experts from around the world in a summary amicus brief of their findings. In the Netherlands, activists are suing Shell for failing to change course to prevent climate impacts — drawing on our major new analysis of Shell documents that we released last Spring. And when youth in Norway sued their government to stop new oil drilling in the Norwegian Arctic, CIEL was there as well — to highlight the links between oil, climate, and human rights.

The last 18 months have seen a surge in legal cases to hold Big Oil accountable for its role in the climate crisis. Sustaining this momentum will require all of us. Big Oil has nearly unlimited resources to defend itself, and it has already come out swinging.  Activists are being threatened by a rise in anti-protest laws. For investigating the companies behind the climate crisis, public officials are being accused of conspiracy and sued. Big Oil is using all kinds of legal bullying to silence those who dare speak out against them.