On its hundredth birthday in 1959, Edward Teller warned the oil industry about global warming

Somebody cut the cake – new documents reveal that American oil writ large was warned of global warming at its 100th birthday party.

Physicist Edward Teller pointing at a formula on a blackboard on 22 May 1968.
 Physicist Edward Teller pointing at a formula on a blackboard on 22 May 1968. Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty Images

Over 300 government officials, economists, historians, scientists, and industry executives were present for the Energy and Man symposium – organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business – and Dunlop was to address the entire congregation on the “prime mover” of the last century – energy – and its major source: oil. As President of the Sun Oil Company, he knew the business well, and as a director of the American Petroleum Institute – the industry’s largest and oldest trade association in the land of Uncle Sam – he was responsible for representing the interests of all those many oilmen gathered around him.

Four others joined Dunlop at the podium that day, one of whom had made the journey from California – and Hungary before that. The nuclear weapons physicist Edward Teller had, by 1959, become ostracized by the scientific community for betraying his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he retained the embrace of industry and government. Teller’s task that November fourth was to address the crowd on “energy patterns of the future,” and his words carried an unexpected warning:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am to talk to you about energy in the future. I will start by telling you why I believe that the energy resources of the past must be supplemented. First of all, these energy resources will run short as we use more and more of the fossil fuels. But I would […] like to mention another reason why we probably have to look for additional fuel supplies. And this, strangely, is the question of contaminating the atmosphere. [….] Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [….] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it?

Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect [….] It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.

How, precisely, Mr. Dunlop and the rest of the audience reacted is unknown, but it’s hard to imagine this being welcome news. After his talk, Teller was asked to “summarize briefly the danger from increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere in this century.” The physicist, as if considering a numerical estimation problem, responded: 

At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 per cent [about 360 parts per million, by Teller’s accounting], if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment for the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only one or 5.

But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise. Well, I don’t know whether they will cover the Empire State Building or not, but anyone can calculate it by looking at the map and noting that the icecaps over Greenland and over Antarctica are perhaps five thousand feet thick.

And so, at its hundredth birthday party, American oil was warned of its civilization-destroying potential.

Talk about a buzzkill.

How did the petroleum industry respond? Eight years later, on a cold, clear day in March, Robert Dunlop walked the halls of the U.S. Congress. The 1967 oil embargo was weeks away, and the Senate was investigating the potential of electric vehicles. Dunlop, testifying now as the Chairman of the Board of the American Petroleum Institute, posed the question, “tomorrow’s car: electric or gasoline powered?” His preferred answer was the latter:

We in the petroleum industry are convinced that by the time a practical electric car can be mass-produced and marketed, it will not enjoy any meaningful advantage from an air pollution standpoint. Emissions from internal-combustion engines will have long since been controlled.

Dunlop went on to describe progress in controlling carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbon emissions from automobiles. Absent from his list? The pollutant he had been warned of years before: carbon dioxide.

We might surmise that the odorless gas simply passed under Robert Dunlop’s nose unnoticed. But less than a year later, the American Petroleum Institute quietly received a report on air pollution it had commissioned from the Stanford Research Institute, and its warning on carbon dioxide was direct: 

Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes. […] there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe. […] pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes. 

Thus, by 1968, American oil held in its hands yet another notice of its products’ world-altering side effects, one affirming that global warming was not just cause for research and concern, but a reality needing corrective action: “Past and present studies of CO2 are detailed,” the Stanford Research Institute advised. “What is lacking, however, is […] work toward systems in which CO2 emissions would be brought under control.”

This early history illuminates the American petroleum industry’s long-running awareness of the planetary warming caused by its products. Teller’s warning, revealed in documentation I found while searching archives, is another brick in a growing wall of evidence.

In the closing days of those optimistic 1950s, Robert Dunlop may have been one of the first oilmen to be warned of the tragedy now looming before us. By the time he departed this world in 1995, the American Petroleum Institute he once led was denying the climate science it had been informed of decades before, attacking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and fighting climate policies wherever they arose.

This is a history of choices made, paths not taken, and the fall from grace of one of the greatest enterprises – oil, the “prime mover” – ever to tread the earth. Whether it’s also a history of redemption, however partial, remains to be seen.

American oil’s awareness of global warming – and its conspiracy of silence, deceit, and obstruction – goes further than any one company. It extends beyond (though includes) ExxonMobil. The industry is implicated to its core by the history of its largest representative, the American Petroleum Institute.

It is now too late to stop a great deal of change to our planet’s climate and its global payload of disease, destruction, and death. But we can fight to halt climate change as quickly as possible, and we can uncover the history of how we got here. There are lessons to be learned, and there is justice to be served.

Benjamin Franta (@BenFranta) is a PhD student in history of science at Stanford University who studies the history of climate change science and politics. He has a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University and is a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The Great War began in 1914 with cavalrymen on horseback and ended four years later with armored tanks and airplanes. It was, as one scholar put it, the “first war to run on oil.”  To ensure a steady flow of fuel, petroleum executives met regularly with federal officials in Standard Oil’s oak-paneled boardroom on Wall Street. The same industry broken up as an illegal monopoly in 1911 had become a quasi-arm of government.

As the Allies brokered peace in the spring of 1919, the American Petroleum Institute was born in a ballroom at New York’s Biltmore Hotel. Among its founding members were the same regulators entrusted to oversee the industry.  API has more than 650 corporate members, the group now encompasses every sector of the oil and gas industry, from drilling to plastics manufacturing.  

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By Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, in the New York Times, 22 Aug 2017

Scrutiny is mounting on the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company. On multiple legal fronts the question is being asked: Did Exxon Mobil’s communications about climate change break the law?

That’s what some of Exxon Mobil’s current and former employees think. In February, they filed a lawsuit arguing that the company deceived them by making false and misleading statements about the financial risks of climate change, which they argue affected the value of shares they bought as part of a company-sponsored savings plan. Other Exxon Mobil shareholders are bringing similar charges against the company in a separate class-action securities fraud case.

And just last month, three California communities sued 37 oil, coal and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, for contributing to sea level rise while engaging in a “coordinated, multifront effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats.” At the same time, the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general continue to investigate whether Exxon Mobil may have violated racketeering, consumer protection or investor protection statutes. And the federal Securities and Exchange Commission started a probe of its own last fall, asking the company about its longstanding policy of not writing down the value of its oil reserves, as other companies had done.

The question dominating these cases is whether the company misled consumers, shareholders or the public about the environmental or business risks of climate change, or about the risk that oil and gas reserves might become stranded assets that won’t be developed, affecting shareholder value.

Part of the impetus for these suspicions was reporting by Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times in 2015 that concluded Exxon Mobil had long known about the risks of climate change but denied them in public. The company responded that the allegations were false and “deliberately cherry-picked,” and that anyone who looked into the matter would see that.


An Exxon Mobil advertisement titled “Unsettled Science” appeared in The New York Times in March 2000.

“Read the documents,” the company said, “and make up your own mind.”

A year ago we took up this challenge. We have read all of the documents, analyzed them according to established social science methods, and made up our minds. Today, we are publishing the results of our peer-reviewed analysis in the journal Environmental Research Letters. To our knowledge, this is the first academic, empirical analysis of Exxon Mobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. (Our research was funded by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which also helped finance the reporting by Inside Climate News and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which published its examination of Exxon Mobil with The Los Angeles Times.)

Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public.

We applied an empirical method known as content analysis to all relevant, publicly available internal company files that have led to allegations against Exxon Mobil, as well as all peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications offered by the company in response. We also analyzed 36 of the company’s paid “advertorials” about climate change that appeared as editorial-style advertisements on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times between 1989 and 2004.

In total, we analyzed 187 documents generated between 1977 and 2014. We coded each document to characterize its positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious and solvable. (Research has shown that these four factors are key predictors of public support for climate policies. Not coincidentally, they also underpin most narratives of climate skepticism and denial.) We found that, from as early as the 1970s, Exxon Mobil (and its predecessors Exxon and Mobil) not only knew about emerging climate science, but also contributed research to it. Scientific reports and articles written or cowritten by Exxon Mobil employees acknowledged that global warming was a real and serious threat. They also noted it could be addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, meaning that fossil fuel reserves might one day become stranded assets.

For the most part their research was highly technical, hidden behind the walls of Exxon Mobil offices, or reported in academic publications with access only through a paywall. In contrast, the company’s advertorials in The New York Times discussing climate change were designed to reach and influence the public, and the potential readership was in the millions. Each advertorial cost roughly $31,000. They overwhelmingly emphasized scientific uncertainties about climate change and promoted a narrative that was largely inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including Exxon Mobil’s own. [The Times’s policy on accepting such advertising can be found here.]

In 1997, for instance, in an ad titled “Reset the Alarm,” the company argued: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.” The company added, “We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

Some advertorials conflicted with Exxon Mobil research published the very same year.

In some cases, they included explicit factual misrepresentation, for instance, directly contradicting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and presenting data in a “very misleading” way, according to the independent researcher who produced that data, Lloyd Keigwin, a senior scientist in geology and geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In short, Exxon Mobil contributed quietly to climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it. We found that, accounting for reasonable doubt given the state of the science at the time of each document, roughly 80 percent of the company’s academic and internal papers acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. But 81 percent of their climate change advertorials in one way or another expressed doubt.

Of course, any analysis of words is subject to interpretation. It’s for this reason that we used established social science methods and subjected our analysis to peer review, to verify that our claims are supported by evidence, were analyzed according to tested methods and are not just a matter of our opinion.

Exxon Mobil will no doubt challenge our peer-reviewed study, just as it has challenged three decades of peer-reviewed climate science. (In a comment, Exxon Mobil disagreed with our conclusion and said that its statements on public policy and climate science “have always reflected the global understanding of the issue.”) But while we can debate the details, the overall picture is clear: Even while Exxon Mobil scientists were contributing to climate science and writing reports that explained it to their bosses, the company was paying for advertisements that told a very different tale.