Oil Giant Knew Threat Of Global Warming In 1971 And Lied For Decades

The French Oil giant Total was so aware of human-induced global warming it published an article on it in the company internal magazine in 1971, but was explicitly denying the science 20 years later. Image credit: Vytautas Kielaitis/Shutterstock.com 

Newly revealed internal documents, backed up with interviews, show the French oil company Total (recently renamed TotalEnergies) was aware of carbon dioxide’s effect on the climate back in 1971. Although the risks were discussed in remarkably accurate fashion in briefing papers, the company continued to discredit climate science into the 1990s. Total's approach included explicit statements the company knew were false, along with more subtle deception and distraction techniques.

In the lead-up to this month's COP26 Climate Conference many governments, companies and individuals are keen to portray themselves as good climate citizens doing their bit to save the ecosystem and civilization from disaster.

Lots would prefer no one noticed their history of attempting to stymie action on greenhouse gas emissions, but if called on it, will claim not to have known at the time. Some have covered their tracks better than others. Archivists and historians aren’t keen to let them get away with it, and now three have revealed Total’s true record in a paper published in Global Environmental Change

Total is the fourth largest dedicated oil and gas company by market capitalization. Following revelations ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell both knew a lot more about human contributions to climate change than they let on, Dr Christophe Bonneuil of Paris Sciences et Lettres and co-authors conducted interviews with former executives and employees and dug through internal documents. To Total's credit, their archives are much more available to independent researchers than those of many other oil companies, whose secrets often require lawsuits to reveal.

The highlight of the paper is a 1971 special environmental edition of the company magazine Total Information, which includes the highly prescient lines: “If the consumption of coal and oil keeps to the same rhythm...the concentration of carbon dioxide will reach 400 parts per million around 2010.” Thanks to increasing fuel efficiency after the 1973 oil shock it took until 2015 for atmospheric CO2 to hit 400 ppm, buying the Earth a little time.

The 1971 article goes on; “The increase in concentration is quite worrying...[it] could have important impacts. Atmospheric circulation could be modified, and it is not impossible according to some, to foresee at least a partial melting of the polar ice caps, which would certainly result in significant sea-level rise.” Some 6,000 copies of that edition of Total Information were printed.

Despite this internal knowledge, which was updated as more information became available, Total maintained an overt strategy of climate science denial from 1989 to 1994, the authors report. It also used what the paper calls “Subtler forms of agnogenesis [the creation of ignorance], such as...responsibility-shifting, strategic philanthropy, promotion of peripheral solutions, and corporate controversy management.” The French oil industry business council produced a booklet that acknowledged fossil fuel burning could produce a “slight warming effect,” but dismissed “apocalyptic” predictions. Total coordinated with other companies to block, and subsequently delay, environmental restrictions.

Total of course was not alone in having this information long before its customers. President Lyndon Johnson was briefed on the risks of human-induced climate change in 1965 and the American Petroleum Institute began researching the topic around the same time.

“The Anthropocene can be understood as a history of evolving mechanisms of wilful blindness and rationalizations that normalized socio-ecological trajectories and business strategies that accelerated alterations of the planet,” the paper states.

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