Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Shell knew about climate change

Because I have been known to hang out with lefties, my position that the oil guys are not the enemy is quite a minority one. Part of this is personal—I have relatives who have devoted their careers to the difficult proposition of finding, transporting, refining, and selling the most interesting fuel source humanity is ever likely to find. In Tioga North Dakota, I went to high school with the children of the geologists and engineers that found oil in DEEP locations and ran the local refinery. So I KNOW these people are not monsters. I also know they are not stupid. My two lab partners in high school chemistry were sons of working refinery chemists and were amazingly comfortable and graceful around the subject.

There are two blindingly obvious truths associated with the oil business.
  1. The modern world is so reliant on liquid fuels that if one major oil company shut down for a month, there were be lines and buyer's panics like in 1973. If ALL of them shut down, life as we know it would come to an end. We NEED these folks.
  2. Of course we need to prepare ourselves for the end of the Age of Petroleum by building systems that do not need oil. This will be harder and more expensive than almost anyone admits. This absolutely necessary project will be most certainly powered by liquid fuels. We need petroleum to build the society that does not need it.
See. Making an enemy of the oil business is not only stupid, it demonstrates amazing ingratitude for some of the people that keep the rest of us alive. And here is a remarkable demonstration of my basic point. In 1991, Shell produced an accurate and informative film on the dangers of climate change. My guess is that if the crazy neoliberal political-economic zeitgeist had not been in its ascendency during that exact moment in history, Shell might have led the march into the post-petroleum economy. But the Euro was approved at Maastricht in February 1992 so neoliberalism was nearing one of its greatest triumphs. Unfortunately, neoliberalism is perfectly incapable of financing the kind of economy that can build the infrastructure necessary to eliminate the need of fossil fuels. So Shell went back to business as usual. Not very brave or imaginative, but under the circumstances, absolutely understandable and predictable.

‘Shell knew’: oil giant's 1991 film warned of climate change danger

Public information film unseen for years shows Shell had clear grasp of global warming 26 years ago but has not acted accordingly since, say critics

Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers, Tuesday 28 February 2017

The oil giant Shell issued a stark warning of the catastrophic risks of climate change more than a quarter of century ago in a prescient 1991 film that has been rediscovered.

However, since then the company has invested heavily in highly polluting oil reserves and helped lobby against climate action, leading to accusations that Shell knew the grave risks of global warming but did not act accordingly.

Shell’s 28-minute film, called Climate of Concern, was made for public viewing, particularly in schools and universities. It warned of extreme weather, floods, famines and climate refugees as fossil fuel burning warmed the world. The serious warning was “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990”, the film noted.

“If the weather machine were to be wound up to such new levels of energy, no country would remain unaffected,” it says. “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”

A separate 1986 report, marked “confidential” and also seen by the Guardian, notes the large uncertainties in climate science at the time but nonetheless states: “The changes may be the greatest in recorded history.”

The predictions in the 1991 film for temperature and sea level rises and their impacts were remarkably accurate, according to scientists, and Shell was one of the first major oil companies to accept the reality and dangers of climate change.

But, despite this early and clear-eyed view of the risks of global warming, Shell invested many billions of dollars in highly polluting tar sand operations and on exploration in the Arctic. It also cited fracking as a “future opportunity” in 2016, despite its own 1998 data showing exploitation of unconventional oil and gas was incompatible with climate goals.

The projections for future global warming in Shell’s 1991 film stand up “pretty well” today, according to Prof Tom Wigley. Photograph: Climate of Concern

The film was obtained by the Correspondent, a Dutch online journalism platform, and shared with the Guardian, and lauds commercial-scale solar and wind power that already existed in 1991. Shell has recently lobbied successfully to undermine European renewable energy targets and is estimated to have spent $22m in 2015 lobbying against climate policies. The company’s investments in low-carbon energy have been minimal compared to its fossil fuel investments.

Shell has also been a member of industry lobby groups that have fought climate action, including the so-called Global Climate Coalition until 1998; the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) until 2015; and remains a member of the Business Roundtable and the American Petroleum Institute today.

Another oil giant, Exxon Mobil, is under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and state attorney generals for allegedly misleading investors about the risks climate change posed to its business. The company said they are confident they are compliant. In early 2016, a group of congressmen asked the Department of Justice to also “investigate whether Shell’s actions around climate change violated federal law”.

“They knew. Shell told the public the truth about climate change in 1991 and they clearly never got round to telling their own board of directors,” said Tom Burke at the green thinktank E3G, who was a member of Shell’s external review committee from 2012-14 and has also advised BP and the mining giant Rio Tinto. “Shell’s behaviour now is risky for the climate but it is also risky for their shareholders. It is very difficult to explain why they are continuing to explore and develop high-cost reserves.”

Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, said: “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. Shell made a big difference in the world – a difference for the worse.”
Prof Tom Wigley, the climate scientist who was head of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia when it helped Shell with the 1991 film, said: “It’s one of the best little films that I have seen on climate change ever. One could show this today and almost all would still be relevant.” He said Shell’s actions since 1991 had “absolutely not” been consistent with the film’s warning.

A Shell spokeswoman said: “Our position on climate change is well known; recognising 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.

“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,” she said.

Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s climate change chief, said change by the big oil companies was vital to tackling global warming. “They are a big part of the global economy, so if we do not get them on board, we will not be able to achieve this transformation of the economy we need,” she said.

The investments the oil majors are making in clean energy are, Espinosa said, “very small, the activities in which they are engaging are still small and do not have the impact that we really need.”

Espinosa, who visited Shell’s headquarters in the Hague in December, said: “They are clear that this [climate change] agenda has to do with the future of their company and that business as usual, not doing anything, will lead to crisis and losses in their business.” more


  1. Part One: Tony’s been busy doing good...but I’ve been missing you. Hope all is well.

    I do believe most worker bees in every industry are not monsters. (No argument there.) And they’re not stupid (far from it). So, the only remaining question (no buts about it up to this point) is how to get going on making the transition away from liquid fossil fuels ASAP and to accelerate development (in a crash program) to accomplish that!

    On the one hand, we are “on the way:” Toyota, I believe, is “all in” with liquid hydrogen fuel; and large-scale switching to “electric stuff” (wind and solar, etc, to power electric cars and trains, etc) is achieving increasingly “commercial success;” and any number of other innovations are “on the horizon” (new forms of “safe” nuclear energy perhaps and whatever) BUT (and here it comes finally THE BIG BUT) if life on earth is ever going to get beyond private commercial success as the measure of all things) we might as well start with fossil fuel (god knows we must learn to live without it soon, and the sooner the better that we leave as much as we can in the ground). Any chance we could have commercials that help do away with commercials that sell stuff, to sell the idea that life on earth should be a pleasure instead of a pain in the ass if you’re trapped in poverty?

    As far as the oil business is concerned:
    1. “If one major oil company shut down for a month there would be long lines and buyer panics like in 1973.” Perhaps. BUT, there wouldn’t have to be if the government said, “Screw that, don’t panic, it’s just no longer business as usual that’s all, time to get serious about getting away from fossil fuels; so relax, we can handle this, AND LIFE WILL GET BETTER NOT WORSE!” When a major oil company is shut down IT WILL BE TIME TO REJOICE that “We shall be saved!” So, cheer up, calm down, and JOIN THE MARCH toward a better tomorrow that starts the day fossil fuels stay in the ground! Remember, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (Unless of course you are a filthy rich person who supposes that what’s coming isn’t for you...BUT, EVEN “YOU” might be surprised, because that’s all there’s going to be in the future if we have one.)

    2. Making the transition away from the Age of Petroleum (and unsafe nuclear stuff that needs fixing) won’t be easy BUT, rest assured, if we are to succeed in this endeavor we must embrace the facts and truly believe with all our head, heart, and soul that life on earth can no longer be about money (or allowed to rise again in that regard because we can easily “make money” it’s the least of our problems) whereas THE BIG PROBLEM IS HOW MONEY IS MANAGED (and god knows we all need help with that) BUT not the kind of help that money can buy or that a banker or politician or loan shark can help us with. Right?

  2. Part two: I have 2 sons, 2 grandsons, and I know a lot of people their age who don't deserve what's coming if we don't at least try to fix it before it's too late. So, climate change denial and financial worries about stuff that's a flimflam to begin with (like who owns the earth, etc) we don't have time for stuff like that anymore!

    "Utopia or Oblivion," is what Buckminster Fuller called it 50 years ago, and I don't believe we can wait until the next election to take a vote on it. We need a new system of government on earth (soon) that Trumps all current systems from top to bottom with a wide margin of popular support that can't be denied. And the only way I can think to do that is for a billionaire (or 2 or 3) to have enough money to buy enough time on radio, television and You Tube or wherever to make that conversation possible (and to believe of course that to do so would be a good thing). Who among the 1% might go first? Is there any way to have this conversation without money buying in on it? (Not to help get rid of money in the world mind you but to help people in the world to finally understand what money should “and should not” be allowed to buy.) Oh, what a wonderful world it could be if money was kept in its proper place – if the world was maintained with a proper balance – and if Peace on Earth were to spontaneously break out all over the world overnight when the gas and oil wells stop pumping and the coal mines shut down (with no loss of livelihood to anyone involved because that's how utopia works) (which is only possible on a large scale because small scale utopias are always outnumbered, outsmarted, or outgunned). Only if big enough with a clear majority of everyone on earth buying in on it is a utopian system of government for the whole earth possible (at least until hostile aliens show up) (and even then, wouldn’t it be better if the people of earth were united)?

    Who has the most to lose if there is Peace on Earth and no more need for military armed forces anymore if all nations are dissolved into a whole new planetary system? Police forces and law enforcement yes, nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction no; no United Nations because nationalism, culture, and religion can be major obstacles to Peace on Earth (but they’re manageable). United Nations was a noble idea but a “United People of Earth” is what we need.

    Are there any billionaires out there willing to buy enough time to have a "Earth in Human Hands," conversation (facilitated maybe by David Grinspoon, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and other smart people like them) or do all those people have other plans? I do believe something "Big" is coming... And oh, how wonderful it would be if it was “big” for the better! WOW! Hallelujah! ...Wouldn’t that be nice?

    1. Turns out being rich and smart is FAR from sufficient.

      I used to think that if the oils giants would realize they are in the energy business, and not merely the oil business, and would turn their awesome scientific and technical arsenal on the conversion to the post-fire age, the problems would be solved. I now consider those my idiot years when I still assumed that motivation was they key. After all, to listen to the sports commentators babble on, championships belongs to those "who want it more." Now in my old age I assign about 2% to motivation and 98% to preparation.

      It turns out that the new world will be built by new people—not merely folks who are already doing similar things. Of course, the only real example I have is Tesla and Musk. The car companies have SO much invested in the production of ICE vehicles they look on electrification as a chore as well as an iffy career path. Car companies specialize in Not Invented Here. Outsiders are NOT welcome. Start-ups are considered a joke.

      It been a LONG time since anyone challenged the car industry. Yet Tesla has FAR exceeded Preston Tucker, John DeLorean, or Malcolm Bricklin—to name some of the folks who tried to sell cars in markets dominated by the giants. And Musk's key selling point is sheer imagination. Takes a lot of good moves to make something cool. Turns out there is so much sophisticated tooling in global circulation, someone with imagination can build a world-class car almost from job one. There is a pretty good argument that the Model S Tesla is objectively the best automobile ever made. A START-UP did this.

      Of course, Musk is not out of the woods just yet. While the car companies resist outside influence on their corporate culture, the DO like to copy. In 1972, my dad purchased a Saab 99 because it was the best front-wheel-drive car available. It had great driver ergonomics, a fold-down rear seat, multiple circuit brakes, etc. etc. Now every car company in the world makes that car and Saab has become a detail of history. The concept electric vehicles at the North American auto show this year were amazingly imaginative. I especially liked the electric VW microbus. Now that Musk has shown how cool electric cars are done, what's to stop the imitators from eating him alive?

  3. Interesting...thanks for the reply. I can think of many examples where being rich and smart is, indeed, far from sufficient:
    The famous lifeboat scenes...dying of thirst and hunger
    Fiddler on the Roof...and “Tradition!”
    The Good Earth...by Pearl S. Buck (#1 Best Book of all time!)
    In fact, in my life, luck has made more of a difference than rich or poor, dumb or smart. I’ve always been lucky more than anything else. (I’m not as impressed with brains and money as I might have made it seem in my 2-part comment.) I believe brains and money are separate things, but I also believe they are two of the most important things we will need to make it to the next level of life on earth that I’m envisioning (the kind of life that is truly altruistic and Utopian).

    As for the oil giants realizing they’re in the “energy” business not just the “oil” business, I’ll bet many do, and some will divest in the hope that the old ways of doing business on earth will never change (that life on earth will always be more about money than anything else and whoever dies with the most of it at the end wins)! Lucky them. And as for 2% motivation versus 98% preparation... yeah, maybe? But how it all turns out (if there’s going to be a better new world) (or at least a better new world order) and how we get there...now we’re talking!

    Tesla and Musk might be the only current example you can think of as one of the “new people” you believe will “build the new world...” BUT that’s from an innovation and technological point of view (the bias of your blog): “technologically literate, historically informed, politically progressive.” And that’s fine, I love it. You and Tony say many things I am happy to hear about and learn from...BUT now comes the hard part for me: Maybe I’m just thinking of your blog in a different order: “historically informed, politically progressive, technologically EMBRACING.”

    I say, “technologically embracing” because I can’t pretend to be very smart or “literate” when it comes to technology, but I sure do embrace it and (for the most part) appreciate it at almost every turn. In my opinion, money and technology are not a problem for the future...but history and politics are. And so, that’s why I think we must mostly deal with history and politics: how to go from a world of (hundreds?) of sovereign Waring nations, to a new world order of (thousands!) of integrated peaceful neighborhoods...where the politics start there and build up from there into an entirely new world order (of neighborhoods not nations...maybe 5 “Tiers” all together of Progressive government).

    That’s why we need rich and smart: the rich to buy the time necessary for the long conversation; the smart (artistic, sincere, etc) to help clue us all in on what could be...if we slowed down and thought about it and talked about it long enough to figure it out what could be.