Confidential Shell Oil Report Prompts Lawsuit: They Knew About Climate Change Decades Ago

What Royal Dutch Shell knew about fossil fuel driving climate change and when they knew it is confirmed in Confidential Report published by Dutch source, prompting legal case against oil giant by environmental group Friends of the Earth

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

A trove of internal documents and reports of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell shows that oil giant has known for three decades that fossil fuel products would lead to catastrophic climate change. This according to an investigative report done by the Dutch newspaper De Correspondent. Interestingly, Shell also predicted that environmental NGOs would sue fossil fuel companies, claiming damages for extreme weather on the grounds of neglecting what scientists have been saying for years. And it turns out that the Dutch wing of Friends of the Earth has done just that, filing a lawsuit against Shell requiring them to comply with the climate targets set out by the Paris agreement to limit global temperature rise to one point five degrees Celsius, thereby severely limiting Shell’s investments in oil and gas worldwide.

A similar cache of leaked internal documents from Exxon Mobil led to investigative reports and ongoing legal lawsuits including ones by the attorney general of New York and the state of Massachusetts. The Friends of the Earth lawsuit is the first of its kind in a European-based case dealing with the European-based oil giant.

With us to discuss what Shell knew and when they knew it, we are joined by Carol Muffett. He is the president and CEO of the Center for International and Environmental Law. Thank you so much for joining us, Carol.

CAROL MUFFETT: It’s nice to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, so we know from the leaked documents that Shell knew back in the ’80s that the fossil fuel products would lead to catastrophic environmental and climate change challenges. So give us the takeaways from the released documents and the investigations that the Dutch newspaper did.

CAROL MUFFETT: So the most important takeaway from these documents is actually that the documents exist, and that the investigations that began with Exxon are clearly not going to end there. What we’re going to see is more and more information like this coming to light about these companies. The documents unearthed by Jelmer Mommers and De Correspondent are really important because they give us a piece of the puzzle that we didn’t have from Shell’s perspective in a critical period of the climate debate, from the 1980s through the 1990s. When we put that, those documents together with earlier pieces of the puzzle that we already had, what we begin to see is a picture of a company that really from the earliest stages of climate science was deeply immersed in and fully aware of that science. We can demonstrate that Shell, like other oil companies, was on early notice of climate risks by no later than the early 1960s and potentially as early as the 1950s.

But even more remarkably, in these documents we see Shell in its own words acknowledging climate risks, ranging from rising sea levels, to saltwater intrusion, to the destruction of ecosystems, to even the creation of climate refugees. And Shell actually in the 1980s quantified its own contribution to that problem and said last, in 1984, Shell’s products contributed to 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a remarkable acknowledgement from a company, and it aligns really well with research done by the Climate Accountability Institute and others to create those same figures for these companies.

And now Shell has given this its number, and its number is very significant, particularly in light of the emerging litigation that you mentioned.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, why did Shell, and we also know Exxon did, why did they engage scientists to research and uncover and make such recommendations to them?

CAROL MUFFETT: There’s a there’s a popular misconception, particularly in the U.S., where many many people from my generation grew up watching Dallas, that the oil industry is populated by rich, rich ill-informed hicks. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an industry that from the very beginnings of the 20th century was populated by scientists of the highest caliber. And not one or two scientists. Huge arrays of geologists, physicists, economists. These were companies that were at the cutting edge of scientific research on an array of fields. And so the fact that they would be fully immersed and fully engaged on climate science science that was directly relevant to the impacts and potential risks of their products shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

SHARMINI PERIES: So you’re basically saying that R&D departments back then that spent a lot of money on that came up with these reports and documents. And you say that there is a trove of them. Now, the two organizations that was investigating went through all of these documents, as far as you know?

CAROL MUFFETT: Well, there are many, many documents. And, and whether they’ve been able to go through, some of them running hundreds of pages, whether they’ve been able to go through all of them is hard to know. And this is something that we at CL understand firsthand. You know, the truth is there are massive amounts of information out there. Just in the course of preparing our own analysis we discovered we discovered an explicit recognition from Shell’s chief geologist from 1962 that climate change caused by the combustion of fossil fuels could have massive impacts on the global environment. And moreover, Shell’s chief geologist at that point highlighted the recommendations of other scientists that even at that point a shift should begin to solar energy.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, give us a survey of the kinds of litigations that are underway by the attorney general of California, of course New York and Massachusetts I mentioned off the top, that are underway and what you expect from them.

CAROL MUFFETT: The first thing that we anticipate is that the litigation is going to grow and accelerate really rapidly from here. Already we’re seeing suits by nine cities and counties in the United States, including the city of New York, the city of San Francisco. Los Angeles has adopted a resolution to investigate whether it should sue as well. This is in addition to the active investigations that are going on in Massachusetts and New York, and it’s in addition to the new notice of litigation that was just filed against Shell yesterday in the Netherlands.

And so I think what we’re witnessing is is a massive explosion in suits of this kind, and it’s building on the, the growing evidence in the public space that these companies were fully aware of the risks of their products for decades, and yet actively misled the public about those risks and continued to produce ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, your organization is pursuing some of these cases as well?

CAROL MUFFETT: CL has worked to bring new evidence to light, to do a legal analysis of the responsibilities of these companies. We produced a report last fall on the legal and evidentiary basis for holding oil companies accountable for climate change. And we’ve, we’ve continued to be active particularly from the human rights perspective on this litigation. Working, for example, to provide support to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights as it investigates Shell and Exxon and other carbon majors for their role in climate-related human rights abuses in that country.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Carol, I thank you so much for giving us this quick report. There’s so much more to discuss. But I thank you for now, and we’ll be back to you really soon. Thanks so much for joining us today.

CAROL MUFFETT: Thanks very much.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.