Companies knew about the link between fossil fuel and global warming as far back as the 1980s

Is it a surprise that Shell has known for years the dangers of fossil fuels? The same goes for ExxonMobil also having known. What should or can be done about it?

A Dutch news organization has published a trove of internal documents from the oil giant Shell showing the company knew about the link between fossil fuel and global warming as far back as the 1980s. Despite their own findings, Shell, like other oil companies, publicly disputed the climate science for decades.

One confidential 1988 report from Shell was titled “The Greenhouse Effect.” It read, “Although CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere through several natural processes … the main cause of increasing CO2 concentrations is considered to be fossil fuel burning.” Friends of the Earth Netherlands is threatening to sue Shell unless it increases efforts to comply with the Paris climate accord. (Shell Knew: Documents Show Oil Giant Hid Dangers of Fossil Fuels for Decades)

This 1988 Shell report, discovered by Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent, shines light on what the company knew about climate science, its own role in driving global CO2 emissions, the range of potential political and social responses to a warming world.

The confidential report, “The Greenhouse Effect,” was authored by members of Shell’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group and based on a 1986 study, though the document reveals Shell was commissioning “greenhouse effect” reports as early as 1981. Report highlights include:

  • A thorough review of climate science literature, including acknowledgement of fossil fuels’ dominant role in driving greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, Shell quantifies its own products’ contribution to global CO2 emissions.
  • A detailed analysis of potential climate impacts, including rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and human migration.
  • A discussion of the potential impacts to the fossil fuel sector itself, including legislation, changing public sentiment, and infrastructure vulnerabilities. Shell concludes that active engagement from the energy sector is desirable.
  • A cautious response to uncertainty in scientific models, pressing for sincere consideration of solutions even in the face of existing debates.
  • A warning to take policy action early, even before major changes are observed to the climate.

In short, by 1988 Shell was not only aware of the potential threats posed by climate change, it was open about its own role in creating the conditions for a warming world. Similar documents by ExxonMobil, oil trade associations, and utility companies have emerged in recent years, though this Shell document is a rare, early, and concrete accounting of climate responsibility by an oil major.

1988 Shell Confidential Report “The Greenhouse Effect”


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