Washington, DC, April 5, 2018 – CIEL’s analysis of a massive new trove of Shell internal documents unearthed by Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers shows the global oil giant understood and acted on climate science while publicly sowing doubt as to its validity and fighting its regulation. The analysis, A Crack in the Shell: New Documents Expose a Hidden Climate History, details a troubling pattern in Shell’s behavior: making declarations about the dangers of climate change while working with other companies to oppose climate action, including by spreading misinformation, then leaving after the damage has already been done.
These new documents fill in missing pieces of a story that begins no later than 1958 and spans decades, continents, and an array of disciplines. They demonstrate that Shell had at its disposal both profound scientific expertise in relevant disciplines and the resources to deploy that expertise to profoundly shape long-term trajectories for both the company itself and the world as a whole.
“With Shell facing litigation and investigation in a growing number of jurisdictions, from US courts to human rights bodies in the Philippines, these new documents come at a critical juncture,” says Steven Feit, a CIEL attorney and lead author of the report. A confidential 1988 report called The Greenhouse Effect, a key document in the trove, not only acknowledged the robustness of the scientific evidence of climate change and Shell’s own significant role in the problem, but noted that waiting for full scientific certainty on climate change could mean needed action would be too late.
A Shell video from 1991 called Climate of Concern demonstrated that Shell forcefully reiterated the warnings from The Greenhouse Effect. It concluded that waiting for ironclad certainty of the when, where, and what of climate impacts would be irresponsible, and remedial action was the only safe insurance.
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In the mid-1990s, however, Shell’s climate discourse shifted. In 1994, a Shell-commissioned update to The Greenhouse Effect placed a heavy emphasis on discrediting and downplaying the science. This shift occurred as international climate negotiations gained momentum, with demand rising for a new, stronger deal to turn treaty commitments from words into action.
“Shell has flown below the radar in part because it has been talking a big game on climate for a long time,” says Feit. “But these documents reveal a more complicated history: While Shell has been promising to take action, it has always been deliberately perpetuating a carbon-based energy mix. Shell’s new Sky Scenario is more of the same: the model sets out a vision to meet Paris goals, while the company acknowledges that it has no intent to pursue that vision.”
“This trove of documents is significant not just for what it contains, but also for what it portends for future investigations,” says report co-author and CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “Information breeds new information—names, dates, connections. Just as the disclosure of Exxon documents has informed and fueled new investigations into that company’s conduct, these Shell documents herald a potential step change in the speed and scale of future revelations. Those revelations didn’t end with ExxonMobil, and they’re unlikely to end with Shell.”