Shell games: unearthed docs reveal company’s deep awareness of fossil fuels’ existential risks

The third largest oil and fossil gas producer behind ExxonMobil and Chevron, as late as 2021 Shell and its customers released almost 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—more than the emissions of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine proved a boon to Shell: on the back of record energy prices, the company reported profits of $39.9bn for 2022, the highest in its 115-year history. But despite heat-trapping emissions skyrocketing along with global thermostats, during their annual earnings call, CEO Wael Sawan announced plans to cut spending on its renewables unit given their thinner profit margins. This comes after a cache of documents published earlier this year prove Shell knew far more about the “greenhouse effect” and the existential threats posed by the burning of fossil fuels than previously revealed — potentially bolstering legal efforts to hold Big Oil accountable for the worsening global climate emergency. In the first of a multi-part series (read part 2 and part 3), lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews new revelations around what Shell knew, when it knew it and how it publicly denied its own terrifying data.

Severe stresses

In 1962, Shell’s chief geologist, Houston-based Marion King Hubbert, produced a book-length report on energy for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that explicitly warned of the risks posed by the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels — finding that resulting global warming could eventually risk harming the Earth’s “ecological balances,” the U.S.-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has reported.

Shell also commissioned British scientist James Lovelock — later a renowned proponent of the “Gaia Theory” of earth as a self-regulating organism — to investigate the possible global consequences of pollution from fossil fuels.

In 1977, Shell co-funded and helped organize a week-long academic workshop on the carbon cycle staged by the Scientific Committee of Problems of the Environment, or SCOPE, an international research collaboration initiative. Bert Bolin, the Swedish meteorologist who would later become the first chairman of the IPCC, took part in the session.

The workshop’s 491-page report was just one of dozens of Shell-backed academic initiatives and reports published throughout the ‘70s that spelled out the risks posed by burning fossil fuels in increasingly vivid terms, peppered with warnings of “drastic economic consequences” and “severe stresses on human societies”.

Part of a trove of recent reporting from DeSmog and Follow the Money revealing Shell’s subterfuge, much of this information is collected in Dirty Pearls: Exposing Shell’s hidden legacy of climate change accountability, 1970-1990 ‑‑ a project for which researcher Vatan Hüzeir compiled 201 books, correspondence, documents, scholarship, and other materials.

Hüzeir—a climate activist, Erasmus University Rotterdam Ph.D. candidate, and director-founder of the Dutch think-tank Changerism—collected the documents from former Shell staff, people close to the company, as well as private and public archives.

Documents from this collection can be viewed at Climate Files, a project of the U.S.-based Climate Investigations Center, and on this timeline produced by Follow The Money.

“Civilization could prove a fragile thing.”

Throughout the 1980s, Shell actively investigated emerging climate science.

In 1981 Shell took part in a symposium where Tom Wigley, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, gave a detailed presentation on the greenhouse effect,  warning that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations would produce global warming of 2-3 degrees Celsius, and that burning fossil fuels “may produce changes in climate that exceed any which have occurred naturally in the past 10,000 years.”

After receiving a research grant from Shell, Wigley and his colleagues published these and other far too precise findings in 1983.

Shell’s internal interest in climate change continued to grow, leading to the drafting in 1986 of the internal “Greenhouse Effect” memo, a confidential report spelling out dire risks to the planet.

By decade’s end, the company’s prescient understanding of the longer-term climate impacts stemming from the burning of their products resulted in the creation of a confidential October 1989 Shell publication titled “SCENARIOS 1989 – 2010” which outlined a high-emissions “global mercantilism” scenario in which average global temperatures rise by “considerably more” than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report warned that “many species of trees, plants, animals and insects would not be able to move and adapt,” with worse implications for people:

“In earlier times, man was able to respond with his feet. Today, there is no place to go because people already stand there. Perhaps those in industrial countries could cope with a rise in sea level (the Dutch example) but for poor countries such defenses are not possible. The potential refugee problem in GLOBAL MERCANTILISM could be unprecedented. Africans would push into Europe, Chinese into the Soviet Union, Latins into the United States, Indonesians into Australia. Boundaries would count for little – overwhelmed by the numbers. Conflicts would abound.”

“Civilization could prove a fragile thing.”

Shell’s brief climate-woke phase

Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, Shell began to diversify into other fossil fuels like coal and look at other ways to unlock gas deposits as it sought to become an “all of the above” energy company.

However, as the climate science became clearer, in 1997 Shell actually began looking beyond oil and gas, setting up its Shell International Renewables business-unit.

Four years later, in 2001, Shell teamed up with German utility E.ON SE and a unit of industrial giant Siemens AG to manufacture solar panels in the Netherlands and Germany.

After it bought out its joint-venture partners in 2002, Shell briefly became one of the world’s largest solar manufacturers.

But as the market flooded with cheap Chinese photovoltaics and Germany and the EU refused to provide financial support, Shell shut its main factories in Europe and began reducing clean energy investments.

In the late 2000s, Shell halted the expansion of its wind-power portfolio, the biggest part of its renewables business. It then folded the remaining bits into its expanding natural gas division.

And just this February, Shell announced its intent to cut even this puny spending back further, claiming lack of comparative financial returns.

Funding denial

However, one area of spending Shell rarely held back was in funding climate denial.

Hüzeir’s dossier reveals how as the company’s awareness of the devastating consequences of climate change grew, beginning in the 1970s and going on indefinitely, Shell has consistently funded and backed a series of publications and institutions that downplayed or omitted key climate risks; emphasized scientific uncertainties; or made unrealistic suggestions about future technological solutions (like carbon capture).

Moreover, Shell’s public-facing documents neither addressed nor cited the findings or warnings of their own internal climate investigations.

This historical evidence of what Shell and other oil majors knew about climate change is taking on new significance in courtrooms today as lawyers worldwide seek to hold big polluters to account for the accelerating devastation caused by the climate crisis, building cases using the industry’s own documents.

We’ll look at how some of these cases are evolving in future blogs of the Shell Games series.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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