Exxon, Shell and climate change

Sep 23, 2018 Parkersburg News and Sentinel, Eric Engle

Benjamin Franta, a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and doctoral candidate at Stanford University where his focus is on the history of climate science and politics, recently wrote a piece for The Guardian newspaper titled “Shell and Exxon’s Secret 1980s Climate Change Warnings.”

In the piece, Franta explores how documents from Exxon and Shell scientists in the 1980s clearly showed that CO2 release from the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet and that climate catastrophe would undoubtedly ensue. Franta quotes Shell’s analysts as warning of “the disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction … runoff, destructive floods and inundation of low-lying farmland … and new sources of freshwater being required” to compensate for changes in precipitation. The Shell analysts also warned that global changes in air temperature would “drastically change the way people live and work” and that “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.”

Exxon, as Franta quotes, warned of “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered” such as “devastating sea level rise” and “the American Midwest and other parts of the world becoming desert-like.”

To quote Franta directly, “The documents make for frightening reading. And the effect is all the more chilling in view of the oil giants’ refusal to warn the public about the damage that their own researchers predicted. Shell’s report, marked ‘confidential,’ was first disclosed by a Dutch news organization earlier this year. Exxon’s study was not intended for external distribution, either; it was leaked in 2015.”

These oil giants, and researchers that preceded them as far back as the 1950s who were also part of or consulted by the fossil fuels industry, decided for us that anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change was not going to be meaningfully addressed. Instead, the industry started a massive, decades-long misinformation and denial campaign.

These documents reveal two things unequivocally: (1) even the industry most responsible found that human-caused global climate change is real and a growing threat, as we’ve seen daily. And (2) the fossil fuels industry should be held accountable for the lion’s share of mitigation efforts and efforts to prevent the most catastrophic effects of what they chose to ignore and deny.

A lawsuit filed by the group Our Children’s Trust (Juliana v. U.S.) seeks to hold the fossil fuels industry and U.S. federal government accountable for violation of the constitutional rights of the youth plaintiffs in the suit. The suit alleges that the industry and the federal government knowingly violated the rights of the plaintiffs (and of us all) to life, liberty and property, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, when they refused to address anthropogenic global climate change.

The suit, originally filed in 2015, has most recently been allowed to proceed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and has a trial date set in federal district court on Oct. 29. Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action is working with other organizations statewide to encourage people to show up at the federal district courthouse in Charleston on Oct. 29 to show our support for the plaintiffs and for holding industry and government accountable. Our Children’s Trust has asked people in every state to do the same.

The most profitable industry in the history of the world and an enabling government have attempted to decide our collective fate for us, but we will not go down without a fight and we will work toward a better future than the one they have tried to leave us with.


Eric Engle is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.