The French fossil fuel giant was first warned of the effects of its products on catastrophic warming in 1971, but chose to muddy the waters, historians say.
French fossil fuel giant Total was warned about the potential catastrophic effects of pumping fossil fuels into the air fifty years ago but chose to do nothing, new research has unveiled.
A paper published on Wednesday by three historians in the Global Environmental Change journal shows that the company (now TotalEnergies) was warned of the link between fossil fuels and global warming as early as 1971, but chose to obfuscate or downplay the issue in the ensuing decades.
Researchers at CRNS, Sciences Po and the University of Stanford used the company’s archives, internal documents, as well as interviews with former company executives to reconstruct the company’s role in downplaying and engaging in “overt denial of climate science”.
In the first major study of its kind, researchers allege the company was first warned of potential harmful effects in 1971 and became fully aware of the issue by the 1980s, when it began promoting doubt about emerging climate science.
In the 1990s, the study says, the company began publicly acknowledging climate science while pursuing a lobbying strategy aimed at preventing or delaying any regulation of the industry.
In a statement following the paper’s publication, TotalEnergies responded that Total and its sister company Elf did not have more knowledge of climate risk than what was published in scientific journals at the time.
“It is therefore wrong to claim that the climate risk was concealed by Total or Elf, either in the 1970s or since,” the statement said.
Smoke and mirrors
Researchers found that the company’s magazine, Total Information, warned in 1971 that the burning of an increasing amount of fossil fuels could lead to a possible increase in the average temperature of the atmosphere of 1°C to 1.5°C. The article stated that ““if the consumption of coal and oil keeps the same rhythm in the years to come”, it could have “important impacts” including “a partial melting of the polar ice caps, which would certainly result in significant sea level rise.”
In a November 2020 interview with Bernard Tramier, who was Environmental Director of Elf from 1983 to 1999, the executive told researchers he was first alerted of “seriousness of global warming” at a meeting of the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) in Houston in 1984, when another oil giant, Exxon, “shared their concerns with the other companies” having previously “remained very discreet about their own research [on global warming]”. In an annual report to Elf’s executive committee just over a year later, Tramier described global warming as certain to occur, and suggested the industry should “prepare to defend itself.”
This is when, researchers say, IPIECA formed a working group on global climate change, which began working to emphasise uncertainties in climate science. Funding was approved for scientific research that could “sharpen the industry’s ability to emphasize climate model limitations and potentially make global warming appear less alarming,” researchers wrote.
After the 1997 Kyoto conference on climate change, the industry realised, in the words of a Shell executive quoted in the study, that it “didn’t want to fall into the same trap as the tobacco companies who have become trapped in all their lies.” The historians said the industry began portraying itself as a “rational, scientific actor” while downplaying the urgency of the problem and promoting uncertainty.
In response to the study, climate groups Notre Affaire à Tous and 350.org launched a campaign urging governments and international bodies to hold the company accountable for its past and present activities vis-à-vis the climate crisis.
“These revelations provide proof that TotalEnergies and the other oil and gas majors have stolen the precious time of a generation to stem the climate crisis,” the organisations wrote. “The dire consequences of climate change we are now experiencing could have been avoided if Total executives fifty years ago had decided that the future of the planet is more important than their profits.”
The French company’s recent rebrand as TotalEnergies is part of its effort to move to a business model that includes renewable energy in line with the global energy transition and the evolving energy market.
Governments and fossil fuel companies have touted natural gas – a fossil fuel - as an indispensable element of the transition. Environmentalists, however, see it as a "false solution".
Campaigners said TotalEnergies was still planning to increase its fossil fuel production capacity.
“The intensive development of new oil and gas projects is a declaration of war against humanity,” said Clémence Dubois, 350.org France Team Lead.