Shell and Climate Change Liability

How much do the largest global fossil fuel producers know about the link between the activities of their industry and the increasing temperature of the planet? And how long have they had this information?

This is the subject of fresh public scrutiny directed at Shell (Royal Dutch Shell), in the face of new evidence that the company recognized and understood the connection between its business model and climate change as early as the 1960s.

In 1998, the company produced this confidential and telling report  which documents a clear understanding that:

Increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning and deforestation would soon warm the planet by a predicted 3.5 degrees celsius.

The warming planet would lead to rising sea levels, altered ecosystems, and destructive storms. 

By the time the increased concentrations were detectable, it would be too late to introduce effective countermeasures.

The oil sector was/is by far the largest driver of this effect.

The implications for Shell would possibly include new policies demanding changes to their business practices and a government and public demand for alternative fuels.


What happens now?

The Shell company acknowledged (confidentially and internally) that its contributions to climate change would eventually place the company in a position of both legal and public opprobrium, and it would be “clearly desirable” for the energy industry to adopt a forward-looking approach.

Years later (by the early 2000s), climate researchers had collected insurmountable evidence positioning the planet on a trajectory toward irreversible damage, as the memo predicted. The costly, dangerous storms and rising sea levels anticipated by the Shell corporation in the 1980s are now coming to pass. So a critical question now arises: How and when will the company be held accountable for its actions—and willful inaction-- over the intervening time period? 

Shell company representatives are quick to assert that they now “support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future”, but until the recent past, Shell has supported industry groups that have actively spread misinformation about climate change.

This confidential report and other similar documentation extending back over the past several decades will likely be worked into existing lawsuits filed against the company by various cities and counties, many of which are located in California and New York. It’s also possible that new charges and lawsuits will be filed against the company as additional documents come to light and the impact of the company’s actions becomes increasingly evident.

Will documents like this tip the scales in favor of plaintiffs who may experience devastating losses in storms that are yet to come? No new development-- no draughts, floods or hurricanes that have yet to take place—will alter past decisions made the Shell corporation to protect its own short-term gains at the expense of public well-being and the health of the planet. Only one thing remains to be seen: will the company change course in time to limit the impact of these actions?