Curaçao 1955.

Curaçao 1955. © Nationaal Archief, Willem van de Poll

Shell already knew about climate change in the early 1970s (and still promoted the use of coal)

Shell already knew in the early 1970s (and not since 1986, as known until now) that burning fossil fuels plays a role in climate change. Yet the oil company still decided to get into a new fossil industry at that very time: coal. Newly unearthed documents show that Shell downplayed global climate knowledge to promote its coal business.

This article in 1 minute
  • Shell knew for longer than always was assumed that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. This was revealed by documents shared with Follow the Money and research platform DeSmog.
  • Shell already began collecting knowledge about climate change in the 1960s. The company not only kept well abreast of climate science, but also funded research. As a result, Shell already knew in the 1970s that burning fossil fuels could lead to alarming climate change. 
  • The company did not use this information to increase sustainability, but focused instead on a non-sustainable profit model: coal. In response to the oil crisis, the company founded Shell Coal International in 1974.
  • Shell used its coal strategy to emphasise the uncertainty involved in climate predictions and published reports that painted a much more optimistic picture than warranted. Coal was presented as the solution to the rising energy demand.
  • This article is based on research into Shell’s knowledge of climate change conducted by climate activist and PhD candidate Vatan Hüzeir. A subsequent article will delve into the legal consequences that these new documents could have for Shell.
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‘Increases in the C02 content of the atmosphere could lead to the so-called greenhouse effect [...] which would be enough to induce major climatic changes.’ This ‘risk’ is due to ‘fossil fuel waste disposal’.

A quote like this is hardly newsworthy these days. Yet this was not lifted from a recent climate report, but from a study published in 1975 – one which was partially funded and commissioned by the oil and gas company Shell.

Until now, it was common knowledge that Shell has known since 1986 that burning fossil fuels causes global warming. That year, in an internal study called The Greenhouse Effect, the company warned about the dire consequences: ‘The environment may be degraded to such an extent that some parts of earth will become uninhabitable.’

A recently unearthed confidential study shows that in 1989 the company was also discussing the global social consequences of an increase in temperature of ‘considerably more’ than 1.5 degrees. Entire populations would be displaced, the company wrote:

‘The potential refugee problem [...] 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. Civilisation could prove a fragile thing.’

‘Shell systematically downplayed the problem to the public, instead promoting more and more fossil fuel use despite the dangers’

What also has emerged only now: Shell was able to draw these conclusions because it already started acquiring extensive and structural scientific knowledge on climate change a full fifty years ago.

Since the 1970s, Shell scientists have not only taken note of studies on the potentially disastrous climatic consequences of fossil fuel use, they themselves have been involved in a number of studies that established this.

Shell never mentioned any of this to the outside world. The documents show the extent of the knowledge that it already had in the 1970s about climate change, while also revealing how it used this knowledge to develop its business strategy. This strategy entailed emphasising the doubts about the then current knowledge and proposing its own theories instead, ones which were more favourable for Shell.

This allowed Shell to contribute to a resurgence of the global coal industry in the 1970s, despite knowing about its harmful effects on the environment.

‘This impressive history shows for just how long climate issues were known by Shell personnel,’ says Benjamin Franta, a senior researcher on Climate Litigation at Oxford University. ‘Despite internal awareness, the company systematically downplayed the problem to the public, instead promoting more and more fossil fuel use despite the dangers. Now, five decades later, Shell continues to dawdle and delay.’

About this investigation

For five years, Vatan Hüzeir, a climate activist and PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam, conducted intensive research to bring Shell’s knowledge of climate change to light. This journalistic investigation is based on his analysis, entitled Dirty pearls: exposing Shell’s hidden legacy of climate change accountability, 1970-1990.

Hüzeir shared 201 documents on Shell’s knowledge gathering related to climate change with Follow the Money and the international nonprofit research platform DeSmog. There is a wide variety of documentation: from confidential planning scenarios and forgotten reports to correspondence, annual reports, a Shell film and presentations made by Shell directors.

These documents were retrieved from various public and private archives. Some are from sources who were working at Shell during certain periods or who were closely involved. Follow the Money and DeSmog have analysed the documents and assessed their veracity.

This article is the first result of this investigation. The documents on which this article is based can be found in the Climate Files, a database managed by the American Climate Investigations Center.

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The 1960s: ecological disaster as a business model

[this timeline is clickable: the links will direct you to the original documents]

Shell began to acquire scientific knowledge about climate change starting in the 1960s. The company not only kept well abreast of climate science, but also funded research. On behalf of Shell, the British scientist and chemist James Lovelock conducted climate research in this period into the potential global consequences of air pollution caused by fossil fuels.

His conclusion: ‘What seems to be important is [...] the almost certain fact that the climate is worsening and the probability that the combustion of fuel is responsible.’ In an unpublished essay written in 1966, Lovelock predicted that in the most likely scenario the world would be struck by an ecological disaster in the year 2000, caused by the accumulation of harmful waste products’.

Shell kept the results secret, enjoining Lovelock not to discuss these with ‘non-Shell people’. Yet within the company, Shell did take the predictions seriously: not because it was concerned about possible environmental damage, but because climate change could benefit its business model.

In Shell’s own words: ‘The company wanted to cope as effectively as possibly with seasonal variations on demand for oil.’ The gas and oil giant wrote this to the British climate scientist Hubert Lamb in 1968.

Thanks to 10,000 pounds sterling in ‘financial backing from Shell’, Lamb opened the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in 1972. In the 1970s, the CRU would develop into a renowned knowledge institute on climate change which advised the British government.

Shell, the Club of Rome and Frits Böttcher

In 1972, the world was shaken by a report commissioned by the Club of Rome. In this report, entitled The Limits to Growth, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) predicted that the global energy resources were finite and that economic growth therefore could not be endlessly sustained.

The report also predicted worrying climate change as a consequence of the rising amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to ‘increasing burning of fossil fuels by humans’.

The alarming predictions startled people across the world. For Shell, this could torpedo its business model. The company responded immediately. After closely studying the report, Shell published a number of articles that sketched a much more optimistic take on the future.

More action was taken. After The Limits to Growth had been published, the only Dutch member of the Club of Rome – Frits Böttcher, then advisor to the research coordinator and the managing directors at Shell – founded a new think tank to advise the Dutch government. The Werkgroep Toekomst (Working Group on the Future) had 13 members, including the Shell director at the time, Gerrit Wagner, the minister of Economic Affairs, Harrie Langman, and the president of the Dutch central bank, Jelle Zijlstra.

In 1973, they published a report called Werk voor de toekomst (‘Work for the Future’), in which Dutch politicians were warned about ‘simplistic growth curtailment’. According to the authors, there were actually ‘pressing reasons to further increase production’.

They concluded: ‘For the time being, the reliability of the [The Limits to Growth, eds] model is still insufficient.’ The authors acknowledged that ‘clear limits are required’ for environmental pollution and that research was needed into ‘new, safe alternatives’ to fossil fuels. But in the short term, they mostly saw technical solutions for expanding the global fossil energy reserves, such as accessing ‘large amounts of tar sands and shale oils’. Coal would certainly be ‘still available for a few centuries’.

The authors described the scale of the greenhouse effect as ‘disputed’.

While the report was being prepared, Shell director Gerrit Wagner responded: ‘Nothing in my discourse would indicate that a fundamental change in our society is required.’ He personally ensured that an English translation of the report was made: Work for the Future. This version would play a role in Shell’s successful coal lobby in the years to come.

Böttcher also remained actively involved in energy issues. In the 1990s, he engaged in advocating climate change scepticism on behalf of Shell and paid by the company. The Platform Authentieke Journalistiek (PAJ) conducted extensive research into this; that article can be read here.

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The 1970s: from oil to coal 

In 1973, the world was struck by an unprecedented oil crisis. After the Yom Kippur War in Israel, the Arab OPEC countries decided to punish Israel’s supporters by raising oil prices by 70 per cent within a year. Some countries, including the United States and the Netherlands, were even hit with an oil boycott. 

This oil crisis was one of the reasons that a public debate on fossil fuels emerged in the mid-1970s. The debate not only addressed the availability of fossil fuels, but also the consequences of burning them. In 1973, UNESCO placed carbon dioxide at the top of its list of ‘10 major pollutants’, since the gas could cause global warming with ‘geochemical and ecological disaster’ as a result.

[this timeline is clickable: the links will direct you to the original documents]

In the same period, Shell was involved in the Energy Project conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). In a report published by the IIASA in 1975, the greenhouse effect was said to be able to cause ‘major climatic change’. If the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere were to double – due to burning fossil fuels – the world could grow warmer by 1 to 2 degrees. This would be a problem, according to the report. Burning coal had a significant role to play in this.

Shell chose to ignore this knowledge. The company had joined the coal sector a year earlier, when it established Shell Coal International. It did so for strategic reasons. While the oil crisis two years earlier had meant empty fuel tanks and less driving for the general populace, for oil companies like Shell the boycott posed an existential threat.

In order to avert this danger, Shell wanted to tempt its customers into buying less oil, the British historian Thomas Turnbull writes. Turning to energy sources other than oil – such as gas and coal – was a new tactic for Shell, intended to protect its long-term position on the global energy market.

[this timeline is clickable: the links will direct you to the original documents]

Shell’s cherry-picking

Spurred by its coal strategy, Shell participated in an international project from 1974 to 1977 that sought an answer to the energy crisis: the Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies (WAES). The study was coordinated by the American professor Carroll Wilson, who at the time acted as an intermediary between the American government and industry. Shell funded the research and participated in the publication that was sold in bookshops in 15 countries in 1977.

The report emphasised the uncertainties surrounding climate change. The greenhouse effect was seen as a potential cause for concern: ‘Some experts fear that the effects on the climate caused by burning fuel may become irreversible.’ Yet the climate might also cool down due to air pollution, the WAES report stated. Its general take was that ‘too little is known about the complex interaction of these phenomena’. In brief: more research was needed and nothing had been proven.

Scientific debate had indeed ensued about whether air pollution could cause cooling. But there was more to say on the topic than WAES let on. In 1974, WAES members were already aware of a Ford Foundation study which drew a clear conclusion: if the potential global cooling were to be curbed by measures against air pollution, global warming would become the major problem.

In that scenario, the authors warned about the ‘complete melting of Arctic sea ice’, ‘widespread disruption of agriculture’ and a rise in sea levels of ‘more than twenty feet [6m]’. According to the authors, a possible solution would be a ‘zero energy growth’ policy, which would make moving away from fossil fuels inevitable.

Wilson’s correspondence shows that although the Ford Foundation findings were discussed by WAES, this alarming information is nowhere to be found in its report. Given the increasing global demand for energy, zero growth would be unrealistic, according to the researchers.

The report states that coal is a ‘major energy gap-filler’ with the potential for ‘spectacular growth’, as opposed to oil and gas. Cleaner technology would offer the solution to the ‘severe environmental and climatic impacts’ of burning coal, the two authors wrote in the chapter on coal. One of them was employed by Shell.

In October 1977, Shell devoted an internal briefing – addressed to all Shell companies – entirely to the WAES report. In this, the potential of coal was reiterated. No mention was made anywhere of the potential dangers of burning fossil fuels.

And all this while Shell already had valuable information about the matteris that same year. The company had an accurate estimate of the global carbon dioxide increase by 2000 and knew exactly how much burning various fuels contributed to this. In 1975, coal was responsible for 33.5 per cent of global carbon emissions and raw oil for 43.4 per cent. 

International lawsuits against Shell and other oil companies

In recent years, oil companies like Shell have been challenged in court across the globe by civil society organisations and government bodies because of their knowledge of and involvement in climate change. Oil companies are being held to task for consciously withholding information about their impact on the climate, and for knowingly and willingly having harmed the world as a result.

In the Netherlands, the environmental NGO Milieudefensie successfully challenged Shell in court in 2018. The company must decrease its carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, as compared to 2019.

Shell has appealed the decision; when those proceedings will take place is still unknown. In the meantime, Shell must carry out the court’s ruling.

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In 1978, the president-director of Shell, Dirk de Bruyne, gave a speech at a national gathering of economists (the Landelijke Economistendag) in Amsterdam, in which he presented three scenarios for Dutch society and the ‘world energy situation’ in the year 2000.

The ‘energy gap’ predicted in The Limits to Growth was ‘physically impossible’, according to De Bruyne. He described a ‘number of valid reasons to prolong the oil era – or to describe it more aptly: the hydrocarbon era’. In the most optimistic scenario, Zaken als vanouds (‘Business as usual’), besides the dominant role for oil in ‘energy matters’, an important part was reserved for coal.

In his predictions, the Shell director did not reference environmental or climate change, even though Shell was conducting research in that very year on the impact of climate change on energy demand.

Shortly thereafter, in 1979, a group of American climate scientists published the famous Charney report, which is considered a milestone in climate science for its accuracy in projecting the rate at which human-induced increases in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 would cause global temperatures to rise. In the same year, the chair of the World Climate Conference warned that the ‘growing dependence’ on coal could well become ‘the most serious threat to the world’s climate’.

Shell was preoccupied by something more important at the time: the start of the World Coal Study (WOCOL), which was intended to predict the usefulness and necessity of the growing use of coal.

The 1980s: ‘colossal expansion of coal’

Not only did Shell help finance WOCOL, it also involved itself extensively with the study’s content, which expanded upon the WAES project and was again led by Carroll Wilson.

Although the authors were well aware of the warnings about climate change as a consequence of a coal-based energy policy, these are nowhere reflected in the coal report. In 1980, Aat van Rhijn, the interim director-general for energy affairs at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and one of the WOCOL report authors, said the following to Dutch daily de Volkskrant: ‘There are currently no reasons to be found in the research that oppose expanding the use of coal on a major scale.’

The documents which have been unearthed show that these reasons were kept out of the report in part thanks to Shell. Brian Elms and Frank Pecchioli, the other Shell director who was involved with WOCOL, sent Wilson an extensive list of changes to the draft publication. ‘Entire section on coal chains rather negative, would like see more positive tone,’ the Shell men wrote. And: ‘risks abound in all energy developments. Why single out coal?’

When they asked why the carbon dioxide issue had to be mentioned at the beginning of the 219-page report, the section was moved to page 135. There the report stated that ‘there is disagreement among scientists on the magnitude and urgency of the problem’.

The coal study – which predicted a drastic rise in the demand for coal – made its mark on international climate policy. In 1980, Wilson used it to lobby the American president, Jimmy Carter, to have the G7 countries triple their coal production by the year 2000. In the same year, the G7 partially adopted this advice and decided to double production.

In the next twenty years, ‘some 1000 billion dollars’ would be invested in ‘the colossal expansion of coal’, de Volkskrant wrote at the time. Even the advice of President Carter’s own scientific advisor to ‘restrict the use of fossil fuels for as far as possible’ could not prevent the coal expansion.

[this timeline is clickable: the links will direct you to the original documents]

Tried and trusted PR strategy upheld 

Shell continued to use its tried and trusted PR strategy: it persistently emphasised the uncertainties surrounding rising carbon dioxide concentrations and the bright future for coal. In 1981, Shell published a book called Energy, about ‘the problems and opportunities involved in the energy supply, explained in simple and widely comprehensible terms’. With 120,000 copies printed, Shell spread this message: ‘The degree to which carbon dioxide forms a threat to the environment has not been established; it is still the topic of in-depth international research.’

That same year, the Shell documentary Time for Energy was released, which addressed the possibilities and drawbacks of future energy sources. The negative climatic consequences of coal received no mention. The only challenge that the documentary makers admitted to: ‘Massive investments are needed now, if coal wants to help us safely into the next century.’

Behind the scenes, Shell’s climate research continued. When scientist Tom Wigley, at a symposium at the Uranium Institute in London in 1981, presented global warming by 2 to 3 degrees as a reliable prediction, he subsequently received a research commission worth 10,000 pounds sterling from Shell.

Two years later, Wigley and his colleagues presented their results: global warming could have a positive influence on energy demand thanks to harsher winters, despite the predicted longer summers in Europe.


By the late 1970s, oil company Shell had created great expectations for coal. In 1978, its annual report recorded ‘sales of 1 million tonnes’, which would increase to ‘possibly even 30 million tonnes per year’ by 1985. The company intended to invest ‘a total of over 1 billion dollars’ in the coal business in the next ten years. That gave it a prominent position in the international coal market.

Nevertheless, in 1999 Shell put its own coal mines up for sale. Shell CEO Cor Herkströter claimed that the company intended to embrace ‘decarbonisation’. The truth was that coal was not lucrative enough. But the company did not quit coal entirely. For years, Shell would continue to invest in coal power plants, despite all the available climate knowledge.

Shell has meanwhile returned its focus to its core business: oil and gas. It has been quite the success. This past year, these fossil fuels made a profit of 36 billion euros for the company – the largest in its 115-year history.

Shell’s response

In response to questions from Follow the Money and DeSmog related to this publication, Shell writes: 

‘The Shell Group did not have unique knowledge about climate change. The issue of climate change and how to tackle it has long been part of public discussion and scientific research that has evolved over many decades. It has been widely discussed and debated, in public view, among scientists, media, governments, business and society as a whole. Our position on the issue has been publicly documented for more than 30 years, including in publications such as our Annual Report and Sustainability Report.’

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