Gareth Huw Davies

Environment

Shell warned about climate change in 1991 then lost interest

Shell’s climate change warning film from 1991. Photo – thecorrespondent.com

Dutch independent news site The Correspondent publishes forgotten public information film by Shell made in 1991 in which the oil major warns of the dangers of climate change and the need for urgent action.

 

A child born in 1991 will be 26 this year.

He or she has gone through those aware-of-the world teenage years, higher education, maybe university years and early full-time work and even parental responsibilities knowing something of, and perhaps worrying about, climate change. But probably not seeing it as a certainty, as senior politicians, the mainstream media and other commentators and even some scientists have very effectively either poured scorn, or cast deep doubt about how real it was.

And they have been very successful. According to one recent online poll, between a quarter and a third of that generation still do not accept the premise that climate change is happening and is mainly caused by human activity.

Among the leading sceptics were the oil companies, including the very biggest names Shell and Exxon, who lobbied hard to be allowed to continue to drill for oil, and exploit untapped reserves.

But now we know. It is very plain that this entire generation, young people who may still be around in 60 or 70 years time to experience the ever more extreme impacts of climate change, has been wilfully deceived by the very producers of the fossil fuels whose burning contributes to it.

In 1991, when that Generation Climate Change child was born, Shell warned of “extreme weather, floods, famines and climate refugees as fossil fuel burning warmed the world.”

That is a line in Climate of Concern, a 28-minute film Shell made to be screened to the public, and especially to be viewed by schools and universities. According to Shell the climate was changing “at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age – change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”

In 1991 Global warming and subsequent climate change were relatively new concepts, although Shell was not the first internationally known name to flag them up.

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Nov 8 1989, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher acknowledged the looming crisis. “What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate—all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.”

While accepting the uncertainties in computer predictions at the time, Shell’s film noted the various scenarios had “each prompted the same serious warning, a warning endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990.

“Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance. If the weather machine were to be wound up to such new levels of energy, no country would remain unaffected”.

The BBC, to give it credit, also showed early concern about global warming. I wrote this in 1989, when the BBC prepared an urgent 90 minute documentary on the subject.

We now know that Shell’s film, unearthed by Dutch news website The Correspondent was right about the development and impact of climate change. Prof Tom Wigley, head of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia when it helped the oil company with the film, told The Guardian the predictions for temperature and sea level rises it made were “pretty good compared with current understanding”.

Thereafter Shell forgot those early warnings, reverted to “business as usual” mode. Together with other oil companies and the media, with some honourable exceptions including the Guardian and the Independent, it lobbied against strong climate legislation and, with dangerous complacency foretold a much rosier future.

The issue slipped down the news schedules. The oil industry successfully persuaded governments to continue to grant them tax breaks to help them prospect for and exploit reserves.

Oil and the internal combustion engine continued to be so dominant that it was a further 19 years (2010) before the first all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf, was launched, and even today electric cars make up only about 1% of vehicles on the road in the UK.

And it isn’t as if there is a new sense of urgency in 2017. The 2015 Paris Agreement was an important breakthrough in international commitment on climate change, but it’s hardly a regular topic of conversation. How often do you hear items on the BBC checking progress and announcing initiatives in renewable energy?

A ComRes poll (February 2017) of 2,045 British adults, commissioned by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, found that 64% believed that man-made climate change is happening, an increase on the 57% who agreed with this view in 2014. In the over 65 category, which contains the people with the greatest influence – including the politicians, lobbyists and senior media people who blocked progress – over the past 25 years, only 54% said they agreed with that statement.

And even younger people are not convinced. In the 18-24 age range, 73% agreed that climate change is happening and is mainly caused by human activity. The figure was 67% in the 25-34 age range.

Climate change is either so big and worrying that most of them simply put it out of their minds, or, despite regular examples of extreme weather around the world think “everything will be alright”.

The likelihood is they are much more concerned about their jobs and mortgages and relationships than on the mayhem that might be visited on the world for the rest of their natural lives, and could have been mitigated, if the warning of that 1991 film, and other important messages of the time, had been heeded. (Nobody is suggesting climate change could have been curbed, but we could have been far further on in combatting it, when there was still time.)

In 2015 Shell’s former group managing director, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, said it was “distressing” that “remarkably little progress” had been made on climate change by Shell and other oil companies. And while the oil majors now recognise that climate change is happening, and the need for a transition to carbon-free fuel eventually, they seem relaxed, almost complacent, about the future, insisting that oil will have to be extracted far into this  century, despite the rapid, and quite unforeseen by many, advance of renewable energy over the past ten years.