The oil and gas industry knew about climate change in the 1950s

Melting ice cap in the ocean aerial
Melting ice caps were mentioned at a 1959 petroleum-industry meeting. DEPOSIT PHOTOS

Archival documents set the timeline of coverups even further back.

BY BENJAMIN FRANTA/THE CONVERSATION 

Four years ago, I traveled around America, visiting historical archives. I was looking for documents that might reveal the hidden history of climate change—and in particular, when the major coal, oil and gas companies became aware of the problem, and what they knew about it.

I pored over boxes of papers, thousands of pages. I began to recognize typewriter fonts from the 1960s and ‘70s and marveled at the legibility of past penmanship, and got used to squinting when it wasn’t so clear.

What those papers revealed is now changing our understanding of how climate change became a crisis. The industry’s own words, as my research found, show companies knew about the risk long before most of the rest of the world.

On October 28, 2021, a Congressional subcommittee questioned executives from Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute about industry efforts to downplay the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Exxon CEO Darren Woods told lawmakers that his company’s public statements “are and have always been truthful” and that the company “does not spread disinformation regarding climate change.”

Surprising discoveries

At an old gunpowder factory in Delaware—now a museum and archive—I found a transcript of a petroleum conference from 1959 called the “Energy and Man” symposium, held at Columbia University in New York. As I flipped through, I saw a speech from a famous scientist, Edward Teller (who helped invent the hydrogen bomb), warning the industry executives and others assembled of global warming.

“Whenever you burn conventional fuel,” Teller explained, “you create carbon dioxide. … Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.” If the world kept using fossil fuels, the ice caps would begin to melt, raising sea levels. Eventually, “all the coastal cities would be covered,” he warned.

1959 was before the moon landing, before the Beatles’ first single, before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the first modern aluminum can was ever made. It was decades before I was born. What else was out there?

In Wyoming, I found another speech at the university archives in Laramie—this one from 1965, and from an oil executive himself. That year, at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, the main organization for the U.S. oil industry, the group’s president, Frank Ikard, mentioning a report called “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” that had been published just a few days before by President Lyndon Johnson’s team of scientific advisers.

“The substance of the report,” Ikard told the industry audience, “is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out.” He continued that “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate.”

Ikard noted that the report had found that a “nonpolluting means of powering automobiles, buses, and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.”

As I reviewed my findings back in California, I realized that before San Francisco’s Summer of Love, before Woodstock, the peak of the ’60s counterculture and all that stuff that seemed ancient history to me, the heads of the oil industry had been privately informed by their own leaders that their products would eventually alter the climate of the entire planet, with dangerous consequences.

Secret research revealed the risks ahead

While I traveled the country, other researchers were hard at work too. And the documents they found were in some ways even more shocking.

By the late 1970s, the American Petroleum Institute had formed a secret committee called the “CO2 and Climate Task Force,” which included representatives of many of the major oil companies, to privately monitor and discuss the latest developments in climate science.

In 1980, the task force invited a scientist from Stanford University, John Laurmann, to brief them on the state of climate science. Today, we have a copy of Laurmann’s presentation, which warned that if fossil fuels continued to be used, global warming would be “barely noticeable” by 2005, but by the 2060s would have “globally catastrophic effects.” That same year, the American Petroleum Institute called on governments to triple coal production worldwide, insisting there would be no negative consequences despite what it knew internally.

CO2 projections text slide
A slide from John Laurmann’s presentation to the American Petroleum Institute’s climate change task force in 1980, warning of globally catastrophic effects from continued fossil fuel use. Scan: Benjamin Franta

Exxon had a secretive research program too. In 1981, one of its managers, Roger Cohen, sent an internal memo observing that the company’s long-term business plans could “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”…

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The oil and gas industry knew about climate change in the 1950s

F. Kaskais Web Guru

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