In a new court filing, a confidential 1989 memo from Shell has emerged as a crucial piece of evidence, allegedly showing that major oil companies knowingly concealed the climate risks associated with their fossil fuel products for decades.
Shell knew in the early 1970s that burning fossil fuels plays a role in climate change but the oil company decided to invest in coal at that very time and to later downplay global climate knowledge to promote its coal business.
The court brief, filed on April 7 by a group of climate disinformation researchers and nonprofits, supports a 2020 lawsuit brought by the District of Columbia. This lawsuit is part of a broader wave of litigation initiated by at least 20 U.S. states and cities seeking to hold the oil industry accountable for climate damages.
The 50-page brief cites academic studies and media reports to demonstrate that the oil industry was aware of the dangers posed by carbon dioxide emissions as early as the late 1950s.
Companies like Shell and ExxonMobil allegedly developed internal knowledge about the issue while supporting industry associations that launched sophisticated campaigns to cast doubt on climate science.
While the accused oil companies now claim to be leaders in climate change efforts, the court brief argues that they continue to run misleading marketing and lobbying campaigns intended to deceive policymakers and the public about their role in causing climate change.
A Shell spokesperson responded to the allegations by stating that the company’s position on climate change has been public for decades.
The spokesperson added that Shell is actively working to reduce its own emissions and collaborating with customers to help them lower theirs. The spokesperson also argued that litigation is not the appropriate forum to address climate change and that government policies are needed to enable significant changes in energy consumption.
As for BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, they did not immediately provide any comments in response to the allegations.
The court brief is significant because it is the first time that documents obtained through a 14-month congressional investigation into climate misinformation by major oil companies have been cited in a climate accountability lawsuit. The confidential Shell document is part of a dossier compiled by Dutch researcher and climate activist Vatan Hüzeir, which includes various materials related to climate change.
The Shell memo, titled “SCENARIOS 1989 – 2010,” describes a high-emissions scenario in which global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. It warns about the inability of many species to adapt and move, projecting potential refugee crises as people are forced to migrate due to the impact of climate change.
The newly surfaced documents have reignited calls among climate activists for a deeper examination of the fossil fuel industry’s early knowledge of climate change and the information it shared with the public.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, representing Rhode Island, which filed a climate damages lawsuit against Shell and other oil companies in 2018, tweeted about the documents, suggesting the possibility of fraud and the need for an investigation by the Department of Justice.
While the District of Columbia’s case against Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron has been allowed to proceed in D.C. Superior Court, the companies are appealing that ruling to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
According to the Center for Climate Integrity, six other federal appeals courts have rejected similar industry arguments, allowing climate accountability cases to proceed in state courts.
The nonprofits supporting the court brief include the Center for Climate Integrity, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as climate researchers Naomi Oreskes, Geoffrey Supran, Robert Brulle, Justin Farrell, and Stephan Lewandowsky.