Five Times the Oil Industry Accurately Predicted Climate Change

Almost every time we hit a climate "milestone," someone posts an old chart from the 1970s or 1980s from a report that the American Petroleum Institute commissioned or that an ExxonMobil scientist compiled. It's shocking and people are momentarily outraged. The graphic goes viral. And then mostly everyone forgets about it. But when you look at the many, many times the industry predicted not only the impact it would have on the world but how the world would react, it tends to stick with you. With that in mind, we've started to compile a list. We'll add to it as we find more (send us tips if you've got 'em!)

by | Jan 13, 2020

1968: The American Petroleum Institute on Sea-Level Rise

“If the earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Atlantic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis.”

1978: Exxon on CO2

Doubling the pre-industrial levels of CO2 could lead to an increase in global temperature of 1-3 degrees Celsius by 2050. In this 1978 report, scientist James Black warns that “mankind has a 5-10 year window to establish what must be done.”

“It is premature to limit fossil fuels,” he writes. “But they should not be encouraged.”

1979 Exxon, hitting 400ppm of CO2 between 2010 and 2035

“Noticeable temperature changes would occur around 2010 as the concentration reaches 400 ppm. Significant climatic changes occur around 2035 when the concentration approaches 500 ppm.”

1990 Chevron: Impact of Global Warming on the Industry

In this Chevron shareholder magazine from 1990, the company’s economists write, “While a single event—the 1986 oil price crash—dominated the world energy picture in the 1980s, a broad and pervasive movement is likely to dominate the final decade of the century. The issue of the 1990s is the environment.” Later they write, “At the forefront of public concern are air pollution, acid raid, global warming, and waste disposal—issues that often are linked to the extraction, manufacture and use of hydrocarbon fuels.”

They go on, “Chevron envisions that ample, low-cost fossil fuels will be available and will continue to dominate energy supplies through 2000. Eventually, alternative fuels will be required to meet the needs of a growing world population…”

But don’t get too excited. They include natural gas as an “alternative fuel.”

They correctly predicts the inefficacy of policy, though: “Curbing emissions has become a global concern, but policies that strongly influence the choice of fuels probably won’t have much impact before 2000.”

1998 Shell: Class-Action Climate Suits

In this eerily prescient risk-assessment, Shell predicts that an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms will catalyze lawsuits against the industry for “neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: That something must be done.”

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.