Research into the effects of carbon dioxide on the climate began in the 1800s. Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier is credited with identifying what is now known as the greenhouse effect (the way in which the sun’s heat is trapped close to the Earth by greenhouse gases) in the 1820s and later scientists explored his ideas further. Ironically, some scientists at this time celebrated the idea that humanity could increase global temperatures. Warmer climates raised the possibility of better living conditions and dispelled fears of a new ice age. This optimism faded away in later decades as numerous concerns were highlighted.
A comparatively small number of scientists carried out further research in this field. Guy Stewart Callendar notably established that global warming had already begun in some areas in the 1930s. While his work was met with scepticism, it was enough to push for further research. The number of scientists calling for both action and further research grew at a significant rate but the complexity of the issue meant that a broad scientific consensus on global warming did not emerge until the 1980s. At this time, it became widely accepted that global temperatures were and would continue to rise due to human actions. This combined with public attention, captured by record-breaking temperatures, allowed greater political action to be taken.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), responsible for reviewing relevant literature and compiling key findings through Assessment Reports, in 1988. Its first Assessment Report, completed in 1990, shaped the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which was adopted in 1992 and marked the beginning of formal international co-operation against climate change.
However, this simple narrative of discovery and international action fails to account for the crucial role played by major oil companies. Before scientific consensus emerged, many major companies knew about global warming. Internal reports, articles and memos highlight how these companies identified the potential devastating effects of their business models and chose to first hide these findings and then, as scientific consensus emerged, spread misinformation to prevent action being taken against them.
Major oil companies carry out their own research and their scientists have been warning them about the dangers of burning fossil fuels for decades. In 1981, an internal memo at Exxon acknowledged that their long term business plans could be catastrophic for the human population. Shell reached a similar conclusion in a report in 1986 which predicted devastating effects from global warming including the abandonment of whole countries. Shockingly, further examples can be found even as far back as the 1950s. In 1959, at a petroleum conference in New York, scientist Edward Teller warned industry executives of the greenhouse effect and the risk that burning conventional fuel would cause sea levels to rise. The striking thing about these examples is that they go back many years before broad scientific consensus on global warming and have only been brought to light within the last decade by investigative journalists. For the sake of profit, Shell, Exxon and other major oil companies chose to cover up the results of the research they funded. If a more responsible course of action was taken, how different would the world be today?
The misconduct of these companies does not end there. They are also largely responsible for the widespread misinformation surrounding climate change which has consistently hindered efforts to prevent global warming. By pushing the idea that global warming is a theory which must be presented in a “balanced” manner, major companies have been able to justify promoting incorrect and misleading information. A classic example of this occurred in 2000 when Exxon placed an advertisement in the New York Times titled ‘Unsettled Science’ which claimed that scientists were divided on global warming and therefore action should not be taken. This was consistent with a plan developed by the American Petroleum Institute (API), which Exxon is a members of along nearly 600 other corporations, which responded to the Kyoto Protocol of COP 3 by calling for the promotion of ‘uncertainties in climate science’. This climate denialism is particularly notable in the United States of America but it has spread beyond that country and severely delayed climate policy.
It can be tempting to view climate change as a purely scientific problem but oversimplifying the narrative of global warming in this way has serious negative consequences. While there is always more scientific research to do, research that is valuable and worthwhile, global warming is a human-caused problem and so must engage with human beliefs, actions and institutions. By failing to devote time and resources towards understanding sociological and political factors of the climate crisis, we risk delaying or outright failing to implement effective solutions. Scientific consensus alone is not enough to fix the climate crisis or prevent future crises; transparency must be baked into large institutions and powerful actors like the major oil companies discussed in this article must be held accountable.