Fossil fuel giant Total knew about climate change since 1971

Not only are fossil fuel companies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions causing the climate crisis, but it seems they’ve known about their responsibility for a really long time — and yet intentionally chose to hide this from the wider public. 

Image credit: Flickr / Arbyreed.

In the past few years, we’ve learned that the world’s largest oil company (ExxonMobil) not only knew about climate change for 50 years — but also purposely hid it from the public. Another giant fossil fuel company, Shell, also knew decades ago. Now, in a new study, researchers looked at the history of French oil Total and guess what? They also knew.

A new study suggests that the company knew at least 50 years ago that there was a link between burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) and global warming.

Total Deception

A group of three historians looked at the alleged efforts by Total to cast doubt over climate science in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s while pushing against emissions reductions. Total “became informed” about climate change in the 1980s, “promoted doubt” about climate science in the 1980s and acknowledged it in 1990, but promoted policies against it, the researchers explain. 

The findings come at a difficult time for the fossil fuel sector, as many companies seek to change their image and make it greener. Total, for example, recently rebranded itself as Total Energies, and expressed its “ambition” to focus on renewable energy, as it predicts oil products to fall from 55% to 30% of sales, with the difference coming from renewable energy sources.

But this is too little too late, and suggests economic incentives rather than environmental motivation, climate NGOs say.

“These revelations provide proof that TotalEnergies and the other oil and gas majors have stolen the precious time of a generation to stem the climate crisis. The dire consequences of climate change we are now experiencing could have been avoided if Total executives fifty years ago had decided that the future of the planet is more important than their profits,” said, an international environmental organization addressing the climate crisis.

The researchers found that people working in Total were warned about the potential for “catastrophic global warming from its products” by at least 1971. Back then, the company published a letter in its magazine, Total Information, warning that temperatures could increase from 1 to 1.5ºC if consumption of fossil fuels continued at the same pace. 

“Since the 19th century, humans have been burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels. This results in the release of enormous quantities of carbon dioxide. The overall amount of carbon dioxide presents in the atmosphere, therefore, has increased significantly,” the letter, included in the researcher’s paper in the journal Global Environmental Change, reads. 

Part of the problem

Despite this, Total remained largely silent on climate change for the next two decades. The researchers went through editions of Total’s magazine from 1965 to 2010 and couldn’t find another reference to climate change until 1989. In the meantime, Total raised doubt on the link between climate change and fossil fuels alongside other companies, the researchers said. 

Total hosted in 1988 its headquarters a meeting of the global oil and gas industry group IPIECA. The fossil fuel companies created then a “working group” on climate change chaired by a scientist from Exxon. The group published a policy paper the following year, in which they recommended emphasizing uncertainties in climate science. 

The approach then changed in the late 1990s. The company shifted away from openly disputing climate science but continued to expand its investments in fossil fuels and used “rhetorical strategies” to highlight uncertainty and downplay urgency. This then changed in the mid 2000s, when Total officially endorsed climate science. 

“The history of Total highlights the multidimensional and graded character of positions regarding climate science, such as publicly embracing climate science while deflecting attention away from fossil fuel products. Examining these multidimensional postures may aid in understanding historical and ongoing responses to global warming,” the researchers wrote. 

For now, though, large fossil fuel companies are not doing nearly enough to address the problem they too have helped caused — even as they seem to have been aware of it for half a century.

The study was published in the journal Global Environmental Change. 

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