Half a century of dither and denial – a climate crisis timeline

Fossil fuel companies have been aware of their impact on the planet since at least the 1950s

For more than 50 years, the petroleum industry and politicians have been warned about the climate risks of burning fossil fuels. Yet the top 20 fossil fuel firms have continued to expand and have been behind a third of all carbon emissions since 1965. This timeline shows who knew what and when, and how they communicated or obscured the threat to the public.

 
[A full list of the top twenty oil, gas and coal Carbon Major companies can be found here. Total global emissions includes fossil fuels, cement and methane. Source: Richard Heede, Climate Accountability Institute
(2017)]
 

1959

The physicist Edward Teller tells the American Petroleum Institute (API) a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. “I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.” [10.18 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1965

Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Science Advisory Committee states that “pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air”, with effects that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. Summarising the findings, the head of the API warned the industry: “Time is running out.” [12.9 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1970

Shell and BP begin funding scientific research in Britain this decade to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases. [16.54 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1977

A recently filed lawsuit claims Exxon scientists told management in 1977 there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. [20.32 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1981

An internal Exxon memo warns “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population)”. [20.69 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1988

The Nasa scientist James Hansen testifies to the US Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”. In the US presidential campaign, George Bush Sr says: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect … As president, I intend to do something about it.” [23.88 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1988

confidential report prepared for Shell’s environmental conservation committee finds CO2 could raise temperatures by 1C to 2C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It urges rapid action by the energy industry. “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation,” it states. [23.88 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1989

US industry groups establish the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group that challenges the science on global warming and delays action to reduce emissions. Exxon, Shell and BP join between 1993-94. [24.39 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1990

Exxon funds two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer, who dispute the mainstream consensus on climate science. Seitz and Singer were previously paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer, who has denied being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry, has said his financial relationships do not influence his research. [24.44 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1991

Shell’s public information film Climate of Concern acknowledges there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation”. [24.7 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1992

At the Rio Earth summit, countries sign up to the world’s first international agreement to stabilise greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system. This establishes the UN framework convention on climate change. Bush Sr says: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.” [24.44 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1997

Two month’s before the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil (later merged with Exxon) takes out an ad in The New York Times titled Reset the Alarm, which says: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.” [26.26 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

1998

The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC. [26.31 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

2009

The US senator Jim Inhofe, whose main donors are in the oil and gas industry, leads the “Climategate” misinformation attack on scientists on the opening day of the crucial UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which ends in disarray. [34.72 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

2013

A study by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, reveals 90 companies are responsible for producing two-thirds of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age in the mid-18th century. [38.85 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

2016

The API removes a claim on its website that the human contribution to climate change is “uncertain”, after an outcry. [39.31 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

2017

Exxon, Chevron and BP each donate at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. [39.79 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]

2019

Mohammed Barkindo, secretary general of Opec, which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and several other oil states, says climate campaigners are the biggest threat to the industry and claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about global warming. [??? but more than 39.79 bn tons CO2 and methane emissions per annum]