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Oil Industry's Suppression of Climate Science Began in 1940s, Documents Reveal

"What we found is they knew a great deal, and they knew it much earlier and with greater certainty than anyone has recognized or that the industry has admitted."

Nadia Prupis

A trove of newly uncovered documents shows that fossil fuel companies were explicitly warned of the risks of climate change decades earlier than previously suspected.

And while it's no secret—anymore—that the companies knew about those dangers long ago, the documents, published Wednesday by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), reveal even more about the broader industry effort to suppress climate science and foment public doubt about global warming.

Industry executives met in Los Angeles in 1946 to discuss growing public concern about air pollution. That meeting led to the formation of a panel—suitably named the Smoke and Fumes Committee—to conduct research into air pollution issues.

But the research was not meant to be a public service; rather, it was used by the committee to "promote public skepticism of environmental science and environmental regulations the industry considered hasty, costly, and potentially unnecessary," CIEL writes.

The group continues:

In the decades that followed, the Smoke and Fumes Committee funded massive levels of research into an array of air pollution issues, often conducted by institutes fostered and governed by the oil companies themselves. By the mid-1950s at the very latest, climate change was one of those issues.

The documents also show how Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) scientists actively engaged on climate science in the company’s name beginning in the 1950s, even as they actively funded and published research into alternate theories of global warming.

Among the documents is a report by the Stanford Research Institute presented to the American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1968 warning of the potential consequences of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

That report states:

Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climate change. If the Earth's temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis. [....]

[T]here seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.

"We begin with three simple, related questions," said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. "What did they know? When did they know it? And what did they do about it?"

"What we found is they knew a great deal," Muffett said, "and they knew it much earlier and with greater certainty than anyone has recognized or that the industry has admitted."

Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said of the release, "It's increasingly clear that the fossil fuel industry knew a lot more about the causes of climate change—and its effects—much earlier than anyone else. It pains me to think how much better shape the planet and vulnerable communities could be in if the fossil fuel industry had taken positive action based on this knowledge instead of trying to profit from it."

The industry's coverup of climate science was exposed last July by the Union of Concerned Scientists and through reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times.


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