French oil company TotalEnergies knew at least 50 years ago about a link between burning fossil fuels and global warming, researchers have said.
An article from 1971 in the company’s magazine, Total Information, mentioned partial melting of ice caps, researchers found.
It also predicted the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The company denied it had concealed climate risk and added that since 2015 it had focussed on renewable energy
The research, which follows similar studies about US oil giant ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch, was carried out by three historians and published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Global Environment Change.
The researchers said the 1971 Total article warned that burning fossil fuels since the 19th Century had increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and this would continue if fuels were burned at the same pace.
“It is not impossible, according to some, to foresee at least a partial melting of the polar ice caps, which would certainly result in significant sea level rise. The catastrophic consequences are easy to imagine,” the Total Information article said.
Despite this, by the late 1980s Total “began promoting doubt regarding the scientific basis for global warming”, moving from “denial to delay,” the researchers said.
The company “ultimately settled on a position in the late 1990s of publicly accepting climate science while promoting policy delay or policies peripheral to fossil fuel control.”
‘Pointing the finger’
In 2021 Total rebranded as TotalEnergies.
The oil giant said its knowledge of climate risk was “no different to that published in the scientific journals of the time, which the scientific study published today fully confirms”.
“It is therefore wrong to claim that the climate risk was concealed by Total,” the statement said.
“TotalEnergies deplores the process of pointing the finger at a situation from 50 years ago, without highlighting the efforts, changes, progress and investments made since then,” the firm added.
It also said that since 2015, it is transforming its operations profoundly towards renewable energy.
However, environmental campaigners from climate change campaign group, 350.org disputed this and accused the company of greenwashing.
They have called for banks to cut ties the company and have argued it should be held accountable for what they said was stolen time.
Clémence Dubois from 350.org told the BBC’s World Service that Total “didn’t just know about climate change, they implemented a strategy of fabricating doubt around the climate emergency through lobbying”.
“They prevented any form of regulation of their activities and the biggest problem is that they have been continuing to develop fossil fuels on a massive scale”, she continued.
“It’s a rogue industry and this is why we are organising to hold them accountable,” she added.
Dan Lunt, professor of climate science at the University of Bristol, told the BBC that the research “doesn’t surprise” him.
“There are several oil companies that have been using results from climate models to actually aid their oil exploration at the same time as ignoring the future predictions from the same models – and that’s been happening for decades,” he said.
“The only way we can achieve the targets that are going to save the most vulnerable people is to stop the burning of fossil fuels and that has to start happening immediately,” Professor Lunt said.
“The changes TotalEnergies say they are making are not nearly enough compared to what is needed to achieve our target of 1.5 degrees, enshrined in the Paris agreement,” he added.
Professor Andy Shepherd, director of the Centre for Polar Observation & Modelling, said the evidence is “pretty clear cut”.
“Total can claim they weren’t aware of the dangers, but few people will believe that.”
“In fact the article was remarkably prescient, predicting CO2 levels of concentration in the atmosphere would surpass 400 parts per million by 2010 which was spot on,” he added.
“Indeed they were among the first to raise awareness of the impacts on ice melting, and in a different world they might take credit for this,” he added.
The UK has committed to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
As part of this promise, the government has a target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, compared with 1990 levels.
In June, a group of experts that advises the government said Boris Johnson had credible policies in place to deliver only about a fifth of this cut.