Climate change: three questions on the strategy of Total and other oil giants, warned of the impact of their activities for decades

“Awareness, preparation, denial, delay.” This is the strategy used by the French oil group Total – which became TotalEnergies in the spring – for nearly half a century to deal with the impact of its activities on the climate, according to an article published on Wednesday, October 20 in the journal. scientist Global Environmental Change *. The three researchers, Christophe Bonneuil, Pierre-Louis Choquet and Benjamin Franta, chronologically retrace the first internal alerts on the effects of the company’s products on the climate, the implementation of a strategy of doubt as to the conclusions of scientists or further efforts to delay any monitoring of their activities.

But Total is not the only oil giant to have done so. Companies like ExxonMobil and Shell have also been targeted by disclosures in recent years. Franceinfo looks back on the cover-ups and maneuvers of these fossil fuel mastodons.

Which oil companies are affected?

“In recent years, several studies have unveiled the strategy of oil giants (…) which has enabled them to navigate through environmental warnings and climate controversies”, note the researchers in their publication. The American giant ExxonMobil was singled out in 2015 in Inside Climate News *. In 2018, the Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell was also singled out by the information site De Correspondent (in Dutch). The article published Wednesday in Global Environmental Change described in turn “a direct proof of the knowledge by Total of scientific knowledge on climate change in 1971”.

These three companies are among the twenty most large oil, mining and cement companies in the world, which have contributed, according to the Climate Accountability Institute *, to 35% of global CO2 emissions since 1965.

What are they blamed for?

Their influence play is often compared to the documented one of the tobacco industry. Concretely, there was a “a global effort made over the past fifty years by the fossil fuel industry to generate ignorance, cast doubts on the legitimacy of climate science, fight against regulations and maintain the legitimacy of the oil majors as actors of the global energy transition “, describe the three authors of the study published in Global Environmental Change.

At ExxonMobil, it was thus revealed that internal researchers precisely predicted, as early as 1982, the quantities of carbon dioxide that would pollute the atmosphere forty years later and the effect of these emissions, largely due to fossil fuels, on global temperatures. “They knew”, launched the elected Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in front of the American Congress after having questioned one of them, as shown in the video below (from 1’17 ”). And rather than sharing this research, the American company has embarked on a vast “campaign to mislead consumers and investors about the climate-related impact of its products”, said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

In the Netherlands, a “working group on the greenhouse effect” internal Shell came to the same conclusions in 1984. “Scientists largely agree that increasing greenhouse gases are causing global warming” and models predict “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperatures and meteorological conditions”, they wrote in a confidential report cited by De Correspondent. But ten years later, in 1994, a new internal document discredits scientific speech: “Any policy measure should explicitly take into account the weaknesses of scientific reasoning.”

In France, same story. Total’s internal magazine published an article in 1971 on “air pollution and climate”. “Since the 19th century, man has been burning in increasing quantities of fossil fuels, coals and hydrocarbons. This operation results in the release of enormous quantities of carbon dioxide (…) This increase in the content is quite worrying: indeed, carbon dioxide plays a large role in the thermal equilibrium of the atmosphere “, could we read, as reported in the article by Global Environmental Change. Faced with this observation, the “French companies Total and Elf then began to highlight the ‘uncertainties’ of climate science each in their communication (…) and will develop effective lobbying against the first attempts at policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “, report the researchers.


More broadly, a report by the British NGO InfluenceMap * revealed that the five main oil and gas groups have, since COP21 at the end of 2015, spent a billion dollars in lobbying and public relations. “opposites” to the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement. Despite their support for tackling climate change, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total have spent some $ 200 million a year to “influence the climate agenda “, according to Dylan Tanner, director of this NGO responsible for monitoring the influence action of companies. It evokes “a continuum of actions”whether it’s attacking or controlling regulations or guiding the media. Conclusions rejected by Chevron and Shell.

Are legal proceedings ongoing?

Business is increasing on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the ExxonMobil group has been targeted by several procedures. Among them, a New York judge dismissed New York State at the end of 2019, which accused the American oil giant of having misled investors about the financial impact of climate change on its activity, believing that it had not presented “sufficient evidence”.

In a larger complaint, the state of Massachusetts accuses Exxon of deceiving not only investors, but consumers as well. “Exxon has known for decades the catastrophic impact on the climate of the combustion of fossil fuels, its main product”, argues in particular the attorney general of this state, Maura Healey. “Contrary to their assertions, ExxonMobil’s understanding of climate change has followed the scientific consensus on the [sujet], and his research on the issue has been published in publicly available journals “, defended the company *. The procedure is still ongoing.

Last May, a Dutch court, for its part, ordered Shell to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by the end of 2030, in the case called “the people against Shell” and launched by a group of NGOs , including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The oil giant has appealed against this decision. In France, finally, a collective of several cities and NGOs including Bayonne, Grenoble, Nanterre, France nature environnement (FNE) or the Sherpa association announced in January 2020 that they had taken Total to court for “climate inaction”.

Out of court, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell executives are summoned to appear in the US Congress on October 28 for a hearing over climate change misinformation.

* All these links refer to articles or content in the English language

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