French Oil Company Total ‘Knew About Global Warming Impact in 1971’, Study Finds

Campaigners say the research shows Total and other oil and gas majors have “stolen the precious time of a generation to stem the climate crisis”.
on
A new study has found Total knew about the links between climate change and fossil fuels 50 years ago. Credit: Laurent Vincenti (CC BY-SA 3.0)

French oil giant Total knew that its fossil fuel extraction could contribute to global warming as early as 1971 but stayed silent about it until 1988, according to a new study. 

Research published today in the journal Global Environmental Change, based on internal company documents and interviews with former staff, found that personnel “received warnings of the potential for catastrophic global warming from its products by 1971”. 

Total – which this year rebranded as TotalEnergies – “became more fully informed” about climate change in the 1980s and “began promoting doubt regarding the scientific basis for global warming by the late 1980s”. The company publicly accepted climate science in the 1990s but promoted “policy delay or policies peripheral to fossil fuel control”, the authors found.

The research – which has sparked the hashtag #Totalknew on social media – follows similar revelations about ExxonMobil and Shell in recent years which exposed how companies were aware of the impact of their emissions on the climate as early as the 1980s. 

Today’s study also finds that ExxonMobil “coordinated an international campaign to dispute climate science and weaken international climate policy, beginning in the 1980s” through the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA). 

“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”, climate justice campaign groups 350.org and Notre Affaire à Tous said in a joint statement.

They added: “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.”

‘Fifty Years Ago’

Emissions from fossil fuels are the primary cause of global warming, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2018, 89 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions came from fossil fuels and industry.

A 2017 study found Total was the 19th highest producer of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015. While Total rebranded as broad-based energy company TotalEnergies earlier this year, it plans to continue producing fossil fuels, aiming to expand its portfolio of European gas and power customers from nine to 13 million by 2025.

Today’s study highlights a 1971 special edition of Total’s magazine, Total Information, which includes an article called “Atmospheric pollution and climate” by scientist François Durand Dastès. 

In the article, the author notes that “CO2 concentration has already increased by 15 percent in 150 years and could reach 400 ppm [parts per million] by 2010″ which could increase global average temperature by 1 to 1.5°C with “important effects”. This was close to the real figure of 388.71 ppm that was measured in 2010.

In the same issue an editorial by then CEO René Granier de Lilliac said: “Total is fully aware of the fact that each of its activities can generate pollution that may affect the equilibrium of nature.”

He goes on to note that “constraint” on Total’s operations that can “protect the environment” would “carry a hefty cost”, adding: “It is probably best to make these sacrifices immediately rather than to have to remedy, tomorrow, a much more critical situation that would endanger certain economic equilibriums.”

In a statement, a Total spokesperson said that “knowledge of climate risk since the 1970s has been no different from that published in scientific journals at the time, which the scientific paper published today fully confirms”.

He continued: “It is therefore wrong to claim that the climate risk was concealed by Total or Elf, either in the 1970s or since. TotalEnergies notes that the paper itself states that Elf and Total already accepted the findings of climate science, publicly and openly, as long as 25 years ago.

“TotalEnergies regrets that it was never approached or consulted by the authors of the paper, which TotalEnergies will study in detail. TotalEnergies deplores the process of pointing up at a situation from fifty years ago, without highlighting the efforts, changes, progress and investments made since then.” 

French Oil Company Total ‘Knew About Global Warming Impact in 1971’, Study Finds
Adam Barnett is DeSmog's UK News Reporter. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter.
French Oil Company Total ‘Knew About Global Warming Impact in 1971’, Study Finds
Phoebe is Senior Reporter at DeSmog. She previously trained as a news reporter across local titles in Essex and East London, with her work since appearing in the Independent, Evening Standard, The Sun Online, Deutsche Welle, and The Local and Prospect Magazine.

Related Posts

on

Oil and gas exports from the Gulf Coast have surged by nearly 600 percent, and fossil fuel production in the Permian Basin has grown by 135 percent.

Oil and gas exports from the Gulf Coast have surged by nearly 600 percent, and fossil fuel production in the Permian Basin has grown by 135 percent.
on

The fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars on shaping its image in an effort to block climate action. A new analysis shows a relatively small number of PR firms have aided this campaign from behind the scenes over the last three decades.

The fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars on shaping its image in an effort to block climate action. A new analysis shows a relatively small number of PR firms have aided this campaign from behind the scenes over the last three decades.
Opinion
on

The fossil fuel industry is pushing for the U.S. government to support methods to capture its climate pollution. But how effective are these "carbon management" approaches, and what are their consequences?

The fossil fuel industry is pushing for the U.S. government to support methods to capture its climate pollution. But how effective are these "carbon management" approaches, and what are their consequences?
on

A D.C.-based think tank with ties to fossil fuel money claims that shutting down the aging Line 5 pipeline would hurt Black communities in Michigan. Community activists say otherwise.

A D.C.-based think tank with ties to fossil fuel money claims that shutting down the aging Line 5 pipeline would hurt Black communities in Michigan. Community activists say otherwise.