French oil and gas major Total, now rebranded as TotalEnergies, has been aware of harmful global warming impacts since at least 1971 but engaged in overt denial of climate science in late 1980s, early 1990s, claims a new research based on interviews of former company employees and internal documents.
The research was sparked by a 1971 article ‘Atmospheric pollution and climate’ which appeared in the company’s magazine, Total Information.
The article warned that the increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was quite worrying and could lead to a rise in the average temperature of the atmosphere. The article said it was not impossible to foresee at least a partial melting of the polar ice caps, which would cause sea level to rise. “The catastrophic consequences are easy to imagine,” the article warned.
The research published in the journal ‘Global Environmental Change’ says the reaction of the company to multiple warning signals in France, the US, the international arena, and its own magazine was to malign the environmentalists. “Total responded by portraying environmentalists as “caught in the trap of nostalgia for a past that was not as pristine as it is assumed” and asserting that “it is technology and not outdated regrets that will ensure or restore a certain quality to the living environment,” the article quotes.
“We show that Total personnel received warnings of the potential for catastrophic global warming from its products by 1971, became more fully informed of the issue in the 1980s, began promoting doubt regarding the scientific basis for global warming by the late 1980s, and 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,” claim the researchers from CRNS, Sciences Po and the University of Stanford.
Total, which was established in the 1920s, is the world’s fourth-largest oil and gas company by market capitalization behind ExxonMobil, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell.
The reasearch analyses what it calls Total’s shifting response to global warming — from disputing climate science and weakening controls on fossil fuels to later building environmental credibility through voluntary commitments and environment-themed public relations.
“By the late 1990s, the French petroleum industry shifted away from openly disputing climate science but continued to expand its investments in upstream oil and gas production and employed rhetorical strategies that emphasized uncertainty, downplayed urgency, and deflected attention away from fossil fuels as the primary cause of global warming. By the mid 2000s, the merged entity Total intensified its efforts to build scientific credibility, endorsing the IPCC and hosting a conference on climate change. The company began to promote a division of roles between science and business, in which science describes climate change and business claims to solve it, reinforcing its claim to legitimacy in determining appropriate public and corporate policies. This framing enables Total to portray itself as a socially responsible petroleum company by wrapping continued investments in fossil fuel production in an attractive “energy transition” narrative,” claim the researchers.
In a response to Financial Times, Total said it was “wrong to claim that the climate risk was concealed by Total or Elf in the 1970s or since”, adding that the company’s historic knowledge of climate risk was no different from that published in scientific journals at the time.
“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,” it said.