The French oil and gas major Total deliberately downplayed the threat of global warming from the 1970s onwards, according to research based on interviews with former company executives and internal company documents.
The findings, published by a trio of historians Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Global Environment Change, follow similar revelations about US oil giant ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
The pattern that emerges is one of oil and gas giants well aware — often informed by their own scientists — of the dire risks posed by rising temperatures, on the one hand, while undermining confidence in climate science in their public pronouncements, on the other.
Total — today TotalEnergies — “began promoting doubt regarding the scientific basis for global warming by the late 1980s”, moving from “denial to delay,” the researchers reported.
The company “ultimately settled on a position in the late 1990s of publically accepting climate science while promoting policy delay or policies peripheral to fossil fuel control.”
In 1971, Total published an article in the company’s internal magazine on “atmospheric pollution and the climate” that drew a straight line between burning fossil fuels and potentially “catastrophic consequences”.
The piece appears to have set off alarm bells: over the next 17 years, the magazine never mentioned the issue of climate change again, according to the researchers.
“In the company’s public communications, global warming was downplayed and the impact of human activities on this disruption was denied,” they wrote.
“Total and Elf” — the two companies merged in 1999 — “were actively addressing what they perceived to be a very real threat to their business.”
In 1992, on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit that gave rise to the bedrock UN treaty to combat global warming, Total’s environmental director Jean-Philippe Caruette sought to plant a seed of doubt.
“There is no certainty about the impact of human activities [on global warming], including the combustion of fossil fuels,” he wrote in the company magazine.
In a statement sent to AFP, a Total spokesman said the company had not seen the study and thus could not directly respond to its assertions.
But he referred to public statements showing that Total leadership “recognises the existence of climate change and the link with the petroleum industry”.
In May, Total rebranded itself as TotalEnergies to reflect a shift towards renewable energy, which the company said would account for 20 percent of investment in 2021.
At the same time, it projected an increase of 50 percent in group-wide production of oil and gas between 2015 and 2030.
In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) laid out for the first time a roadmap for transitioning to a global net zero energy system by 2050.
The steps needed, the IEA said, included no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and that the global electricity sector reach net-zero emissions by 2040.