The Planet

The VHS Tape That Could Have Slowed Climate Change

by Ben Jervey

March 1, 2017

Fifteen years before Al Gore unleashed An Inconvenient Truth upon the world, Shell Oil Company released a dramatic, alarming, and—it turns out—incredibly accurate film about climate change. The 1991 film issues a clear “warning endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists” about the effects of burning fossil fuels, including sea level rise, droughts, food scarcity, and extreme weather; it even foresees the tragic future of climate refugees.

Yet in the quarter century since the oil giant distributed Climate of Concern to schools and universities, Shell has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against serious climate policy and funding disinformation campaigns of climate science. They have been one of the most aggressive developers of extreme energy resources, such as the tar sands and Arctic oil deposits.

The 28-minute film was uncovered by Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers of The Correspondent, along with a raft of internal documents and reports by the company’s scientists that show just how thoroughly and precisely Shell understood the the damage caused by its product. Burning fossil fuels, the film warned, was causing climate change “at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age. Change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation.”

Professor Tom Wigley—formerly of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia—helped Shell with the film and told The Guardian (which partnered with The Correspondent on the original report), “It’s one of the best little films that I have seen on climate change ever. One could show this today and almost all would still be relevant.”

Not only does the science hold up, the video makes a strong case for international cooperation and action that is still urgent today:

“Whether or not the threat of global warming proves as grave as the scientists predict, is it too much to hope as it might act as the stimulus, the catalyst, to a new era of technical and economic cooperation? Our numbers are many, and infinitely diverse. But the problems and dilemmas of climatic change concern us all.”

Even before this video was unearthed, we’ve known that Shell was aware of the science of the greenhouse effect and global warming’s risks. The first of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or the “uniquely broad consensus” that Shell’s narrator described) scientific assessment reports had come out in 1990, so the whole world had access to those findings. And thanks to great investigative reporting by InsideClimate News, we know that Shell joined the other oil majors in secretly sharing climate research from 19791983. What’s more, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Shell had been factoring sea level rise into its designs for offshore oil rigs as early as 1989.

Yet, the company didn’t heed its own warnings from Climate of Concern, doubling down on efforts to combat climate mitigation efforts and the funding of front groups that peddled doubt of the climate consensus. The Guardian’s video explainer below puts the lessons from Climate of Concern in stark juxtaposition with Shell’s actions.

According to InfluenceMap, Shell annually spends roughly $22 million lobbying against climate policies that would cut fossil fuel-born carbon emissions—with $3 million on advertising and PR efforts and another $4 million in direct lobbying. 

Rather than heed its own advice from a quarter century ago, Shell has chosen to extract as much oil as possible and expedite the dire, dangerous future it foretold.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy The Correspondent.

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The VHS Tape That Could Have Slowed Climate Change