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

Lambert here: Business as usual….

By Adam Barnett, DeSmog’s UK News Reporter, and Phoebe Cooke, Senior Reporter at DeSmog. Originally published at DeSmog.

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 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.” 

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Peter Lynch

    Is there a statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. I think not, example Nazi war criminals. What prevents similar action against all higher management and members of the boards of ALL major oil companies? They knew it, they ignored and hid this knowledge and now they are all paying their greedy little trolls worldwide to continue to spread lies and misleading information. With ZERO remorse. If you look back just 20 years – the oil companies and their trolls have actually killed multitudes more people (just in air pollution deaths alone) worldwide than the monstrous Nazi killing machine. So what exactly is the reason that they are NOT PUNISHED???

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Because they and their governments and their governments’s armed forces have not been defeated in war to the point of Unconditional Surrender.

    2. Eric377

      It’s a mixed bag though. I have pointed out that in great measure the surge across the US southern border is of quite poor people seeking a life of higher energy consumption, because they are aware that their lives will be less precarious and more enjoyable. Anger at energy companies is not very likely to shift the consumption of their products much. People mostly like what their energy consumption does for their lives.

  2. Jeremy Grimm

    I think the way this post seems to emphasize what Total, and other Petroleum producers knew and when, tends to draw attention away from what Total and other Petroleum producers did with that information. The Oil Companies knew. The climate science was well known at the time. There were even back-of-the-envelope calculations for the impacts of increases to CO2 in the atmosphere. The Charney Report came out in 1979 with a sensitivity coefficient.

    What is far more appalling to me than ‘discovering’ that the Petroleum producers knew is that they colluded with each other, with government, with Power Elites to together do everything they could to deny, dismiss, divert attention from, minimize, ignore, and out-and-out lie to a somnolent public that did not want to know or be concerned with Climate Chaos some decade or decades in the future.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        “Climate sensitivity is a measure of the equilibrium global surface air temperature change for a particular forcing. It is usually given as a °C change per W/m2 forcing.” [ ]

        the Charney Report:

        “Carbon budgets tell us how much CO2 we can emit while keeping warming below specific limits. We can estimate the total carbon budget consistent with staying below a given temperature limit.”
        [“A deep dive into the IPCC’s updated carbon budget numbers” ]

  3. Robert Hahl

    In late ‘79, I asked my favorite chemistry professor what was going to happen to the climate due to carbon emissions. He thought it was still an open question whether the temperature would go up or down (due to particulates from air pollution reflecting sunlight in the upper atmosphere), but in either case CO2 was going to acidify the oceans, and that seemed the most imminent problem. Given what we know now about the misinformation campaigns being run, it seems like that hotter-or-colder question was a deliberate con job and even good scientists like that professor were fooled.

  4. Pinhead

    Just like asbestos. And fluorocarbons. And cigarettes. And junk food. The corporations’ initial knee-jerk repudiation of science is a standard feature. But so is their loss of credibilty as the facts seep into the public’s consciousness.

    It would be useful if serious sociologists try to determine whether this stupid behaviour actually helps the bottom line in the long run. I suspect it is just the opposite. It certainly has been for the Catholic Church.

  5. Solarjay

    30 years ago this week, Dr James Hanson gave a speech in front of congress based on his climate research, that we were headed for global warming all while working for NOAA, the US government. His and others have reported to the media, and directly to governments long before that about climate change. Our government has thousands of scientists working on climate for decades. We have known climate change/emergency was coming snd did basically nothing.

    To me, all the energy to go after the FF companies should be used instead to go after politicians and governments who have allowed these CO2 conditions to happen. It’s Biden, after Trump, after Obommer, who opened up 80 million acres in the gulf to new drilling, new pipelines, kept tariffs on solar panels making them more expensive and the list goes on way too long.

    All this fighting the oil companies is wasted energy energy that should be used to help fix the situation we are in. We have to replace Fossil fuels before we can stop using them. There are lots of choices and technologies that work snd many that need money to refine and improve.

    Biden’s energy plan is dead, not by Manchin, but by Biden snd the corporate owned Dems. Sure there will be some fluff that they will point too, but not the hard directions we need.
    As someone who’s worked in solar snd renewables for 25 years, changing to all renewables is possible, but it’s not going
    To happen at the pace we need with the lack of leadership we have.

    I am thinking it might be the Republicans that actually get more done. They might push for Gen 4 nuclear, CCS and DAC, as the usual giveaways to big biz.

    So I’m tired of these articles that are basically SQUIRREL!

      1. synoia

        “Plus sa change” is more cynical.

        If I recall correctly, one analysis of the expressing,(I believe in Paul Brickhill,s Dambusters, “après moi le déluge” was uttered by a Greek and was uttered to express jealousy.

  6. Soredemos

    One think I can never figure out with fossil fuel companies is why they themselves don’t make plans to transition. They don’t have to be in fossil fuels forever, and if absolutely nothing else eventually the oil and gas are going to run out. They’re making so much money, even now, why not cut into the profits a bit and lay the groundwork to become renewable energy companies?

    1. Solarjay

      What I’ve been told and for a while BP actually changed their name to Beyond Petroleum, and then Sir John Brown was ousted.
      Any way, they make money because we have to continue to buy their product. Solar and wind have very low margins and it’s only an single up front sale. You buy a car and then have to buy gas for its whole life. With solar the fuel is free, only some maintenance etc. To make 10-15% profit once for a product that has a 25 year design life is not the business model of big business.

      Big solar utility scale has very few people per megawatt and that is mostly maintenance for the grounds, not the actual electric part.
      Big wind has much more maintenance but still relatively nothing compared to a coal or gas plant.

      It’s why I’m thinking more along the lines of gen4 nuclear or circular geothermal, CCS, DAV, or other products made from renewables like E fuel or hydrogen, all of which take big investments and they would demand large ongoing returns. But I no longer care who makes the money, just get it done.
      It’s why I think if the republicans are smart snd they embrace this kind of thing they will get a lot of voter support.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        John Brown also said BP would take its sweet time getting Beyond Petroleum and he spoke of anticipating a skycarbon endpoint of 550 ppm. And didn’t want to hear any complaints about it.

        And he was the Godfather of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the subsequent mass toxication of the Gulf with 6 million gallon or so of Correxit ( with Obama approval and connivance), so I don’t extend any respect to John Brown.

        1. James Simpson

          Bu said Mr Brown is gay in a supposedly homophobic industry and is therefore a hero. Isn’t he?

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Because they want to make all the beautiful money they can by selling all the beautiful oil and gas they still have first. And because they want to make very sure they retain 100% monopoly profits control of whatever they decide they will graciously permit to come after gas and oil.

    3. Eric377

      They don’t have much expertise in these new areas and path to promotions in them is still via results from hydrocarbon business. Their expertise is the equivalent of finding a windy spot or lots of sunshine, not with the machinery of energy capture, transformation or distribution (different than distributing the liquid fuels or coal).

  7. Susan the other

    What is frightening is that it only took from 1940, through WW2, and up until 1970 for everyone to really understand what petroleum was doing and what the end result would be. So 30 years of modern industrial capitalism was unable to mitigate this oncoming result. We actually saw it coming as far back as the 50s. That’s the part that makes me hold my breath while I think about how enormous the mess is. It is a mess because the planet has been so polluted, has become overpopulated by false profits based really only on extraction, and is like a consumption trap we cannot get out of. And the most depressing thing is we don’t know how to stop using petroleum to maintain a level of prosperity and well being globally. If we stop using cheap petroleum we cannot make the profits necessary to make the whole thing work. If the whole mess fails catastrophically we will be starting over with something like subsistence economies. With that in mind it really would be wise to start designing subsistence economies to see us through. And nobody will touch the subject with a 10-foot pole.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Various little working groups are trying to design various little subsistence economy-societies to see themselves through. They would include others if others were interested, which others are not.

      The best survival hope for hopeful survivalists would be to find these groups and study what they do.
      Subsistence-readiness is part of getting Jackpot-ready. Part of subsistence means no more web, no more computers, no more any digital thing. So enjoy these things while they last so one can have minimal regret for not having used them more once they are gone.

      1. James Simpson

        A subsistence society, so far as I understand its history, cannot support current population densities. Perhaps someone will provide evidence either way.

    2. Eric377

      This is pretty discordant with much of the prior decades of discourse over climate change mitigation. The messaging is that mitigating will only cost a small fraction of world economic output. Indeed, some current messaging is that new energy sources will create lots of jobs and save the world trillions over current sources, which one presumes will be employed in pretty much the exact opposite sense of moving towards subsistence economies.

  8. Cesar Jeopardy

    Assuming these oil companies had legitimate scientists in their employ (it’s certain they did), then they all knew about global warming back in the early 1970s.

  9. p fitzsimon

    Didn’t Lyndon Johnson identify climate change as an important issue in a “state of the union” address” back in 1965 and no one really cared?

  10. MarkT

    I am a meteorologist. Any still-alive oil executives who took part in the spending of millions to support dissident climate scientists should be put on trial fo crimes against humanity. We do, after all, have only one planet. Whose atmosphere is only 10km (a few miles) deep.

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