Total Accused of Campaign to Play Down Climate Risk From Fossil Fuels

A study found that the French energy group tried to cast doubt about climate science, beginning in the 1970s, while at the same time pushing back against climate-related policies and taxes.

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This photograph taken on May 28, 2021 shows the new TotalEnergies logo during its unveling ceremony, at La Defense on the outskirts of Paris. Credit: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images
This photograph taken on May 28, 2021 shows the new TotalEnergies logo during its unveling ceremony,at La Defense on the outskirts of Paris. Credit: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images

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The French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies was aware of the link between fossil fuels and rising global temperatures 50 years ago but worked with other oil majors to play down the risks for at least three decades, according to internal company documents and interviews with former executives.

The research, published on Wednesday by three historians in the peer-reviewed Global Environmental Change journal, outlines alleged efforts by the French energy group to cast doubt over emerging climate science in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, while pushing back against emissions reduction and climate-related taxes.

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The study follows similar allegations made against other oil and gas majors in recent years, including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, some of whose scientists have also been shown to have identified the climate risks associated with fossil fuels decades ago. The revelations come at an awkward time for Total and the wider oil industry as it seeks to regain public trust and build support for new strategies focused on cleaner fuels.

Total rebranded itself Total Energies this year as part of a pivot to tackle the climate crisis and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but some climate activists have argued this is too little too late.

“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,” advocacy groups and Notre Affaire à Tous said in response to the report.

The research shows that Total personnel received the first warnings about the potential for “catastrophic global warming from its products” by at least 1971.

Total’s company magazine, Total Information, warned that year of a possible increase in average temperatures of 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius, partial melting of the polar ice caps and a “significant” sea level rise “if the consumption of coal and oil keeps the same rhythm in the years to come”, the researchers found.

Despite the warning, Total said little on the issue for most of the next two decades, according to the research. The historians reviewed all editions of Total’s company magazine from 1965 to 2010 and after the 1971 article, did not find another reference to climate change until 1989.

In the interim, as public discussion of emissions and global warming gained prominence, Total began to work with other oil companies to cast doubt on the link between fossil fuels and climate change, the historians said.

At a 1988 meeting at Total’s headquarters in Paris, the global oil and gas industry association IPIECA formed a new “ad hoc” group, later renamed as the “working group on global climate change,” chaired by a scientist from Exxon, according to the research.

In a 1989 strategy paper, the Exxon executive recommended emphasising uncertainties in climate science in order to defeat public policies that might shift the energy mix away from fossil fuels.

A former executive at the oil company Elf, which Total acquired in 1999, told the historians that the French oil and gas industry had been happy to allow Exxon to take the lead, given its “weight in the scientific community”.

Through the IPIECA, Total, Exxon and other oil companies approved funding in the 1990s of scientific research that could “sharpen” the industry’s ability to highlight the limitations of current climate models and “potentially make global warming appear less alarming”, the research said.

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By the time the UN framework convention on climate change was ratified in Kyoto in 1997, Total was no longer prepared to overtly attack the scientific consensus on climate change, the historians said. Instead, it shifted to emphasising “equivocal descriptions” of global warming and playing down the significance of the available evidence.

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.

Exxon said it had not seen the academic paper and could not immediately comment.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2021 edition of The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

Reprinted with permission.

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