Dirty pearls: exposing Shell’s hidden legacy of climate change accountability, 1970-1990
project name

Dirty pearls: exposing Shell’s hidden legacy of climate change accountability, 1970-1990

Research & Analysis


Dirty pearls: exposing Shell’s hidden legacy of climate change accountability, 1970-1990 is an independent, in-depth research and analysis project of Changerism. The project shows that throughout the 1970s and 1980s Shell structurally developed in-house knowledge about global warming, rather than incidentally as thought until now. Dirty pearls is based on analysis of a collection of 201 documents, correspondence files, moving images, reports, books, scholarly work, and other materials, collected between January 2017 and October 2022.

The documents are obtained from former Shell staff and individuals close to the company and from tracking down from public and private archives over the world. Some are confidential, others obscure, or forgotten. Over 150 of these are unknown even to experts in the field of climate change accountability research and analyzed for the first time through this lens. Taken together, it is expected the collection will strengthen arguments in climate litigation efforts against Shell.

Illustrative for the collection is a 1983 scientific article, co-sponsored by Shell that puts the company on notice of “predicted values of atmospheric carbon dioxide for the year 2025” ranging “from 440 to 600ppmv”. The lower estimate is 96% accurate compared to real data (if CO2 growth continues at current rates of ~2.5ppm/a the global annual mean CO2 level will increase from 417ppm in 2022, to 424.5ppm in 2025). The paper also shows Shell became aware of the possibility that Western Europe may face more extreme winters as a result of a warming world – a scenario that the Shell-backed scientists argued could drive up energy demand in the heating season.

A 1989 confidential Shell Group Planning scenario sees Shell warning for “more violent weather” at a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C. “[M]ore storms, more droughts, more deluges”, it states. The possibility of eco-systems disruption is mentioned, as is the possible inability of “many species of trees, plants, animals and insects” to “move and adapt”. It also warns for an “unprecedented” “potential refugee problem”, where “[b]oundaries would count for little” as “Africans would push into Europe, Chinese into the Soviet Union, Latins into the United States, Indonesians into Australia”. The internal document also proposes various counter measures against a “high global temperature” such as “[s]hift from coal to natural gas, and to non-fossil fuels”. “Conflicts would abound. Civilisation could prove a fragile thing”, it states.

Dirty pearls ran strictly classified between January 2017 and October 2022. It was then shared with award-winning investigative journalism platforms. Desmog’s Matthew Green  and Follow The Money’s Merel de Buck and Birte Schohaus published their launch stories, . on April 1st, 2023. They cover a major recurring theme throughout the research: Shell’s political treatment of climate change in the 1970s and 1980s.

Vatan Hüzeir, founder and director of Changerism: “Although these first articles refer to only 38 of the many more documents amassed for Dirty pearls, they tell the story of Shell having engaged in what I call ‘climate change uncertaintism’ and ‘climate change negligence’. The former points to Shell’s keen willingness to emphasize scientific uncertainty about the potential of global warming in its public reporting, even though scholarly consensus on the future reality of a warmer world was already forming at the time. The latter points to Shell’s negligence of its own in-house knowledge of potential global warming in public reporting, although express consideration of that knowledge was to be reasonably expected. Both treatments were political in the sense that they served to push for fossil fuels and especially coal, over renewables, as the culturally preferred sources of energy for the foreseeable future. This is despite Shell’s awareness of possibly dangerous climate change associated with unabated fossil fuel combustion. Both treatments were strategic because, by extension, they protected Shell’s hydrocarbon based business model.

The exposure of these two early distinct corporate political treatments of climate change repositions Shell’s later markedly aggressive response to global warming in the 1990s and 2000s as a second phase in Shell’s developing relationship with global warming. First came climate change negligence and uncertaintism, and then, as global warming was entering public consciousness and significant uncertainties about its reality became insignificant in the 1970s and 1980s, then came climate change denialism and doubtism.”

The first set of documents are available on climatefiles.com, an initiative of the Climate Investigations Center. Follow us on Twitter or write us below to stay updated on future disclosures of additional ‘dirty pearls’. We are also looking for ways to finance difficult-to-fund work like this. Please reach out if you can help us with that.