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.


Dirty Pearls, part I

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 March 31st, 2023, and April 1st, 2023, respectively.[1,2,3] Underlying source documents are available on the Dirty Pearls investigation page on climatefiles.com, an initiative of the Climate Investigations Center.

The DeSmog and FTM articles 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. It was climate change negligence and uncertaintism that came first. The phase of climate change denialism and doubtism came after — as significant uncertainties about the reality of climate change became insignificant in the 1970s and 1980s and global warming was entering the general public’s consciousness.”


Dirty pearls, part II

The second stories by DS and FTM were published on January 18th, 2024.[4,5,6] Underlying source documents for these stories were added to the Dirty Pearls investigation page on climatefiles.com as well. These stories cover, firstly, Shell’s progressing awareness of potential dangers of climate change from roughly the second half of the 1980s into the 1990s; secondly, Shell’s growing sense of responsibility for adverse environmental effects of their products under normal use by consumers, from the 1970s onwards; and, thirdly, Shell’s growing acknowledgment of the view that precautionary measures in light of global warming were called for by the end of the 1990s, given the stakes.

Vatan Hüzeir: “The Dirty Pearls research covers a lot of ground. The first stories, published in March and April, 2023, by DeSmog and Follow The Money covered a selection of source documents that show Shell’s structurally growing, in-house knowledge about and political treatment of climate change in the 1970s and 1980s. The new stories, published in January, 2024, add to that, using additional documentation unseen until now. A Shell UK Long Term Business Planning Unit employee working at its Ecology section wrote a paper in 1985, noting that “[t]he Greenhouse effect could lead to some melting of the ice-cap and a significant change in the climatic pattern throughout the world.” In 1989, Ged Davis, at the time at the head of the Energy division of Shell’s Group Planning unit, wrote:”Global warming could challenge the very fabric of the world’s ecological and economic systems. Whatever policies are chosen there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.” He singled out “[f]uture generations” as a group “who could bear particularly heavy costs”, and “[t]hose in countries yet to industrialise who would face constraints on energy use.

However, the second stories additionally show that already over fifty years ago, Shell acknowledged feeling “partly responsible” for environmental effects caused under normal use of its products. This will be useful to litigators who are increasingly looking to holding fossil fuel companies accountable for environmental harm caused by Scope 3 (end-user) emissions. Although the industry argues its responsibility does not stretch to emissions associated with their products’ end-use , a recent Dutch court decision by the The Hague District Court ruled otherwise in a landmark case brought by Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands): according to the court verdict, to which Shell appealed, the oil and gas major has a duty to care to reduce its CO2 emissions across its entire global value chain, including emissions associated with the end-use of its fossil fuel products (i.e. Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions as classified by the World Resources Institute Greenhouse Gas Protocol).[7] The Dirty Pearls trove of documents is expected to bolster cases that aim to hold companies such as Shell and Exxon accountable for environmental effects of Scope 3 emissions.

The Dirty Pearls project also traced the deepening acknowledgement by Shell that to take action against global warming in advance would be called for, given potential dangers of climate change. In an internal 1991 brief dedicated to man-made climate change, Shell wrote that by the time that the greenhouse effect would have been “conclusively proven, it may be too late to do anything against it.” Through the decades, Shell’s acknowledgment of the ‘precautionary principle’ finally culminated by way of a 1998 Shell public admission that “prudent precautionary measures are called for” in light of climate change.”

The use of industry admissions of corporate responsibility over Scope 3 emissions, and the use of industry acknowledgements of the precautionary principle, is currently underutilized by plaintiffs in the court room. New source documents from the Dirty Pearls trove can drive innovation in litigation argumentation around the world.

Write us below to stay updated on future disclosures of additional ‘dirty pearls’. Importantly, we are also looking for ways to finance difficult-to-fund work like this. Please reach out if you can help us with that, or if you need our research and advisory services.




[1] https://www.desmog.com/2023/03/31/lost-decade-how-shell-downplayed-early-warnings-over-climate-change/
[2] https://www.ftm.nl/artikelen/shell-klimaat-steenkool?share=%2FAH%2FbL5%2BX%2B1kTqgRulI4eJdOKIvuUlwovVU9J09V%2FNJs2bvxojdjoKu87ZHAcA%3D%3D
[3] https://www.ftm.eu/articles/shell-climate-coal
[4] https://www.desmog.com/2024/01/17/new-shell-files-could-aid-climate-cases-attorneys-say/
[5] https://www.ftm.nl/artikelen/nieuwe-shell-documents-helpen-klimaatrechtszaken?share=HqbPFcNWLPlGd2sqnYmyhNNs5fOyAKuNc%2BMQGA6lBLnYYJW1jBrCDRWQl7kKPw%3D%3D
[6] https://www.ftm.eu/articles/new-shell-documents-could-aid-climate-cases-attorneys-say?share=NOvGHGJmH%2FYyFoodHD7T3GRPSXc%2BLBd%2BgXoHsjp9kum5HjjS2bTn8RFKa4SBeg%3D%3D
[7] https://en.milieudefensie.nl/climate-case-shell
[8] Full brief of Amici Curiae, written by Robert Brulle, Center for Climate Integrity, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Justin Farrell, Benjamin Franta, Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes, Geoffrey Supran, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, filed on April 7th, 2023, in support of the consumer protection lawsuit District of Columbia v. Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell: https://changerism.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Amici_Brulle_et_al_DC_Circuit_Brief_Support_Appellee.pdf . For more background information, see this publication by the Center for Climate Integrity, or this write up by DeSmog.
[9] Full letter written by Senators Bernard Sanders, Jeffrey A. Merkley, Elizabeth Warren, Edward J. Markey, “to strongly urge the Department of Justice to bring suits against the fossil fuel industry for its longstanding and carefully coordinated campaign to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of massive profits.” https://changerism.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Letter-to-DOJ-Fossil-Fuel-Industry.pdf


Less than a week after publication of the first Dirty pearls story on DeSmog and FTM, the Dirty pearls project was referenced in a brief of Amici Curiae, written by Robert Brulle, Center for Climate Integrity, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Justin Farrell, Benjamin Franta, Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes, Geoffrey Supran, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, filed on April 7th, 2023, in support of the consumer protection lawsuit District of Columbia v. Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell. Full friend-of-the-court brief can be found via the link under footnote [8].

The first page of the letter written by Bernie Sanders and others, urging DOJ to sue fossil fuel companies, referencing the Dirty Pearls project, filed on July 31st, 2023. Full letter can be found via the link under footnote [9].