Has the scenario of global warming been known for a long time? Oil companies would have been aware of the impact of the combustion of fossil fuels on the climate as early as the 1970s, according to unpublished documents from the archives of the Elf and Total companies, which the “Complément d’études” team has could consult. These revelations are the fruit of the work of three researchers who publish, Wednesday, October 20, a scientific article * on “Total and Elf’s reactions to global warming”. These French companies would also have denied the impact of human activities on the climate, until the beginning of the 2000s, as revealed by the program broadcast Thursday at 11 p.m. on France 2.
As early as 1971, for example, in Total information, the internal magazine of the company, a French expert in climatological research warns about the future risks of the combustion of fossil fuels. He writes that because of the combustion of these fossil fuels, an increase in temperature would be to be feared: “The atmospheric circulation could be modified, and it is not impossible, according to some, to envisage at least partial melting of the ice caps of the poles, which would undoubtedly result in a significant rise in sea level. catastrophic are easy to imagine … “
In 1986, a confidential report drafted by the environment department of Elf (then a public company) fully recognized the climate risk. We can read that “the accumulation of CO2 and CH4 [le méthane] in the atmosphere and the resulting greenhouse effect will inevitably change our environment. All the models are unanimous in predicting a warming “.
However, while the reality of the human origin of global warming is known, and therefore recognized internally by companies, they would publicly question or even deny it. Christophe Bonneuil, one of the authors of the study, historian and research director at the CNRS, even speaks of “schizophrenia”. “There is a gap between what is said internally and the discourse that was carried outwards, towards political decision-makers, international arenas, the French government or the European community. There, on the contrary, there is ‘idea of’ not to act too quickly since there are a lot of uncertainties’, already in contradiction with the conclusions of the first report of the IPCC, the intergovernmental group of experts on climate change, published in 1990. “
The researchers cite several documents, such as the transcription of the speech of Total’s honorary president in 1992, at a conference on energy, which states that “nothing is so simple or clear-cut. These phenomena are poorly understood, the correlation is not proven (…) Researchers are divided”. Or this quote from Total’s environmental director in 1992 asserting in an internal communication that“there is no certainty about the impact of human activities, including the consumption of fossil fuels”.
Companies have even planned their strategy to save time and not take the necessary measures. One of the documents unveiled by “Further investigation” dates from 1993. It is about“Action plan” regarding “the greenhouse effect”, presented to the general management of the group. Although the Elf company internally recognizes the climate risk, a senior manager of the company nevertheless advises to insist on “scientific doubts about the greenhouse effect”, from “to show that contrary to a fashionable idea, ecology is more destructive than creator of jobs”, or even “develop the theme: environmental costs are borne by the taxpayer and / or by consumers”.
“Further investigation” was able to contact the author of this note, who persists in saying that the scientific debate was not yet settled at the time. Bernard Tramier, environmental director at Elf from 1983 to 2000 before being an officer at Total until 2003, comments on this document: “The relationships that I had within the framework of my environmental and scientific world made me think that it was true, that this problem [du réchauffement climatique] was going to arise. And then, there was a line which was more of an economic-financial line which said ‘yes but maybe we can see, there is no urgency’, that it was necessary to take it slowly. “
Until the beginning of the 2000s (Elf and Total merged in 2000), “Total presents climate change with ambiguity”, write the researchers. In 2002, in the first “societal and environmental report”, we can still read that the emissions due to human activities “are believed to be the cause of climate change”.
Contacted before publication of the article in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change, Total’s press service informed us that it was “wrong to argue that the climate risk would have been suppressed by Total in the 1970s or later, since Total followed the evolution of scientific knowledge available publicly”. The company specifies that, since 2015, the “company is committed to a profound transformation of its activities with the ambition to be a major player in the energy transition, (…) to achieve carbon neutrality, from the production to the use of energy products sold to its customers, by 2050 “.
* Early warnings and emergence of environmental responsibility: Total’s reactions to global warming, 1968-2021, by Christophe Bonneuil, Pierre-Louis Choquet, Benjamin Franta for Global Environmental Change