New Documents Reveal Oil Industry Knew of Climate Risks Decades Earlier Than Suspected; Suggest Coordinated Efforts to Foster Skepticism

April 13, 2016

Media Contact:
Carroll Muffett, President:, 202.742.5772
Amanda Kistler, Communications Manager:, 202.742.5832

New Documents Reveal Oil Industry Knew of Climate Risks Decades Earlier Than Suspected;
Suggest Coordinated Efforts to Foster Skepticism

Washington, DC – Hundreds of documents uncovered by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) push back the record of oil industry knowledge on climate change by decades.

The research demonstrates that the oil industry was explicitly warned of climate risks in the 1960s. Significantly, much of this research was carried out as part of a broader industry effort—dating from the 1940s—to use industry-funded research to spur public skepticism of pollution science and environmental regulations.

“We began with three simple, related questions,” says Carroll Muffett, President of CIEL. “What did they know? When did they know it? And what did they do about it? What we found is that they knew a great deal, and they knew it much earlier and with greater certainty than anyone has recognized or that the industry has admitted.”

In 1968, a report commissioned by the oil industry detailed rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and warned of potentially catastrophic climate risks. It warned of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, impacts to fisheries and agriculture, and potentially serious degradation of the environment on a worldwide scale.

According to Muffett, ”CIEL’s findings add to the growing body of evidence that the oil industry worked to actively undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action even as its own knowledge of climate risks was growing.”

Through industry histories and other documents, CIEL traced the genesis of the industry’s collective climate research to a meeting of oil and gas industry executives in Los Angeles in late 1946. Faced with growing public concern about air pollution, the industry embarked on what would become a well-funded, carefully coordinated, multi-decade enterprise of funding scientific research into air pollution issues. Through its aptly-named Smoke and Fumes Committee, the industry not only funded research, but used it to promote public skepticism of environmental science and environmental regulations the industry considered hasty, costly, and potentially unnecessary.

In the decades that followed, the Smoke and Fumes Committee funded massive levels of research into an array of air pollution issues, often conducted by institutes fostered and governed by the oil companies themselves. By the mid-1950s at the very latest, climate change was one of those issues.

The documents also show how Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) scientists actively engaged on climate science in the company’s name beginning in the 1950s, even as they actively funded and published research into alternate theories of global warming.

“These documents are the tip of an evidentiary iceberg that demands further investigation,” says Muffett. “Oil companies had an early opportunity to acknowledge climate science and climate risks, and to enable consumers to make informed choices. They chose a different path. The public deserves to know why.”

To view the research and document excerpts visit:


Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) uses the power of law to protect the environment, promote human rights, and ensure a just and sustainable society. CIEL is a non-profit organization dedicated to advocacy in the global public interest, including through legal counsel, policy research, analysis, education, training and capacity building.


What others are saying about our findings:

“This stunning investigation by Carroll Muffett and CIEL has pulled back the curtain of Big Oil’s plausible deniability on climate change, and the naked history is pretty ugly. Turns out they all knew about the dangers of smog and the threats of global warming several generations ago. The oil industry reaction to these challenges was to seek control of the science and policy narrative, funding counter science and suppressing public scrutiny and concern about air pollution caused by the use of their products.”

-Kert Davies, Director, Climate Investigations Center


“It’s astonishing to learn that almost fifty years ago the American Petroleum Institute and its member companies sought and received scientific advice that continued carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels posed potentially catastrophic risks to the global climate. While acknowledging scientific uncertainties of that time, the 1968 Stanford Research Institute report to API made clear that there was ‘no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe’ and that companies should ‘work toward systems in which carbon dioxide emissions would be brought under control.’ Fossil fuel companies bear particular responsibility for climate damages—damages that could and should have been averted had they acted to reduce the risks of their products.”

-Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)


“CIEL is to be applauded for its efforts in making these documents publicly available. Just as was the case with the release through litigation of tobacco industry documents, these documents will shed light on the actions and inactions of a powerful and influential industry.”

-Sharon Y. Eubanks, Counsel, Bordas & Bordas, former lead counsel for the Justice Department in federal tobacco litigation


“It’s increasingly clear that the fossil fuel industry knew a lot more about the causes of climate change—and its effects—much earlier than anyone else. It pains me to think how much better shape the planet and vulnerable communities could be in if the fossil fuel industry had taken positive action based on this knowledge instead of trying to profit from it. I’m grateful to InsideClimate News and CIEL for investigating this deception to make sure the fossil fuel industry is held accountable.”

Annie Leonard, Executive Director, Greenpeace USA


“The ongoing revelations about the depth of oil industry research into—and obfuscation of—the greatest crisis humans have ever faced are hard to read; thanks to them, we wasted vital time. Their publication even at this late date is vital to taking real action.”

–Bill McKibben, Founder