Oil & gas giant Total downplayed climate threat: study

Paris (AFP) – French oil and gas major Total deliberately downplayed the threat of global warming from the 1970s onwards, according to research based on interviews with former company executives and internal company documents.


The findings, published by a trio of historians Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Global Environment Change, follow similar revelations about US oil giant ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell.

The pattern that emerges is one of oil and gas giants well aware -- often informed by their own scientists -- of the dire risks posed by rising temperatures, on the one hand, while undermining confidence in climate science in their public pronouncements, on the other.

Total -- today TotalEnergies -- "began promoting doubt regarding the scientific basis for global warming by the late 1980s", moving from "denial to delay," the researchers reported.

The company "ultimately settled on a position in the late 1990s of publically accepting climate science while promoting policy delay or policies peripheral to fossil fuel control."

In 1971, Total published an article in the company's internal magazine on "atmospheric pollution and the climate" that drew a straight line between burning fossil fuels and potentially "catastrophic consequences".

The piece appears to have set off alarm bells: over the next 17 years, the magazine never mentioned the issue of climate change again, according to the researchers.

"In the company's public communications, global warming was downplayed and the impact of human activities on this disruption was denied," they wrote.

"Total and Elf" -- the two companies merged in 1999 -- "were actively addressing what they perceived to be a very real threat to their business."

In 1992, on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit that gave rise to the bedrock UN treaty to combat global warming, Total's environmental director Jean-Philippe Caruette sought to plant a seed of doubt.

"There is no certainty about the impact of human activities [on global warming], including the combustion of fossil fuels," he wrote in the company magazine.

A rebranding effort

Even as it successfully lobbied to undermine policies to reduce CO2 emissions, Total sought to brandish environmental credentials, the study showed.

"We thought that only Exxon and the US oil and gas giants were engaged in this kind of duplicity," co-author Christophe Bonneuil, a historian at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, told AFP.

"Now we know that French majors also participated in this, at least between 1987 and 1994."

Climate campaigners reacted with fury to the findings.

"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," 350.org and French NGO Notre Affaire a Tous (It's Everybody's Business) said in a joint statement.

In a statement sent to AFP, a Total spokesman said the company "openly acknowledged the findings of climate science 25 years ago," as well as "the link with the petroleum industry".

In May 2021, Total rebranded itself as TotalEnergies to reflect a shift towards renewable energy
In May 2021, Total rebranded itself as TotalEnergies to reflect a shift towards renewable energy Christophe ARCHAMBAULT AFP/File

"TotalEnergies finds it regrettable to be called out for a situation from 50 years ago without highlighting the efforts, changes, progress and investments made since then."

In May, Total rebranded itself as TotalEnergies to reflect a shift towards renewable energy, which the company said would account for 20 percent of investment in 2021.

At the same time, it projected an increase of 50 percent in group-wide production of oil and gas between 2015 and 2030.

"The intensive development of new oil and gas projects is a declaration of war against humanity," 350.org France Team Lead Clemence Dubois said, calling on banks to stop underwriting such projects.

In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) laid out for the first time a roadmap for transitioning to a global net zero energy system by 2050.

The steps needed, the IEA said, included no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and that the global electricity sector reach net-zero emissions by 2040.