Uncovered Documents Show Oil Industry Knew About Its Role in Climate Change Earlier Than We Thought

The City of Angels looking smoggy. Photo: Joel Muniz

The Inertia

Documents uncovered by an investigative climate journalist show correspondence that dates the fossil fuel industry’s knowledge of the link between CO2 emissions and climate change to 1954. It’s the earliest known instance of oil company supported climate research and five years before physicist Edward Teller warned the American Petroleum Institute of the danger posed by the oil industry.

The story, broken by journalist Rebecca John and published on the climate change publication Desmog, is significant because it reveals that parts of Charles Keelings’ research – a scientist known for inventing the Keeling curve, a daily record of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration – was in part funded by the fossil fuel industry. As a result, it creates a new timeline in which the fossil fuel industry was first aware of potential harmful impacts of burning fossil fuels, both on the climate and human civilization.

According to Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law, the documents add momentum to ongoing attempts to hold the oil and gas industries legally responsible for harm caused by climate change.

“These documents talk about CO2 emissions having planetary implications, meaning this industry understood extraordinarily early on that fossil fuel combustion was profound on a planetary scale,” Muffet said. “There is overwhelming evidence the oil and gas industry has been misleading the public and regulators around the climate risks of their product for 70 years.” 

The trove of documents include a communication that Samuel Epstein, a climate researcher at the California Institute of Technology and the research director for Keeling, sent to the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation (SCAPF), a fossil fuel industry backed interest group. The letter in question is a research proposal for funding written by Epstein in which he warns of the repercussions of burning coal and petroleum. It was not previously known that Keeling’s research, which was centered around measuring CO2 levels across the Western U.S., was funded in part by SCAPF. 

“The possible consequences of a changing concentration of the CO2 in the atmosphere with reference to climate, rates of photosynthesis, and rates of equilibration with carbonate of the oceans may ultimately prove of considerable significance to civilization,” Epstein wrote. “Since 1840, the carbon-isotope ratio (C12/C13) has increased in the trees so far investigated. This can be explained on the basis of a change in the ratio in carbon dioxide atmosphere resulting from the burning of the C12-enriched coal and petroleum.”

The revealed documents were pulled from the Caltech archives, the U.S. National Archives, the University of California at San Diego, and Los Angeles newspapers from the 1950s.

SCAPF was formed in 1953 to take on Southern California’s infamous smog problem. To fund smog research, the organization generated funds of $1,250,000, portions of which came from 18 automotive companies, including but not limited to, Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. Other sources of funding came from lobbying groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Oil and Gas Association, and the Automobile Manufacturers Association. SCAPF approved Epstein’s proposal of USD $13,814 ($158,000 in modern-day scale) to fund the research on measuring CO2 levels in the atmosphere.


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