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Fossil Fuel Industry Knew About Impending Climate Crisis as Early as 1954

Newly uncovered evidence shows the industry in fact funded research behind a foundational concept in climate science.

A visitor stands by a Keeling curve showing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere over time in the special exhibition "Digital Forest" at Forum Wissen in Lower Saxony, Göttingen, on October 25, 2023.

For at least 70 years, the fossil fuel industry has been aware of — and, in fact, funded — research showing that their products would cause climate crises and global warming, newly uncovered documents have revealed.

Between 1954 and 1956, a coalition containing fossil fuel and automobile industry leaders funded research for environmental researcher Charles Keeling at the California Institute of Technology, the documents show. There, Keeling conducted experiments that ultimately resulted in the development of the Keeling Curve — the now-famous graph showing the rise of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel use that is foundational to scientists’ understanding of the climate crisis today.

The documents were uncovered by Climate Investigations Center research fellow Rebecca John, and published this week by DeSmog.

The foundation that partially funded the research was called the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation, and the group’s contributors included fossil fuel trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Western Oil and Gas Association, now the Western States Petroleum Association, as well as automakers like Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. Research projects funded by the foundation were then examined by a committee that included an API official and representatives from Richfield Oil Corporation, now owned by BP.

The documents show that fossil fuel giants were aware of the impending climate crisis as early as 1954, with previous research only dating this discovery as early as the 1970s. This means that the fossil fuel industry has, for 70 years, been aware of at least some of the disastrous effects their products are wreaking — and has chosen to obfuscate and lie about the existence of the crisis for decades.

“These new documents wind back the clock another half-decade on the oil industry’s long history of climate knowledge and deceit. They contain smoking gun proof that by at least 1954, the fossil fuel industry was on notice about the potential for its products to disrupt Earth’s climate on a scale significant to human civilization,” said University of Miami climate accountability researcher and professor Geoffrey Supran, in a statement provided to Truthout.

“These findings are a startling confirmation that Big Oil has had its finger on the pulse of academic climate science for 70 years — for twice my lifetime — and a reminder that it continues to do so to this day. They show that the oil industry not only pioneered modern climate science, but also played a formative role in its very inception,” Supran continued. “In so doing, these documents add fuel to the flames of efforts to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their climate damages and deception.”

Though Keeling’s research would not be fully developed until later, the initial proposal for the research, submitted by his research director Samuel Epstein, showed that researchers were looking for changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“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 carbon ratio in carbon dioxide atmosphere resulting from the burning of the C12-enriched coal and petroleum,” Epstein wrote. “The possible consequences of a changing concentration of the C, 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.”

Later, as Keeling had come further in his research, he would present some of his findings at a conference in 1963, according to other documents newly uncovered by John. Keeling presented his findings from his observations at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (where climate scientists still measure atmospheric carbon dioxide levels today), suggesting that the burning of fossil fuels was contributing to the rise of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. The findings were eventually brought to the attention of U.S. policymakers and the president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Previous research has found that the fossil fuel industry has had detailed knowledge of the effects its products would have on the climate for decades. A study published last year, for instance, revealed that Exxon’s internal climate studies had in fact predicted global warming with stunning accuracy, with predictions on par with what scientists have observed in modern years.

The fossil fuel industry’s denial and suppression of climate research is having devastating effects on animal and human populations across the globe. In an article published online in Nature on Tuesday, Georgetown University climate researcher and professor Colin J. Carlson pointed out that the climate crisis has already caused an estimated 4 million early deaths — a number that will only multiply drastically in decades to come.

“Many or most of these deaths were twice preventable, resulting from two overlapping policy failures for which high-income countries and ongoing systems of colonial extraction bear most of the blame: the failure to eliminate fossil fuels; and the failure to make high-quality clinical care, essential medicines, vaccines, sanitation and the other material components of climate change adaptation available to populations facing unprecedented health risks,” Carlson wrote.

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