Oil knew climate risks from '50s

Oil Rig
The fossil fuel industry knew about climate risks earlier than previously thought.

They've brazenly lied, purposefully misled the world and held back political action for over half a century.

The fossil fuel industry was given scientific data that its emissions were responsible for rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, and warned of the risk this caused to the climate far earlier than previously known, newly unearthed documents have revealed.

Automobile and petroleum industries funded research conducted by Charles David Keeling between 1954 and 1956. Keeling is the scientist behind the famous “Keeling Curve”, a visual depiction of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which underpins the modern understanding of manmade climate change. 

The funding came via a research organisation called the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation, formed in 1953 to tackle smog in Los Angeles. American Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors were among 18 automotive companies that donated to the foundation. 


The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Western Oil and Gas Association, now known as the Western States Petroleum Association, were also major donors of the foundation, documents reveal.

The revelations, originally published by climate investigators DeSmog, follow an investigation by Rebecca John, a research fellow at the Climate Investigations Center. 

They feature multiple documents from the archives Caltech – the California Institute of Technology, for whom Keeling worked at the time – the US National Archives, the University of California at San Diego and Los Angeles newspapers.

Together, they demonstrate that the fossil fuel industry was sponsoring climate science in 1954, around 25 years before Exxon’s internal research programme in the 1970s.


Correspondence between Caltech, where Keeling worked at the time, and the foundation reveal Keeling’s boss, Samuel Epstein, told the foundation of the risk to the climate from emissions generated from the burning of coal and petroleum.

They've brazenly lied, purposefully misled the world and held back political action for over half a century.

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,” he wrote

Data compiled by Keeling using the foundation’s grant showed that average carbon dioxide levels were consistently similar at varying locations across the US, and above tropical waters, about 310 parts per million (ppm).

This suggested that it would be possible, using continuous measurements over an extended time period, to estimate how much CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels was being absorbed by natural carbon sinks such as forests, oceans, and how much was being emitted into the earth’s atmosphere. 

He wrote: “The factors which control the concentration and isotopic composition of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere have been studied with the view of predicting the effect of terrestrial plants, of surface ocean water, and of the burning of coal and petroleum on atmospheric carbon dioxide.” 


However, despite this warning, many of the members of the foundation including API, the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, Chevron and BP went on to spend millions of dollars in a campaign to attack climate policies and discredit climate science.

Pascoe Sabido, researcher and campaigner for Corporate Europe Observatory, which is campaigning to keep fossil fuel companies out of UN climate talks, said: "It just gets worse and worse. For over half a century they've brazenly lied, purposefully misled the world and held back political action.

“If we'd acted then, just think what a different world we could be looking at. That's why we need to keep them as far away from political decision making as possible."

The industry has consistently put its own profits before the health of the planet and everyone who lives on it, he said.

Lisa Göldner, lead-campaigner of Greenpeace’s Fossil Free Revolution Campaign said that it was time to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for their lies. “To put an end to the harmful effects of fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-related deaths, public prosecutors must hold fossil fuel companies to account, including in the criminal courts. 

“Governments and legislators must also take steps to stop the deadly business of fossil fuels and make these companies pay for climate-related loss and damage,” she said.


This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She can be found on X at @Cat_Early76.

More from this author