Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the documents show the oil industry not only knew climate change was happening, "but were at the cutting edge of the science when the science was in its infancy.""These new studies push the timeline back for when we have evidence that the fossil fuel industry knew about climate change," she said. The Humble study in particular "takes it as a given" that fossil fuels are adding CO2 to the atmosphere, with warming a likely effect."It's remarkable to see them have this sophisticated a position this early," she said.The 1968 Robinson report recognizes the uncertainties in the science at the time — but Robinson "is clearly and quite explicitly concerned" about CO2, Muffett said. And he said the industry's leading players responded by trying to poke holes in the science and delaying action."From my perspective, one of the testaments to the effectiveness of the climate-denial movement — the climate skepticism that they sought to sow — is that the clock on climate change keeps getting reset over and over again," he said. "Constantly, the public is persuaded that climate change is a new issue, some new theory that is just being tested, just being proved."Well before the Robinson report, popular media discussed the likely effects of carbon emissions in terms that will be familiar to today's audience. In 1956, Time magazine noted that "in 50 years or so," a CO2 buildup "may have a violent effect on the earth's climate." A 1958 science film produced by Bell Labs and Hollywood legend Frank Capra talked about possible melting of the polar ice caps if global temperatures rise "even a few degrees."
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Similar reports by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times last year have led to investigations of ExxonMobil in 17 states. Prosecutors are looking into whether the company misled investors by making misleading statements about climate change and its potential impact on the company's bottom line.Muffett said the CIEL will be releasing more documents in the coming months. But he said one of the "real tragedies" in the records is the knowledge of how much time that could have been spent preparing for the effects of warming has been lost."There was a moment where we could have responded much, much sooner before a lot of coastal infrastructure was built — before entire city economies or state economies were built on coastlines," he said. "There were moments when we, as a country, could have made very different choices about our future. And at those moments, what people were hearing about climate science and the threat of climate change was very different from what industry appeared to know."Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl