The AMOC Crisis: A Disaster Foretold in Shell’s 1998 TINA Scenario

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February 14, 2024

by Brian Eckert

Article by Milberg Senior Counsel and environmental lawyer Melissa Sims.

In a striking revelation from a 1998 internal memo, energy giant Shell was found to have foreseen the catastrophic implications of fossil fuels on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), predicting a scenario eerily reminiscent of today’s alarming scientific forecasts.

Termed the “TINA” (There is No Alternative) memo, the document not only acknowledged the crucial role of fossil fuels in climate change, but also anticipated their contribution to a potential collapse of the AMOC, which researchers now say could lead to a new Ice Age in many parts of the world.

The AMOC—the ocean current at the center of 2004’s climate change disaster movie Day After Tomorrow—is a colossal marine conveyor belt that plays a pivotal role in global climate regulation by transporting heat, carbon, and nutrients across the Atlantic. Its weakening, exacerbated by the rapid melt-off of Greenland’s glaciers and Arctic ice sheets, disrupts this essential climate regulator. Freshwater influx from melting ice dilutes the ocean’s salinity, hindering the descent of warmer, saltier water from the south, thereby weakening the entire system.

Recent studies, including groundbreaking research published this February in Science Advances, echo Shell’s decades-old concerns and indicate that the AMOC is indeed veering towards a dangerous tipping point. This tipping point, which can be seen in state-of-the-art climate models run at a Dutch supercomputing facility, is “bad news for the climate system and humanity,” say the authors of the new study.

The latest AMOC modeling results follow research that made headlines last July for proposing that the collapse of the AMOC could happen far sooner than scientists have previously thought—possibly as soon as mid-century based on the current scenario of future emissions.

Shell and its affiliates contribute around 13% of all global industrial GHG emissions.

Despite the inability to predict the exact timing of the AMOC’s collapse, scientists have expressed shock at the forecasted speed of the collapse if and when the critical threshold is crossed. If the AMOC does reach an abrupt shift, it would be the first time in more than 10,000 years that such a change has occurred.

Alarmingly, research indicates a 15% decline in the AMOC’s strength since 1950, positioning it at its weakest in over a millennium. While previous studies and speculations have varied in their predictions of the AMOC’s collapse, ranging from as early as 2025 to as late as 2095, the new findings underscore the urgency of the situation. By analyzing salinity levels in the southern Atlantic and employing computer models to simulate changes over two millennia, scientists have observed a potential for rapid collapse within a century, leading to dire consequences for global climate patterns.

The implications of an AMOC collapse are profound: significant sea level rises threatening coastal cities, drastic changes in the Amazon’s wet and dry seasons, erratic global temperature fluctuations, a warmer Southern Hemisphere, and a dramatic cooling and drying of Europe. Such rapid changes would outpace any attempts at adaptation, highlighting the need for immediate and serious action against climate change.

Shell is responsible for 2.21% of all global industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1965-2022, totaling approximately 34,469 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in both direct and end use of their products, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. Combined with emissions from its joint venture carbon major partners, Shell and its affiliates contribute an estimated 12.96% of all global industrial GHG emissions, totaling the sum of approximately 201,985 MtCO2e from 1965-2022.

Shell’s foresight in the 1998 TINA memo, now mirrored by current scientific research, serves as a stark reminder of the longstanding awareness within the fossil fuel industry of their activities’ potential to trigger catastrophic climate events.

The call to action is clearer than ever. To avert an irreversible climate crisis, the world must acknowledge the dire predictions and commit to substantial climate change mitigation efforts. As we inch closer to the tipping point, the message from both past and present is unequivocal: the time to take climate change seriously is now.

Ms. Sims was recognized in the Time 100 Climate List 2023 for her work representing Puerto Rican municipalities in a groundbreaking lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for damage caused by extreme weather.