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Challenged by Carbon: Geologists, the Oil Industry and Climate Change

February's Shell London lecture, delivered by Bryan Lovell (GSL President) at the Geological Society on 16 February 2011.

Climate change is a defining issue of our time, the full understanding of which requires the long perspective offered by geology. Earth scientists can read in detail the geological record of changes in climate that occurred long before we were around to light so much as a camp fire, let alone burn coal, gas and oil.

A dramatic global warming event that took place 55 million years ago gives us a particularly clear indication of what happens when there is a sudden release of 1500 billion tonnes of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere. It gets hot, the seas become more acid, and there is widespread extinction of life. We are a third of the way to repeating that ancient natural input of carbon through our own agency. The message from the rocks to us all is that it would be a good idea to stop pulling that carbon trigger. The message from the rocks to the oil and coal industries is that they are particularly challenged by carbon. The oil industry can respond by playing a key role during the transition to a low-carbon economy, storing carbon safely underground once we’ve had the use of it.


Bryan Lovell


Bryan Lovell is Senior Research Fellow in Earth Sciences at Cambridge University, studying the effects of mantle convection on elevation of Earth’s surface and maintaining longstanding consultancy interests. He studied geology at Oxford and Harvard during the 1960s, lectured at Edinburgh University in the 1970s, then worked with BP Exploration from 1981-1996. 

Lovell contested Edinburgh South for the Scottish Liberal Party in May 1979. He was awarded an OBE in 1989 for services to Anglo-Irish relations. His Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change was published in 2009. He is currently President of the Geological Society of London.