Last week, a TED Countdown conference in Edinburgh invited and platformed Shell CEO Ben van Beurden. van Beurden, in a surprising twist of events, was upstaged by a climate activist who confronted him, to his face, and a walkout by youth activists. Since all this transpired, a question remains. Should fossil fuel companies be part of the climate conversation?
Last Thursday, at the International Conference Centre in Edinburgh, a TED Countdown conference invited Shell CEO Ben van Beurden on stage, to speak alongside a prominent climate scientist and Christiana Figueres, a key figure who led the negotiation of the Paris Agreement. The conference was to be “a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action”.
According to climate justice activist Tori Tsui, when a group of activists, herself included, found out about the arrangement, they asked TED to deplatform Shell. To which they were told such conversations were “necessary” for change to happen. Instead of accepting their request, TED decided to merely allow one climate activist, Lauren McDonald, on stage to ask a single question. Which, of course, TED supervised writing (to be “toned down”, according to a source with knowledge of the matter).
During the actual session, van Beurden extensively detailed Shell’s commitments to the climate. But he refused to take responsibility for the climate crisis. Accordingly, he blamed consumers for using so much oil. He even shared about his daughter asking him if he was destroying the planet. His response? “Do you trust me to do the right thing for you?”
When McDonald was finally allowed to speak, she took the opportunity to go off the script. Looking van Beurden straight in the face, she confronted the CEO with its hypocrisy. Highlighting the company’s ongoing and historic greenwashing, she said unapologetically, “you should be absolutely ashamed of yourself”. McDonald proceeded to call him “one of the most evil people in the world”. She then led a walkout, as he began to respond rather meekly. Other activists, in an action that the campaign Stop Cambo organised, walked out along with her.
— StopCambo (@StopCambo) October 14, 2021
Why on earth would TED invite and platform Shell at a climate conference?
Kamea Chayne, host of Green Dreamer podcast, self-proclaimed “outsider” of such events, noted that not only did TED invite Shell, but that it also invited others in the same planet-destroying, power-wielding league. “Ah, there’s an electrification advocate; another climate tech investor; another “clean” energy expert. Where are those from communities whose ancestral lands are being blown up right now for the polluting, open-pit mines needed to grow those “green” industries?
Oh hey, there’s the Chairman of the world’s largest maritime shipping company and industrial giant Siemens speaking; also, there’s the Chair of the Executive Committee of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, “whose industry members account for almost 30 percent of global production.” Where are those from the communities most harmed by these mass producers, and where are those most impacted by corporate imperialism, which exploits workers and “resources” in impoverished communities to feed the greed of wealthier countries and transnational corporations?”
Why would conferences like this even platform these corporates? The answer is simple. Because “corporate social responsibility” and green capitalism are what environmental work turns into within the status quo.
IMAGE: via Larissa Crawford | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A text photo with a bright yellow background. The header text reads: “Five Truths and Observations of the 2021 TED Countdown Summit following a youth-led walk-out on 14 October”. In capital letters, the main text reads: “Millionaire white men are sitting on these stages promoting books, business plans, and policy directions founded on the knowledge extracted and co-opted from these movements. There is a demand for their work because of these movements. These movements are translating into action, but in a way where palpable forces are taking the un-cited credit and profit from the safety of their boardrooms.” The text at the bottom reads: “Compiled by @larissa_speaks @ancestorsfuture”.
As Tsui shared: “I expected no less from a conference for folks who largely flew in from the US/global north to wine and dine in opulence. This is not what inspires new ideas. It simply reestablishes the systems of oppression which harm our communities.” Ultimately, conferences like the TED Countdown, unfortunately, play by the rules of the game. They do little to challenge status quo, even though that is what it takes to address the climate crisis.
These corporate representatives already hold sway over the narrative even within the climate space. According to Chayne, “their intentions participating seem to be more so about publicity and performativism—helping to steer solution pathways and shape the narratives of climate action to ensure their relevance.” The result of all this is what we saw play out at TED. Major corporations rehashing old ideas, while the “voiceless” continue to go unheard, and intentionally suppressed.
Shouldn’t conferences invite major players to hold them accountable?
Chayne noted that some argue that corporate and political elites have a “lion’s share of responsibility to address the destruction that they’ve caused. After all, the onus is disproportionately on them, so they need to talk about what they’re going to do, right?”
In response, she posed this. “[M]ost of them have not even acknowledged [that they are responsible] and have failed to offer reparations for the damages they’ve already caused communities (unless required by lost lawsuits), [so] why should anyone believe that they are capable of holding themselves accountable”?
Chayne is right. Despite often overwhelming evidence otherwise, major corporations fail to acknowledge how they’re directly responsible for planetary destruction. And in fact, they continue to fund fighting climate legislation. Even when they’re exposed for doing so, there is no way of holding these private actors accountable within our capitalist system. They’ve simply amassed too much financial and social capital to be held accountable.
Which is why van Beurden could speak on stage for twenty minutes about what Shell is doing for the climate… without acknowledging the tangible, horrific damage it’s unleashed for that very same climate. And only when activists fought for a chance to speak against him, were they granted a single moment to air its crimes. The unfortunate truth? Most times, activists aren’t even given that chance to fight. Most times, corporations are just given air time to say what they want.
So no, we shouldn’t invite them. Because they’ve demonstrated time and time again, that they’re unable to hold themselves accountable. And under status quo, not many have enough power, nor political will, to hold them accountable either.
IMAGE: via Nora Ellis | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A digital painting of a Shell gas station. The “S” of “Shell” isn’t visible, so it reads simply as “hell”. There is mist around the gas station, and the gas station seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Two red lights in the background emanate light ominously.
Founder of international coalition Polluters Out, Ayisha Siddiqa, one of the attendees who walked out of the session, told The Guardian that fossil fuel companies should not determine our collective futures. “Abolish these oil companies, finish them, get rid of them, no more,” she said. “The next stop cannot be for us to let the people who previously harmed us have a seat in the new world.” Siddiqa is not alone in the call to cut polluters out of the climate conversation. Entire youth movements, Indigenous communities on the frontlines, and those suffering from the brunt of the climate crisis, too, are demanding the same.
Some are already thinking about what exactly that future could look like. Carla Skandier, manager of the climate and energy programme at the Democracy Collective, told The Guardian that groups like hers are researching ways to nationalise the fossil fuel industry. This means getting the US government to buy out entire fossil fuel companies. It would take control of their operations. Then, it could ditch oil and gas reserves, invest in clean energy. And it can make sure that the transition doesn’t abandon workers in mass, as coal companies have done before.
That being said, however, as climate journalist Yessenia Funes wrote: “Nationalizing profitable industries would also take an unprecedented amount of political will, which has yet to materialize.” Presently, too many “public servants” still receive money from these fossil fuel companies. Which is in part why we’re in this conundrum, to begin with. At this point, lots of money is still being given out by these fossil fuel companies to tell lies and cover up what they’ve done to harm the planet and its people. While their executives show up at conferences to say that they “care”.
What has Shell done?
So what has Shell done, to prove that they don’t even deserve a seat to be part of this conversation?
McDonald, when confronting van Beurden, covered much ground. First, representing the “Stop Cambo” campaign she’s a part of, she demanded accountability for Shell’s plan to build a new oil field just off the coast of her home country, Scotland. If UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs off on Stop Cambo? The oil field will have the capacity to extract up to 170 million barrels of oil. This means emitting as much carbon pollution as 18 coal-fired power plants.
McDonald also called out Shell’s complicity in the killing of Nigerian activists in the 1990s. Today, they are remembered as the Ogoni 9. The context to this horrific case, chronicled by A Growing Culture, is that in the 1950s when Shell struck oil in Ogoniland, Nigeria, it began to extract billions of dollars, destroying the homeland of the Ogoni people in the process. Oil spills, uncontrolled, made Ogoni farmland infertile, water undrinkable, fish and wildlife decimated, all while no profits went to the Ogoni. Ogoniland remains unlivable—the UN believes that restoration could take over 30 years.
Back then, men known as the Ogoni 9 led the fight against Shell, and its collusion with the Nigerian military government. In 1995, after a “farce trial”, they were found guilty of murder and hanged. Their bodies were dumped in an unmarked grave. The widows, today, are still seeking justice in court.
IMAGE: via A Growing Culture | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A black and white photo of the Ogoni 9 in what appears to be a courtroom, edited onto a black background, with the text, “REMEMBERING THE OGONI NINE” in white text below the photo.
Speaking of court matters, McDonald also called out Shell for appealing a ruling in a Hague court in May this year. Friends of the Earth and over 17,000 co-plaintiffs got the court to order Royal Dutch Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. “If you’re going to sit here and act like you care about climate action,” she asked, “why are you appealing [this]?”
Shell, like many other fossil fuel companies, are in the business of greenwashing. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to front as a company who “cares” about “humanity’s” role in furthering the climate crisis. While being a major driver of that very same climate crisis.
Shell’s plan to get to “net-zero”
Last year, Shell released its plan to shrink its footprint to net-zero by 2050, supposedly to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. According to reporting by Gizmodo, it’s all bullshit.
First of all, despite all evidence pointing to the fact that it should do otherwise? Shell insisted that “society will continue to need some energy prodcuts that create emissions for the foreseeable future”. And it did not say that it would halt drilling more fossil fuels. Instead, it would invest in “natural gas”, which many claim to be cleaner fuel, though it’s still a fossil fuel. Secondly, Shell’s plans to cut emissions includes offsetting… with carbon capture and storage technologies. These still don’t scale effectively (yet). Which means that its plans aren’t genuine at all.
Finally, Gizmodo reported: “The company’s new climate pledge also explicitly excludes its “chemical” business, which is a sly way of ignoring all the plastic made from fossil fuel byproducts. Energy giants such as Shell are ramping up their plastic production”, which is their way of remaining relevant and earning profits, now that they see fossil fuels are on their way out. “Not including plastic in its plan to get to net-zero”, it concluded, “is a huge oversight.” Overall, the plan to get to “net-zero” is really just classic greenwashing.
Shell can’t, and won’t, stop lying
Another reason why climate activists don’t expect Shell to hold itself accountable is this. It has always been lying to the public. According to investigative reporting by The Guardian in 2018, in the 1980s, Exxon and Shell carried out internal assessments of the environmental impacts of the carbon emissions from fossil fuels. “Privately,” The Guardian reported, “these companies did not dispute the links between their products, global warming, and ecological calamity. On the contrary, their research confirmed the connections.”
Specifically, Shell’s analysts even warned of the following: “disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction”. Possible increase in “runoff, destructive floods, and inundation of low-lying farmland”. And even that “new sources of freshwater would be required”. Even with all of these warnings? Shell, and Exxon, chose to hide all this from the public. Shell marked these reports “confidential”. They were only disclosed by a Dutch news organisation in early 2018.
Back then, the firm argued that the “main burden” of addressing the crisis fell on governments and consumers. And not, as it should be, on itself. Sounds familiar? It’s the same responsibility-avoiding we saw with van Beurden at TED Countdown. It’s also the same breed of greenwashing we’re seeing from the likes of Shell (and all other fossil fuel companies) on social media. In the last few years, we’ve began to see a disturbing phenomenon of fossil fuel companies setting up social media accounts. Why?
To shift the blame for the climate crisis to individuals. To try to convince us that they’re playing a part in the energy transition. And to seem more… personable. Ultimately, as climate journalist Mary Heglar said: “Everything they put out is fucking bullshit”. Fossil fuel companies will do anything to keep telling lies, maintain the facade. Even as they burn the world down.
Shell shouldn’t be part of the climate conversation
In the wake of the backlash from the conference? TED Countdown, rather disingenuously, asked its followers on Instagram about how they felt about fossil fuel companies being part of the conversation. It posted the responses, which included: “Having a good hard think about why y’all love the fossil fuel industry so much x”. “Not inviting the shell guy to a climate talk, jesus”. “Variety of voices is fine, but those actively working against the planet and people are not”.
In the end, this is less about TED and more about the fossil fuel companies. Who shouldn’t be part of the conversation, much less get to lead it. They’ve proven, over and over, that they are not people. Shell is a corporation, which, for all intents and purposes, means that it’s a sociopath, if it were a human. We ought not to be humanising it. It’s not capable of the empathy, nor of the accountability, that we want to see. Instead, people can be part of the conversation. People can change. People can have second chances.
And so people should be the climate conversation. Ones affected by the climate crisis. The Indigenous communities fighting it. The youth protesting at the doorsteps of these companies. And the people who will lose their jobs at these fossil fuel companies in the transition. The power should be in the hands of the people, to determine where we go next. Not fossil fuel companies.
FEATURED IMAGE: via Raymon Kotewicz on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of a Shell gas station in North Carolina, USA, at night. The street is lit barely with a lamp, and one car is driving by the gas station. Two are in it, one parked in front of the mart, and another is driving out. The photo is colour-graded such that the gas station is lit with a ghastly blue tone.
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