Written By Marc D. Grossman, Esq.
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Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year old Swedish climate activist, addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23 in New York City. 

The star of the Summit, Thunberg said about climate change during an emotional speech that, “People are suffering, people are dying. All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. For more than thirty years, the science has been crystal clear.” 

Meanwhile, down the street from the UN, a group of major oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell, organized their own event on the same day as the Climate Action Summit. The industry-led Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) described the event as a “closed high level discussion” with key stakeholders. 

The OGCI says that its members “engage together on action to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” Opponents call their efforts “greenwashing,” a form of PR spin in which companies convey the false impressions that their policies are environmentally friendly. 

Oil and gas companies want us to believe that they are changing for the better. On the surface, their efforts appear sincere and substantial. But a closer look reveals that the only “green” these companies care about are the profits from their planet-wrecking products. 

Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Schell announced that it plans to invest $300 million over the next three years to pay for reforestation. The initiative is part of Shell’s broader strategy to reduce its net carbon footprint by 2% – 3%” over the next three years and “support the transition towards a low-carbon future,” said Shell CEO Ben van Beurden. 

Shell’s plan sounds impressive—until you consider that in 2018 alone, Shell invested $25 billion in oil and gas. The $300 million Shell will pay to help offset its greenhouse gas emissions is only slightly more than 1% of the company’s $24 billion annual income

Shell’s 2018 annual report lists oil and gas as its “cash engines,” while its “growth priorities” are chemical production and deep water oil extraction. Low-carbon energy is listed under “emerging opportunities”—alongside fracking and liquefied fossil gas technologies. A new report from InfluenceMap also reveals that Shell has spent nearly $50 million per year lobbying to weaken and oppose meaningful legislation to address climate change following the Paris Agreement. 

So why does Shell brag about CO2 offsets when they are just a drop in the company’s immense profit bucket, and run counter to lobbying to block climate change policies? As Shell’s Chair explains, the company’s success, “will depend largely on whether society trusts us. Investors invest in companies they trust, governments allow trusted companies to operate, and consumers buy things from people they trust.” 

Within this context, promoting investments in natural ecosystems appears to be part of what the Chair calls a strategy “to sustain a strong societal license to operate.” In a word: greenwashing. 

How Shell Helped to Sow Climate Change Uncertainty

Shell’s carbon reduction efforts ring even hollower when you consider that, for years, Shell was part of a massive effort to publically cast doubt on climate change, while internally predicting—and preparing for—its worst effects. 

Climate of Concern

By its own admission, Shell has understood that burning fossil fuels can destabilize planetary systems since at least the 1980s. 

In 1991, Shell produced an educational film called Climate of Concern that explained how greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels were contributing to a changing climate that could lead to more extreme weather and other serious consequences. 

“What they foresee is not a steady and even warming overall, but alterations to the familiar patterns of climate, and the increasing frequency of abnormal weather,” the film cautioned. “It is thought that warmer seas could make destructive [storm] surges more frequent and even more ferocious.”

Clip from the film:

North Sea Construction

Shell’s actions on climate change speak louder than its words. In 1989, the company announced that, as a result of global warming-related sea level rise, it was redesigning a $3 billion North Sea natural gas platform. Shell decided to raise the platform a meter or two in anticipation of rising seas. 

According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, Bob Bea, a Shell offshore engineer at the time, said that, “The tipoff to there being changes came from hurricanes. Even back in those days…hurricane intensities were changing.” 

Predicting “Violent Storms” 

Shell doubled down on the prospect of more intense hurricanes in internal reports first published in 1998. Eerily prescient, Shell predicted in “Group Scenarios 1998 – 2020” that in 2010, “a series of violent storms causes extensive damage to the eastern coast of the US.” Following the storms, the report continues, “a coalition of environmental NGOs brings a class-action suit against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done.”

Although off by a few years, Shell’s predictions ultimately came to pass. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was the most expensive in U.S. history, with damages totaling around $300 billion. In Puerto Rico, hurricanes Irma and Maria caused the Commonwealth more than $120 billion in damages and left nearly 3,000 people dead.

The GCC “Victory Memo”

Shortly after Shell took steps to protect drilling infrastructure in the North Sea, it colluded with other fossil fuel companies to fight impending climate change regulations under the guise of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an international lobbyist group. 

In 1998, the year after the Kyoto Protocol was signed, the GCC launched its secret plan through a document known as the “victory memo.” The plan included a multimillion dollar, multi-year budget designed to question the science behind climate change and cast doubt on its projected impact. “Victory will be achieved when average citizens understand uncertainties in climate science,” the memo proclaimed.

Shell, as a member of the American Petroleum Institute (API), joined the GCC in the mid-1990s. While they formally withdrew after the victory memo was executed, they continued to fund the promoters. 

Shell Facing Climate Change Lawsuits

Shell’s reliance on fossil fuels is the subject of a recent lawsuit in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered. 

Groups that include Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Greenpeace delivered a court summons to Shell in April 2019 that states Shell’s oil and gas extraction is incompatible with Paris Agreement goals, and demands that it cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. 

“Only if Shell follows this emission reduction pathway, can it truly contribute to preventing catastrophic climate change,” says the summons. It adds that, “Shell has known about climate change since at least the 1950s and has been aware of its large-scale and serious consequences since at least 1986.” 

Climate change litigation is emerging as a new front in the battle to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for selling products that contribute to global warming while misleading the public about their harms. A growing wave of U.S. lawsuits claim, as the Netherlands lawsuit does, that big oil and gas firms knew for decades that their products were contributing to climate change, but concealed these risks to maximize profits. 

Some legal experts believe that Oklahoma’s recent opioid litigation ruling could help climate change lawsuits succeed. The judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson’s “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance” that compromised public health and safety. Michael Burger of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change told E&E News that judges overseeing climate nuisance cases may look to the Oklahoma case to help them decide what to do about the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign.

Holding Shell Accountable

The fourth largest investor-owned greenhouse gas emitter, Shell was responsible for 1.7% of all global industrial greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015. Building social trust may be part of their PR strategy, but based on the gap between their public position and internal planning on climate change, they are not a company that anyone should trust with the future of our planet. 

As an antidote to Shell’s greenwashing, a new wave of youth activists led by Greta Thunberg, as well as new types of climate change litigation, seek to force real changes from a company that wants us to think it’s part of the global warming solution, when in fact it’s part of the problem. 

 


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