During a recent international debate, a senior Shell executive failed to accept fossil fuel companies’ responsibility for the climate catastrophe that surrounds us, which is chronicled in both the IPCC report and the US National Climate Assessment. In a statement that shows the pattern that Shell and other fossil fuel companies take to distract, dissemble, and blame, Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s director of integrated gas and new energies, said, “It’s the task of companies like us to seduce our customers to decarbonize their lives. The world is intervening very late.”
The idea to “seduce” customers was an ongoing subtext of Wetselaar’s narrative when speaking at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) on November 23, 2018 during the Great Energy Debate. Wetselaar was frank about the world’s need for decarbonization, telling his audience, “We know we cannot scale up oil and gas production — we need to scale it down. So it’s a task of all of us to change the way we consume energy.”
Wetselaar’s argumentation, however, focused on a continued global reliance on fossil fuels — or else. “If we stopped producing oil and gas tomorrow, we’d have an economic crisis. We’d have a famine. We’d have a world war.” Indeed, even though he acknowledged that climate change is “something to be quite awed about,” the essence of his position focused on profitability for energy producers.
Wetselaar came well short of admitting to Shell’s culpability in the direct relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. Representing Shell, he focused on a core series of recursive positions.
- The world will collapse immediately if we stop using gas and oil.
- Energy production is all about profitability.
- Carbon capture is only one part of a much larger toolkit of climate change actions.
- Hydrogen is a viable alternative to gas and oil but has not been embraced to its fullest capacity.
In this first of a two-part series, we’ll look at how Shell organized an international energy debate, placed itself at the center stage of the conversations, and attempted to reposition itself from climate deceiver to part of a cohort that seeks to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Climate Change: A Tale of 2 Challenges
The Great Energy Debate attempted to tackle the question, “What is the future of energy, and what is expected of each of us?” The panelists were: Wu Changhua, a China sustainability policy and partnership specialist; Jay Layug, former Undersecretary of the Department of Energy and Chairman of the National Renewable Energy Board; and Peter Godfrey, Managing Director of the Asia Pacific Energy Institute, based in Singapore. Professor Peter Jackson, Head of Engineering and Systems Design at Singapore University of Technology and Design, moderated the live debate, which was broadcast on Twitter.
As Shell’s representative, Wetselaar acknowledged that “we face what looks to be an insurmountable challenge” to solve the effects of climate change. He outlined what he sees as the 2 primary challenges of climate change:
- Growth in energy demand
- Radical change in energy makeup
The event was sponsored by Shell and represented a corporate attempt to put a happy face on the fossil fuel industry’s place in climate change discussions. Wetselaar’s role as company representative was not only to discuss decarbonization as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century — he also was accountable to his company to diffuse responsibility that Shell has for the climate change disaster that confronts civilization. A disposition of cognitive dissonance threaded through his talk, even as he warned that, if the current energy supply system is doubled, “This planet will be an unlivable place for our children and even for ourselves.”
Can Fossil Fuel Companies Be Taken Seriously Any Longer?
“Greenwashing” is the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities, or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not. It involves misleading consumers about environmental benefits through unsubstantiated advertising, public relations, and claims. With the energy sector accounting for over 70% of total emissions that cause global warming, big oil has long been at the center of the climate debate and is now quickly trying to regroup to save its brand for future viability and profitability. Increased shareholder, legal, and political pressure to stop spreading climate disinformation and to fix their business plans has forced fossil fuel companies like Shell to rethink their relationship with global warming emissions.
The question, “Why are energy companies still producing oil and gas when it’s clear that we urgently need to stop to prevent catastrophic climate change?” drew murmurs of assent from the audience. Addressing an audience of about 250 university students, Wetselaar was called out for hypocrisy — How could one of the world’s largest energy companies be taken seriously in a discussion about decarbonization when it had ignored its own research that warned of climate change impacts as early as the 1980s?
Late 20th Century Decisions that Fossil Fuel Companies Made — and their Lasting Effects
Shell has spent the last several decades expending billions of dollars in fossil fuels extraction and been linked to spending on lobbying against climate action. As he attempted to position Shell as a company that is looking to the future, Wetselaar acknowledged that the company held back knowledge of the direct relationship between burning fossil fuels and climate change.
Speaking about the climate change research in the early 1980s, Wetselaar noted, “It was certainly known in informed circles.” Interestingly, he used passive voice construction, which dilutes Shell as an actor in the subterfuge. (Author’s note: Can’t you hear a bit of a zap here to climate deniers — including the so-called US President? Trump clearly is not circulating among these “informed circles.”)
In 1991, Shell produced a video titled Climate of Concern, which warned that increased burning of fossil fuels would warm the world and result in extreme weather, floods, famines and “greenhouse refugees.” The film referred to data from the company’s own scientists that predicted climate change “at rate faster than at any time since end of the ice age.” The film warned that to delay action to mitigate the effects of climate change—even though the firm believed that global warming wasn’t scientifically certain then — would be “irresponsible.”
In 1986, a separate report was produced by Shell scientists, even if the evidence for man-made climate change from greenhouse gases hadn’t been proven until the 2000s. “It could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilise the situation,” the report read.
But Shell today doesn’t want to do much reminiscing of that time when energy research and development could have altered today’s climate crisis.
“It is certain that if we’d spent all of our capital in the 1990s building solar panels, we would have gone bankrupt long before today, because our customers did not want to buy green energy at high prices at the time,” said Wetselaar, who has worked for Shell since 1995.
Wetselaar said that solving the energy challenge would take collaborative action now rather than “going back 30 years ago and saying who should have done what. Everybody should have done more — and didn’t.” Blaming energy companies for the damage, he insisted, sues a single actor and “is a waste of society’s money and time. But people should feel free to do what they want.”
Fast forward to 2018. Shell continues to maintain affiliations with trade associations and other industry groups that spread climate science disinformation and/or block climate action. The company has no policy or commitment on record to avoid direct or indirect involvement in spreading climate science disinformation.
Fossil Fuel Companies like Shell: Show Me the Money
The 2018 Climate Accountability Scorecard gives Shell points for confirming the scientific evidence behind climate change. However, Shell still has failed to set a company-wide, net-zero emissions target or to adopt a concrete action plan consistent with the Paris climate agreement’s global temperature goal.
Throughout his contributions to the Great Energy Debate, Wetselaar took a fully capitalist approach to climate change. He was explicit that investors “like to have their dividends, and I don’t think these two are mutually exclusive. I see it as my role to prove that new energies can improve a lower carbon and clean air world, but also they can be commercial. Because only if there are commercial will they be scalable to the point where they really have impact.”
The real question seems to be whether big oil will continue to engage in delay tactics that perpetuate an oil and gas endgame that is extremely profitable, or whether it will redirect its substantial assets to prepare for a low-carbon future by reducing emissions in its own operations and by developing transition strategies.
How Fossil Fuel Companies Can Make Amends by Aiding the Transition to Decarbonization
“The problem is solved by actors today taking joint action to solve the problems in the energy system,” Wetselaar declared during the Great Energy Debate. If argumentation is a complex speech act with a specific purpose is to convince a listener of the acceptability of a proposition, then here Wetselaar intended to gather together all constituents — whether they were complicit or “seduced” — to join into societal climate change. “The action that needs to be taken is a complex system of government, consumers, and companies.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends that Shell and other fossil fuel companies take the following actions to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions for which they are responsible.
- Renounce disinformation on climate science and policy
- Plan for a world free from carbon pollution, developing business models that are consistent with keeping global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed by world leaders
- Support sensible climate policies to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases
- Fully disclose climate-related risks to their business
- Pay their fair share of the costs of climate-related damages and climate change adaptation
“The challenge is about cleaning up the water and the air,” Wetsellar said, declaring the obvious. He cited solar, biofuels, hydro, and wind as energy sources that will make up an important part of the energy mix in the future. He went on at length about the power and possibility of hydrogen, specifically. Shell has significant investments in hydrogen, which Wetselaar acknowledged had not yet paid off financially for the company.
In 2017, Shell published a study on the future of hydrogen in the transport sector, jointly produced with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. The study concludes that in 2050, 113 million fuel cell electric vehicles could save up to 68 million tons of fuel and almost 200 million tons of carbon emissions, “making a significant contribution to reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector.”
The picture below, courtesy of Shell, speaks to hydrogen facilities that use electricity generated by wind power. Less discussed is the prevalence in fracking — which contaminates groundwater — for hydrogen.
A Picture of Life, 50 Years from Now
A question was posed at the Great Energy Debate about how a person might talk to a 9-year old child about energy in the future — what will life be like?
Wetselaar was both poetic and dismal in his response. “Energy is life. Energy is health and prosperity. It is one of the most precious things we have. But we should consume it with care, and we should produce it with care. We haven’t always done that. We don’t always do it. You can live a fantastic, prosperous, healthy, and high quality life,” he told his imaginary child audience. “But it’s going to look a little bit different than ours. Maybe you won’t fly as much. Maybe you won’t be quite as comfortable as often. But you will be able to look your children in the eye and say, ‘The world is now a truly sustainable place.'”
Fossil fuel companies like Shell engage in a type of political discourse that has the objective of reproducing and contesting realms of power. In the Great Energy Debate, Wetselaar, representing Shell, spoke of the need for fossil fuel companies to “seduce” their consumers into a renewable energy future. In virtue of this collectively recognized commitment or obligation, fossil fuel companies like Shell can and should be challenged and criticized on the grounds that they are not acting fairly and that they should be held liable for their professed knowledge of the links between fossil fuel burning and climate change.
Like so many other powerful entities in the world today, Shell officials like Wetselaar go to great lengths to show that they are acting fairly and that they are honoring their institutional obligations, even if (or especially if) there are good reasons for thinking that they are not.
Meanwhile, through the divestment-from-fossil-fuel movement, many companies and individuals are rising up against fossil fuel companies and declaring that climate change is an environmental, social justice, and economic issue.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at a sponsored post that Shell published recently in the New York Times to see other methods the company is using to “seduce” consumers.
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— Shell (@Shell) November 23, 2018