George Wyeth

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The Biggest Day for Climate Change (Yet…)

It’s forever a mental challenge to stay positive about our fight against climate change, the odds seem to shift out of our favour every day. Yet yesterday May 26th, turned out to be one of the most pivotal days in a long time, which reminds us all why we fight — we can win no matter the odds.

So, what happened yesterday?

Well, where to begin. The first breakthrough news came courtesy of a Dutch court. In a groundbreaking case won by activists from Milieudefensie, which is the Dutch brand of Friends of the Earth, Shell were ordered to reduce their emissions 45% by 2030 from their 2019 levels. Royal Dutch Shell are based in the Netherlands but have operations globally. They’re expected to appeal the ruling but, let’s not let that dampen the mood for one moment. The ruling came partly from the view of human rights with court spokeswoman Jeannette Honée saying “Severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life. And the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights.” The court also stated that they appreciate this will hold big consequences for Shell but it is a huge step in the right direction. We are at a point where change HAS to be made and fast. Big oil companies have known about climate change since they attempted to cover it up back in the 70s and 80s so they only have themselves to blame if they’ve not got enough time now to make a smooth transition to green energy.

This news in itself is monumental. It shows how the world is changing and Big Oil are no longer able to force themselves above the law. More so than that, it is direct evidence that grassroots campaign and activist groups have the power to win in court versus these climate change behemoths.

But activists weren’t done there…

Just a few hours later Exxon Mobil shareholders elected to replace two directors with dissident candidates from a tiny activist fund called Engine №1 who aim to make the company step up their plans for transition to green energy. They were backed by numerous larger investment funds from across the US after many were also campaigned against in an effort to stop such organisations from funding polluting organisations. Exxon themselves worked to prevent their election with enticement about dividends but the investors weren’t interested. What has long seemed to be a pipe-dream (if you pardon the pun…) has finally started to see the light of day. This is what happens when enough noise is made towards investment firms. Companies like Exxon and Shell are profit-driven. It’s why they’ve taken so long to budge on decarbonising thus far — they gain too much from polluting. So it takes external forces to remove the decision from their hands. Money makes the world go round as they say, so investors have a huge power and it seems even their heights are starting to smell the fires of revolution at ground level.

Oh but I didn’t say activists were done there either…

The very same day, Chevron took a blow from their shareholders too. In a groundbreaking move, shareholders voted against management with 61% in favour of a proposal to cut the companies so-called “Scope 3 emissions”. These emissions not only include its own operating emissions but the emissions generated by customers burning their products. Oil and gas companies have generally diverted responsibility on the way customers use their products but this vote means Chevron have to find ways to cut them personally if they want to keep their investors onboard.

These breakthrough votes all show that the pressure to act on climate change is growing. If investors and courts are starting to hold the polluting giants accountable, they’re more likely to do so. Of course, the reason why investors and courts are beginning to hold them accountable all falls back to the grassroots movements, the ever snowballing protests across the globe and the scientific voices demanding attention to the facts in front of them. Keep shouting, even if it feels like shouting into the void!

This all comes just the day before today’s press release from the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) outlining how the world is already warming dangerously. They have found that there is a 40% chance than one of the next 5 years to 2025 could have an average temperature above 1.5oC pre-industrial levels. This is encroaching upon the 2015 Paris Agreement’s lower target of keeping below a 1.5oC rise; Though it doesn’t breach the agreement as it would only be a peak, not an average. Despite that fact though it shows quite how drastic the situation is. The world needs to act fast if we want to stand a chance in keeping our word on the Paris Agreement. The report also revealed that there is a 90% chance that one of those years will be the hottest ever recording, breaking the previous record set by 2016. It’s not exactly a surprise either. I was told last week by a San Francisco resident that wildfires are already starting on the US West Coast, a couple months earlier than usual.

Whilst we have a long way to go, yesterday's monumental news is fantastic evidence in a shift in the mindsets of even the most powerful players. Fingers are now crossed to see some more movement in Total’s AGM to be held tomorrow (28th May). However, of course someone had to ruin the wonderful streak we were on.

The Biden administration then decided to defend a Trump-era oil and gas project in northern Alaska. The project if it does make it to reality will produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day in what can only be described as a complete juxtaposition from Biden’s pledge to shift the US off of fossil fuels and rejoin them into the Paris Agreement. Oh and if that wasn’t enough of joke, check out this little gem of irony: The project from ConocoPhillips plans to install “chillers” into the permafrost of the area — that is rapidly melting due to climate change — so that it is solid enough to support the drilling equipment to access the oil, the burning of which will add to climate change. You honestly couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

This is all a bit heavy with industry jargon but, the long and short of it is this: Big oil companies are starting to feel the consequences of rising pressures to act on climate change. The investors and shareholders are starting to turn against these companies’ desire for profit and instead enforcing more responsibility for the crisis they are in a larger-part-than-most responsible for. Courts are starting to realise that the climate crisis is a human rights issue and those causing it should be held accountable.

Yesterday is a powerful reminder that we collectively have an impact. Our voices may be quiet individually but together the cacophony can find the big leagues. Keep on shouting, protesting, voting and signing petitions. Not all will make a dent but with enough it is inevitable some will slip through the cracks.

A 2020 product design graduate from the University of Sussex, UK who loves sharing discussions, stories, music, and puns with anyone who wants to listen.