This is an edited version of a speech given to XR Scientists at the Science Museum on 29th August 2021
My name is Emma. I am a Research Fellow at Cambridge University looking at behaviour change and sustainable diets. But I’m not here to talk about that.
Instead, I’ve been asked to speak today not because of something I’ve done but because of something I didn’t do. And I’m here to tell you what I didn’t do and why.
About six weeks ago, I was invited to apply to speak at a New Scientist event on Sustainable Futures. I applied and was accepted. I was delighted: I love presenting my work and discussing it with new audiences. I grew up reading New Scientist and before my university interview I crammed as many of their articles into my head as I could.
I then looked up the exact details of the event and discovered the primary speaker – at the top of the list – was a BP Executive talking about carbon capture and storage. I discovered from Culture Unstained that BP was one of the two main sponsors of the event – though the New Scientist had removed the BP logo from their webpage.
For me it was an easy decision: I would not speak at this event while BP are a sponsor. I informed the organisers and (of course) tweeted about it.
I received many messages of support and encouragement from climate scientists and activists. Thank you for doing that. It made me more certain I had made the right decision.
Two other speakers joined me in withdrawing from the event and huge kudos to them for that. I am still hoping that the other speakers will join us in withdrawing but we will see how that goes.
I cannot believe in the year 2021 – when so much of the world is flooded, or on fire, or both, when citizens in Madagascar are suffering from a climate induced famine; when commuters in China are trapped on flooded metro trains, when we have warmed the world already by more than one degree – I cannot believe we still have to screen event invitations on sustainable futures to see if they’re funded by fossil fuel companies!
It’s ridiculous and it’s obscene. It saddens and angers me.
Since the start of austerity over 10 years ago, our museums and other public institutions, like the Science Museum, have had big cuts in funding. I understand that they need more funding and that it must be difficult to turn down donations, even ones from fossil companies. But it’s so important that they do so. Why does getting rid of fossil fuel sponsorship matter? It matters because fossil fuel companies pollute our discussions, as well as polluting our planet.
Channel 4 reported last month that the Science Museum signed a gagging clause with Shell, their exhibition sponsor, agreeing “to take care not to say anything that could damage Shell’s reputation”. This is very explicit about what Shell expects to receive and the conditions attached from their donation. But usually it’s more subtle and harder to spot.
For the New Scientist event, I saw that two out of eight topics are carbon capture and storage; and a hydrogen economy. These are fossil fuel industry talking points!
Keep burning fossil fuels because you can capture the CO2 and store it.
Keep using fossil fuels because you can turn them into hydrogen, and use it as fuel.
As a scientist and citizen, I would love to hear the pros and cons of these technologies and their potential from scientific experts who have no financial links to fossil fuel companies. If you’re one of those scientists, please get in touch. I am interested in the evidence.
But while carbon capture and storage and hydrogen – and everything else – are being discussed and promoted at a BP funded event, this tarnishes the science. It becomes hard to evaluate these strategies fairly.
And this is why fossil fuel sponsorship is so dangerous.
I know that life is messy and full of compromise. I know that no institution or donor is perfect and there are always shades of grey.
But I think the evidence is incredibly clear: how far we/our success in limiting climate change almost entirely depends on dismantling fossil fuel industry influence in our politics and culture.
And that means no more fossil fuel sponsorship.
We have had a good understanding of the science of climate change for decades. Today, in 2021, we have the technology to decarbonise nearly all sectors of our economy. The Absolute Zero report from Allwood et al reckons with current scalable technology we could decarbonise everything apart from aviation, shipping, cement, beef and lamb.
Indeed, we’ve had electric trains and hydropower for 140 years. Think what we could have achieved in the last few decades if we had taken climate change and decarbonisation seriously.
We know the science of climate change; we have the technology to decarbonise; what we lack is the political will to do enough about it.
And for that, we also need no more fossil fuel sponsorship.
There are far, far too many examples of how the fossil fuel industry has stopped climate policy progress. I don’t think any of us have time for me to list all of them. But what astonishes me is that they’re still doing it today. How do they have the audacity?
The Paris agreement in 2015 – not that long ago – agreed to limit climate change to well below 2 degrees of warming. Since then fossil fuel companies have continued to search for new fossil fuel reserves, although burning what we already know about would barrel us well over 2 degrees.
Since the Paris agreement, fossil fuel companies have spent more than 1 billion dollars on blocking climate legislation, around 200 million dollars a year. It’s just indefensible.
I think it’s important to listen to a wide range of views in how we reach zero emissions. I did consider the arguments for engaging as stakeholders and shareholders to pressure the fossil fuel industry to change. However, reading those numbers and reports a couple of years ago was the final straw for me and removed any lingering benefit of the doubt I might have given fossil fuel companies. I decided “I do not want to listen to anything you have to say about sustainable futures, ever again.”
This year, an Exxon Mobil lobbyist bragged to an undercover Greenpeace sting operation that Exxon – by funding sympathetic US senators – had essentially rewritten the US infrastructure bill to take out decarbonisation policies. He bragged that Exxon publicly supported a carbon tax, only because they were convinced it never had a chance of happening.
Fossil fuel companies have had decades to meaningfully shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and they haven’t. They have funded climate misinformation and blocked policy. They are polluting our discussion as well as our planet. They have given us no reason to trust them. You don’t ask arsonists to put out fires. Fossil fuel companies should not be near – anywhere near – discussions on sustainable futures.
Thank you to all the organisations including Channel 4, Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, who have dropped their fossil fuel sponsors. I look forward to when the Science Museum and the New Scientist, follow the science, and do the same. I am sure that they will eventually, the only question is when.
I was surprised to get some messages saying that my decision was brave and must have been difficult, particularly for an early career researcher. It wasn’t. Honestly, I consider it the very least I could do. By not speaking, I did not turn down a job offer or a speaking fee or donations or risk arrest.
So I’d like to say thank you to all of the climate activists, organisers and policy makers in the UK and across the world who work and protest and legislate for climate action. Particularly, thank you to those who are taking on real risks, to try and get policies for a safe planet. Thank you for your bravery and dedication. I am in so much awe.
And thank you to everyone who financially and vocally supports climate protestors, who says “I agree with you, I think you’re doing the right thing, no, you’re not silly, what you’re doing is eminently sensible. I disagree with those who say you’re wrong, misguided, overreacting, extremist. I’ll chip in and help fund what you’re doing”.
Thank you to everyone who does what they can.
Let’s build a safer, fairer, greener world together.
UPDATE: As of 16th September 2021, New Scientist have dropped BP and other fossil fuel sponsors and speakers from the New Scientist Live event Emma refers to. Emma’s comment on twitter: “Thank you & well done New Scientist. Absolutely the right decision.”
Fossil fuel companies are polluting our discussions as well as our planet. We need to drop all fossil fuel sponsorship of culture, media and sport.
For UK citizens, please sign this petition https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/587089