Shell Is Looking Forward
New York magazine|March 2–15, 2020
The fossil-fuel companies expect to not just survive climate change but profit from it.
Malcolm Harris

“We think democracy is better,” said the jet-fuel salesperson. “But is it? In terms of outcomes?”

In a conference room overlooking the gray Thames, a group of young corporate types tried to imagine how the world could save itself, how the international community could balance the need for growth with our precarious ecological situation. For the purposes of our speculative scenarios, everything except for carbon was supposed to be up in the air, and democracy’s track record is mixed.

A graph from Chinese social media showing how many trees the country is planting—a patriotic retort to the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg—had a real effect on the room. Combine that with the Chinese state-led investment in clean-energy technology and infrastructure and everyone admired how the world’s largest source of fossil-fuel emissions was going about transition. That’s what the salesperson meant by “outcomes”: decarbonization.

Regional experts from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East– North Africa also entertained the democracy question, pointing to Iraqi disillusionment with voting and economic growth in Rwanda under Paul Kagame (“He’s technically a dictator, but it’s working”). The China expert said the average regional Communist Party official is probably more accountable for his or her performance than the average U.K. member of Parliament, a claim no one in the room full of Brits seemed to find objectionable. The moderator didn’t pose the question to me, the American expert, presumably because our national sense of democratic entitlement is inviolable.

Actually, the moderator didn’t ask me any questions during the plenary that followed our regional-perspectives panel, either. That might have had something to do with my talk, which included bullet points like “Green growth is a myth” and “Your corporate existence is incompatible with a livable future for cohorts that are already born.” But I didn’t get that impression, not really. I was repeatedly asked to be honest, and everyone was really nice about it. Everyone was really nice in general.

SINCE 2017, when I published a book about American millennials, I’ve had the occasional cold call from corporations to come talk about my work, all but one of which I’ve turned down. But last fall, the Shell Scenarios team— as in Royal Dutch Shell, one of the biggest oil companies in the world—offered me £2,000 in exchange for a 15-minute talk and my participation in a group exercise. Its internal corporate think tank was holding a daylong conference about how generational change would affect the hopefulness projected in what the company calls the “Sky Scenario,” which it describes as “a technically possible but challenging pathway for society to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.” I’m not a climate expert, but apparently I qualify as a generational whisperer, at least to Shell, and to talk to me about global warming, the giant energy conglomerate wanted to fly me to London from Philadelphia, business class. I warned them that I couldn’t keep their money and asked if I’d need to sign an NDA. When they said no, I saw an opportunity to report on the oil company, undercover while in plain sight, without technically lying to anyone. It was too good to pass up. I said yes, then I emailed my editor.

The October 2019 workshop, it turned out, was timely. Fossil-fuel divestment used to be a fringe, college-campus concern, but over the past year, it has become increasingly in vogue in the world’s financial centers, including Davos, where it recently dominated conversation at the World Economic Forum. In December, a couple of months after the Shell workshop, the Bank of England proposed a new climate stress test to measure the resiliency of its banks in the face of warming—a move echoing that of Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank and reportedly being considered by the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell. Germany announced major coal phaseouts in January with coal-fired power generation scheduled to halt by 2038 at the latest. In a much-celebrated letter the same month, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, declared an about-face on fossil fuels, saying climate change was now a “defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” The entire country of Finland proclaimed it would go carbon neutral by 2035. Even the investor cartoon Jim Cramer, of Mad Money, got in on divestment, tweeting, “I am taking a hard pass on anything fossil.” Now Exxon Mobil is down $184 billionwith-a-b since its 2014 peak.

From a certain vantage, the momentum looks almost definitive, as though nothing could stand in the way of a renewable future. But unlike coal, oil and gas companies are still definitely profitable, even investable, and more oil and gas are being produced, and used, every year—which helps explain why carbon emissions keep rising too. There’s little doubt that fossil-fuels are, culturally speaking, on the wrong side of history. But there is still a lot more money to extract from those wells, and the fossil-fuel businesses are intent on extracting as much as they can. It’s not necessarily such a bad time to be an oil and gas company, in other words, but it is a bad time to look like one. These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.

Few organizations have been paying as much attention to global warming for as long as the companies that have helped cause it. Journalists at the Dutch publication The Correspondent tracked down an educational video Shell released in 1991 called “Climate of Concern,” which warned, “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.” There’s good evidence Exxon knew a decade earlier. But not only did these companies continue exploiting their reserves, not only did they explore for new sources and develop new modes of extraction, like fracking, but they funded politicians and groups that claimed not to believe in global warming, agents that have worked to delay the same action they knew was “our only safe insurance.” So far, the oil and gas companies’ calculations—that delay would make them money and that they could avoid consequences for misleading the public—have been spot on. But denial-backed delay is no longer sufficient, it seems. They’re now hoping to leverage their incumbency, and fossil-fuel wealth, to lay claim to the world’s cleanenergy future as well. To do that, they’ll have to persuade young people to forget who caused climate change in the first place, or at least to let bygones be bygones. And if they can transition their corporate profiles from fossil fuel to green energy without missing a profitable quarter, that wouldn’t be a repudiation of their delay strategy; it would be a vindication.

Of course, to judge by the advertisements, the transition to renewables has already happened. British Petroleum is now a solar-energy company called BP, ExxonMobil brews giant swimming pools of cool green-algae fuel, and Shell maintains mountain canyons lined with wind turbines floating in fog. All these initiatives actually do exist, though they are a tiny fraction of each company’s budget; so far, the main product of Exxon’s algae program seems to be propaganda. Right now, these companies have to convince governments and their publics to let them run out the clock with fossil fuels, and they’ve decided the best way to do that is to appear to be an essential partner for whatever’s coming next. I was ostensibly there to help plan the timing.

ORGANIZERS BROKE the conference up into three parts: first, a panel on polling and millennial politics; then the regionalperspectives panel; and finally, a collaborative exercise in which “deductive” and “inductive” groups imagined different paths to 2050. By gathering millennial employees from throughout the company, along with experts on the cohort and senior management, the strategies team surely hoped to infuse the firm’s leadership with a drip of youth consciousness, the way some oligarchs are rumored to inject themselves with young people’s blood. It’s supposed to help them stay agile. Other than the eight outside experts, there were a couple dozen people from Shell, ranging from HR specialists in their 20s to senior global executives (mostly Gen X and boomers). Staffers quoted me the figure “90,000 employees” (roughly the size of the company as a whole) a few times when explaining that virtually none of them knew one another.

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