This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
“No matter what he says today,” climate activist Lauren MacDonald said through tears in her opening lines at the TED Countdown panel in Edinburgh. “Remember, Shell has spent millions covering up the warnings from climate scientists, bribing politicians, and even paying soldiers to kill Nigerian activists fighting against them, all whilst rebranding to make it look as though they care, and that they have the intention of changing.” She said this even though the TED conference’s organizers had spent four hours pushing her to be more genteel, more “neutral.” She said it even though the man she was talking about, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, was sitting on the stage with her. When he faltered in his response, MacDonald would not share the stage with him any longer and walked out along with dozens of other activists.
In the aftermath of the TED bust-up, van Beurden went home, opting not to attend COP26 because he said he felt “unwelcome.” At the same time, activists occupied London’s Science Museum to protest its many sponsorship deals with fossil fuel companies. And in the United States, youth climate activists began what would become a two-week hunger strike to demand real climate action from the Biden administration. That strike ended when the group secured various promises from Democrats that a deal on climate policy would be reached—only to have Senator Joe Manchin once again argue that Biden’s Build Back Better bill is just too expensive, demanding that it be run through a thorough analysis by the Congressional Budget Office before he votes on it. Last week, those same activists, still weak from their hunger strike, joined a crowd to swarm Manchin as he drove out of a Washington, D.C., parking garage in his Maserati.
Manchin calls activists like these “entitled”; others call them “uncivil.” At COP this week, Barack Obama chided them for yelling. The executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UN entity that oversees the COP gatherings and whatever treaties come out of them) and organizer of the TED event, Christiana Figueres, cried after MacDonald’s confrontation with van Beurden, not because she’d suddenly realized the folly of inviting an oil exec to a climate event, but because the conflict was all so ugly. These reactions are a profound, willful misinterpretation of what “civil” means when it comes to “civil” disobedience. The word speaks to the power of ordinary people, to the coming together of the public. It does not mean “civilized” or “courteous.”
The reality is that climate activists spent decades politely asking for the world’s leaders to please act on this thing that is going to kill millions. They held respectful dialogue in respectable forums. They produced charts and came up with a plethora of acceptable solutions that, had they been enacted on a reasonable timescale, would not have posed a dramatic threat to the status quo. Over and over again, they met bad faith actors in good faith. And in response they were lied to, and saw little meaningful action. Is political corruption civil? Is it polite for a senator to risk dooming the planet before sailing off on the yacht he bought with the half a million dollars he earns every year from the fossil fuel industry?
Since 2018, the youth climate movement has reminded the world what people fighting for their lives looks like. It’s not well-mannered, nor should it be. Did gracious requests get rid of Jim Crow? Is there any justice movement in history that has succeeded on account of its proper etiquette? As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”
If you still think oil companies should be “part of the solution” or that they will voluntarily accomplish what needs to be done, let’s take another look at Shell. Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered the company to ratchet up its climate commitments and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the board—not just their own emissions but customers’ as well—by 45 percent by 2030. Shell is appealing that ruling, and in the meantime has announced its own commitment: to reduce emissions 45 percent by 2030, but only its internal emissions, which account for only 10 percent of the company’s emissions overall. What they are willing to do is 90 percent less than what we need them to do.
This is about a year after a handful of Shell’s renewable energy leaders quit because the company’s timeline for getting off of fossil fuels was just too slow. At the time, some Shell executives said the company was actually doing plenty to transition away from fossil fuels—it just wasn’t talking about it enough. Folks, that’s code for more corporate greenwashing. And that was a month after Shell got humiliated on Twitter for just such an approach. They were never engaging in good faith. They don’t know how.
Some folks say that Manchin’s obstinance is proof that the in-your-face approach of youth climate activists doesn’t work. But it’s not like asking him nicely worked either. Moreover, what we see in internal documents from oil companies is that the youth climate movement is the first thing that’s ever really made them worry about losing their social license. In a leaked 2020 marketing strategy doc from BP, executives worried that “the new voices of global influence are changing—from governments, NGO’s & Corporates…to the people.” Uh-oh. Unlike a certain senator from West Virginia, it looks like “the people” might not be so easily influenced and paid off. According to BP’s marketing consultants, the particular challenge of the youth climate movement was their authenticity “Can we become more relatable, passionate, and authentic?” The task, according to BP’s consultants: “to engage and win back the trust of the people with the biggest voice.” Again, those people they’re referring to are youth climate activists, and it’s not because they’ve been so congenial.
If you’re more concerned about manners than survival, understand that that is a luxury. If you are fighting for a livable future, isn’t that worth a little discomfort? After all, if you find civil disobedience unpleasant, you’re gonna hate climate change. Compromise and civility are the comforts of the rich and powerful. If we want elites to act, we’re going to have to make their complacency uncomfortable, and it’s going to require some incivility.