Maybe Shakespeare was wrong to urge, in Henry VI, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Yesterday, lawyers in the Netherlands won a historic court case against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company that carries the most profound implications for defusing the climate emergency. The court ordered Shell to bring its global operations in line with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius; this will require Shell to reduce both its own and its customers’ greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2019 levels by 2030.
Together with shareholder revolts demanding stronger climate action by ExxonMobil and Chevron, the Dutch court ruling made May 26 one of the biggest days of climate news in years. Following last week’s landmark International Energy Agency report declaring all new fossil fuel development must stop for the planet to avoid irreversible climate destruction, the events amount to a crushing repudiation of Big Oil’s long-standing assertion that its profits matter more than civilization’s survival.
The Dutch case is particularly remarkable, for three reasons. First, “because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting corporation to comply with the Paris climate agreement,” Roger Cox, a lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands (in Dutch, Milieudefensie)—which brought the case with 17,000 other plaintiffs—told The Guardian. Second, because the judge held that society’s interest in emissions reductions takes priority over the commercial harm that Shell would suffer as a result. And third, and perhaps most far-reaching, because Shell must slash not only its direct emissions—the heat-trapping gases Shell releases when it drills for, refines, and brings oil to market—but also the company’s indirect emissions, the gases millions of customers around the world release when they use Shell’s gasoline and other products. As climate activist Greta Thunberg observed, this latter provision is what makes the court ruling such “a game changer.” If other countries apply the same logic, fossil fuel companies would have to leave much of their product in the ground, just as climate science says is imperative.
For now, the court ruling carries legal force only within the Netherlands, and although the judge ordered Shell to cut emissions “at once,” the company is appealing the ruling.
Meanwhile, the shareholder rebellions against the managements of ExxonMobil and Chevron flash an additional signal of public impatience with intransigence from Big Oil. The annual votes that shareholders of publicly owned companies cast almost always rubber-stamp management’s positions. But at Exxon, at least two of management’s candidates for the company’s board of directors were defeated. The opposition was spearheaded by a hedge fund, Engine No. 1, and pension funds from California and New York; the fate of two additional board seats was unclear as this article went to press, the vote still too close to call. “This is a landmark moment for Exxon and for the industry,” Andrew Logan of the nonprofit investor group Ceres told The New York Times. “How the industry chooses to respond … will determine which companies thrive through the coming transition and which wither.”
All in all, the climate story has taken a decisive turn; Big Oil’s fortress walls, which for decades have been the strongest obstacles to climate action, might finally be crumbling. For journalists, these developments present countless new angles and vividly illustrate why it’s crucial not to silo climate coverage on the weather or science beats. Leaving fossil fuels behind and rapidly shifting to renewable energy sources will carry enormous economic, political, social, and even cultural ramifications that journalists must now make clear to the public and policy-makers alike. As we often say at Covering Climate Now, climate change is the defining story of our time—and now is the time for newsrooms to tell it as vigorously, and rigorously, as we can.