Concerned about climate change? Then why is New Scientist cosying up with Shell?
"It's time we all burst our carbon bubbles" declared New Scientist magazine in a leader published on 5 July, extolling the virtues of divesting one's current account, pension etc. from fossil fuels. We couldn't agree more. And so we'd suggest that New Scientist puts its money where its mouth is, and breaks sponsorship ties with Shell.
The annual exhibition 'New Scientist Live', taking place this autumn, sees Shell returning as a sponsor. And not just any sponsor. Shell's logo will be splashed all over the 'Earth Zone' covering life on earth and indeed climate change. In one sense it is extremely appropriate for the issue of climate change to be sponsored by Shell (see also the proposal that hurricanes should be named after fossil fuel companies).
But Shell's business model is contributing directly to a shocking decline in the biodiversity that the 'Earth Zone' is celebrating. A recent in-depth study by investors Schroder looked at the different elements that need to change if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The overall conclusion is clear - climate change is accelerating and we are on course to blow our 2C budget soon (let alone the aim of keeping temperature rise to a less dangerous 1C). What was also illuminating in the report was the difference between the elements. For example, renewable capacity has been increasing, but not fast enough: it is on a trajectory consistent with a 3.1C increase, electric vehicle progress is less positive on a 4.1C trajectory. Coal burning is falling so there's a more positive message there: it's consistent with keeping to 2.2C. Oil and gas production however is rated as on track for a 7.8C temperature increase.
We expect that visitors to New Scientist Live will learn about Shell's investment in green energy (one percent of its total business). Shell also likes to highlight its work on energy efficiency. One thing that will probably not be highlighted is that at Shell's recent AGM, a motion was rejected to set emissions targets in line with the Paris climate agreement, with the board arguing that this was "not in the best interests of the company".
Fossil fuel companies such as Shell may publically express support for the Paris climate agreement, but they refuse to consider any scenario that does not involve dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come as realistic or worth aiming towards. Their lobbying behind the scenes also tends to be less progressive than their public positions. Researchers last year calculated that Shell spent at least $22 million annually on 'obstructive climate influencing'.
Shell's stand at the 2016 New Scientist Live
Allowing companies like Shell to greenwash their image through events such as these helps reduce the pressure on them to change course towards genuine sustainability - it gives them social licence to continue. There have been passionate campaigns with some significant successes to get arts organisations to quit sponsorship deals with fossil fuel companies. It could well be argued that an organisation representing science has an even greater responsibility to avoid implicitly giving endorsement to oil companies. By partnering with Shell in an event covering the natural world and our response to climate change, New Scientist is effectively telling the public that oil companies' refusal to consider the radical changes in energy use demanded by climate change is A-OK. And why would the public not believe that message when the scientific experts are telling them so?
There is another concern. Will the overall message on climate science and the action needed be accurate, or will the choice of sponsor influence the slant that is given? This is a more speculative question, but an important one. For example, there's a talk on the impact of climate change on butterflies entitled "Climate Change: Winners and Losers". It doesn't sound that bad when you put it like that, does it?
One of the talks highlighted on the Earth Zone page is "Antarctica – from greenhouse to icehouse. The world’s icebound continent wasn’t always white and deserted – and once even sustained forests." Is it over-critical to suggest that the choice to feature this (very valid scientific research) fits rather nicely with the "Hey, don't worry about it, the climate has always changed" narrative? To be fair, the talk on climate tipping points looks pretty upfront about climate risks.
Shell has been accused before of trying to influence content and activities as a sponsor of the Science Museum (a range of evidence has also been unearthed by the Art Not Oil coalition of how BP uses its position as an arts sponsor to influence curatorial decisions). But in fact, there doesn't need to be explicit pressure. If the New Scientist event organisers wish the relationship with Shell to continue, there is a risk of self-censorship about uncomfortable facts. And this is another reason why the conflict of interest in Shell sponsorship is entirely inappropriate.