An activist, a shareholder campaigner and an oil exec walk into a TED talk …

Climate Finance

An activist, a shareholder campaigner and an oil exec walk into a TED talk …

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Three vastly different positions on achieving the energy transition from fossil fuels take one stage: Let the fireworks begin. 

At the first-ever, in-person TED climate conference, the Countdown Summit, kicking off before the upcoming COP talks, organizers assembled a panel to argue three very different positions on achieving the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. The speakers included a corporate oil company executive, a shareholder campaigner and a climate activist. Let the fireworks begin. 

The positions were as you would expect. Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden argued that continued investment in oil and gas companies is necessary. Engine No. 1 co-founder Chris James outlined why getting climate-savvy people on company boards will help ensure oil and gas companies execute fossil fuel transition plans. Young Scottish activist Lauren MacDonald, who is campaigning to stop a proposed oil field near the Shetland Islands, called for radical, immediate change as the only path to effectively reducing emissions in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. 

The discussion was moderated by climate heavyweight Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who led the global effort to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement. She introduced the panel as “an opportunity for mutual understanding and a forum for listening” on the topic of how to decarbonize. Each speaker was asked to share their strategies for accelerating the energy transition. She warned upfront that her questions to the panel would be provocative. 

She warned upfront that her questions to the panel would be provocative. 

The fireworks started after opening remarks by van Beurden who outlined Shell’s transition strategy and his statement that ongoing investment in fossil fuel companies would be necessary as part of the plan. Van Beurden said that Shell is committed to becoming a net zero company by 2050 but that it would continue producing oil and gas because “the world still uses oil and gas.” The company’s approach to the energy transition is to use its legacy business of oil and gas to fund its renewable energy efforts. 

“That does not mean that we want to hold on to [the legacy business],” he said.

Then came some sharp follow-up by James of Engine No. 1 asking whether a single company could execute multiple strategies with different risk profiles. 

When called on next, activist MacDonald read off a list of what she called Shell’s historic atrocities.

 “I just want to start by saying that you should be absolutely ashamed of yourself for the devastation that you have caused to communities all over the world,” MacDonald said to van Beurden. “You are responsible for so much death and suffering. I’m not even going to appeal to you to change because I know that that would be a wasted opportunity.”

“If you’re going to sit here and say you clearly care about climate action, why are you currently appealing the recent court ruling that Shell must decrease its emissions by 45% by 2030?” MacDonald asked.

She then said she “would not share the podium with Shell,” and walked off stage. 

Moderator Figueres and the live audience paused in stunned silence. Deonna Anderson from GreenBiz said in her on-the-scene reporting, “The tension at the event space was palpable.”

The question looms: How long can Shell hold on to oil and gas production with a slow transition business plan that threatens the world’s climate?

How long can Shell hold on to oil and gas production with a slow transition business plan that threatens the world’s climate?

The meltdown revealed two hard truths: First, how emotionally charged the subject of climate change has become as COP26 approaches and meaningful climate policies seem to be floundering around the world, and secondly, just how strong the need for urgency is felt by climate advocates in the wake of scientific reporting that the world is running out of time for effective change.

Near the end of the event, climate activists Xiye Bastida and Shiv Soin shared a list of demands that they and other youth developed during the course of the week:

  • Divest from all fossil fuel investments, and reinvest in green energy as well as ensure a just transition led by workers and impacted communities.
  • Center climate justice in all key policy decisions.
  • Stop all open pipelines in oil extraction initiatives from Line 3 in the United States to Cambo in Scotland.
  • Hold large corporations accountable for their actions that contribute directly to the climate crisis.
  • Create policies to protect activists’ rights to peaceful protest and safeguard democracy around the world.
  • Remove the economic, political and social influence of fossil fuel companies from key international climate negotiations.

Real-world choices on the spectrum of change —  from realistic to visionary — are being made today with vastly different views of what’s required and how fast steps must be taken. Those with an interest in addressing the hard questions at hand will find much to think about in this hour-long event.

As part of their COP programming, TED will also be hosting a YouTube livestream event on October 30 to “lay out a credible and realistic pathway to a net zero future by bringing together key solutions from the Countdown Summit, stories of local action, social and cultural discussions, and a global call to action.”

Written by

John Howell

John Howell is a writer, editor, and broadcaster who oversees the Climate Finance Weekly newsletter and advises on communications and media strategy. He was co-founder, editorial director, and chief of thought leadership for 3BL Media, for which he managed all original editorial content, wrote, and edited newsletters, and created the Brands Taking Stands initiative. He has worked as an editor and contributor for Elle, Artforum, and High Times magazines, developed new media for Hearst Magazines, and created communications for Calvin Klein, Polo/Ralph Lauren, and The Body Shop. He lives and works in New Hampshire and Maine.