Big Oil greenwash

The Manchester Science Festival 2018 began yesterday with the ‘Electricity: The spark of life’ exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), and met with a growing current of fury and opposition to the oil industry funding behind it. Amidst the admirable educational aims of the exhibition, which focuses on the ‘powerful force’ of electricity and its central role in our past and present world, there lies a problem – a problem seen by many as too damaging and detrimental to ignore. Fossil fuel giant Shell, a company that has made a huge contribution to climate change while vigorously denying its role, is funding the opening exhibition of the festival. The MSI has been left in no doubt of the public opposition to this ‘greenwash’ funding of the festival by Big Oil, which casts a favourable light on the industry’s activities, by a number of vigorous campaigns opposing Shell’s sponsorship of culture and education.

People attending the opening night of the festival were met by 10 ‘Shell Out!’ campaigners dressed in red hoodies and caps bearing oil company logos who greeted guests at the entrance, initially posing as brand ambassadors for oil company Shell. They revealed their true purpose by highlighting how they thought it impossible to support Shell when its huge and growing extraction of oil and gas was contributing to the worlds climate crisis. They condemned the museum for accepting the funding despite being aware of Shell’s future plans for high-risk fossil fuel extraction. Presenting Shell as devils, with horns attached to the well-known logo, the campaigners attempted to reveal what they saw as Shell’s true identity, hidden behind the Public Relations spin, urging the audience to engage with contemporary issues on climate change and question the museum…‘Why Shell?’

Big Oil greenwash

The museum’s decision to partner with Shell in August sparked large-scale debates which included scientists, environmentalists and citizens who respect the museum as an integral institution to Manchester’s cultural and educational scene. Despite three organisations withdrawing from the festival, and a petition asking for Shell to be dropped gaining over 58,000 signatures the museum has chosen to proceed with sponsorship from Shell. Activists argue that this breaches its position as a reputable institution dedicated to education, culture and the betterment of our future through scientific progression.

On one hand, we have Shell characterised by its role in our dramatically changing climate due to engagement in fracking, coal mining and gas and oil extraction while funding biased scientific research to deny it and spending fortunes on lobbying governments across the globe. On the other we have the museum focused on promoting good science and inspiring a generation through an innovative approach to science communication and curation. These contrasting ideas undoubtedly do not sit well together. Ethical considerations are particularly important at present when the environment is on the cusp of irreversible climate change due to the irresponsible actions of often global corporations, and the national government’s failure to regulate them. Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham supports the campaign to remove Shell sponsorship from the MSI and says:

“As the world swelters and wildlife struggles in this unprecedented heatwave, MSI has decided to partner with Shell, one of the corporations responsible for fueling climate change. A museum dedicated to science education should not be helping promote any company that is actively exacerbating this planetary emergency until they show a serious proactive drive to switch to renewables.”

Big Oil
Young protestor at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. Photo: Niamh Madden

The Manchester Science Festival follows closely on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which urgently highlights the action the world needs to restrict global warming to 1.5°C and avoid devastating climate change. Scientists focused on the growing levels of carbon dioxide being produced, that urgently need reducing, and identified the continuous pursuit of fossil fuels as one of the major contributing factors to the current climate situation. Shell’s business plans for the future oppose the actions the world is urged to take, as they have committed 90% of their future investments into fossil fuels. Their continued extraction of fossil fuels will exacerbate climate change. Shell along with other oil companies are profiting from this, at the cost of future generations.

In a confidential 1988 report named the ‘The Greenhouse effect’, Shell accounted for climate change, acknowledging the damaging effects of carbon emissions and the potential impact this could have on the future climate, such as rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. They identified a ‘greenhouse effect’ as early as 1981, outlining how “the main cause of increasing CO2 emissions is considered to be fossil fuel burning”. Despite this reflection, Shell proceeded to expand its extraction of fossil fuels. In 1997 Shell made comments which challenged climate science, arguing man-made carbon dioxide was only a small contribution to the influx in climate change, and said “we are still not in a position to know whether any effect will be good, bad or indifferent, whether it will be lasting, or the Earth’s natural processes will restore stability”.

The problem many environmentalists and scientists have with these partnerships is the social legitimisation that oil companies gain. Being positively represented through culture means they are able to oppose their reputation as being profiteers at the expense of the environment.

Museums, in general, hold the respect of the public and are considered honest and trustworthy, any decisions they make are often trusted wholeheartedly. A spokesperson from Culture Unstained, a campaigning organisation aiming to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture, highlights how from such partnerships corporate companies gain social and political power, they:

“Disrupt our democratic processes with large-scale lobbying of politicians and policy-makers. It is therefore particular concerning when a respected scientific institution like the Science Museum Group partners with not one, but three oil companies: Shell, BP and Equinor. When Shell sponsors the Science and Industry Museum, or BP sponsors the British Museum, they are – in effect – using the museums as a form of cheap advertising, converting their walls into low-cost billboards.

“So when arts and cultural institutions sign up to sponsorship deals with oil companies, they are allowing their collections – which should be a source of inspiration and debate for all – to be converted into a commodity to be bought by those with financial power. Museums work tirelessly to preserve objects and artworks, so they can be enjoyed well into the future. To brand exhibitions with the logos of those companies that are putting the future at risk is directly undermining their integrity as a cultural institution.”

Read The Meteor’s Previous article: Salford MP rails against government as fracking begins in Fylde

Since the MSI announced they were signing a new deal with Shell many have campaigned for an end to the partnership. Carbon Co-op, who withdrew from the festival, held a ‘Family Friendly Petition’ whereby families, young children and Manchester residents were encouraged to create artwork to hand in to the museum. Culture Unstained, who also withdrew, compiled a complaint to the Science Museum Group consisting of 48 signatories from highly respected scientists and environmentalists, including, Chris Packham and Sir Jonathon Porritt. The complaint outlined how the museum has breached its ethics policies as a result of partnerships with not just one, but three oil companies (Shell, BP and Equinor) and has undermined valuable relationships with scientists, young people and the wider community in Manchester.

In response to the complaint and open letter, the Museum of Science and Industry failed to address the problems at the core of the partnership and dismissed the severity of their decision by blaming a lack of government funding. As noted by Culture Unstained.
“It is deeply troubling that a national museum of this standing is so unwilling to be accountable and engage with those that have respectfully voiced their opposition”. The Meteor asked the MSI to comment on the issue of their receiving funding from Shell, but they refused to comment. Culture Unstained also told the Meteor:

“Shell – alongside other oil companies such as BP and Equinor – are continuing to invest in business plans that involve drilling for new sources of fossil fuels for years to come, and using more and more high-risk techniques to retrieve that oil and gas, such as fracking and deepwater drilling. These business plans, rather than supporting climate action, are based on the expectation that governments will fail to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Deal. That future would be a world of significant global warming with extreme weather events, rising sea levels, destabilised ecosystems and mass migration.”

Many other cultural institutions still hold partnership deals with oil companies, however, recently we have seen an unprecedented cultural shift as an increasing number of institutions have dropped their long-term deals after facing scrutiny from environmental organisations. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, The Almeida, London Symphony Orchestra and Tate have all parted with corporate companies recently in a bid to remove Big Oil stains from their work. Three Dutch museums (including the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) have also ended their partnership with Shell due to campaigns and protests from Fossil Free Culture NL. A succession of creative protests means environmental organisations, are raising cultural awareness and accelerating the removal of Big Oil funding in science, culture and the arts.

The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, appears conflicted in his approach to combatting climate change. Following his election Burnham highlighted his objective to make Manchester one of the leading green cities in Europe, pledging to reduce Manchester’s carbon footprint as a result of the distribution of renewable energy resources. In response to a letter from Friends of the Earth regarding the Shell/MSI issue, Burnham made no mention of Shells campaign of climate disinformation and its plans for huge ongoing investment into fossil fuel extraction, in his reply:

“We need energy companies to be part of the solution… it is only by engaging in constructive dialogue that awareness of environmental issues can be raised and differences of opinion can be better understood.”

The Manchester Climate Change Youth Board (MCCYB), dedicated to inspiring and informing the public on sustainability and the need for action, contributed to Burnham’s Green Summit and his initial plans to combat climate change, but are opposed to his support of Shell in this issue, saying:

“The Youth Board strongly believes Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry should not associate with Shell (or any company) who historically and continuously environmentally impact the planet. Companies that actively drive fossil fuels usage are exacerbating and profiting from the planetary crisis…”

The world is entering a critical time in the fight against climate change, with the UN warning that we have twelve years in which to implement urgent changes to limit climate change catastrophe. The campaign to prevent Big Oil stains being greenwashed through well funded public relations campaigns is one of the changes needed, and an extremely important one, due to its effect on public opinion and the choices we make democratically. The campaigns against Shell’s sponsorship of the Museum of Science and Industry will persist. Only time will tell if the MSI will follow the lead of other environmentally conscious cultural organisations and break their flattering financial links to Big Oil.

Niamh Madden

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