Protests as Shell admits climate change risk

Row your boat: “Kayaktivists” head for Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig in a Seattle bay. © PA

Climate change protesters descend on Seattle as the oil company Shell admits that global warming is on the rise. Do fossil fuel industries have a duty to protect the environment?

At a black-tie dinner during International Petroleum Week in February, Ben van Beurden stood in front of his colleagues in the fossil fuel industry. The Shell chief executive then gave a rather unusual speech: “Yes, climate change is real,” he admitted. “And yes, renewables are an indispensable part of the future energy mix.”

This sounds like a surprisingly frank admission from the head of one of the world’s largest fossil fuel firms. However, environmentalists are far from convinced that Shell is on their side: Seattle has seen three days of protests against the company’s plans to begin drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska.

Meanwhile, the Guardian revealed an internal document in which Shell forecast a global temperature rise of 4°C in the “short term” — double the ”dangerous” limit of 2°C. Scientists have warned of potential disaster if temperatures rise by as much as 4°C, predicting global droughts, international food crises, and extreme weather.

Despite acknowledging the risk, Shell is planning expansions which would significantly increase its greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this year it announced plans to buy the energy exploration branch of British Gas for £47 billion. The focus on natural gas, which many argue is a “cleaner” energy than oil, is part of Shell’s aim to be seen as a “responsible” energy company — but it is unavoidable that as the company grows, so will its emissions.

Van Beurden argues that Shell needs to balance its “moral obligations”. Climate change must be dealt with, but developing countries are dependent on energy to create prosperous societies which lift people out of poverty.

The protests come amid growing pressure on governments and energy companies to tackle environmental issues. The United Nations is holding a climate change summit in Paris in December, and many believe that this is a chance for an international agreement which could prevent a catastrophe.

Easy being green?

Shell itself has admitted that rising temperatures could completely change the world we live in and create far more dangerous conditions. Many would argue that as one of the main culprits, the company has a responsibility to help reduce this risk. It is completely contradictory for Shell to expand its search for fossil fuels while admitting the effect it will have on the planet — and it puts us all in danger.

Shell is just providing a service, comes the rebuttal. As long as people want to buy oil and gas to run their cars and homes, it would be madness for the leading oil and gas business not to supply it. If we want to reduce the world’s fossil fuel consumption, our focus should be on convincing governments to invest in sustainable energy instead.

You Decide

  1. Who has responsibility is it to tackle climate change: governments, large companies, or ordinary people?
  2. What do you think is the biggest risk facing our planet?


  1. Design a placard to use at an environmentalist demonstration.
  2. Get into groups and imagine that you are the directors of a large oil company which employs hundreds of thousands of people. Decide five things you will do to fight climate change over the next five years.

Some People Say...

“Global warming is an opportunity to build a fairer, more sustainable world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is climate change really happening?
Yes. There is some uncertainty about how fast it is happening and how much of it is caused by humans, but 97% of scientists agree that man-made climate change is real — that is an overwhelming consensus. In fact, it is hard to ignore the signs that we are feeling the effects already: just this week, NASA released a study predicting that Antarctica’s 10,000-year-old “Larsen B” ice shelf will have disappeared in five years’ time.
Is there anything I can do?
There are lots of small things you and your family can do to help reduce the amount of energy you use, such turning off electronics at night or taking slightly shorter showers. Why not look into any environmental groups or schemes which might exist in your local area?

Word Watch

Renewable energy is anything which comes from an unlimited source, such as solar power or wind energy. The UK is currently on track to produce 15% of its energy using renewable sources by 2020, but many climate activists believe that this is still not enough.
Limit of 2°C
Scientists have presented evidence that the effects of climate change will begin to get dramatically worse if average temperatures rise by more than 2°C. Most governments now acknowledge this target, coming together once a year to discuss environmental policies.
Extreme weather
This could include unprecedented heatwaves, tropical cyclones and increased flooding — especially around coastal towns and cities.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere can trap heat, and this causes global warming. These include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
“cleaner” energy
Burning natural gas releases around half the carbon dioxide of oil. However, the fracking technology which extracts gas risks accidentally leaking large amounts of methane, which could undo the effects.

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