Alleen Brown December 13 2019, 12:30 p.m.
The same day that 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a stirring speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, in which she criticized delegates for “stealing my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” the architects of the climate crisis welcomed select youth participants from the summit to dine.
CEOs from fossil fuel corporations including BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Norway’s Equinor were attending the annual gathering of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative in New York, which includes industry leaders who claim to be committed to taking “practical” action on climate change. On the agenda for lunch was to “explore options for long-term engagement” with young people the industry could trust. Student Energy, a nonprofit based in Alberta, near Canada’s tar sands region, helped organize the event, which included time for students to grill the CEOs about their inaction on climate change.
Tension in the room was high, Student Energy’s executive director, 30-year-old Meredith Adler, told The Intercept. “The whole discussion started off with one of our participants talking about why youth don’t trust oil and gas companies,” she said. But by the end of the meeting, Adler tweeted that she was “very impressed” with OGCI. “I don’t feel they had all the answers or strong enough answers but they are really listening,” she wrote.
The students’ questions may have been tough, but the event was great PR for the fossil fuel industry. Gone are the days when CEOs openly questioned the existence of climate change. Today, industry leaders are feigning a sense of climate urgency while pushing forward proposals for climate action that will allow companies to keep harvesting carbon-emitting products well into the future. Subjecting themselves to a cohort of skeptical students was an opportunity for oil and gas executives to boost their credibility in an era when many young activists will only engage with them with picket signs.
Young activists say they’re seeing more of this “youth-washing” as the global youth climate movement gains momentum, including at the U.N. annual climate conference, known as COP 25, which is wrapping up in Madrid this week. With “youth” becoming synonymous with climate action, corporations and politicians are increasingly using young people to portray themselves as climate serious.
“There’s a real dangerous tokenism of youth for the benefit of public image.”
“The use of youth in campaigning is becoming more and more overt,” said 24-year-old Eilidh Robb, a member of the U.K. Youth Climate Coalition, who has been involved in pushing the U.N. to adopt a conflict of interest policy that would prevent fossil fuel industry representatives from exercising influence at COP. “There’s a real dangerous tokenism of youth for the benefit of public image.”
The OGCI gathering was a particularly egregious example of youth-washing. OGCI has provided funding to Student Energy, and OGCI ventures director Rhea Hamilton is on the group’s board of directors. Among the “partners” listed in Student Energy’s 2018 annual report are Royal Dutch Shell and Suncor, one of Canada’s biggest tar sands producers. Fossil fuel companies consistently fund the organization’s annual conference.
Although Student Energy’s leaders often echo the talking points of activists like Thunberg, the group’s membership — a network it claims includes 40,000 young people — is largely made up of people who want to work in the energy industry.
Student Energy is among the youth groups granted observer status at COP 25, meaning that its members can gain access to negotiation spaces, speak with the negotiating parties, and participate in events. Its presence at the U.N.’s international climate talks is only expected to grow. Student Energy’s 2018 report noted that the group had seen a 73 percent increase in active chapters. Next year, the oil and gas major BP has pledged to send 50 Student Energy delegates to COP26. The funding would double the size of the group’s usual delegation, according to a BP press release. In a conference space that serves as a battleground of ideas about how to address the climate crisis, BP apparently sees Student Energy’s presence as beneficial to the corporation.
But Student Energy’s funders, some of the corporations most responsible for the climate crisis, show no signs of slowing down. Suncor’s production portfolio, which includes mostly tar sands extraction, is the most carbon intensive of the 100 largest fossil fuel companies in the world, and the company has pushed hard for new pipelines that would allow it to continue to increase production. Shell, the world’s 11th-largest greenhouse gas-emitting oil and gas company, is projected to increase its fossil fuel output by 38 percent by 2030. BP, the 14th-largest emitter, will up production by 20 percent.
The corporations’ projections fly in the face of the measures scientists say are required to meet the U.N.’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. The point of the COP is to move toward that goal.
Adler told The Intercept that Student Energy participated in the OGCI event in order to challenge the oil and gas industry face to face. She said the organization follows strict partnership principles that prevent funders from wielding influence over the group’s activities. A large proportion of the organization’s members want to work in the renewables industry, not for a fossil fuel company, she added, and next year they will be diversifying their funding sources significantly.
As for BP’s COP26 funding, Adler said that Student Energy has not officially accepted the money. “We’re examining what that looks like and the implications of that and if they’re the right partner.”
To Taylor Billings, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Corporate Accountability, it’s no surprise that the industry is seeking a youth movement to collaborate with. As she put it, “If zebras were leading the march, fossil fuel corporations and global north governments would be clambering to get into the zoo.”