The cost of silence

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This is the second part of a column that began March 23.

It’s impossible to achieve action for change unless people are, first, informed, and second, confident their voices will be heard. The effort to silence climate scientists and others who demand an end to fossil fuels is considerable. However, the call for change is ever louder, as these success stories indicate.

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In June 2021, a tiny hedge fund called Engine No. 1 successfully pushed the energy giant Exxon to reduce its carbon footprint. Supported by highly influential investors, Engine 1 argued that Exxon wasn’t making needed changes fast enough. This example of shareholder activism demonstrates that a mechanism exists for demanding companies’ environmental responsibility.

On Feb. 9, 2023, ClientEarth, a Shell shareholder, filed the world’s first such lawsuit against Shell’s board of directors for “failing to adopt and implement an energy transition strategy that aligns with the Paris Agreement.” ClientEarth is a non-profit organization that uses the law to initiate changes to protect Earth. They received unprecedented support from international investors.

In May 2021, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell oil company to reduce its CO2 emissions 45 per cent by 2030, from 2019 levels. This win for environmental group Milieudefensie, the Dutch wing of Friends of the Earth, reflects a court’s willingness to dictate what a large business must do globally to protect the climate.

This month at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York, UN delegates reached an historic agreement called the High Seas Treaty, reflecting two decades of efforts by non-governmental organizations, civil society, academic institutions, and scientists. The treaty will protect marine biodiversity in international waters (two thirds of the ocean), considered crucial in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Scientist Rebellion is an international scientists’ group campaigning for degrowth, climate justice and reducing climate change damage. In April 2022, more than 1,000 scientists from 25 countries participated in demonstrations following the IPCC report’s release. In Los Angeles, four scientists chained themselves to the doors of JP Morgan Chase & Co., a bank with huge investments in fossil fuels. The protestors called for the bank’s divestment from coal, oil, and gas. While arrested, the event was livestreamed on Facebook. In a press briefing afterwards, António Guterres, the UN secretary general said, “climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals, but the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

Last week, after the UN released the 2023 IPCC report, the “Rocking Chair Rebellion” blockaded banks in 100 locations across the U.S. One group sang songs in the lobby of a Chase Bank in Washington before being arrested. The author and environmentalist, Bill McKibben, helped launch a campaign, called Third Act, successfully organizing Americans older than 60 for climate action.

Although significant numbers of climate defenders are imprisoned, many cases of environmentalists charged with public mischief are successfully acquitted, when allowed to present their actions as a reasonable response to the climate crisis. In 2021, activist Rowan Tilly was convicted for obstruction of a highway during an Extinction Rebellion protest, but the judge referenced the civil rights, anti-apartheid and suffragette movements and gave her an absolute discharge.

In a landmark case going to trial this June, 16 young people are suing the state of Montana. They argue Montana’s extensive support for fossil fuels is unconstitutional because the resulting pollution is dangerously heating the planet and has robbed them of a healthy environment.

In February 2023, six members of Greenpeace International climbed a Shell oil and gas platform for Greenpeace’s longest ever occupation of a moving platform. Threatened with fines and imprisonment, they were not deterred, and ultimately none of the activists was arrested.