At Shell’s annual general meeting on Tuesday, a company executive told a heartwarming story. Shortly before taking the role six years ago, the fossil fuel giant’s outgoing chairman, Charles Holliday, said he had a conversation with one of the company’s employees.
“I asked him the very simple question: ‘In three weeks I’ll become chair of the board of Shell. What would you like me to do,’” Holliday recounted in his opening remarks. “He looked me right back in the eyes and said, ‘my 13-year-old daughter is embarrassed to tell her friends at school that her dad works for Shell. I want you to fix that.’” How moving.
That teenage girl was all of us. I’m not saying workers should be blamed for the actions of their employers, but who wants to mention someone they love in the same breath as a truly genocidal company that is responsible for more historical planet-warming carbon emissions than any other investor-owned company besides Exxon? Death cult behavior, so cringe.
That worker’s daughter must be 19 now. Holliday went on to explain that in his six years heading up Shell’s board, he thinks he’s likely won her over, transforming the company into one even a skeptical teen could get behind, citing the firm’s climate plans as the reason.
It’s true that since Holliday took the top role in May 2015—just months before the world hammered out the Paris Agreement—Shell’s made some changes. I mean, it kind of had to, because awareness and outrage about fossil fuel companies’ role in causing the climate crisis has grown so much during his tenure. In 2017, the company made its first flashy climate announcement, promising to halve the carbon intensity of its products by 2050. It’s built on that promise in the years since, and last year pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 instead.
That all sounds very nice. But there’s a problem, Chucky Holliday. Those pledges were largely BS. Lowering carbon intensity—or pollution produced per unit of energy—is a lousy marker of progress, because it can decrease while overall emissions still increase if production rises (which it did for Shell until the pandemic). The company’s 2020 commitments were not only completely inadequate to meet the scale of the climate crisis, but also reliant on carbon offsets (which have questionable efficacy) and carbon capture technology (which has yet to be proven at scale) to reach those weak goals.
To be fair, I don’t know this unnamed Shell employee’s daughter. But in the time since her dad had this conversation with Holliday, the climate-focused teens have shown us over and over and over and over and—well, you get it—that they understand the need to end the use of fossil fuels to avert ecological catastrophe. Chances are, this girl isn’t too impressed by this energy giant’s showy-yet-empty climate plans which amount to little more than greenwashing.
Adam McGibbon, who posted the video of Holliday recounting this story on Twitter and works as the UK campaign lead at environmentally-focused finance activist organization Market Forces, noted that this isn’t the first time Shell executives have mentioned that young people are ashamed to be associated with the company. In 2019, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden told the Financial Times that when his daughter was around 10 years old, she once came home from school crying because she’d heard oil and gas companies were destroying the planet. The thing is, it’s true—they are. Those companies have tried to put a shiny veneer on it with slick ads and talks that tout Big Oil as a solution to the problem it created. But as long as fossil fuel companies continue producing oil, gas, and coal, they shouldn’t be allowed to escape the damage they’ve done to the planet both past and present.
“No amount of greenwashing will erase the generational shame of being associated with the amount of death and destruction that Shell have caused,” McGibbon said in a Twitter direct message.
It’s not just young activists who think Shell’s climate plans miss the mark. Holliday made these remarks on the same day that the International Energy Agency, the world’s leading energy body, issued a stark report that nations must stop expanding coal, oil, and gas infrastructure to avoid climate catastrophe. If these executives really want to make kids proud, maybe they should work on securing them a livable future.