Future Tense

How Big Oil Gave Up On the Climate

Five years ago Shell was ready to fight global warming. Now it’s rooting for it.

The Arctic Challenger in December 2012, before being towed away for the second round of testing for what Shell Oil refers to as their "fourth line" of defense against a well blowout in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Alaskan Arctic.
Shell calls for action on climate change while exploring the Arctic for oil.

Photo courtesy TJ Guiton/Creative Commons

Big oil companies believe in climate change. How could they not? Already, the melting Arctic is opening up new shipping lanes that could allow them to tap into vast deposits of oil and natural gas. Despite a string of setbacks, Royal Dutch Shell has poured $6 billion into Arctic drilling and still calls it the company’s “most attractive single opportunity for the future.”

Coverage of climate change tends to focus on the losers, of whom there are likely to be very many. The world’s poor, especially, are apt to find themselves starved, swamped, or parched as seas inundate cities and droughts turn farmland into desert. But this is not the primary subject of McKenzie Funk’s fascinating and troubling new book, Windfall. Instead, Funk travels the world to meet the winners—the entrepreneurs, charlatans, and multinational corporations that are devising ingenious ways to make a buck amid the coming chaos.

For true believers in the free market, Funk points out, there are two possible responses to climate change. The first is to deny it. This is becoming ever more awkward, however, as the evidence piles up. The second response is to profit from it. The free market, these new libertarians argue, will provide the perfect incentive for forward-thinking businesses to find new ways to adapt to a hotter and more turbulent world. So while the politicians are arguing over whether climate change is real, a growing number of businesses are betting hard that it is—and getting rich as they’re proved right.

One problem, Funk finds: The people in a position to profit or protect themselves from climate change are, by and large, those who are already well-off. And the “fixes” they’re coming up with tend to come at the expense of those most vulnerable. As Funk puts it, “The hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone.”

Among those for whom it is not as bad:

  • Mining and agricultural companies in Greenland, where retreating glaciers are revealing vast deposits of precious minerals and warming temperatures have already lengthened the agricultural season by three weeks
  • Israeli water-desalination companies, which are now selling snow to desperate ski resorts in the Alps
  • The former CIA analyst-turned-“climate investor” who is buying up water rights in the American West and Australia and watching their value skyrocket
  • High-end private firefighters for AIG who scamper around protecting the mansions of individual millionaires in the Los Angeles suburbs as their neighbors’ homes burn
  • The Ayn Rand-quoting former Wall Street trader who’s wooing Sudanese warlords and speculating in African farmland, whose value rises when climate change leads to food shortages

And then there’s Shell. Multinational businesses have a reputation for either denying or downplaying climate change. In fact, Shell has been preparing for it for decades. The company’s business depends on being able to anticipate and respond quickly to seismic shifts in the energy market. So it employs a team of big-thinking futurists, called scenario planners, to keep it a step ahead.

In 2008 the company released a fresh pair of scenarios for how the world might respond to climate change over the coming decades. Both were predicated on what the company called “three hard truths”: that global energy demand is rising, that the supply of conventional energy will not be able to keep up, and that climate change is both real and dangerous.

One scenario, called “Blueprints,” envisioned an increasingly urgent and systematic global effort to cut emissions and develop cleaner technologies. Change would come from the bottom up, as individuals, corporations, and cities laid a foundation for national and international policies. The results would include carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, electric cars, solar panels, and carbon-capture technology for power plants. Those actions wouldn’t stop climate change. The seas would rise, hurricanes would wreck cities, and so on. But the results wouldn’t be catastrophic.

A second scenario, called “Scramble,” envisioned the world continuing to balk at real action, because “curbing the growth of energy demand—and hence economic growth—is simply too unpopular for politicians to undertake,” as Shell’s scenario planners put it in an interview with Funk. Coal and biofuels would drive the growth of developing countries, choking the air and driving up food prices. While Indonesia and Brazil were mowing down rainforests to grown palm oil and sugarcane, Canada and the United States would turn their attention toward “unconventional oil projects” like Canada’s tar sands.

Climate activists would grow increasingly shrill, but the general public would suffer “alarm fatigue.” Rich and poor nations would deadlock over who should do what as emissions spiraled past 550 parts per million. (In 2013 they reached 400 ppm for the first time—a frightening milestone.) At that point the impacts of climate change would be too great to ignore—but it would be too late to do much about it. In the final stage of the Scramble scenario, the planners wrote, “An increasing fraction of economic activity and innovation is ultimately directed towards preparing for the impact of climate change.”  

Shell typically does not take a stand on which of its scenarios it would prefer to see realized. It simply hedges its bets so it will be ready to profit, or at least survive, no matter what. But in 2008, for the first time, the company chose a side. The greener Blueprints scenario, it said, would be better for both the company and for the world. Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer publicly called for governments to impose a price on carbon emissions. He wasn’t alone: BP and Exxon, once famous for funding bogus “climate skeptic” research, joined Shell in offering to work with President Obama on a real climate policy, with Exxon executives noting that they’d favor a carbon tax over cap-and-trade.  

As it turned out, of course, we got neither.

For that we can thank congressional Republicans and their supporters, who continued to insist that climate change wasn’t real, wasn’t a problem, or wasn’t worth doing anything about. You see, unlike big oil companies, congressional Republicans aren’t required to understand science in order to do their jobs. And unlike big oil companies, their financial fortunes don’t necessarily depend on being right about the future. Bankrolled by Koch Industries, conservatives in Congress and the media have continued to oppose environmental regulations and downplay climate change even as companies like Coke and Nike are starting to feel its effects. Obama and the Democrats, for their part, have been too concerned with unemployment and health care to push very hard. By 2012 Obama had all but taken a carbon tax off the table. But Funk never veers into politics, and he isn’t interested in assigning blame. For him, Shell is only a particularly illustrative example of how sharp-eyed businesspeople around the world are positioning themselves to thrive in a hotter future.

Still, it raises an awkward question: How does a company that once called for urgent action on climate change justify capitalizing on its own emissions by plumbing the Arctic for yet more crude oil? Funk’s book suggests a troubling answer. Since Shell’s 2008 report, governments have failed to pass serious climate policies, global emissions have continued to soar, investment in clean energy remains mocked by the mainstream media, and there’s little sign of progress in sight. By 2012 Funk asked Shell’s top scenario planner if the future was looking more like Scramble than Blueprints. “Yeah,” he replied bluntly. “That’s the view.”

From Shell’s perspective, then, thoughtful climate regulation would have been preferable to a free-market free-for-all. But now that we as a society seem to be opting for the latter, Shell will be damned if it doesn’t join in and grab whatever it can. By 2012 a company executive was telling a crowd of conference-goers, “I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska.”

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.