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A tarred reputation

Indigenous Peoples

How the UK Tar Sands Network got a room of influential delegates to laugh at the Canadian Environment Minister...

When we saw the conference programme, our jaws dropped.

Could it really be true? A prestigious climate change conference not only sponsored by arch-polluters Shell, but also featuring Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, notorious cheerleader for the tar sands,  as a keynote speaker?

What an utterly ludicrous idea, we thought at the UK Tar Sands Network. Why, that would be like a lung cancer conference sponsored by British American Tobacco, or a childcare conference sponsored by King Herod and featuring the wicked witch from Hansel and Gretel on a discussion panel with the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Or having McDonalds sponsor the Olympics...oh wait, no, that one really happened.

Syncrude oil sands mining operations. Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute.

The Canadian tar sands are one of the gravest threats to the climate in existence. Leading scientists tell us we must urgently halt the extraction of this vast reserve of heavy oil to have any real chance of avoiding disastrous runaway climate change. But Shell are seeking to double the size of their tar sands projects, and the Canadian government seem more than happy to let them charge ahead – Peter Kent has called the tar sands ‘absolutely ethical’, and his government have never turned down a permit for an extraction project.

At the same time, Canadian ministers and diplomats are doing their best to scupper any climate-friendly legislation that might challenge the tar sands industry – both at home, via the nightmarish Bill C-38, and abroad. They pulled out of the Kyoto treaty, have been voted the most obstructive government at the international climate talks five years in a row, and are now furiously lobbying against the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, a draft law that would restrict the import of certain polluting fuels (including tar sands oil) into Europe.

Perhaps the conference organizers at Chatham House didn’t realize who they’d invited. We decided we should probably go along and tell them.

Peter Kent greeted by protesters. ‘Morning, Minister! Stop strangling climate action!’ 
Photo: Amy Scaife.

My stomach was churning with nerves as I walked up the steps of Chatham House in St James’s Square, London. It was 8.30am on Monday 15 October 2012, I was wearing my best (i.e. only) suit, and I tried to smile as normally as possible at the young woman on the door as she asked for my name. A few minutes later, I was seated at the end of a row in the conference room, fiddling with my name badge and leafing through the programme folder (which naturally featured a prominent Shell logo). Around me, the room filled up with MPs, government officials, journalists, academics, and representatives from businesses, lobby groups and NGOs.

I won’t tell you much about the first few hours of the conference, partly because it was conducted under the famous(ish) ‘Chatham House Rule’ of non-attribution, and partly because it was a mixture of academics (such as Thomas Stocker from the IPCC) saying how bad things have got with the climate, and politicians (such as Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action) trying to explain why governments have so completely failed to tackle the problem. I sat through it, steeling myself for my moment of intervention and trying to convince myself that the security guards weren’t watching me.

At 12.45pm, the moment came. As Kent approached the podium, I leapt from my seat, strode onto the stage and stepped in front of him. ‘I’m very sorry’, I told the suddenly attentive audience, ‘I’ve got a very brief security announcement. I’m afraid it seems that someone has got into this conference under false pretences, and has actually managed to make his way onto the stage.’ I gestured to the minister standing awkwardly beside me. ‘Mr Peter Kent claims to be here to talk about solving climate change, but actually he’s a member of a dangerous anti-environment group called...,’ here I put on my best dramatic voice, ‘The Canadian Government, who are committed to wrecking the climate’.

Laughter rippled around the room as I explained how Kent’s organization were ‘handing vast swathes of Indigenous people’s land over to oil companies, to carve up and extract some of the most polluting fuel on the planet. And now these dangerous foreign radicals...’ By now, I’d been joined on the stage by some members of Chatham House staff, who seemed keen for me to stop speaking. ‘I won’t be a moment, I just need to warn everyone’, I explained.

As I was led from the room, accompanied by more appreciative audience laughter and a few heckles, I did my best to explain: ‘These foreign radicals from the Canadian Government are now here in Europe, trying to hijack our regulatory systems in order to pursue their radical ideological agenda of expanding the tar sands...’ This was a reference to a notorious January 2012 pronouncement by Joe Oliver, Canadian Minister for Natural Resources, who used almost those exact words to describe opponents of the tar sands.

A surprise introduction for Shell’s UK Chairman (far left) by a UK Tar Sands Network activist.

By now, I had a bit of extra company. ‘Ah, security’, I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here – he’s just over there if you want to remove him, he’s an agent of a rogue petro-state’. I pointed at Kent, provoking more laughter from the audience as I was bundled out of the door. The last thing I saw was the minister standing by the podium, a pained and sickly grin on his face as the Chair pondered whether or not she should have ‘flattened’ me.

The delegates didn’t get much of a break, however – straight after Kent’s speech it was the turn of Graham van’t Hoff, Shell’s UK Chairman. As he was about to begin, the podium was stolen by my friend Sophie, who had like me been waiting quietly in the audience. She told the audience they were in for a ‘real treat’ in the form of some ‘world class greenwash’ from Shell, who had ‘done so much to cause climate change’. She too was removed by security.

You can watch both interventions on the video below, along with the rest of the day’s action – we also had some amazing street theatre to greet delegates entering the conference, with sinister black-clad versions of Shell and Canada ‘strangling’ climate activists. 

Sadly, these kinds of conferences are not the exception but the norm. Those most responsible for causing and profiting from climate change are welcomed warmly into the debate, while the people most affected by climate change are excluded or written off as ‘dangerous radicals’. The Indigenous communities fighting tar sands expansion in Canada have far more useful insight into how to stop climate disaster than the politicians and corporations who are pushing for ever-faster fossil fuel extraction. If we really want to avert this crisis we need to start listening to the voices of the frontline communities, instead of treating the likes of Shell and the Canadian Government as ‘climate experts’, giving them a dangerous legitimacy that they do not deserve.

Shell and the Canadian government are strangling climate action! Photo by Amy Scaife.

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