Cleaning up the climate talks
It was just over 10 years ago, in July 2011, when I joined my first action against oil sponsorship of the arts. I was part of the crowd supporting the extraordinary performance activists Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir as they carried out an exorcism of the evil spirit of BP in the iconic Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern art gallery in London. Five years later – after several more creative interventions by the disobedient arts collective Liberate Tate and the campaign group Platform – Tate finally ended its 26-year sponsorship deal with BP.
In April 2012, we launched the theatrical action group BP or not BP? by jumping on stage just before a BP-sponsored performance of The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our thespian stage invaders – in Shakespearean doublet and hose – performed a surprise soliloquy about BP and the climate crisis before the play began. The audience applauded, and a campaign was born. More stage invasions followed, along with high-profile artist resignations and the threat of a youth boycott, until the Royal Shakespeare Company finally ended its BP partnership in 2019.
From the earliest days of these campaigns, one of our key goals has always been clear. The fossil fuel industry should not be allowed to use its wealth and power to influence politics – especially climate politics. By kicking the oil industry out of the arts, we hoped we could play a key role in the wider effort to push these companies out of other crucial spaces where they don’t belong. Alongside the incredible global divestment movement – which has so far shifted $15 trillion out of reach of the fossil fuel industry – the movement against oil sponsorship has aimed to strip away the corporate branding and expose the true face of these companies. Our work follows the lead of all the frontline defenders – especially Southern and indigenous activists – who have been calling out the fossil fuel industry’s abuses from the very beginning.
All this work, by so many, over so many years, seems to be paying off. Last week, research by Culture Unstained confirmed that BP, Shell, and other oil giants have been refused any formal involvement in the UN climate talks for the first time ever. Despite these companies announcing their ‘net zero’ plans with much fanfare, the organizers of COP26 have decided these plans don’t match up to scrutiny and have turned down oil companies’ fervent requests to sponsor the talks, host side-events, speak on COP-branded platforms or have any other formal role in the conference.
This is a major shift from previous COP summits, which have notoriously included sponsorship from coal and gas companies, and where side-events featuring BP and Shell executives touting dubious greenwash solutions were the acceptable norm. Civil society representatives have walked out of previous COPs in protest at the influence of corporate polluters.
The UK government organizers of COP26 had stated back in 2020 that they would only accept sponsors with credible net zero plans, and that this was unlikely to include the fossil fuel industry. Campaigners were understandably sceptical of this claim, and a large coalition of campaign groups convened by Glasgow Calls Out Polluters have been keeping up the pressure. Freedom of Information research by Culture Unstained suggests that they were right to do, as not everyone in the UK government has been fully on board with the plan. The UK’s Department for International Trade allowed BP to promote its inadequate ‘net zero’ plans on a COP26-branded website, while the British Embassy in Poland removed COP26 branding from an event to allow BP to participate.
Despite this – and no doubt helped by continued pressure from campaigners – the organizers have held firm and Big Oil is officially barred from COP26. We should all take a moment to celebrate this, as an important step forward in cleaning up the climate talks. Then we need to take the next step and get all polluting companies – not just the direct fossil fuel extractors – out of the climate negotiations. The companies that have been allowed to sponsor COP26 include SSE, the owners of Scotland’s largest gas power station, and NatWest Bank, who have invested over $12 billion in the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2020.
Meanwhile, despite being barred from COP26, fossil fuel corporations are still being welcomed into other public spaces like the British Museum – whose latest BP-sponsored exhibition is just drawing to a close – and the London Science Museum, which just announced a new partnership with the coal giant Adani, to accompany its existing deals with BP, Shell and Equinor. Now these companies’ supposed net zero plans have failed to meet the bar set for the conference, any attempt to argue that they are appropriate sponsors of public museums must surely fall apart.
Polluting companies of all kinds continue to exert their influence inside and outside the climate talks, to peddle false solutions and slow down climate action. Barring Big Oil from COP sponsorship is an excellent step. Now we need to finish the job.
Danny Chivers is a climate change author, carbon analyst, and founding member of the activist theatre group BP or not BP?
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