Under pressure on climate, Big Oil pitches to the young

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Facing rising anger from young people for their role in accelerating climate change, chief executives of major oil companies launched an effort on Monday to burnish their image on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks with other child petitioners from twelve countries around the world who presented a landmark complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to protest the lack of government action on the climate crisis during a press conference in New York, U.S., September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, representing 13 major global oil companies, held meetings with around 20 students and young professionals aimed at laying the groundwork for a long-term plan to engage with young people.

It took place as top oil company CEOs, including BP Plc’s (BP.L) Bob Dudley and Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s (RDSa.L) Ben van Beurden, met to discuss the industry’s response to climate change, while Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg angrily condemned world leaders and industry for failing to act quickly enough on the issue.

“It’s about dialogue and to have dialogue you have to have transparency,” said Eldar Sætre, CEO of Norwegian oil company Equinor ASA (EQNR.OL), who said handling youth anger toward his industry is “tough.”

Geraldine Satre Buisson, a 28-year-old seeking a Ph.D. in climate change policy and science communication at Imperial College London, said she participated in Friday’s global climate strike, in which more than 4 million people walked out of school or work to demand emergency action on climate change.

Buisson took part in Monday’s dialogue reluctantly but said she felt it was necessary to channel the anger she felt on the streets into action by meeting face-to-face with oil executives.

“I felt generally that we had an opportunity to be heard but I am not sure that being heard will translate into action,” she said, adding that the executives dodged questions about Thunberg.

Faiza Haq, a 24-year-old student at Columbia University in New York studying energy and the environment, said when she went into the room, “I didn’t go with a feeling of trust.”

While she said the industry is taking positive steps by making some investments in renewable energy and technology to capture and store carbon, she suspects the companies have been pushing Washington to deregulate their industry.

“They are doing things that are very positive, but what is the transparency that is happening?” she said.

The night before the event around 40 protesters gathered outside a New York hotel hosting a private Oil and Gas Climate Initiative dinner. Some held up “Wanted” signs emblazoned with the faces and names of the CEOs of Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) and Chevron Corp (CVX.N).

The protesters chanted: “No gas, no oil – keep the carbon in the soil!” and “They knew, they lied, they need to pay!”

“I am here to tell fossil fuel companies that our lives matter and that climate change is not affecting us in 10 years but right now,” said Mayana Torres, 19, a student and volunteer with SustainUS, a youth-led movement campaigning to bar fossil fuel companies from influencing climate policy.

Christina Figueres – the former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who helped finalize the Paris Agreement – told oil executives at a session later on Monday that they have to take bolder action or risk becoming obsolete.

“The stigma this industry has acquired does not allow you to attract the best and brightest,” she said. “And you need the best and brightest for a transformation.”

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in New York; additional reporting by Matthew Green; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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