Big Oil Loses Big in a Day of Game-Changing Climate News

Dutch court ruling and two shareholder revolts bring new hope against climate emergency.

Maybe Shakespeare was wrong to urge, in Henry VI, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Yesterday, lawyers in The Netherlands won a historic court case against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company that carries the most profound implications for defusing the climate emergency. The court ordered Shell to bring its global operations in line with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C; this will require Shell to reduce both its own and its customers’ greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2019 levels by 2030.

Together with shareholder revolts demanding stronger climate action by ExxonMobil and Chevron, the Dutch court ruling made May 26 one of the biggest days of climate news in years. Following last week’s landmark International Energy Agency report declaring all new fossil fuel development must stop for the planet to avoid irreversible climate destruction, the events amount to a crushing repudiation of Big Oil’s long-standing assertion that its profits matter more than civilization’s survival.

The Dutch case is particularly remarkable, for three reasons. First, “because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting corporation to comply with the Paris climate agreement,” Roger Cox, a lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands (in Dutch, Milieudefensie)—which brought the case with 17,000 other plaintiffs—told The Guardian. Second, because the judge held that society’s interest in emissions reductions took priority over the commercial harm that Shell would suffer as a result. And third, and perhaps most far-reaching, because Shell must slash not only its direct emissions—the heat trapping gases Shell releases when it drills for, refines, and brings oil to market—but also the company’s indirect emissions, the gases millions of customers around the world release when they use Shell’s gasoline and other products. As climate activist Greta Thunberg observed, this latter provision is what makes the court ruling such “a game changer.” If other countries apply the same logic, fossil fuel companies would have to leave much of their product in the ground, just as climate science says is imperative.

For now, the court ruling carries legal force only within The Netherlands, and although the judge ordered Shell to cut emissions “at once,” the company is appealing the ruling.

Meanwhile, the shareholder rebellions against the managements of ExxonMobil and Chevron flash an additional signal of public impatience with intransigence from Big Oil. The annual votes that shareholders of publicly owned companies cast almost always rubber stamp management’s positions. But at Exxon, at least two of management’s candidates for the company’s board of directors were defeated. The opposition was spearheaded by a hedge fund, Engine No. 1, and pension funds from California and New York; the fate of two additional board seats was unclear as this article went to press, the vote still too close to call. “This is a landmark moment for Exxon and for the industry,” Andrew Logan of the nonprofit investor group Ceres told The New York Times. “How the industry chooses to respond … will determine which companies thrive through the coming transition and which wither.”

All in all, the climate story has taken a decisive turn; Big Oil’s fortress walls, which for decades have been the strongest obstacles to climate action, might finally be crumbling. For journalists, these developments present countless new angles and vividly illustrate why it’s crucial not to silo climate coverage on the weather or science beats. Leaving fossil fuels behind and rapidly shifting to renewable energy sources will carry enormous economic, political, social, and even cultural ramifications that journalists must now make clear to the public and policymakers alike. As we often say at Covering Climate Now, climate change is the defining story of our time—and now is the time for newsrooms to tell it as vigorously, and rigorously, as we can.

NEWS FROM US

Using solutions journalism to report on climate: Read key takeaways and watch our latest Talking Shop webinar, co-hosted by Solutions Journalism Network, exploring why and how journalists should focus on climate solutions.

Climate journalism awards: It’s the last week to submit stories for consideration for the Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards honoring exemplary journalism about the defining story of our time. Submit by June 1.

Partners, expand your reach: If you’re a CCNow partner, share your stories with the CCNow network so other news outlets can republish or rebroadcast them. Submit stories using this form and see the full list of stories available for republication in our Sharing Library.

ESSENTIAL CLIMATE COVERAGE

  • As bad as the record-breaking 2020 fire season was, the west is starting off this year in even worse shape. “All we have going for us is dumb luck,” one UCLA meterologist describes the 2021 fire season in the western U.S. Read the story by Seth Borenstein at the AP…

    **As you prepare to report on this fire season, see our extreme weather reporting guide for best practices and story ideas.**

  • The world’s seven largest advanced economies have agreed to end international financing of coal projects that emit carbon by the end of 2021. The move leaves China as the biggest source of funding such projects overseas. Read the story by Elizabeth Piper and Markus Wacket at Reuters…

  • A major new trial in the UK will test the use of trees, peat, rock chips, and charcoal as a way to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Scientists say some CO2 will need to be removed from the atmosphere to reach net zero by 2050. Read the story by Damian Carrington at The Guardian…

  • CBS News meteorologist Jeff Berardelli travels to Kentucky and South Carolina to tell the story of two people trying to make a difference by tackling environmental justice and a just transition. Watch Climate Changemakers at CBS News…

  • Oregon nonprofits are working to close racial gaps while they get help to people recovering from last year’s wildfires. Read and listen to the story by Monica Samayoa at Oregon Public Broadcasting…

  • Australian and New Zealand psychiatrists have warned that the mental health of coming generations will be tested as never before by the impacts of climate disasters. These effects will include PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.Read the story by Amy Coopes at Croakey Health Media…

  • William J Ripple, author of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, writes that media coverage continues to underplay the urgency of the issue. The story points to six key policy reforms needed to address the climate emergency, reforms journalists can explore and report on. Read the story at The Guardian…

ODDS & ENDS

Grist is hiring: … a Digital Producer for Audience. See the job listing.

Environmental justice reporting grants: The National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute are sponsoring a program that will award up to $100,000 in grants to journalists covering environmental justice.

Boston University fellowship: BU’s Religion & Environment Story Project Fellowship supports journalists, editors, and academics producing stories at the intersection of religion and the environment.


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That’s all from us today. Thanks for reading, and see you next time!