By making Shell the official sponsor of the ‘Earth zone’, New Scientist is effectively endorsing Shell’s approach to climate change.
Where does science as an abstract search for truth end, and ethical judgement begin? This thorny question came up earlier this year in controversies around the 'March for Science'. Should it be seen as a political march? Is science neutral or should it take moral positions?
Similar issues are now being raised by campaigners criticising the New Scientist Live event for its sponsorship choices. A four-day ‘festival of ideas’, the event lists eight major corporate sponsors on its website.
One is an arms company (BAE Systems) embroiled in controversy about its trade deals with Saudi Arabia. BAE Systems’ ongoing supply of warplanes and technical support has enabled the Saudi-led coalition to carry out a bombing campaign in Yemen which has disproportionately targeted civilian infrastructure, schools and hospitals, causing many hundreds of child deaths. Yemen is currently in a state of humanitarian crisis.
Another sponsor is Shell, a company whose publicity highlights their work on energy efficiency and renewables, while the vast majority of their business is in oil and gas extraction fuelling dangerous climate change. Both companies admittedly have expertise in science and technology, but are they the right choices to sponsor this event?
It might be argued that the aim of the festival – to promote a love of science and spread knowledge – is more important than the choice of sponsors. And after all, companies work within the legal framework they are given by governments. Should campaigners not take their concerns there instead?
Certainly BAE Systems does not believe it should consider the morality of its customers' actions. When questioned at the company's 2016 AGM about the uses to which BAE's weaponry is put, chairman Roger Carr said, "We are not here to judge the way that other governments work, we are here to do a job under the rules and regulations we are given."
Interestingly, New Scientist magazine has taken a position on this. "It's time we all burst our carbon bubbles" they declared in a leader published on 5 July, advising readers to divest their current account and pension from fossil fuels.
“The world economy is heavily, almost suicidally, invested in the future discovery and exploitation of oil and gas reserves,” they point out. Readers might have been surprised at the choice of Shell as a sponsor for New Scientist’s flagship event a couple of months later.
Exploring Big Ideas
The New Scientist Live festival encourages people to explore big ideas, looking more deeply into things to see how they work. However the problem with sponsors Shell and BAE is that they present information in a way that closes off important lines of investigation, such as the morality of technology being used to create ever more sophisticated weaponry.
Or the science which shows that delaying our withdrawal from fossil fuels are putting us on a path not to a 1.5C increase in planetary temperature (the aspiration in the Paris climate agreement) or ‘well below’ 2C which governments are supposed to be targeting, but something more like 4C.
The narrative presented by companies such as Shell is that oil and gas are a ‘cleaner’ alternative to coal. But are they really the good guys? An in-depth report by investors Schroder makes sobering reading. The main message is that we are failing to cut emissions, but that progress is uneven across different sectors.
While there were some positive elements, such as a reduction in coal burning and an increase in renewable energy capacity, the failure to curb oil and gas investment and production was identified as a serious problem. Considered in isolation, this would put us on a trajectory to 5.3-7.8C warming.
It is unlikely that this is something that will be discussed by Shell as they talk about their ‘multitude of bright energy ideas’ at New Scientist Live. The positive, upbeat messaging about their role leaves this information out, and ‘greenwashes’ their image.
A risk of self-censorship
By making Shell the official sponsor of the ‘Earth zone’, New Scientist is effectively endorsing Shell’s approach to climate change, in a context where the emphasis on science bestows a high degree of trust and credibility.
So will visitors to New Scientist Live learn about the radical changes in energy use that the science demands or will Shell’s information lull them into complacency?
Fossil fuel companies such as Shell may publically express support for the Paris climate agreement, but they refuse to consider any scenario that does not involve dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come as realistic or worth aiming towards. At Shell's 2017 AGM, a motion was rejected to set emissions targets for the company in line with the Paris climate agreement.
Shell has been accused before of trying to influence content and activities as a sponsor of the Science Museum. But in fact, there doesn't need to be explicit pressure. If the New Scientist event organisers wish the relationship with Shell to continue, there is a risk of self-censorship about uncomfortable facts.
Allowing corporations with vested interests to shape the conversation takes us back to the argument that moral decisions should be left to government. Because here again, companies can shape the conversation in uncomfortable ways.
Links with politicians
A ‘revolving door’ between government and big industry, for example, can create a cosy relationship so that the need for government support ‘to create jobs’ or ‘for the economy’ is unquestioned. This is true both for fossil fuels and the arms industry.
Although internal documents show that Shell was fully aware of climate change risk as early as 1986, it went on to fund for three decades trade associations and industry groups seeking to block climate action. Under public pressure, it withdrew from one of these, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in 2015.
However it is still a member of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). Shell has not taken any steps to distance itself from climate disinformation spread by these groups.
Here in the UK we have not quite reached the level of the US, where Republican members of Congress have each been receiving on average something like $60,000 annually from oil and gas corporations.
But analysis of Treasury meetings under George Osborne showed that over nine months 70 meetings were held to discuss ‘energy’. The vast majority were with oil and gas companies or industry bodies; just two included representatives of the renewable energy sector.
The corridors of Whitehall are a long way from New Scientist Live, a fun, family-friendly event, but the concern is the same. By giving fossil fuel companies and arms companies undue influence we are not opening up debate and research about ‘big ideas’, we are closing it down. Unchallenged, they will keep us on the same narrow track where the new ideas desperately needed to avoid climate change and conflict are silenced.
The Campaign against Climate Change, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Scientists for Global Responsibility, Medact and Art Not Oil are calling on New Scientist Live to address these concerns by adopting an ‘ethical sponsorship policy’ for future events.