Ditch Shell

Extinction Rebellion activists in Scotland have targeted Shell. 

Dear Sir Ian Blatchford: Scientists for Extinction Rebellion send open letter to the Science Museum Group calling for an end to Shell sponsorship.

Leading cultural institutions have realised that, given the urgency of the climate emergency, it is now completely unacceptable to be associated with the very companies that have fought to delay climate action for decades.

 As a community of scientists working across many different disciplines, we are passionate about passing on the wonders of science to future generations. Many of us were inspired as children by eye-opening experiences at the Science Museum. We truly believe it is world-class. One of the most significant and inclusive aspects is that free entry allows access to anyone. In short, we love the Science Museum.

After a year of a pandemic and with two major COP summits on the horizon, we are excited to see the museum reopen with a landmark exhibition on the climate emergency and what to do about it. But it is with great disappointment that we see the museum would allow its reputation to be tarnished by allowing this exhibit to be sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell.

Despite Shell knowing about climate change for decades, Shell has a long history of spreading cynical misinformation [1]. Shell has funded groups such as the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council that deliberately cast doubt on the science of climate change [2].


They continue to back at least eight groups that lobby against climate regulation, which they failed to disclose in transparency reports [3]. Since the Paris agreement, Shell and the other four largest oil and gas companies invested over $1 billion on narrative capture and lobbying [4]. These tactics have been part of an effective campaign to poison climate discourse and delay effective action [5].

Partnering with a company with such an extensive track record in funding the corruption of science is completely inappropriate for an institution that aims to promote it.

Over the course of decades, Shell has been responsible for repeated oil spills and appalling abuses of human rights [6]. In the Niger Delta, they have contaminated the land and groundwater in a region home to a million people [7]. Despite legal action that continues to this day, Shell has largely avoided cleaning up after itself [8]. Shell are making a mockery of existing international regulation by recording 40 percent of their total profits in tax havens [9]. Given this track-record, why on earth would we expect them to clean their CO2 pollution out of the atmosphere?

Shell plans to maintain considerable production of oil and increase production of natural gas by 20 percent in the coming decades. In all of their scenarios, burning of fossil fuels continues through the 21st century [10]. Between 2018 and 2020, Shell invested over 90 percent of their capital in fossil fuels, with only 3-5 percent in renewable energy [11]. The Transition Pathway Initiative, of which the Science Museum Group is a member, reported that Shell’s business plans are not in line with limiting warming to 2°C [12]. Shell’s willful failure to respond to the climate crisis is currently the subject of a trial at The Hague [13]. 

Leading cultural institutions have realised that, given the urgency of the climate emergency, it is now completely unacceptable to be associated with the very companies that have fought to delay climate action for decades.

The plans for net zero that Shell have loudly publicised rely on unfeasible levels of offsetting and carbon capture and storage (CCS) [14], requiring vast acres for biofuel growth that would compete with land needed for food production and natural ecosystems [15]. A recent open letter by 41 eminent environmental scientists, documenting myths around offsetting and net zero targets, says such plans distract from the urgent need to cut fossil fuel emissions now [16].


The overreliance on currently unproven future mass deployment of bioenergy with CCS to offset today's emissions sets up a high stakes gamble for the children coming through the doors of the Science Museum [17].

We find ourselves still in 2021 contesting the integrity of a Shell-sponsored exhibition about the climate crisis, which emphasises the role of CCS. While we welcome a balanced discussion of CCS, Shell has a clear vested interest in it being promoted over other measures to mitigate emissions.

We strongly reject the premise that Shell are aligning themselves with the transition away from fossil fuels.

The utter failure of governments and corporate interests to reverse destructive impacts on the planet’s survival systems threatens our civilisation and much of life on Earth [18]. Shell continues to play a key role in the escalating crisis, but they are clear that their business depends on a societal licence to operate [19]. Funding exhibitions allows Shell to borrow the prestige and implied endorsement of the Science Museum Group. 

This comes at a cost to the Science Museum Group’s own credibility. The Group’s ethical policy says it must not accept funding that harms its reputation or integrity [20]. As previously occurred with toxic tobacco companies, public mood is shifting on fossil fuels [21]. Extinction Rebellion activists who targeted Shell were recently acquitted by a jury on moral grounds [22]. The UK Youth Climate Strike Network feel betrayed by having their materials used in the exhibition without being told of the sponsors and are boycotting in response [23]. Surely taking this dirty money is not worth the long-term reputational damage?


Leading cultural institutions have realised that, given the urgency of the climate emergency, it is now completely unacceptable to be associated with the very companies that have fought to delay climate action for decades. In the Netherlands, the Museon science and culture museum, as well as the van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis, have cut their ties with Shell [24].

In London we have seen the Southbank Centre, the BFI, and the National Theatre do the same [25]. The Natural History Museum has gone further, by making it their core mission to create advocates for the planet [26]. For the Science Museum to be lagging and not leading on such crucial matters is shameful.

The pandemic has borne innovative curation, inspiring our collective imagination as we visited from our phones and laptops.

But as the museum’s doors reopen, this sponsorship feels like a retrograde move out of step with a changed public mood [27]. We humbly suggest that an institution as renowned and inventive as the Science Museum can aspire to more than simply declining to partner with corrupt and ecocidal companies. Our society urgently needs a new story: we must recognise that our collective wellbeing comes from our communities and from the natural environment. We are passionate about the role that science and the scientific method can play.

Museums exist to tell stories and the Science Museum Group tells many that are beautiful and powerful. But, the story your partnership with Shell tells is an ugly one of power, manipulation and corruption. It is urgent that you now do the right thing and cut all ties to Big Oil.

This Article

This article is an open letter from Scientists for Extinction Rebellion to Sir Ian Blatchford, the director and chief executive of the Science Museum Group, first published exclusively by The Ecologist.


[1]  Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis (Nov 2017) 

[2] The Climate Denial Machine: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Blocks Climate Action. 

[3] Revealed: BP And Shell Back Anti-Climate Lobby Groups Despite Pledges 

[4] Big Oil’s Real Agenda on Climate Change 

[5] Merchants of Doubt – How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming 

[6] Amnesty International - Shell: A criminal enterprise?

[7] Nigeria: Amnesty International says pollution has created human rights tragedy in the Niger Delta 

[8] Shell faces UK supreme court case over Niger delta pollution 

[9] Still Playing the Shell Game - Future Beyond Shell

[10] Shell - The Energy Transformation Scenarios

[11] Oil Supermajors' Trajectory Towards Renewables Needs to Scale Up and Speed Up 

[12] Fossil fuel giants still aiming wide of 2°C mark, investors say

[13] Dutch climate activists take Shell to court over emissions

[14] Analysis: Shell says new 'Brazil-sized' forest would be needed to meet 1.5C climate goal 

[15] There aren't enough trees in the world to offset society's carbon emissions – and there never will be

[16] Comment: 10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted 

[17] The trouble with negative emissions 

[18] World Scientists' Warning of a Climate Emergency | BioScience | Oxford Academic

[19] The power of perseverance  

[20] Science Museum Group Ethics Policy March 2019 

[21] Shale gas is even less popular in UK than coal

[22] Extinction Rebellion: Jury acquits protesters despite judge's direction

[23] School climate strikers urge boycott of Science Museum show over Shell deal

[24] Fossil Free – Dutch museums refuse Shell sponsorship

[25] Shell’s long-running relationships with Southbank Centre and BFI to end this year

[26] Natural History Museum - Our vision and strategy

[27] MuseumNext - Should museums be activists?