Professor resigns from Science Museum over its oil cash

Science Museum board member Professor Chris Rapley resigns over oil sponsorship.

I disagree with the group’s ongoing willingness to accept oil and gas company sponsorship.

The highly regarded climate science professor Chris Rapley CBE has dramatically resigned from the Science Museum’s advisory board over the issue of fossil fuel sponsorship.

The UCL academic has long-standing ties with the museum group, serving as its director from 2007 to 2010. 

Read: 'Rapley: Political pressure is where people can really make a difference'

Raplay said in a letter: "Given the reality of the climate crisis, the need to abolish fossil fuels as quickly as possible...I disagree with the group’s ongoing willingness to accept oil and gas company sponsorship.’

Exhibition

The resignation was revealed to signatories of a letter from youth climate strikers UKSCN London and UCL students to Rapley yesterday afternoon and in a public tweet.

The move follows internal discussions between Rapley and the museum after it controversially announced back in April that Shell was the sponsor of its current flagship climate exhibition, Our Future Planet. The museum also has ongoing partnerships with fossil fuel giants BP and Equinor.

A major backlash followed the Shell announcement with scientists, exhibition contributors, Greta Thunberg and the wider public speaking out through protests, petitions and a youth-led boycott of the exhibition.

In August it was revealed by Channel 4 News, based on an investigation by Culture Unstained, that the museum had signed a ‘gagging clause’ with Shell committing not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of Shell, despite major controversy surrounding the sponsor’s climate impacts.

This is seen by campaigners as a significant shift in position from Professor Rapley, who previously staunchly defended oil sponsorship, and worked closely with Shell in 2011 while at the helm of the Science Museum to set up its sponsorship of another major climate exhibition, Atmosphere.

I disagree with the group’s ongoing willingness to accept oil and gas company sponsorship.

Condemn

Jess Worth, Culture Unstained co-director, said: “This is a brave and principled move from Professor Rapley. As director of the Science Museum he oversaw a major sponsorship deal with Shell a decade ago, so this is a sign of just how significantly his stance has shifted.

"As he acknowledges, companies like Shell, BP and Equinor are simply not doing enough to transition away from fossil fuels despite their claims, and this is a huge problem for the whole planet. Ahead of COP26, the Science Museum must back the science, not Big Oil, and sever its ties with these major polluters now.”

Climate justice organisation UKSCN London co-organised the massive London youth climate strikes in 2019 and has been at the forefront of the campaign against fossil fuel sponsorship of the museum.

The campaigners wrote to Rapley on 4 September this year, along with several UCL students, raising concerns over Shell’s climate and human rights impacts and asking him to "publicly condemn the Science Museum for their continued acceptance of funding from oil companies".

Ella Ticktin-Smith, a UCL student and member of UKSCN London, initially contacted Rapley asking him to speak out.

Strikes

They said: “We congratulate Chris Rapley for taking this powerful stance and we encourage other members of the board to speak out as well.

"It’s a shame that the Science Museum continues to prioritise its relationships with a small number of the world’s most polluting fossil fuel companies over its relationships with scientists, young people, staff, visitors and its own advisors.

"We urge the museum to commit to ending its sponsorship deals with Shell, BP and Equinor before it destroys its reputation irreversibly.”

UKSCN had been shocked to discover that the museum had included placards within the Shell-sponsored exhibition from the strikes without the strike organisers’ knowledge or consent.

They initially launched an open letter from the group to the Science Museum demanding that it drops Shell sponsorship, which was signed by 200 young activists, scientists, organisations and frontline groups, and then launched a boycott of the exhibition, which has logged nearly 6000 boycott pledges.

Loopholes

In June, the museum called the police to shut down an overnight protest and 24-hour livestream broadcast led by the group. They subsequently worked with one of the young people who’d created the placards, Bella May, to ask for it to be removed from the exhibition, with which the museum complied last month.

The museum has also been the target of Extinction Rebellion protests, with Scientists for XR leading a 70-strong overnight occupation of the museum over the August Bank Holiday.

The International Energy Agency made it clear in May that oil companies’ current plans to continue extracting new sources of fossil fuels are incompatible with hitting the Paris climate target of 1.5 degrees.

The IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol has said: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.”

Shell’s recent Net Zero commitment, announced in February 2021, has been widely criticised for being too vague, and not reducing oil and gas extraction at the scale and pace required.

In May, a Dutch court ruled that Shell must cut its emissions by 45 percent by 2030 in order to be aligned with the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement - Shell is appealing the ruling. Meanwhile, BP’s own “net zero” ambition has been criticised for non-binding and full of loopholes.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from Culture Unstained.

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