The first three slides of climate scientist Peter Kalmus’s plenary speech to Shell’s Powering Progress Together conference were intended to gauge audience reactions. First, he would have asked attendees if they are “concerned about climate breakdown.” Then, to raise their hands if they are “EXTREMELY CONCERNED” about it. In the third slide, Kalmus would have asked panel-goers to raise their hands if they agreed with a simple statement: “Fossil fuel causes harm.”
He never got the chance. Last Wednesday, the day before he was scheduled to appear, Kalmus was disinvited from what the oil giant billed as “an action-oriented day of dialogue focused on accelerating the energy transition.” For those curious about what spooked them, The Intercept is publishing Kalmus’s contraband slideshow.
Kalmus, who lives in Los Angeles, specializes in ecological forecasting and analyzing boundary layer clouds. Thanks in part to that research, he’s extremely concerned about climate breakdown, and relatively outspoken about it. In 2017, Kalmus authored a book, “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution,” on what individuals can do in their own lives to move off fossil fuels. Since then, he’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and climate strikers, groups that are pushing for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Given all that, he was more than a little surprised when he was asked in early May to give the speech at a one-day conference Shell was hosting in San Francisco, one of three Powering Progress Together events planned around the world. The conference is geared toward industry members, as well as those in the clean energy business and environmental groups.
He wasn’t their first choice. Another well-known climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe, had been invited to speak but wasn’t able to attend, and she suggested Kalmus go in her place. The topic was one they’d both spent ample time researching: “Mobilizing Society to Change the Way Energy Is Used.” Kalmus had already planned to be at an academic conference nearby, so he agreed — with some caveats.
“There were some things I just had to say and I couldn’t get around it,” he told me by phone. “We just have to be realistic about where we’re at if we’re going to make progress. That means acknowledging that they’ve known since before 1988 — with a remarkable degree of precision and accuracy — what continuing business as usual in fossil fuel-burning is going to do to human civilization and ecosystems. They tried to hide from the public.”
“If they really want to be the good guys, they’ve got to acknowledge that and make some serious changes. I didn’t see any way I could speak at their conference without laying that out,” he told The Intercept.
As Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers revealed last year, Shell has known about the climate crisis for nearly four decades and its own considerable role in causing it. Company researchers warned in 1986 that “the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part” before it became “too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.” For the next several decades, Shell did precisely the opposite, joining other fossil fuel companies in formations like the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition to cast doubt on climate change and delay action at nearly every level of government, all the while exploring for and extracting as much oil and gas as possible.
Kalmus explained to organizers of the event that he wouldn’t shy away from criticisms. Just two weeks ago, he told them, “‘I might not be the right fit for your conference.’ I told them on the phone that I was going to have to say some of these things. I said you can’t censor me. And they agreed to that.”
Last week, he headed up from Los Angeles to the Bay Area as planned, having spent over a month wrestling with what to include in the presentation and, as he put it, “how to give this talk to this different tribe.” Shell asked him to submit his slides for the event in advance, so they could upload them into the venue’s AV system. He sent them over Tuesday night. The next day, while driving up the coast, he got a call from the event organizers.
Kalmus spent over a month wrestling with what to include in the presentation and, as he put it, “how to give this talk to this different tribe.”
“They said, ‘You were right. They don’t think that you fit into our conference,’” Kalmus said. Planning and logistics for the confab were largely being handled by a co-convening organization called SustainAbility. His guess is that while SustainAbility staffers had green-lit his talk, conversations with the company about his slides led to his ousting from the program. In withdrawing the invitation, event organizers mentioned that there were several Shell employees interested in speaking with him — they just didn’t want to put him on stage. “I’d be happy to talk to them,” Kalmus said. Shell has not responded to The Intercept’s request for comment.
Katherine White, a business professor at the University of British Columbia who researches consumer behavior and sustainability, was supposed to appear alongside Kalmus; each would give a brief talk before answering questions from a moderator. On Wednesday, White got an email suggesting that Kalmus backed out. “They didn’t say to me, ‘We looked at Peter’s slides and decided he won’t be speaking.’”
Meanwhile, Kalmus’s tweet explaining that he’d been disinvited went viral, and the conference organizers felt they needed to address the issue. SustainAbility Executive Director Mark Lee and Shell Projects and Technology Director Harry Brekelmans kicked off the opening plenary by discussing why Kalmus wasn’t there, then opened the session up to questions from audience members and reporters. According to White, who attended the session, Lee and Brekelmans had hoped that Kalmus would have stuck more strictly to his academic research. “What they said is that when they saw his slides, there was about half [his research] and about half talking about history. They didn’t want that,” she said.
“The way they framed it is that [Kalmus] wanted to talk more about Shell’s past, and the conference and the discussion was about the future. … ‘This conference,’” she paraphrased, “‘is about moving forward.’”
Shell’s core business — continued oil and gas development — is incompatible with keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius.
Kalmus’s slides tell another story. Shell has an ugly history of fueling climate denial and pushed aggressively to delay action at the local, state, and international levels. What the slides also point out is that — despite its knowledge of how big the crisis is — Shell “has made no significant shift away from developing fossil fuel” and continued to lobby against rapid mitigation. Bringing the company in line with climate goals would require, in his words, planning “to really transition to carbon-free energy and become a market leader” and preparing “for substantial voluntary transition away from fossil fuels” as a means of regaining public trust. Kalmus also suggested that Shell refrain from making any policy recommendations on lowering emissions, instead focusing on changing its own practices: “Anything you recommend will set the activists against it.”
Like many other multinational oil companies, Shell is attempting to cast itself as a good-faith player in decarbonization and stake a claim to climate policymaking. The company has made recent investments in renewables and even created its own “Sky Scenario,” a pathway for achieving the goals set out in the United Nations Paris Agreement.
But as Democratic presidential candidates haggle over how soon the U.S. should decarbonize — by 2030 or 2050 — Shell last year offered a more lenient target: 2070. As climate modeler Glen Peters pointed out when the company’s scenario was released, it isn’t wildly out of step with a lot of relatively mainstream climate modeling, in that it’s wildly optimistic about the ability of unproven technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and pick up the slack in the carbon budget of continued fossil fuel emissions. The upshot? If Shell’s models invest enough faith in still mostly speculative technologies, it can keep drilling for oil and gas for decades to come.
Powering Progress Together comes as Shell invests $300 million in “natural ecosystems” and pledged late last year to put $4 billion into renewable in the coming years. Compared to the $24 billion the company invested in finding and drilling fossil fuels in 2018, its green investments are some elaborate window dressing. And its core business — continued oil and gas development — is incompatible with keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5. As a paper preview released in Nature this week warns, already-built fossil fuel infrastructure like power plants and vehicles — allowed to operate through the end of their lifetimes as planned — would see the world sail past that target. “Like I said in the slides, there’s no point in greenwashing anymore or in half measure,” Kalmus noted.
“I’m sure there are some very concerned people within the Shell organization who do want to make a difference,” he added. “But as an organization, there are really strong forces — including legal forces — that force them to put their shareholders’ interests first. Asking them to make the kind of change I was asking is a huge ask for them. But we’re literally destroying the planet. That’s where I was coming from: Let’s have that conversation.”
In a speech to the same conference in 2016, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said, “The ability to raise questions, rather than clinging to old beliefs, is vital for taking on the energy challenge. Questions help us push back frontiers and push forward creativity.” So long as you don’t question fossil fuel companies’ ability to dig up as much oil and gas as they’d like.