The “blah, blah, blah” that Greta Thunberg uses to describe vague climate pledges by political and corporate leaders seemed to be on display at the TED Countdown in Edinburgh, Scotland, in October, when Ben van Beurden, the CEO of fossil fuel giant Shell, talked about all of the great work his company was doing to protect the environment.
His words were described as textbook greenwashing.
But then Scottish youth activist Lauren MacDonald took the mic and the mood of the room shifted from self-congratulation to confrontation. Seated across from van Beurden, MacDonald channeled the indignation of millions of people as she berated him for worsening the climate crisis.
“No matter what he says today, remember, Shell has spent millions covering up the warnings from climate scientists, bribing politicians, and even paying soldiers to kill Nigerian activists fighting against them, all whilst rebranding to make it look at though they care, and that they have the intention of changing,” MacDonald said, looking directly at Van Beurden. (Shell paid $15.5 million in 2009 to settle a lawsuit over the deaths of Ogoni activists in the 1990s, but maintained that it played no part in human rights abuses, according to the Guardian. Court documents later revealed Shell did pay the Nigerian military to suppress protests.)
“Disproportionately, in the Global South, so many people are already dying due to issues related to the climate crisis such as pollution, extreme heat, and weather-related disasters,” MacDonald continued. “This is not an abstract issue, and you are directly responsible for those deaths.”
BREAKING 🔥 activists reclaim the #TEDcountdown stage from Shell's CEO.@Shell is actively pursuing new oil & gas projects. They are the problem, not the solution.— StopCambo (@StopCambo) October 14, 2021
Watch @GNDRising campaigner & #StopCambo activist Lauren's speech & spread the word 📢
The public rebuke was shared across social media, celebrated as a thrilling example of speaking truth to power.
In an interview, MacDonald told Global Citizen that her action was "very last minute" and that she had to craft the speech and the accompanying protest in a matter of hours. That short window of time may have contributed to the fierce punch of the endeavor. The speech, written in haste, retained much of its fiery indignation. However, the viral denuciation was in service to a much a larger cause: raising awareness of plans for the Cambo oilfield and efforts to halt the project.
If the UK government approves the oilfield off the coast of Scotland, it would produce hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. These deliberations are happening even after the International Energy Agency's reported that no new fossil fuel projects can go ahead if global climate goals are to be reached.
In recent years, organizations like Extinction Rebellion, Blockade Australia, and the Sunrise Movement have popularized direct action as a way to accelerate the global transformations needed to avert environmental catastrophe.
Direct action can be defined as a politically motivated action that involves physical presence, or putting your body on the line — attending a protest, blocking a road, confronting a powerful person, disrupting events, and even obstructing fossil fuel infrastructure to directly stop greenhouse gas emissions.
During last month’s UN’s Climate Change Conference, COP26, protesters engaged in various direct actions to spur leaders gathered at the summit to make meaningful commitments to reduce emissions, fund a just transition, and support vulnerable communities.
For a climate summit that has been widely labeled a failure, these moments of protest have been bright spots, showing the resilience and determination of youth organizers who are intent on building a new status quo of collective flourishing.
Prior to COP26, Global Citizen spoke with MacDonald to learn about her thoughts on direct action, the benefits of organizing, and what she hopes for in the future.
Global Citizen: What is the hazard of corporate greenwashing?
Lauren MacDonald: Greenwashing is genuinely dangerous because it stops the public from realizing that these horrible companies genuinely do not have our best interests at heart. We need to be able to fully understand the crisis to stop it — and they are continuing to pollute the planet so badly.
If they had our best interests at heart, they wouldn’t be opening new oil fields, they wouldn’t be investing several times more in fossil fuel extraction than renewables. They focus on that renewable part in their public communications because they want people to think that they’re main goal is to become carbon neutral and green and it’s not.
Around 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions and Shell is like No. 9 on that list.
What is the tactical purpose of publicly calling out someone in power?
Something that stops ordinary people from taking action like this is the belief that people in power are going to change but we need to get people to realize that they’re not. By calling them [executives, politicians] out for what they are shows that they don’t have any intention of helping to create a just society.
When we look at history, change pretty much always happens due to direct action — frontline communities putting their bodies on the line and making massive sacrifices for change. It doesn’t come from white men in board rooms.
Using our voice and trying to get in a room with these people works because it shows the massive power imbalances at play and the massive differences between us — me, someone who fights for justice, and him, a CEO at Shell.
How do you follow up an action like this?
I hope that now the TED Countdown events will no longer invite big polluting companies. We will be keeping an eye out for that and we’ll go back to them and say, “What have you learned, with regards to the Stop Cambo campaign?” Standing in a room with van Beurden and telling him off is one thing, but we’re movement building every day, trying to educate people and get people involved. We want to use this momentum and the public support to get people involved and keep building the movement.
“The widespread public and political pressure is what’s made Cambo untenable. There is now broad understanding that there can be no new oil and gas projects anywhere if we’re going to maintain a safe climate.” - @tessakhan— StopCambo (@StopCambo) December 2, 2021
Activism works. https://t.co/diBoIPv5WI
We can’t let the Cambo oilfield go ahead with all the warnings from the International Energy Agency and the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] saying that this year there must be no new fossil fuel extraction if we’re to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need to take these things seriously and I’ll still be working on the Stop Cambo campaign.
What do you think about civil disobedience as a tactic for achieving climate justice?
This system that is in place is literally designed against the change that needs to happen. Therefore, we can't rely on using that system to change something like this. We have so little time and it’s genuinely an existential threat for all of humanity. I find myself repeating this so often because it doesn't get into people’s heads. It’s difficult for the human mind to catastrophize.
But we need to explore other ways to cause change. While civil disobedience, breaking the rules, will take you out of your comfort zone, it’s nothing compared to the suffering we’ll experience in the next few decades. Any discomfort will be absolutely nothing compared to what’s coming.
There are radical steps we can take and I think it's a moral imperative to do so if we can.
What are the benefits of organizing and joining communities in the climate space?
Getting involved in social justice movements has given me a space to actually process the climate crisis. This is something that affects so many people so deeply, whether they’re aware of it or not. I want people to be able to understand what’s happening with earth, to learn what’s happening with nature.
The communities you become a part of give you support on a level you would never imagine. Here, communities are all about becoming better people and who the planet needs us to be. It’s a completely different way of life.
If anyone is thinking about getting involved or doesn’t know what they have to say — just know it’s good enough. Just start taking imperfect action. We don’t have time to think, “Am I good enough for this?” Everyone is welcome in climate justice.
What do you hope comes out of COP26?
I hope we have more opportunities to speak truth to power, but in terms of what COP as an institution represents, my hopes of what it will achieve are pretty much nil. I have absolutely no faith in world leaders and big executives to make change because it’s not in their interest to do so.
The heads of state and the big players in these meetings, the people in power in this current phase of capitalism, are the ones to blame for the terrible situation we’re in. I don’t see them being the ones to solve it. I think it's the people who are the most affected, who have experienced weather-related disasters, and the ones on the ground fighting, where change will come from. From the bottom up.
What do you hope for more broadly?
It’s really difficult to have hope. We don’t actually know how much of this crisis we can mitigate but we need to try because we don’t know. We might be able to mitigate more of it than we think. Maybe we don’t understand the Earth’s capacity to heal itself.
In the current system that we live under, it’s so difficult to envisage what a truly liberated world would look like and a perfect world is something that we'll probably never see in our lifetimes. Hopefully we can pass a better world onto the next generation. That’s a good enough hope. Hoping that people in the future will still be able to live is my hope. I hope that my family doesn’t die of the climate crisis and I hope that me and my friends don’t die.
In terms of envisaging a beautiful world, it’s really hard. I’m looking out the window and my gaze is drawn to these autumnal trees. The beautiful world we want to see in the future is just nature.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.