From left to right: Nick Butler, formerly group vice president for strategy and a group policy adviser at BP and now a visiting professor at King’s College London; From left to right: Tim Crosland was previously a government lawyer and a deputy director o

When Extinction Rebellion met Big Oil

Extinction Rebellion are often dismissed as a loony fringe with no realistic ideas for solving the climate crisis. So we put three of the group in the same room with a former BP executive to see whether they could agree on anything

Nick Butler: I was at BP for a long time—29 years altogether—and from 1989 onwards worked for the chief executive John Browne. He and a few other people (not the whole company) believed that climate change was real at a time when it was still disputed science. In 1997, he made a speech at Stanford that I helped to write about going “beyond petroleum.” We were ahead of our time: it was not widely accepted. We didn’t have enough renewables to justify saying we were beyond petroleum. 

Alan Rusbridger: And can I ask, just to see if we’re all on the same page. What global temperature rise limit do you think is necessary?

Nick: I think it’s desirable to limit it to 1.5°C. I’m not sure that’s realistic now, particularly post-pandemic. I think it’s essential to limit it to 2°C. But I’m not sure that’s going to be achieved either. It’s more likely to be 3°C on current projections.

Tim Crosland: The tropical regions of the world become uninhabitable beyond 1.5°C. And if you think about what that means in practice for real people, it’s that you need to get out of those areas now—you don’t wait for it to happen. That’s 40 per cent of the world’s population: 3.2bn people. The UK government’s own net zero strategy says that, beyond 1.5°C, tipping points come in—melting permafrost releasing methane—and we risk losing all control. Missing 1.5°C would be a tragedy on a scale almost beyond comprehension. But you’re not going to solve this through the courts, you need a social movement. We need to wake people up, and history says civil disobedience is a good method for that.

Alan: Tim, you’re a lawyer and yet you’ve just mentioned civil disobedience—so you’re talking about upholding the law and breaking it at the same time.

Tim: The fundamental law is the law of life. That’s what governments are for—to look after their people, to safeguard life. So any law that doesn’t support that is an unjust law.

Alan: The Theresa May question: what’s the worst thing you’ve done in terms of breaking the law?

Tim: The naughtiest thing was breaking a Supreme Court embargo the day before the Heathrow judgment [ruling that the third runway could go ahead] was due to be released. That’s normally a prison sentence, but I was charged with contempt of court and given a £5,000 fine. 

Alan: Why did you consider it necessary to do that?

Tim: Because the Supreme Court was disguising from the public the fact that Heathrow expansion was obviously inconsistent with keeping to 1.5°C. Everybody knew that. The government’s own evidence showed it would mean 40m tonnes of carbon emissions from UK aviation every year by 2050. And there’s no way that could be squared with 1.5°C. And that was being concealed to smooth the way for this £14bn project. It felt important to take a stand.

Nick Butler: Reduce fossil fuels, absolutely. But the key challenge is not oil and gas, it’s coal

Clare Farrell: I’m currently on bail and awaiting trial for breaking the window of an HSBC bank branch. I was with nine women on Earth Day in 2021 and allegedly tapped the windows with a hammer. I sat down next to them with signs saying that they [HSBC] had invested over £80bn in fossil fuels since the 2016 Paris agreement. This is part of our political heritage, starting with the Chartists and then the Suffragettes.

Alan: Have any of you glued yourselves to anything?

Clare: I have, yeah, to another person outside City Airport… and chained myself to a bike and we blocked a road by a roundabout. I was charged in a magistrates’ court and we won an appeal based on a Supreme Court ruling called Ziegler, which says you have to consider proportionality: a minor delay to traffic is not commensurate with the collapse of organised civilised life.

Alan: Nick, do you approve or disapprove?

Nick: Oh, I approve. I was a protester. When I joined BP, a group of us were members of the anti-apartheid movement. I think you’re right to protest. Where I don’t agree is I think it would be good to put solutions on the table as well as challenging the current reality. I do think you need to tie it to giving people solutions, not just making life difficult for them but showing this is the way forward. And I think the chief executive of BP would say exactly the same.

Alan: What are the three most necessary things to get us out of the crisis?

Verel Rodrigues: The main thing is winding down fossil fuel production. We also need to make sure we are reducing demand. And that can be by improving efficiency, by insulating homes, putting solar panels on people’s roofs. That would also help build energy independence.

article body image

Credit: Global Commons Institute

Clare: One of them has to be what Extinction Rebellion was founded on—participatory democracy. Government needs to concede decisionmaking and policymaking responsibility to a group of ordinary citizens who are given the best information possible. That’s the main solution we’ve always put on the table—a different way to do governance—because the system as it stands cannot and will not do what’s required.

Tim: On this first graphic [see chart opposite] you see from 1750 that red line of carbon dioxide emissions going up more or less in lockstep with GDP. It’s the story of the modern economy: growth supported by fossil fuels. This is where we’ve got something in common with the fossil fuel companies, who absolutely recognise the relationship between fossil fuels and economic growth. Nobody in the mainstream media is really confronting that. Secondly, there’s the way the fossil fuel industry (and other corporate interests) have corrupted the public discourse to safeguard their profits, concealing for decades their own research that carbon emissions were speeding us to catastrophe. Our vision is one of truth-telling and authentic democracy. What people (and all life) have in common is the will to survive. Armed with good information, people don’t vote for death and disaster. Our emphasis on citizens’ assemblies is a counter to the present, deadly corruption in our politics.

Alan: When Nick described his career at BP and John Browne’s Beyond Petroleum, was it admirably ahead of its time? Or was it whitewashing or greenwashing?

Clare: There’s been almost no improvement in most major fossil fuel companies in terms of their carbon emissions. And all the time they’re working with enormously expensive PR firms and advertising agencies to create a glossy brand that says that they’re doing something. 

Nick: Not all the companies are the same. I would not defend anything Exxon had done. Reduce fossil fuels, absolutely. But the key challenge is not oil and gas, it’s coal. Most of the growth in emissions over the last two years since the pandemic has been from coal in Asia. The other real challenge is the emerging economies’ combination of population growth and prosperity. So, we have 10,000 new citizens in the world every hour and more and more have the ability to buy commercial energy supplies.

Alan: Do others agree that coal is the major problem?

Tim: Coal’s a huge part of the problem—but it’s all fossil fuels.

Nick: I’m not disagreeing that oil and gas also create emissions, but coal creates two or three times more. And the increase is going to cause a problem over the next 10 or 20 years. It won’t be in the UK, because we’ve moved away from coal. It will be around the world. And I think this global issue is where people should focus.

Clare: There are also rapidly rising levels of methane and lots of methane that was previously unmeasured, so that people have gone, “Oh shit, where’s all that come from?” It’s a really, really rapid-impact greenhouse gas, so it’s a serious problem in the short term. This comes alongside the expansion of coal and countries like the UK wanting to reopen the conversation about fracking.

Nick: We don’t disagree on fracking at all… I think we should all campaign to find the technologies that are going to allow poorer people in India and China and Africa to have an alternative to coal that isn’t another fossil fuel. Because as we get towards 10bn people in the world, there’s got to be an energy system to maintain some standard of living. When you come out of poverty, the first thing you use is more energy, and that’s got to be met.

Verel: Nick, you mentioned that we need the right solutions. I think we already have the solutions in the market. We have renewable energy, we have other technologies like hydrogen that can decarbonise steel and cement production. What we’re facing, I think, is where the money is being invested. We’re still seeing more money being invested into fossil fuel technologies rather than greener, cleaner technologies. We know that we can already survive on renewable energy fully: 97 per cent of Scotland’s electricity demand is renewable energy that comes from wind; Costa Rica’s electricity is 95 per cent renewable; Uruguay’s is almost 100 per cent. Other countries are leading the way, so the solution’s already there, it’s just that we don’t have the political will to transition.

Nick: I’m not sure all the solutions are there. It’s easy to produce electricity now from low-carbon sources, but electricity is still only around 20 per cent of final global energy consumption. It will go up. I think you’ve got to electrify an awful lot of things that are not yet electrified. But I agree with the principle that you find the technologies, you invest in them, and an awful lot can be done. And I think that should be the focus of all campaigning, finding those technologies and putting the money into them.

Tim: There’s always a danger that when one starts talking about the technology, we can just get lost in it. What the IPCC has said is we could do it technically—but it would need transformational change at every level of society to stay within 1.5°C. What I don’t believe we can do is continue to grow our economy at 3 per cent a year and simultaneously almost completely cut out fossil fuels. All the evidence says that isn’t going to happen.

Tim Crosland: We have sold out our democracies and we’ve all made ourselves powerless

The way compound growth works—and as an economist [Nick], you’ll be familiar with this: 3 per cent per annum means you have to double the size of the economy every 20 years. So by 2100 our economy would need to be 32 times as big as now. This idea that’s being put out there of “clean growth”—we’re just going to carry on growing the economy and we’re just going to switch our sources of energy from dirty to clean—I think that’s complete fantasy.

Nick: Yes, I think you could say we shouldn’t grow at 3 per cent here. I think what the UK does matters awfully little. It’s China’s target of 6 or 7 per cent growth per year that is the challenge. And that is growth to escape from poverty and to improve basic living standards, and the same in India, the same in Africa, and it’s solutions there that we really need.

I understand your cynicism but I think this will be solved by companies developing technology and taking it around the world. Technology that allows you to continue growth because in some areas you need growth, otherwise we’re stuck with poverty. Companies are a vehicle for positive change; you shouldn’t think they’re all Exxon. They have got the capacity and the money. And it doesn’t have to be BP or Shell: it could be Apple or Google.

Clare: That’s why XR had a 2025 net zero demand. That number has shifted the conversation massively. It was highlighted at the beginning of the movement because of the physical science, and because we have a duty to the poorer people in the world who haven’t caused climate change—still living in poverty, still unable to climb out of their situation, and then also getting the worst effects of extreme weather, crop failures, droughts and famine.

Tim: The duty of the directors of a company is to maximise profits for their shareholders. And what we’re seeing now is the oil price soaring and there’s a bonanza for the oil and gas companies. And as that price goes up, suddenly all those decisions that Shell was taking about [halting exploration]… they’re being reversed because of profit incentives. I certainly agree that markets are going to be part of the solution, companies are going to be part of the solution; but look at the history and look at where we are now. It’s not going to happen without the G20 coming out and saying: “State of emergency… we’re on a war footing and we need the economy to be working for our collective survival because if it isn’t, it’s all over, literally everything is over.”

Nick: Politics tends to follow rather than lead. I very much agree with you that 2050 was the wrong target because it’s too easy for politicians who won’t be there by then. Targets for 2025 and 2030 are much more important. But how exactly is it going to be delivered? And I don’t think that will be determined by government. I’m not against participatory democracy but how do you deliver your target? Your process can get to a goal—net-zero by 2025—but there’s still a delivery gap. 

Tim: Of course, and markets can be brilliant at that but at the moment governments are still subsidising fossil fuels to an astonishing amount. Make the polluter pay. Because that’s what gets investment into the right place. If the companies knew now that they’re going to be responsible for all the damage we’re seeing—going to have to compensate the people who have done nothing to contribute to this around the world—that’s when you shift investment and research into the right places. And we’re doing the opposite right now—we’re subsidising destruction.

Nick: I think that the incentives are not right. I think there should be a carbon tax. It’s not perfect, but you have to have an alternative so that people can switch from what they’re doing now into something else. Because otherwise, they’ll just stick with what they have. Secondly, put a lot of money into the low-cost, low-carbon research agenda. And finally I would put air capture on the table, to take the carbon out before the damage gets too serious. There’s a great company called Heirloom Carbon, which Bill Gates has just put a lot of money into. It uses the properties of limestone to absorb carbon more quickly. And I think we will need solutions like that too. I would take the money away from Hinkley Point and Sizewell [nuclear power stations], which I think are ludicrous white elephants, and put it into front-end research.

Verel: I think nobody would disagree. But CCS [carbon capture and storage] is expensive, clunky, vulnerable to leaking. I think it’s a low-level solution. The technology is still in its very early stages. I don’t think we should put our hopes on direct air capture because it’s likely that it will fail and it’ll take a long time until we actually get that to work. The best thing to do is wind down fossil fuels as soon as possible and stop emitting carbon.

Nick: I think that [if big companies stopped drilling] the oil market would just pass to the Saudis and the Russians. So oil demand of whatever it is today—100m barrels a day—you could take out BP’s part or Shell’s, and anything they didn’t do would just be picked up by very unpleasant regimes who you can’t go and protest about. The major European oil companies are only about 7 per cent, 8 per cent of the world market. 

Tim: I think there is a lot of truth in that, isn’t there, this big lie that capitalism and democracy go together. What it actually means is that nobody has got any agency, nobody can really make an intelligent human decision because if they do, it just goes to the person who’s a little bit less conscientious. We have sold out our democracies and we’ve all made ourselves powerless to avoid being dragged into the abyss. And this is the tragedy. We all know what’s happening and we can’t do anything about it. That brings us back to civil disobedience…

Nick: I don’t think they [capitalism and democracy] are compatible, actually, I would agree. But I think you still need some degree of market economics, which does not have to be capitalist but it needs some element of competition; and institutions, which I think of as companies trading, putting technology around the world, meeting problems, finding solutions. I think that’s still very important, so it needs redefining. It’s so imperfect, but I don’t think I believe in total state control either.

Tim: Absolutely.

Clare: What’s desperately absent from this conversation is leadership. We don’t have a leader in this country. The reason why lots of people didn’t know what to do during the pandemic was because the prime minister changed his mind every few days about what they should do. And then, you can look at the lack of leadership in companies and in government on this issue—barefaced lying, which is systemic, and corporate cover-ups. Extinction Rebellion was founded on this idea: “We’re going to go out and say things that no one else dares to say.” So I made a banner that was 50 metres long that said: “Climate change: We’re fucked.” I did that because I knew that everyone who worked in the climate space, including in the NGOs, was saying this behind closed doors but wouldn’t say it in public.

If we want to have a sane civic response, there needs to be a major cultural shift where people see themselves as having agency, where they feel they have to stand up and do the right thing. And you must also have visible leaders, not just a prime minister, but also faith leaders, people who run universities. 

Nick: I am encouraged that you are thinking about more than just protest and that you’re thinking about the solutions. Protest on its own is great, necessary, you shouldn’t be stopped by the law, I totally agree with you on the new [policing] law. But to keep public support, which is another way into participatory democracy, you need to offer them ways forward.

Verel: I don’t think companies are going to come up with the right solution. If you take Tesla, for example, they’re making electric cars, but electric cars still need lithium and lithium is very, very destructive to the planet…

I know you were speaking about people in China and India, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s the richest 10 per cent of the world’s population that is responsible for 52 per cent of global emissions. So the people in the Global South are not the main people responsible for the climate crisis.

You say what we do in the UK does not matter, but the UK absolutely matters because we have this opportunity to lead the way and show other countries how to do it. And this is where I feel the work Extinction Rebellion is doing, including civil disobedience, is out of desperation, because we rapidly need to change the way we live and definitely need to show the right path to other countries.

Nick: What I tried to say was that to reduce emissions to zero in this country would make very little difference to climate change. I think what we can do is to develop some of the technologies to help other people get away from coal and stop them going down a fossil fuel growth path. So, I think we do have a role and that should be the priority.