Cultural institutions must walk away from fossil fuel giants

‘Big oil is literally throwing fuel on the raging fire that is our planet. Mark Rylance is right to walk away from an institution providing cover for one of the world’s most dangerous companies.’ In the light of actor Mark Rylance’s announcement he is walking away from the Royal Shakespeare Company over the sponsorship it receives from oil company BP, Green MEP Gina Dowding calls on cultural institutions to stop providing cover for climate-wrecking fossil fuel companies.

Oil rigs off the coast of Scotland
Oil rigs off the coast of Scotland
Gina Dowding

It has not been a good couple of weeks for oil giant BP. While Greenpeace activists shut down their headquarters and an oil rig, protests against their sponsorship of our arts and culture continue to gather pace. Swarms of dissent descended on a BP-branded outdoor opera screening, and the great and the good were forced to hoist themselves over barriers at the launch of the BP Portrait Award, because activists had so effectively blocked the entrances.

Now, one of the UK’s most well-respected actors, Mark Rylance, has resigned from the BP-sponsored Royal Shakespeare Company, because, in his own words, “I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman or anyone who wilfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn”. It feels like BP’s period of artwash might be coming to an end, and not a moment too soon.

This morning, defending his company on the Today programme, BP’s UK and Europe president Peter Mather was asked if he agreed that we are living through a climate emergency. His response was to say that we are on an “unsustainable path” – weasel words which seek to water down the magnitude of our crisis.

Despite accepting the basic premise of the need for bold climate action, he insisted that “oil and gas still have an important role to play, but we can decarbonise… through things like carbon capture and storage”.

This is the kind of fiction that we keep hearing from an industry that doesn’t get that they are dinosaurs and their time is over. That’s the message they are increasingly receiving from museums and galleries, and that is being delivered at the anti-fracking camps and demonstrations that I’ve spent so much time in over the past few years.

The claims that a radical expansion of untested and uncosted carbon capture technology can actually offset $41 billion (£32.2 billion) of investment in new fossil fuel extraction over the decade ahead, especially when we only have eleven years left to prevent climate breakdown. There are currently 17 carbon capture and storage plants on the planet. BP’s own assumptions rely on there being 2,500, magicked out of nowhere.

There is absolutely no way you can reconcile continued investment in fossil fuel extraction with hitting net-zero emissions in the coming decades, but BP has wheeled out a functionary to try to protect the deeply vested interests of the impossibly wealthy, stretching the inevitable as far as he can by keeping fossil fuels – and profits – flowing for as long as possible.

Sure there’s talk about renewables investment, but BP plans to keep 97 per cent of its investments in fossil fuels over the ten years ahead. And they have only spent a measly one per cent of their capital on wind and solar over the last decade. They have absolutely no intention of changing their climate trashing business model.

If you find the Conservative Party’s kick-the-can-down-the-road approach to Brexit frustrating, it is nothing compared to global capital doing the same thing with the climate emergency.

What they are risking for short-term profit is an unliveable planet. Whatever skewed statistics oil giants like BP like to parade about their investments in solar, and whatever empty promises they make about carbon capture technology (which is always just around the corner) we must remember that such evasion is only intended to buy a bit more time, a few more years of drilling, before a government is finally forced to intervene and shut these climate criminals down.

Sponsoring our arts and culture is another way in which BP tries to kick the can down the road and buy itself more time. BP and companies like it are not philanthropists. By putting their logo on the walls of our galleries and in the programmes of our theatres, they buy a veneer of legitimacy for practices which would otherwise rightly be seen as beyond the pale.

Big oil is literally throwing fuel on the raging fire that is our planet. Mark Rylance is right to walk away from an institution providing cover for one of the world’s most dangerous companies.

He’s a leader, and there’s no doubt many will be following him. If major arts institutions are to take the right path, they need to step away from fossil fuel sponsorship now.

Gina Dowding is Green MEP for the North West of England.