Climate activists occupy Science Museum over fossil fuel sponsorship

From our friends at Culture Unstained (2.10.21):

'- Former Science Museum director and respected climate scientist quits Advisory Board over museum’s ‘willingness to accept oil and gas sponsorship’

- Move marks significant shift in position by Professor Rapley, who oversaw and defended a major Shell sponsorship deal while at the helm of the museum 

- Resignation comes ahead of COP26 climate talks and intensifies pressure on museum already facing controversy for partnering with companies continuing to extract fossil fuels beyond safe climate limits

Professor of Climate Science Chris Rapley CBE has resigned from the Science Museum’s Advisory Board over the issue of fossil fuel sponsorship. Rapley, who is currently Professor of Climate Science at UCL, has long-standing ties with the Science Museum, serving as its Director from 2007 to 2010. In a letter explaining his resignation he states: 

‘Given the reality of the climate crisis, the need to abolish fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and analyses such as the recent Carbon Tracker Report which bring into question the commitment of the oil and gas companies to do so, I disagree with the Group’s ongoing willingness to accept oil and gas company sponsorship.’  

The resignation was revealed to signatories of a letter from youth climate strikers UKSCN London and UCL students to Rapley yesterday afternoon, and he tweeted about it yesterday evening.

The move follows internal discussions between Rapley and the museum after it controversially announced Shell as sponsor of its current flagship climate exhibition, ‘Our Future Planet’. Since the April announcement, a major backlash has unfolded 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 investigationby 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. The museum also has ongoing partnerships with fossil fuel giants BP and Equinor.

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

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 highlights in his resignation letter, 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.”

UKSCN London, who co-organised the massive London youth climate strikes in 2019, have been at the forefront of the campaign against fossil fuel sponsorship of the museum, and wrote to Rapley on 4 September along with several UCL students, raising grave 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 who initially contacted Rapley asking him to speak out, 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. 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 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 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% 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.'