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“We think democracy is better. But is it? In terms of outcomes?”

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This is an amazing story of a reporter invited to a Shell meeting about the climate change future and allowed to take notes and write about it so long as he didn’t use names. It is….revealing.

Since 2017, when I published a book about American millennials, I’ve had the occasional cold call from corporations to come talk about my work, all but one of which I’ve turned down. But last fall, the Shell Scenarios team — as in Royal Dutch Shell, one of the biggest oil companies in the world — offered me £2,000 in exchange for a 15-minute talk and my participation in a group exercise. Its internal corporate think tank was holding a daylong conference about how generational change would affect the hopefulness projected in what the company calls the “Sky Scenario,” which it describes as “a technically possible but challenging pathway for society to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.” I’m not a climate expert, but apparently I qualify as a generational whisperer, at least to Shell, and to talk to me about global warming, the giant energy conglomerate wanted to fly me to London from Philadelphia, business class. I warned them that I couldn’t keep their money and asked if I’d need to sign an NDA. When they said no, I saw an opportunity to report on the oil company, undercover while in plain sight, without technically lying to anyone. It was too good to pass up. I said yes, then I emailed my editor.

The October 2019 workshop, it turned out, was timely. Fossil-fuel divestment used to be a fringe, college-campus concern, but over the past year, it has become increasingly in vogue in the world’s financial centers, including Davos, where it recently dominated conversation at the World Economic Forum. In December, a couple of months after the Shell workshop, the Bank of England proposed a new climate stress test to measure the resiliency of its banks in the face of warming — a move echoing that of Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank and reportedly being considered by the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell. Germany announced major coal phaseouts in January with coal-fired power generation scheduled to halt by 2038 at the latest. In a much-celebrated letter the same month, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, declared an about-face on fossil fuels, saying climate change was now a “defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” The entire country of Finland proclaimed it would go carbon neutral by 2035. Even the investor cartoon Jim Cramer, of Mad Money, got in on divestment, tweeting, “I am taking a hard pass on anything fossil.” Now ExxonMobil is down $184 billion-with-a-b since its 2014 peak.

From a certain vantage, the momentum looks almost definitive, as though nothing could stand in the way of a renewable future. But unlike coal, oil and gas companies are still definitely profitable, even investable, and more oil and gas are being produced, and used, every year — which helps explain why carbon emissions keep rising too. There’s little doubt that fossil-fuels are, culturally speaking, on the wrong side of history. But there is still a lot more money to extract from those wells, and the fossil-fuel businesses are intent on extracting as much as they can. It’s not necessarily such a bad time to be an oil and gas company, in other words, but it is a bad time to look like one. These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.

Organizers broke the conference up into three parts: first, a panel on polling and millennial politics; then the regional-perspectives panel; and finally, a collaborative exercise in which “deductive” and “inductive” groups imagined different paths to 2050. By gathering millennial employees from throughout the company, along with experts on the cohort and senior management, the strategies team surely hoped to infuse the firm’s leadership with a drip of youth consciousness, the way some oligarchs are rumored to inject themselves with young people’s blood. It’s supposed to help them stay agile. Other than the eight outside experts, there were a couple dozen people from Shell, ranging from HR specialists in their 20s to senior global executives (mostly Gen X and boomers). Staffers quoted me the figure “90,000 employees” (roughly the size of the company as a whole) a few times when explaining that virtually none of them knew one another.

Some of the most revealing insights came the night before the sessions at a group dinner at a minor Gordon Ramsay restaurant. The venue had two party spaces, and it wasn’t immediately clear where we were supposed to go, but when someone suggested putting up a sign rather than having wait staff direct the party one by one, the younger Shell employees grimaced. “Extinction Rebellion,” one said, less than half-joking. The climate-protest group has a major presence in the city with flyers and volunteers everywhere. “XR” targeted Shell locally in April 2019, smashing windows at the company’s London headquarters. In the U.K., it has succeeded at creating an ambient sense of fear or at least shame. We gathered in the mezzanine dining area and milled around doing introductions, and I asked young workers from the far-flung corners of the Shell empire, “Oh, what’s that like?” I tried to remember not to talk like a reporter.

When they called us to the table for dinner, I was lucky enough to be seated next to one of the senior Shell participants, Steven Fries, the firm’s chief economist. We met over arancini, the likes of which you might find at an upscale food court in a baseball stadium. Based in Shell’s global headquarters in the Hague, Fries pronounces his words with a precision that defies accent; even after speaking with him, his colleagues didn’t realize he’s an American until he told them. Like many people who studied economics at elite Western institutions between 1975 and 1986 would, he blames the lack of affordable housing in London on too much government regulation, which is why his support for big public investments to transition society away from oil and gas surprised me. That is, until I realized that, in his mind, those big public investments would be going to energy companies. When the proverbial light bulb went on above my head, he gave me a look that seemed to say, “Come on, man. What do you think we’re doing here?”

In the corporate sector, there’s still faith at the top that economic incentives and profit-seeking behavior can manage the crisis that capitalism has wrought. In such thinking, climate change is like a redux of the hole in the ozone layer: potentially bad but solvable with the tools on hand and without real changes to our lifestyles. Fries estimates that we’ll be able to cost-effectively fill two-thirds of world energy demand with clean sources within 20 years. (That’s ten years more optimistic than the optimistic scenario of the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization mandated to propagate optimistic scenarios about renewable-energy transition.) Even if that kind of turnaround is unrealistic, the Shell plan isn’t so different from the mainstream climate left’s agenda. A recent paper from Stanford professor and renewable advocate Mark Z. Jacobson calls for $73 trillion in spending to transition most of the world’s power grids no later than 2050, and he and his co-authors figure it’ll pay for itself in energy savings alone within a decade. In the analysis of Jacobson and other Green New Deal supporters, how many of those trillions end up going to Shell is largely beside the point. But for Shell, that’s the whole ball game.

Can’t really say any of this makes me feel better about the future.

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