A surprising mix of environmentalists, pension fund managers and big money investors have scored startling victories against oil and coal, opening new battle fronts in the climate fight.

Activists outside an annual shareholder meeting of Royal Dutch Shell in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, in 2019.
Activists outside an annual shareholder meeting of Royal Dutch Shell in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, in 2019.Credit…Piroschka Van De Wouw/Reuters
Somini Sengupta

By Somini Sengupta

May 29, 2021

A nun, an environmental lawyer, pension fund executives, and the world’s largest asset manager. These were among the unusual collection of rebels who claimed a series of startling victories this week against some of the world’s biggest and most influential fossil fuel companies.

From Houston to The Hague, they fought their battles in shareholder meetings and courtrooms, opening surprising fronts in an accelerating effort to force the world’s coal, oil and gas companies to address their central role in the climate crisis. And even as they came with strikingly disparate points of view — corporate shareholders, children’s rights advocates, environmentalists, thousands of Dutch citizens — they delivered a common underlying message: The time to start retreating from the fossil fuel business is no longer in the future, but now.

“These companies are facing pressure from regulators, investors, and now the courts to up their game,” said Will Nichols, head of environmental research at Maplecroft, a risk analysis firm. “That’s a big chunk of society, and it’s not a great look to be pushing back against all of that.”

The most dramatic turning point came in the Netherlands, where a court instructed Royal Dutch Shell, the largest private oil trader in the world and by far the largest company in the Netherlands itself, that it must sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions from all its global operations this decade. It was the first time a court ordered a private company to, in effect, change its business practice on climate grounds.

The symbolism was inescapable: The Netherlands, famously built on land reclaimed from the sea, faces the immediate threat from a warming climate caused by the burning of Shell’s own products — oil and gas.

In another example this week, at the annual shareholder meeting of Exxon Mobil, the biggest American oil company, the message was framed sharply in terms of profits: A tiny new hedge fund led an investor rebellion to diversify away from oil and gas — or risk hurting investors and the bottom line.

Chevron’s shareholders voted to tell the company to reduce not only its own emissions, but also, remarkably, the emissions produced by customers who burn its oil and gasoline. And in Australia, a judge warned the government that a proposed coal mine expansion, a project challenged by eight teenagers and an 86-year-old nun, would need to ensure that it wouldn’t harm the health of the country’s children.

The timing was significant. This week scientists also concluded that, in the next five years, the average global temperature will at least temporarily spike beyond a dangerous threshold, climbing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than in pre-industrial times. Avoiding that threshold is the main objective of the Paris Accord, the landmark global climate agreement among the nations of the world to fight climate change.

Of course, none of these actions represents an immediate threat to the fossil fuel industry. For a century and a half, the global economy has been fueled by oil and coal, and that won’t change immediately.

Nevertheless, rulings like the one in the Netherlands could be a harbinger for similar legal attacks against other fossil fuel companies and their investors, experts said. Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University, called Shell’s loss in court “a social tipping point for a fossil-fuel-free future.”

Shell said it found the ruling, by a district court in The Hague, “disappointing” and intended to appeal. That process could take years to reach the country’s supreme court, delaying action but also drawing continued public attention.

Donald Pols, director of Milieudefensie, a Dutch environmental group, reacting to the Shell ruling in The Hague on Wednesday.
Donald Pols, director of Milieudefensie, a Dutch environmental group, reacting to the Shell ruling in The Hague on Wednesday.Credit…Remko De Waal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

If the ruling of the lower court stands, though, analysts said, Shell would most certainly have to reorient its business to reduce oil in its portfolio and halt its growth in liquefied natural gas, in which Shell is an industry leader. That is a matter of concern for the investors who have their money in the oil and gas reserves of companies like Shell, said Patrick Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School. “A decision telling a company, ‘You’ve got to get out of the oil business.’ For cautious individuals within the financial community, that’s got to cause them serious concerns.”

Dangerously for Shell, the national judiciary of the Netherlands in the past has shown itself to be among the most out-front on climate litigation. In 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands orderedthe government to cut greenhouse gas emissions because of a lawsuit filed by Urgenda, an environmental group. It was the first case in the world to force a national government to address climate change in order to uphold its human rights commitments.

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