Leaders in Bunkers

Chief executive officers of even the largest oil companies in the world have failed to read the writing on the wall. So heavily armored are they against how the world now works, they did not anticipate this week’s defeats, each of which was inevitable.  

In the Netherlands, a court order will now force Royal Dutch Shell aggressively to slash its carbon emissions. In the U.S., ExxonMobil shareholders put on the board an activist investor who charged the company was facing an “existential risk” because of its continuing dependence on fossil fuels. And a large majority of Chevron’s shareholders voted for a resolution that called on the company to “substantially reduce” emissions from products it produces.   

It’s clear the chief executives of all three companies were brought up short, trapped in bunkers of their own making. Which is why on the all-important matter of climate change they were unable to lead, which is why on the all-important matter of climate change they are being forced to follow.

Who exactly are they following? First and foremost, they are activists, typically either climate activists or activist investors. But they are no longer alone. They are being backed now by some heavy hitters, for example huge investors such as BlackRock and Vanguard. They see climate change as a risk not just generally, but specifically to the businesses in which they invest their money. Most importantly, not far behind them are ordinary people. People like you and me able finally easily to see – all those hurricanes, all those wildfires, all those climate refugees – the planet changing in ways that threaten, if not us then our children.

Subsequent to this week’s events The New York Times reported that Big Oil had been dealt a “stunning defeat.” The Wall Street Journal said something similar – it said the “defeats” were “significant.” But this is not, of course, about “Big Oil.” Nor is it even about the three companies, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. All these are abstractions. Instead the story is about three men, three CEOs, who are flesh and blood. Who are leaders in high places paid very, very big bucks – apparently to duck the single most important issue facing the companies for which ostensibly they are responsible.    

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