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Fossil ‘Youth-Washing’ Includes Sponsorship Funding, Free Trips to COP

Youth climate activists are crying foul as fossil companies keen to burnish their public images as “makers” of the future woo young people with protestations of concern, and promises of funding, while continuing to push US$1.4 trillion in new oil and gas projects through 2024.

“With ‘youth’ becoming synonymous with climate action, corporations and politicians are increasingly using young people to portray themselves as climate serious,” writes The Intercept. As an example, the story cites the fossil industry’s relationship with Alberta-based Student Energy, a youth climate action group whose 2018 annual report lists Royal Dutch Shell and Suncor as partners. The “ventures director” for the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) sits on Student Energy’s board of directors, and fossils “consistently fund” Student Energy’s annual conference.

Student Energy’s Twitter account shows its members advocating at COP 25 on topics like rapid decarbonization, phasing out coal, energy-efficient infrastructure, the UN Sustainable Development Goal to ensure affordable, reliable, renewable energy for all—and, of course, youth empowerment. All of that in spite of what The Intercept documents as the fossil industry’s continuing efforts to court the rapidly-growing organization.

It makes sense that fossils are interested Student Energy, notes the Intercept, given that the Canadian non-profit is “among the youth groups granted status at COP 25, meaning that its members can gain access to negotiation spaces, speak with the negotiating parties, and participate in events.” And the organization’s “presence at the UN’s international climate talks is only expected to grow,” given that its “2018 report noted that the group had seen a 73% increase in active chapters.”

Also on the rise is the interest taken by the fossil industry, with BP promising to send 50 Student Energy delegates to next year’s COP in Glasgow.

The industry partners are certainly happy to pay for lunch, if it means good PR. And good PR is what the OGCI got when it invited Student Energy members to a working lunch during OGCI’s annual gathering in New York. Occurring on the same September day when #FridaysForFuture founder Greta Thunberg castigated delegates at the United Nations Climate Action Summit for robbing her of her dreams and childhood with their “empty words,” The Intercept says the lunch had a clear agenda: to explore “options for long-term engagement” between youth and the energy sector.

While the student guests of OGCI were given the opportunity to grill their hosts (who included the CEOs of colossal fossils Royal Dutch Shell and BP) on their climate inaction, and initially “tension in the room was high,” things ended with Student Energy’s executive director, 30-year-old Meredith Adler, tweeting that she was “very impressed” with OGCI. 

“I don’t feel they had all the answers or strong enough answers, but they are really listening,” she wrote.

Defending her organization’s willingness to engage with Big Oil, Adler told The Intercept that Student Energy seized on the OGCI event as an opportunity “to challenge the oil and gas industry face to face,” adding that her organization “follows strict partnership principles that prevent funders from wielding influence over the group’s activities.”

She also stressed that a “large proportion of the organization’s members want to work in the renewables industry, not for a fossil fuel company,” and that 2020 will find the organization “diversifying their funding sources significantly.”

As to BP’s offer of funding for COP 26 participants, writes The Intercept, Adler clarified that her organization has not yet officially accepted the money. “We’re examining what that looks like and the implications of that and if they’re the right partner,” she said.

But fossil “youth-washing” is hardly a fringe activity, writes The Intercept, citing a number of young climate activists disheartened and angered by the extent to which the United Nations itself turns a blind eye to industry efforts—often highly successful—to co-opt young people.

Case in point is the UN’s annual Global Youth Video Competition, which invites entrants to submit short films that highlight some aspect of climate action. This year’s prize. A fully-funded trip to COP 25. [Second prize: Two fully-funded trips.—Ed.]

But “alongside several UN agencies sponsoring the project was the BNP Paribas Foundation, which is funded by a bank that spent more than $50 billion in fossil fuel investments between 2016 and 2018.” That was despite swearing off tar sands/oil sands and shale investments in 2017 and joining the Transition Pathway Initiative in 2019 to amp up pressure on fossil companies.

Responding to an angry letter from 29 climate organizations protesting the bank’s role, the UN justified the sponsorship, saying it was important to “open the dialogue and look at how stakeholders from different sectors are transitioning their business models.”

“Youth-washing has proliferated beyond the UN’s climate gatherings,” The Intercept adds, citing Shell’s #MaketheFuture campaign which promotes the fossil giant “as a driver of low-carbon technology and features images of young people as well as social media posts about the company’s funding of youth engineering and science programs.”

That kind of activity angers young activists like Sarah Dobson, a 23-year-old member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, who sees it as fostering the “illusion that the youth have sold out their values to support the activities of horrible businesses.”