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Tina Casey headshot

Individual Responsibility vs. Corporate Accountability: Shell's Botched Climate Poll Rekindles the Debate

Shell's awkward poll reinvigorated the debate over whether individual action can make a dent in the climate crisis without corporate accountability.
By Tina Casey
climate change pollution

Royal Dutch Shell received an unwelcome tutorial in how not to run a Twitter poll last week when the company asked users of the popular communications app what they would do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poll sparked a furious burst of outrage from climate action advocates, who accused the company of deflecting from its own responsibility for the climate crisis. Nevertheless, the the poll does raise some important points about the ability of individual action to make a difference in global emissions, even if they are not quite the points Shell intended to make.

This really was one weird climate action poll

The Shell poll headed for trouble right out of the gate when it launched on Nov. 2, partly because Shell declined to provide any introduction or context for the question. The company’s tweet simply read, "What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” and provided participants with four choices: “offset emissions,” “stop flying,” “buy electric vehicle,” and “renewable energy.”

Only Shell's team can say what they hoped to learn from that bare-bones approach, except that the poll seemed intended more as a conversation-starter than any meaningful attempt to gauge public opinion. After listing the choices, the tweet suggested continuing the conversation under the Twitter thread #EnergyDebate.

Some conversation! The poll received only 199 votes before Shell shut it down, possibly due to the overwhelming torrent of negative replies, numbering into the thousands. Greta Thunberg and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were among the high-profile climate activists who put their Twitter seal of disapproval on the poll, bringing even more unwanted attention upon Shell.

When is a choice not a choice?

Shell and other fossil fuel stakeholders are ultimately responsible for much of the climate crisis, all the more so because their own scientists confirmed and correctly predicted the impact of oil and gas extraction on global warming decades ago.

The proof is in the pudding. Decarbonization of the global economy is already under way, partly at the insistence of activist investors. Shell and other leading fossil energy companies are pivoting into renewables, and advocates insist they must accelerate change in order to avert catastrophic climate change in the coming years.

However, if Shell’s intention was to deflect blame on to individuals, the poll was a curious way to do it. The four choices presented in the poll are not really individual choices at all. Access to electric vehicles and renewable energy both depend on the availability of technology. Similarly, access to offsets depends on markets and financial instruments. For that matter, offsets are beyond the budget of many households, especially those that are already stretched to the breaking point during the COVID-19 crisis.

Of the four options, flight is the only one that does leave some leeway room for individual choice, especially where vacations and short trips are concerned. However, even that is somewhat misleading. Many people rarely or never fly in the first place, either because they don’t need it, they can’t afford it, or they are afraid of it. On the other side of the coin, many people who fly regularly have no other choice, unless they plan on switching careers.

In addition, the whole issue of flight and carbon emissions may become moot in the coming years as the aircraft industry transitions to biofuel, batteries and fuel cells.

What Shell omitted

If anything, the poll puts the burden of action squarely back where it belongs: on the shoulders of Shell and other historic polluters.

To be clear, though, the poll does not absolve individuals from their responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable future.
If Shell really wanted to deflect responsibility on to individuals, it could have listed real choices that individuals make on a daily basis, with varying degrees of access based on their financial situation and other circumstances. Some of these choices can also have a ripple effect, if they help grow the market for more sustainable products.

For example, energy experts have long recognized that energy efficiency is one of the low-hanging fruits of decarbonization, whether it simply involves changing a lightbulb or caulking windows, or investing in weatherization, energy-efficient appliances or a new HVAC system.

Choosing reusable bottles and other long-lasting items over disposable ones is another area in which individuals can exercise their influence on manufacturers. The same goes for choosing to buy household products that require less packaging, or products that eliminate petrochemicals.

Choosing to recycle is another area in which individuals can exercise a powerful influence, especially in future years as next-generation recycling technology becomes available.

Why it matters

Although some environmental advocates hesitate to focus on lifestyle choices, that is also going to become a key issue as the decarbonization trend accelerates, simply because sustainable products are not free of impacts.

Biobased products, renewable energy, electric vehicles, and other products are fraught with land competition issues including the use of agricultural lands, forests, and natural habitats, in addition to impacts related to mining and manufacturing.

Be that as it may, Shell has a long road to travel before it can shuffle blame for the climate crisis on to individuals.

As reported by Energy Voice, in September Shell dealt itself into a raft of new offshore oil assets through the firm Kosmos Energy.

On Nov. 4, just two days after Shell dropped the Twitter poll like a hot potato, reports surfaced that the company had acquired a stake in the Transkei and Algoa oil and gas exploration basin off the coast of eastern South Africa. The deal gives Shell a hand in the ongoing exploration of a 17,698-square-mile expanse, and the company has announced plans to speed up the timeline of work already under way.

Image credit: Kouji Tsuru/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey