Activists have reacted with fury to oil giant BP’s renewed sponsorship deal with the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Shakespeare Company. For years now, enraged activists have staged dramatic demonstrations against the company’s funding of some of Britain’s highest profile cultural institutions, arguing that the firm’s environment-damaging activities and lobbying against effective climate control policies make it an unsuitable donor for the arts.
The new five-year sponsorship deal is worth some £7.5 million to the organizations BP is supporting, 25% less than the last five-year program the firm funded. The cut comes after BP called an end to its 26-year sponsorship of the Tate in March. The company said both decisions were a result of falling oil prices and the challenging business environment it has faced over recent years, and that neither had anything to do with the sustained pressure it has found itself facing from climate campaigners in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
All of the organizations that will benefit from the new deal, which will begin in 2018, welcomed BP’s new commitment, with many pointing out that the company had made it possible for them to stage world-class exhibitions and events that had greatly benefited the British public. Environmental activists were predictably less enthusiastic, with a spokesman for campaign group “BP or Not BP” saying the renewed deal deeply misjudged “the mood across the cultural sector.” Separately, a group of activists headed by actor Mark Rylance published an open letter calling for the extended sponsorship deal to be canceled, arguing that BP’s activities are “harming lives every day.”
While moral outrage over BP’s treatment of indigenous populations displaced in South America and environmental concerns over its activities around the globe are well founded, they should not be used as reasons to block the company from donating money to British cultural institutions. The arts have suffered financially in the U.K. and elsewhere as budgets contract and governmental priorities shift towards other areas. Rather than wasting their efforts protesting against a large company pumping much-needed millions into London’s arts organizations, militants would be better advised to focus their energies on campaigning for change that might result in policy shifts that will directly benefit the environment.
Instead of organizing publicity-seeking stunts such as chucking fake oil around the British Museum and signalling their moral indignation at a nasty oil firm being allowed to sponsor supposedly liberal arts organizations in dreary open letters, climate control campaigners should mobilize to push oil majors – including BP – towards achieving the promises of the COP21 conference. Blocking BP from donating money to the arts in Britain will make a negligible contribution to the fight to stop climate change. Denying London’s cultural institutions the funds they need to continue putting on world-beating events will not help reduce carbon emissions to any great degree. Conversely, applying pressure to Big Oil and world governments to live up to the commitments they made in Paris just might.
As President Barack Obama said in his Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, climate change could be an existential threat to the whole world if we fail to do something about it now. While possible, it’s unlikely that stopping U.K. art galleries from using oil money to put on exhibits was what he had in mind. Public pressure can help push Big Oil towards change, as demonstrated by Shell’s recent pivot to gas, Exxon’s clean-energy tie-up and Saudi Arabia’s plans to sell off its state-owned oil company and refocus on renewables. Similarly, oil producing major Kazakhstan has chosen “Future Energy” as the theme of the Expo 2017 Astana, where private companies from all over the world are encouraged to present their latest innovations in engineering the transition away from hydrocarbon resources.
Energy producers know that their traditional business model is dying and that the public expects real change. And it’s not just about reducing CO2 emissions – alongside this environmental challenge lies an economic one, namely promoting energy efficiency and conservation as well as solving the social challenge of enshrining access to energy as a basic human need and right. If climate change activists are serious about cleaning up Big Oil, they should therefore call a halt to their symbolic stunts and instead focus their attention on something more constructive: such as lobbying the oil industry to invest more money in renewables, or campaigning for the acceleration of the solar revolution, mobilizing both people and lawmakers alike. Big energy firms are already on the back foot as a result of falling oil prices and the march toward renewables. Rather than stopping them from funding access to invaluable cultural events and exhibitions in London, let’s concentrate on putting them under further pressure by demanding they take concrete steps towards averting the environmental Armageddon we face.
Just think how much could be achieved by environmental campaigners if they channeled the energy they use to stage their pointless anti-BP stunts into lobbying for real change. Instead of hijacking art galleries to protest about an oil firm paying for culture, why not demonstrate against the energy industry’s slow progress on renewables or its failure to wean itself off fossil fuels. It’s a choice between lamely protesting against the funding of art, and having the courage to call for policy change that might save the world.