Environmental activists in Europe have found their next Monsanto, and it’s oil giant Exxon-Mobil. A coalition led by Greenpeace is calling for a boycott of the company, described in activist literature as “the number one global warming villain,” and a new poll indicates that more than 50 percent of consumers in the United Kingdom are prepared to boycott the company for its role in persuading U.S. president George W. Bush to repudiate the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse emissions.
Activists may also have found their next Philip Morris, since the giant oil company’s denial of a connection between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming—despite the near unanimity of climate experts on the subject—bears an uncanny resemblance to tobacco companies’ refusal to acknowledge the link between their product and cancer.
According to a new website, http://www.stopesso.com/ (Exxon trades as Esso in the U.K.), “While the rest of the world is trying to stop global warming and protect the planet for future generations, Esso is busy drilling for more oil and polluting the atmosphere. What’s worse, Esso is doing its best to stop other countries’ attempts to prevent the world from heating up.”
The catalyst for the campaign was the decision by the Bush administration to defy the world community by refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that called for the industrialized nations to steadily reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Exxon and its executives contributed about $1 million to the Bush campaign, and were major supporters of the president’s decision.
Moreover, the company has invested heavily in research intended to cast doubt on the seriousness of global warming and on the role of fossil fuels in the process—an investment that reminds many critics of the work of the Tobacco Institute, which for years threw money at junk scientists prepared to question whether tobacco really did cause cancer. The company has also run ads criticizing the Kyoto accord.
The environmental coalition targeting Exxon has clearly learned some important public relations lessons from campaign against Monsanto. It has recruited some serious celebrity endorsements—from Bianca Jagger, pop star Annie Lennox, actor Ralph Fiennes, and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick—and has the support of 50 Members of Parliament in the U.K. and several members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
And like the Monsanto campaign, it will target supermarkets. The same MORI poll that found 53 percent of petrol buyers willing to boycott Esso gas stations, also asked supermarkets ASDA, Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway and Morrison whether they sold Esso’s petrol on their forecourts. The activists have also indicated a willingness to target Exxon’s industrial customers in Europe.
The campaign will clearly hit Exxon the hardest in Europe, but there are indications that it could spread to the U.S. Environmental groups are already working to mobilize the same kind of campus protests that have proven such an embarrassment to Nike, and several shareholder resolutions at Exxon’s recent annual meeting sought to link executive compensation to social and environmental performance, and to force the company to stop misleading shareholder about global warming.
According to Peter Altman of Campaign ExxonMobil, a U.S. coalition of environmental and religious organizations, “Investors ought to be concerned that Exxon-Mobil has positions itself as the most important global environmental target on what many people see as the most important global environmental issue.”
It’s beginning to look as though blocking Kyoto will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.
According to columnist Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times, “As long as everyone was discussing how to implement Kyoto, no one wanted to take any radical steps. Governments could day they were working on the problem, but that negotiations were hard. Corporations could mumble nice words about environmentalism, but not worry anything serious was going to happen. And environmentalists could feel their cause was being advanced.”
Smart companies like BP and Shell understood the benefits of the status quo, and of working with environmental groups. Both companies have acknowledged the link between CO2 emissions and global warming, and both have pledged to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, investing in renewable energy research.
With Kyoto gone, Exxon no longer has any protection against environmentalist attacks. Its future will be decided in the marketplace—the marketplace of ideas. Exxon will be forced to defend itself against PR-savvy environmentalists who will be able to point to the company’s dubious past—the word Valdez is still a touchstone for green consumers—and the absurdity of its current position.
“We are encouraging people to use the market, their purchasing power… to try and get action on climate change,” says Sarah Ludford, a member of the centrist Liberal Democrat party in the U.K.
So far, the company’s response has been characteristic, essentially thumbing its nose at its critics. In a statement, Exxon maintained that Bush’s decision not to sign the Kyoto agreement “has opened the way for debate on more effective ways… to address the challenge of climate change. The call for a boycott of Esso service stations can only be counterproductive.”