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SMG climate focus in lead-up Cop26 Glasgow

An artist’s impression of the Science Museum’s planned Our Future Planet gallery © Science Museum Group.

Geraldine Kendall Adams, George Monbiot withdraws from Science Museum event over oil sponsorship, Museums Association, 2 March 2021

SMG director says severing ties with energy companies is ‘unproductive’.

The environmentalist and writer George Monbiot has pulled out of a talk organised by the Science Museum Group (SMG) in protest at the institution’s ongoing relationship with fossil fuel companies.

Monbiot had been due to speak at the upcoming Climate Talks event on 31 March, which is part of a series of climate-focused talks and initiatives launched by the SMG this year in the run-up to the crucial Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Announcing his withdrawal on Twitter, Monbiot wrote: “I’ve now withdrawn from the event I was doing at the [Science Museum], after discovering that it is still taking sponsorship money from the oil companies BP and Equinor. Such companies use these deals to sustain their social licence to operate – ie to destroy the living planet.

“When I accepted the museum’s invitation, I naively imagined those days were over. I mean, what respectable organisation still takes money from this planetary death machine? I love the Science Museum, but it’s hard to express how disappointed I feel.”

Monbiot said he had been “shocked” by emails obtained by the anti-oil campaign group Culture Unstained showing how the SMG “is helping its sponsor, BP, to greenwash its activities”.

Released under the Freedom of Information Act, the 2019 emails show that SMG director Ian Blatchford worked with BP to develop a response to growing staff unease over the institution’s sponsorship deals. Two Q&A sessions between staff and BP executives were then organised to discuss the oil giant’s strategy to address the climate crisis, with museum trustees “strongly encouraged” to attend.

Environmentalist and fellow speaker Mark Lynas today announced that he would also drop out of the Climate Talks series unless the institution “stops taking dirty money”.

Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained, said: “It’s hugely problematic for a science museum to host talks on ‘the problems caused by climate change’, while it gives much needed legitimacy to those that caused them.

“Despite their warm words about becoming ‘net zero’ in the future, right now BP and Equinor are disregarding the science and continuing to invest huge amounts in fossil fuels. Museums are facing very real financial challenges from the pandemic. However, it is also the case that we must act now if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Refusing to promote the polluters would be a significant step.”

In response to Monbiot’s withdrawal, Blatchford said: “We have a diverse, international and authoritative range of speakers for the Science Museum Group’s Climate Talks series. We’re only a few events in and already 10,000 people have tuned in or booked a free ticket to engage with the century’s defining issue so it’s a shame audiences won‘t hear George’s contribution.”

Blatchford has consistently defended the SMG’s decision to maintain a relationship with fossil fuel companies. In a blogpost earlier this year setting out the group’s approach to the climate crisis, he wrote: “The major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent global challenge of climate change and we are among the many organisations that regard a blanket approach of severing ties as being unproductive.

“We believe the right approach is to engage, debate and challenge companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive.”

An SMG spokeswoman said: “The Science Museum Group is transparent about its long-standing relationship with several energy companies and wanted to ensure staff had the opportunity to put questions directly to BP, an approach that colleagues valued.

“Among the places you can read about SMG’s relationship with energy companies is this blogpost. In this, Sir Ian Blatchford also outlines how we are committed to working with funders who are also on a journey to decarbonise, becoming the first cultural institution to use the respected Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI) to assess partners’ progress. You might also be interested in this section of our website which sets out the group’s commitment to sustainability.”

Monbiot has described the group’s response to his withdrawal as “mealy-mouthed and incoherent”.