The Science Museum has been criticised for giving a platform to the oil giant Equinor, days after a controversial decision by the UK government to allow the company to exploit the Rosebank oil field in the North Sea.
Staff at the Science Museum were invited to a “Meet the Funder” event on 2 October, five days after the decision to allow drilling in the North Sea oilfield, which is 80% owned by the Norwegian company. The move came despite warnings from scientists of the environmental harm it will cause through accelerated climate change.
“These Meet the Funder sessions are little more than a space for some of the world’s biggest polluters to defend their business plans in the face of public opposition”
“Once fully developed, the emissions from burning the 500 million barrels of oil and gas in the Rosebank field would be equal to the combined annual carbon dioxide emissions of the 28 lowest income countries in the world,” says Dr James Dyke, the associate professor of earth system science at the University of Exeter.
The ecological threats posed by the oil field has led to a storm of opposition. In March, 700 scientists wrote to Rishi Sunak, the UK’s prime minister, asking him to halt all new oil and gas developments. In February, more than 200 individuals and organisations, including public figures like the comedian Frankie Boyle and the Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, wrote an open letter opposing Rosebank.
Among the critics within the ruling Conservative party is Lord Deben, the former environment minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government and recently chair of the independent advisory body the Climate Change Committee. Deben warned that exploiting Rosebank would discredit the UK government’s position at international climate summits, including the COP26 talks in Glasgow, where it has urged developing nations to reduce emissions.
Sarah Waldron, the co-director of the campaigns and research organisation Culture Unstained, underlines the significance of a museum dedicated to science promoting Equinor, considering the scientific warnings about the harm its activities posed. “These Meet the Funder sessions are little more than a space for some of the world’s biggest polluters to defend their business plans in the face of public opposition,” she says. “It’s shocking that the Science Museum would give this platform to any fossil fuel company, but it’s beyond belief that the director allowed this event to go ahead just days after Equinor’s plans to develop the Rosebank oil field were approved—and in the same week that the International Energy Agency reaffirmed that there can be no new oil, gas and coal extraction if we are to reach net zero by 2050. By defending the activities of his fossil fuel sponsors over and above the climate science, the museum’s director is failing to show the objectivity that his role requires.”
“Engaging people with humanity’s greatest challenge—the fight against devastating climate change—is a major priority for the Science Museum Group”
A Science Museum spokesperson said the meeting proved to be popular with staff. “Engaging people with humanity’s greatest challenge—the fight against devastating climate change—is a major priority for the Science Museum Group alongside reducing the impact of our own activity as we work towards achieving net zero by 2033,” the spokesperson said. “We continue to urge companies in carbon-intensive sectors to show more leadership in speeding up the transition to low-carbon energy sources and last year extended our use of the respected Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI) to assess the commitment of prospective and current partners to curbing climate change.”
The spokesperson also pointed out that the museum is asking its partners to achieve Level 4 on the TPI’s Management Quality index, which rates companies on a scale from zero to four, and to align with the Paris 1.5 degree pathway on TPI’s Carbon Performance index by the end of March 2024.
Joanna Haigh is the former co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “One would expect such a national museum to have the highest moral standards and be a torch-bearer for science in support of the national good,” she says. “This makes the Science Museum’s decision to continue to accept financial support from the fossil fuel industry all the more galling.”
For Julie Forchhammer, the co-founder of Klimakultur, a Norwegian non-profit that engages the arts and culture sector to act on climate change, Equinor’s sponsorship is part of a “culture-washing” strategy. Speaking about the museum’s Wonderlab/Equinor Gallery, Forchhammer says: “It was filled with excited kids trying all the interactive installations and experiments. Equinor are targeting children and youth aggressively, both through its sponsorship of the Science Museum in London. But also, on a monumental scale, at home in Norway.
“They are sponsoring all levels and aspects of Norwegian society,” she says. “Even our youth national skiing team is called the Equinor Junior National Team. As the saying goes: ‘Get the kids and the parents will follow’. Equinor is very aware of this.”
An Equinor spokesperson said: “At Equinor, we respect everyone’s right to their opinion. We are a corporate member of the Science Museum.”