On April 20, 2017, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies invited former Royal Dutch Shell executive David Lawrence GRD ’84 to speak about energy transitions and the role of energy in climate change mitigation. Having served as an executive vice president of extraction and exploration before retiring in 2013, Lawrence is regarded as an expert on fossil fuel exploration and acquisitions. Given his association with Shell, a company that repeatedly runs afoul of environmental and social justice concerns for denying the impacts of carbon emissions on global warming, showing little regard for indigenous populations and threatening pristine natural environments, it is no surprise that Lawrence’s visit to F&ES stirred controversy and debate among students at F&ES and the greater Yale community. For instance, one opinion was that by inviting Lawrence, F&ES Dean Indy Burke was sending the message that “[o]ur environmental school embraces the fossil fuel industry.”
As master’s candidates at F&ES studying energy systems, energy policy and renewable energy finance who hope to expand renewable energy deployment, we want to offer a different perspective from the one issued earlier. While we feel that many of the concerns raised against Lawrence’s decisions as a business leader within the extractive fossil fuel industry are valid, there is considerable value in inviting representatives of the institutions that we wish to change and have them share their perspectives within the halls of our school. As future practitioners, it is imperative we understand how our opponents think and feel about the issues we are most passionate about — to learn how they operate, find common goals and determine how to effect change both internally and externally. In short, we do not believe that Dean Burke was signaling F&ES’ support for fossil fuels by inviting Lawrence to speak.
As environmentalists, we strongly value the efforts of nongovernment institutions, including academia, to expand dialogue and create a space into which the industry can transition. We need such voices and statements to help move the needle on existing social norms and values. In order to push innovation toward new energy solutions, we need to be able to understand the historical context that drives the current industry, especially those that are often resistant to change. Therefore, to promote change within companies like Shell, we value opportunities to learn to pinpoint their motivations. Some of us envision our future roles as change-makers on the inside to help build bridges and spark movement. We strive to see energy companies — whose profits are traditionally tied to fossil fuel extraction — consider new investments in renewable energy through internal efforts that drive sustainability initiatives aligned with corporate strategy.
We also want to recommend some avenues for future discussion that might provide valuable context. Despite great potential, Lawrence’s talk offered to lend a compelling perspective. In addition to a lack of discussion around communities impacted by resource extraction, he failed to generate conversation around tangible, action-oriented solutions that companies or citizens could implement to address global challenges. Lawrence presented many charts illustrating the projected increase in global energy use, the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and well-known solutions and hurdles to a large-scale, low-carbon energy future. Yet this was a limited explanation from someone with such deep expertise in the industry. To hear the perspective of someone who has worked in communities all over the world — whether or not inclusively — would have been insightful. It could have created a natural segue into further dialogue about the role of major energy companies in mitigating the consequences of energy poverty and exploitation of local communities.
Part of the beauty and challenge of F&ES is that our community fosters a wealth of different discussions to engage on and create incredible multidisciplinary opportunities. Reflecting this diversity of interests, we agree that it is valuable to invite representatives spanning a spectrum of perspectives to greatly broaden the depth of an event. It would be more meaningful in the future if F&ES chose to invite a speaker from a multinational corporation and a speaker from a community impacted by that corporation’s activities as suggested beforehand by our peers. Such a forum would support continuing these discussions about difficult and multidimensional issues, as well as broaden all of our tool sets to work toward a more just, sustainable and low-carbon future. We look forward to continuing to share our views through conversations at F&ES and the broader Yale community.
Ellen Abramowitz is a graduate student in F&ES. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . Ben Bovarnick is a graduate student in F&ES. Contact him at email@example.com . Annie Guo is a graduate student in F&ES. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . Kelly Kneeland is a graduate student in F&ES. Contact her at email@example.com .