Categories: Features Politics

Could Teen Eco-Activism Be the Oil Industry’s Greatest Threat?

Youth activists give US President Trump a run for his money as they challenge OPEC’s market stability.

“Whatever it takes.” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid E]l Falih boldly presented the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) approach to stabilizing 2019’s fluctuating oil market, in a statement to the Saudi Press Agency this June. 

Capping crude oil output and directing a dynamic market are the organization’s greatest challenges, RBC Capital Markets analysts said this week. Industry officials cited the Trump administration’s trade conflicts and volatility as a force to be reckoned with for the allied oil giants, as OPEC+ prepares for a September 12 meeting in Abu Dhabi.

This summer, the oil cartel expressed concern over a less likely challenge – youth climate activism.

“There is a growing mass mobilization of world opinion… against oil, which is totally unscientific” and this is “perhaps the greatest threat that is facing our industry,” commented Mohammed Barkindo, OPEC Secretary General. “Civil society is being misled to believe that oil is the source of climate change,” added Bakindo. 

Read Also: Qatar to Withdraw from OPEC

His comments came after the annual OPEC and Non-OPEC Ministerial Meeting in Vienna on July 2. The 14 member countries and non-member oil producing allies, now including Russia, are preparing for another major meeting in Abu Dhabi. 

Like the July meeting, next week’s meeting should review market developments and uncertainties, reaffirm commitment to mutual interests of oil-producing nations, and focus on returning investment and confidence to the industry. 

Barkindo further noted that “we believe this industry is part of the solution to the scourge of climate change,” though he did not provide specifics regarding the industry’s role. He also failed to provide insight into his assertion that the growing anti-oil opinion is “totally unscientific.” An explanation could have clarified his unconventional claim, as scientific consensus backs the destructive impact of fossil fuels in climate change.

Barkindo signaled that the mobilization referenced 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, and the millions of youth climate activists who have followed her school strike protest movement.

Teen Activism

Thunberg began a global movement last August. The teen decided to strike from school every Friday to protest climate inaction in front of the Swedish parliament.

The movement spread as Thunberg delivered inspirational speeches to major international bodies, beginning at COP24 in December. The activist received a standing ovation from British MEPs after an impassioned speech in April. 

School-children worldwide have joined Thunberg and taken to the streets in increasing numbers since the activist’s first school strikes last August. Roughly 1.4 million school children worldwide have joined in weekly Friday school strikes or larger FFF events, demanding swift and powerful climate legislation. Students from all continents have participated, excepting Antarctica, where adult scientists joined the action. 

The movement’s next major action is scheduled for September 20-27. 

While Barkindo did not single out Thunberg by name, he clearly alluded to the movement she champions. He admitted that children of some OPEC colleagues “are asking us about their future because … they see their peers on the streets campaigning against this industry.” 

The executive added that mobilization against oil was “beginning to… dictate policies and corporate decisions, including investment in the industry.”

Thunberg thanked OPEC for shining a spotlight on the growing movement. “Thank you! Our biggest compliment yet!” she tweeted to her roughly 728,000 followers on July 4. 

Also in July, Amnesty International named Greta and her Fridays for Future (FFF) movement as their Ambassador of Conscience 2019. 

Thunberg is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee for her leadership against the climate crisis. If awarded the prize in October, she will be the youngest Nobel Laureate in history. Thunberg is lauded for giving a voice to a young generation, one that cannot vote in legislatures but will face greater climate impacts than today’s political leaders.

OPEC’s Barkindo implied that the oil cartel also lacked a voice. He urged the press: “We need your help because you are the voice of the voiceless … let’s focus on the science, not the political narratives.”

Thunberg crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a carbon neutral sailboat, hitting international headlines. She arrived in New York aboard the Malizia II on August 28. The teen braved a two-week ocean journey to voice her generation’s concerns at the September 23 UN Climate Action Summit.

‘The Science’ in MENA Region

“No region on Earth is expected to be harder hit by climate change than the Arab world. No other region has already displayed quite so clearly the potential threats to stability and peace that rapid environmental change may bring,” according to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa (WEF).

In 2018, a city in Oman recorded a 24-hour minimum temperature of 42.6°C, which the WEF reported as the highest minimum temperature ever recorded by a weather thermometer. 

A city in the Algerian Sahara reported a maximum temperature of 51.3°C, likely the highest ever reliably recorded across all of Africa. The same report mentioned the region’s extreme vulnerability to rising sea levels, as well as several record-breaking natural hazards in recent years. 

Thunberg acknowledged the disproportionate effects of climate change on major polluters versus non-polluters when accepting her Amnesty International recognition: “To act on your conscience means that you fight for what you think is right.” 

She went on to explain that, “I think all those who are part of this movement are doing that, because we have a duty to try and improve the world. The blatant injustice we all need to fight against is that people in the global south are the ones who are and will be most affected by climate change while they are the least responsible for causing it.” 

MENA Teens Join Fridays for Future Ranks

Gulf countries rank among the world’s major CO2 emitters. North African countries generally do not, but still tend to emit more than Sub-Saharan countries. Regardless of their countries’ impact on climate change, students from MENA at large joined several FFF demonstrations.

While no participation was reported in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar, every other MENA country, from the UAE to Morocco to Iraq to Israel, has participated. Even students from conflict-ridden Iraq, Libya, and Syria prioritized including FFF involvement within their wearied agendas. 

Israeli and Palestinian teens came together in Jerusalem to make their voices heard. The two demographics “feel that in order to defeat something much bigger than us, we must put the unfortunate hatred aside and focus on what actually matters the most: saving the world from an ongoing climate breakdown,” according to 16-year-old organizer Michael Bäcklund.

OPEC pins its fears on a teenager’s tenacity and a generation’s existential determination. 

Recent data on climate change’s economic impact indicates that the biggest “losers” from the effects of climate change will be emerging market countries with high temperatures, and oil producers. 

At the intersection of the two groups, data shows Saudi Arabia as the world’s most economically vulnerable country to climate change. One one hand, as an emerging market economy with a large share of outdoor workers and in agriculture and construction, rising temperatures mean productivity declines. One the other hand, the more fossil fuel emissions increase, the more oil demand decreases. 

Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s de facto leader, might be wise to stop criticizing the FFF movement. Instead, the kingdom should focus on adapting to rising temperatures and diversifying its economy. Ultimately, “whatever it takes” should direct concern to the same threat Thunberg stresses, climate change itself.