The grand irony, of course, is that, having watched the Arctic melt as global temperatures rose, Shell was first in line to drill the newly melted waters for yet more oil which would raise the temperature some more.
But lately, the planetary-scale irony was compounded by one of a more local variety, contained in the phrase safety zone.
Here’s the backstory: In May, Shell convinced a federal judge in Alaska to enjoin Greenpeace from protesting too closely to Shell’s Arctic drilling vessels. This restricted area, or safety zone, was set at 500 yards (457 metres) while these vessels transit in Seattle’s Puget Sound.
Then, last month, 500 kayaks congregated around one of Shell’s giant Arctic drilling rigs as it sat in Puget Sound, a David-and-Goliath picture that flew across the web. And a couple of brave souls peacefully suspended themselves from another one of its drilling vessels, as others had done a month earlier.
No one was hurt. But Shell didn’t like any of this, so the company, in a not-so-subtle attempt to intimidate opposing voices, decided to send out a copy of the Greenpeace injunction to 350.org and others who oppose its Arctic drilling plans.
Of course no court as yet has drawn a safety zone around the Arctic, even though a January study published in the journal Nature made it clear that if we open up the stores of gas and oil in the far north we won’t be able to protect the climate from dramatic change. Instead, Barack Obama invited Shell to drill.
The president argued on Twitter last week that he couldn’t stop all drilling the Arctic, but that’s way too easy. True, he can’t keep the Russians and Canadians from drilling in their territory, but in the US the decision was entirely up to him. He didn’t have to give the people who chanted “drill baby drill” at the GOP convention in 2008 what they wanted.
And there is something else too. The need for coordinated international action to stop climate change is exactly we have been having United Nations summits on the topic every year since 1990 - with a very important agreement set to be signed in Paris this December. Obama could be pushing right now to get a ban on Arctic drilling locked into that agreement - but draft texts make no mention of such a sensible plan.
In the meantime, there is no safety zone for wildlife and indigenous people when something goes wrong (and something will go wrong - if a pipeline can break under the beach in benign Santa Barbara, it’s only a matter of time before the Chukchi Sea wreaks some kind of havoc on Shell’s platforms).
But even if Shell never spilled a drop, all the carbon it’s bringing up will eventually be spilled into the atmosphere - an atmosphere that’s already way past its safety zone, as CO2 emissions have spiked from 280 parts per million in the Holocene to more than 400 ppm today.
You can see the effects already, even from Seattle: Washington is suffering through what the governor called an unprecedented drought, and last summer battled to contain the biggest wildfire in its history.
Shell has a long history of this kind of irresponsibility - this is the same company who worked hand in glove with the Nigerian military dictatorship that killed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders for daring to stand up to Shell; there are drinking water wells in the Niger Delta where chemicals like benzene can be found at 900 times their safe levels.
It is a company that announced in 2009 it would no longer invest in solar or wind power because it thought it could make more money from oil. It is, in the words of the former chief climate envoy for the UK, John Ashton, a “narcissistic, paranoid, and psychopathic” organisation.
In fact, in a world serious about protecting its people and its climate, there would be a safety zone several miles outside the edge of Earth’s atmosphere where Shell was not allowed, and a sign directing it to wreck Venus instead.
But, as usual, the rich and powerful are using the legal system to further exploit the planet. The language in the injunction is richly ironic: Shell was able to obtain “relief” because the threat it faced was “actual and imminent, not conjectural or theoretical.”
In Shell’s view, this apparently describes the peril posed by Americans in kayaks. By any honest reading, though, it’s an indictment of this multinational, one that is utterly undeterred by science in its ceaseless, unblinking quest for profit.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Annie Leonard is the executive director of Greenpeace USA, founder of the Story of Stuff Project has spent more than twenty years investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues. In addition to the original short film, Story of Stuff, she also created The Story of Cap & Trade, The Story of Cosmetics, The Story of Bottled Water, and The Story of Electronics.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, author, and syndicated columnist. Her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014), has just been published. Her previous books include the international best-sellers, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. To read all her writing visit www.naomiklein.org. Follow her on Twitter: @NaomiAKlein.