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June 9, 2021

Good morning, from London.


As Eamon was kind enough to mention last week, I recently spent months immersed in the world of Exxon Mobil, for a feature in our Fortune 500 issue.


That story got another shot of news since it was first published, as a third member of Engine No. 1’s slate was elected to the board, after Exxon’s fateful AGM. The result is a shareholder saber-rattling that continues to reverberate weeks after the meeting. It wasn’t just a warning shot for the oil and gas industry, but for big companies across the board, as the ramifications of climate change burst into boardrooms in a real way.


But there were a few elements that didn’t make it into the final story, including a question that I asked every current and former employee of the company that I spoke to: could you talk about climate change at work?


The results were mixed—a couple people, especially younger employees, said they could, and did, and never found the topic to be off-limits no matter who they were speaking to. But many others paused.


“I almost felt like it was like politics or religion,” said one employee. “You don’t talk climate change at work.”


“It was kind of a taboo subject,” said another.


“There was almost no point,” said a third.


It wasn’t officially off limits, and the people who were doing the talking (or not) were not ill-informed. Exxon, like many oil and gas companies, employs scores of scientists, and plenty of those scientists have advanced backgrounds in environmental and geoscience.


In fact, employees did ask hard questions about climate change, alternative energy, and the company’s strategy for adapting or speaking about the topic, including in public forums, like town halls. But they tended to do so anonymously, screen shots showed. When someone did broach the subject openly, one person said it tended to provoke a collective intake of breath.


“I’ve seen people asking career limiting questions,” the person said. “They might not get fired, but 150 people will sit there and cringe and think, your next review will not be good.”


Exxon, it’s worth noting, disagrees with this depiction—the company says employees can and do speak openly about climate change and alternative energy, and Darren Woods, the CEO, said employees have come directly to him to express their concerns. No one I spoke to told me a supervisor or other senior figure had told them not to speak about it, and some managers were actively supportive of open conversations.


But the whole idea got me thinking. It could be easy to think the topic felt touchy purely because this is an oil and gas company, where questions about the future of oil consumption can feel personal—bringing up questions not just about the future of that job, but whether that person spent their career in a meaningful way.


But several employees, especially in Texas, said the topic wasn’t just awkward within Exxon—it was the political or ideological divisions the words “climate change” could hit on, opening a painful seam of potential disagreement, when everyone is just trying to do their jobs and get along.


We’ve known for a long time that there are partisan divides over climate change—and this is the case outside of the U.S., too, including in the oil province of Alberta, Canada, where I grew up. Outright climate denial, however, has become increasingly uncommon: a survey by Resources for the Future, which came out in October, found a majority of Americans from both parties now agree on the fundamentals of a warming climate.


It’s the specifics—like how bad the problem actually is, how far the climate has already changed, and how to fix it—that tend to throw open a chasm, making the topic easier to not even broach.


So, I’m interested to hear: Do you talk about climate change at work? How do you talk about it, and with whom? Send me an email, and tell me your thoughts.


More news below.


Katherine Dunn
– katherine.dunn@fortune.com


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CARBON COPY


Wind giant


How do you transform an oil and gas company into a renewable giant? Denmark's Ørsted might provide some answers. The company, created in the 1970s to extract oil and gas from the North Sea, has become one of the world's offshore wind behemoths, getting out ahead of some of the world's larger legacy oil giants through a combination of forward thinking, government intervention, and nail-biting risks. It hasn't been easy—and it wasn't always clear the transformation would work. WSJ


The messy carbon offset market 


Mark Carney (of the Bank of England and the Bank of Canada) and Bill Winters (CEO of Standard Chartered) have populated a vast task force of experts from multiple industries to build out a functioning carbon-offset market. It's a market that Carney himself says could be worth $100 billion by the end of the 2020s. So why is not much happening? This Bloomberg investigation points to disagreement and haggling—on many of the very fundamental issues at hand. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. “The more time passes, the more pressure there is,” says one participant. Bloomberg 


Bad News


The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere once again hit an all-time record in May—despite the initial drop in demand for energy (and emissions) due to the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns. Measurements taken from atop a volcano in Hawaii showed CO2 averaged 419 parts per million that month, surpassing the previous high set in May 2020. New York Times 


The campaign for rewilding 


Efforts to reimagine Britain's parks to better support biodiversity are picking up steam—in my local South London park, tidy lawn is interspersed with chunks of unruly grass and native wildflowers, buzzing with bees—and now conservationists are looking to the Royal Family to set an example. It's not such a strange idea; Prince Charles' great loves are organic vegetables and gardens, and the family still owns sprawling estates across the country. The Guardian 


The battle for green talent 


For a long time, the battle for green jobs sounded (at least in North America) like this: people would be happy to take green jobs, if only they actually existed. Now, the opposite problem is growing: as the renewable sector takes off, there's a battle for the specialized talent needed for the industry, with some students (especially in Europe) being recruited while they're still in school. “The renewable sector, given the massive amount of growth that is expected, doesn’t have enough people," said one executive. Bloomberg


Disaster relief


When natural disasters strike Americans‚ who gets the most help? The Times takes the story of two neighbors in southwest Louisiana, both of whom got FEMA payouts after a hurricane ripped through their neighborhood last year, causing nearly identical damage to their homes. One neighbor got $17,000 in aid, the other got $7,000. The first neighbor is white, the second is Black. Now, FEMA is wrestling with why this stark disparity exists—and how to fix it. New York Times


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT


We're eating more meat than ever, and it's a big problem for climate change by Kat Eschner


Germany failed to protect citizens from cancer-causing diesel air pollution, EU court rules by Christiaan Hetzner


'Ugly' produce is finally finding a second life on the shelves of major grocery chains by Danielle Bernabe 



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CLOSING NUMBER


75 


That's how many miles a year on average desertification is edging up into northern Mongolia, driven by a sharp temperature rise and pollution from mining and other local industries. That's helped fuel the worst sand storms in a decade, with sand floating the next day into Beijing, 600 miles away. "It was dark like the night," one herder told NPR. "I thought I would die."


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