May 26, 2021 has been the type of day that fossil fuel fighters dream of. 

It started in the morning, when news came in from the Netherlands that a Dutch court ruled in a case against Shell, ordering the oil giant to cut emissions 45% by 2030 in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The case had been brought by activists, led by Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth. Organizers ultimately signed up 17,000 co-plaintiffs to the case and mobilized hundreds of thousands more to support the effort.  

While the ruling will surely be appealed, and doesn’t go nearly far enough to address Shell’s decades of human rights and climate abuses, it’s a monumental win. It will also help validate what many have dismissed as a long shot legal strategy to hold polluters accountable for their climate crimes. I remember back in Paris in 2015 when we hosted a mock tribunal for ExxonMobil in a warehouse far from the official UN Climate Talks. To see an actual court hold Shell accountable today felt like watching our fantasies play out in real time. 

The same could be said for what happened this afternoon at the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, where an outside effort succeeded in replacing at least two of Exxon’s board of directors with candidates dedicated to decarbonizing the company. I’m honestly skeptical that a few new board members can radically reform a corporation that has long been one of the greatest barriers to climate action, but it’s still a stunning rebuke. The vote was effectively a referendum on Exxon’s business model of “drill, baby, drill,” to which investors said, “thanks, but no thanks.” 

A similar dynamic played out at Chevron’s shareholder meeting, where 61% of shareholders voted for the company to reduce its “Scope 3” emissions, meaning the pollution from all the fossil fuels it sells. That’s been the big headline in the press, but I think arguably just as important is that 48% of shareholders voted for a report on Chevron’s “dark money” lobbying. Although they didn’t get the majority needed to win, the fact that nearly half of the company’s shareholders are concerned about the ways that Chevron is corrupting the political process should raise red flags not only for executives, but also the PR and lobby firms that are doing Chevron’s dirty work, and the politicians who are taking the meetings. 

As a fossil fuel divestment activist, I’ve been a critic of most mainstream shareholder activism because it tends to lack teeth and, until recently, it never felt like there was widespread enough understanding amongst investors and the public writ large to make such efforts successful. But that could be changing. As NPR reported, today’s vote at Exxon “demonstrates how arguments about the financial implications of climate change — specifically, the possibility that the world will stop using oil and gas and investments in fossil fuels will not pay off — have moved firmly to the center of mainstream investor thinking.” 

That “mainstreaming” is thanks in large part to the work of fossil fuel divestment activists and coalitions like Stop the Money Pipeline, who are targeting financial institutions for investing in fossil fuels (the shareholder resolution at Exxon today only succeeded because major investors like BlackRock got on board with the move after activists loudly critiqued them for failing to support similar initiatives in the past). Amongst its many accomplishments, the divestment campaign has served as a massive educational initiative on climate finance and concepts like “stranded assets.” Without the years of outside pressure (and media coverage) that divestment activists have generated, I don’t think there’s any way that we would have seen the successes at Exxon and Chevron today. 

In fact, today’s news has been a massive validation of the entire strategy of unrelenting, unwavering pressure on the fossil fuel industry. Even though it’s been clear for decades that fossil fuel companies are at the root of the climate crisis, some mainstream organizations, foundations, and armchair experts have critiqued “Keep It In the Ground” activists for their focus on fossil fuels, telling us that if “only we talked more about the benefits of clean energy” the climate crisis would be solved. I’m all about hyping some solar panels, but the fact of the matter is that there is no way to address the climate crisis without abolishing fossil fuels. The work that grassroots activists, Indigenous leaders, young people, and many more have done to turn the fossil fuel industry into the principal villain in this climate fight has been essential for creating the conditions for today’s wins. 

There is of course so much work left to be done. As I write this, hundreds of people are preparing to head to Minnesota to join the fight against Line 3 that Indigenous women have been leading for years. It’s one of many pipeline and fossil fuel fights that are underway all across the country. Meanwhile, despite some early wins like the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, we’ve yet to convince the Biden Administration to use the full extent of their regulatory authority to crack down on the fossil fuel industry. The same goes for Congress, where too many Democrats are still afraid of taking the fight directly to Big Oil. 

Hopefully today’s wins will convince them — and anyone else who has been on the fence — that it’s not only possible to challenge the fossil fuel industry; we can challenge them and win.