“I think it’s easier to start a debate about oil shame than about which climate actions our society needs.”

These words come from psychologist Sidsel Fjelltun, who guests the podcast Kystpuls along with oil rig worker Eirik Birkeland and Klaus Mohn, rector of the University of Stavanger. They discuss the role shaming plays in the climate debate.

“Shooting flies with an elephant gun”

The climate conflict took root in earnest among Norwegians in 2019, the same year as the concept of shame entered the public discourse: flight shame, meat shame, oil shame. But does shaming a person really help them change their behaviour?

“I think shaming is a bit like shooting flies with an elephant gun, because it can be totally overwhelming. Many have probably experienced the numbing touch of climate shame. But feeling abject despair about a problem is not conducive to finding ways to solve it,” says psychologist Sidsel Fjelltun.

“But at the same time,” she says, “shaming can be constructive.”

“When an entire community feels it, shame holds some potential: if we are ashamed of ourselves for how we have behaved, then we want to do better. But I don’t believe in the type of shame that places blame on individuals, such as oil rig workers.”

Fjelltun warns that the shame debate can steal attention from the truly important issues.

“The media often pick up on the shame debate,” Fjelltun explains. “It’s an issue many people are familiar with and it’s easy to write stories about. I think it’s easier to start a debate about oil shame than about what climate actions our society needs – which many appear much more uncomfortable discussing.”

Frustrated oil rig worker

Eirik Birkeland, who leads the oil workers union Ekofisk-Komiteen and is himself an oil worker, has felt frustration over the inflammatory shame debate in the media.

“We who work in the oil industry often feel the debate paints everything in black and white,” says Birkeland. “The Norwegian Government and Parliament arrange licensing rounds and want the oil industry to continue to provide income to Norwegian society. Despite that, it sounds as though a disproportionate number of those whose voices are heard are against oil production in Norway.”

In Birkeland’s opinion, we must engage with our politicians to move the world in the direction we want.

“I work in an industry that delivers a product the world demands. I don’t feel that I have a greater moral responsibility for oil and gas consumption than anyone else who lives in the affluent West.”

Societal structure must change

Klaus Mohn, rector of the University of Stavanger, agrees that we must not shame people for working in the oil industry.

“I’ve generally been sceptical to the use of the word ‘shame’ in the climate debate. But if such a concept is to be used, it mustn’t be attached to individuals. Instead it should be applied to how society is organised, and maybe to how our politicians formulate policies and regulations for the oil industry.

Mohn believes that oil and gas extraction must be reduced if we are to resolve the climate problem. He considers that politicians have given the industry a lot of leeway during the coronavirus pandemic.

“My overall standpoint is that the basic framework within which the oil and gas industry operates should remain stable. The oil and gas industries have had advantageous conditions and they never complained about them when prices were high. I don’t quite understand why we should start fiddling with taxation principles now, when oil prices are low and we’re going through a global downturn. In my opinion, the politicians were too lenient when they gave the industry a tax break to get through the pandemic.

The Kystpuls podcast

Kystpuls is produced in collaboration with Både Og, and is a dissemination initiative from Centre for the Ocean and the Arctic. Advisor Ida Folkestad Soltvedt leads the project and is a presenter on the podcast.

“The concept of shame has become part of the climate debate, so we decided to delve deeper into this phenomenon. What does shame do to us, and what does it do to public discourse? Our conclusion is that a bit of shared shame can be a good thing, but if shame draws attention from the rest of the climate debate, that’s worrisome,” says Soltvedt.

The podcast (in Norwegian) is available here: https://pod.space/kystpuls/oljearbeideren-skam-eller-kudos