The other evening, I had a very interesting and enlightening chat in the pub with a couple of people I know, one from BP and one from Shell. I’ll not name either here, although I’m not sure they’d mind if I did. The conversations shed light on the attitudes of the big oil companies towards climate change.
They are both involved in the strategic side of their respective businesses, although I’m not sure how much influence they each have on policy.
They each have quite different attitudes to people who push for meaningful action on climate change. The guy from BP described “environmentalists” as loonies, the other I’d be tempted to describe as an environmentalists himself, in his own way.
I can’t carry on describing these people as the “guy from BP” and the “guy from Shell” – I’ll call them Beepy and Shelly from now on in.
I don’t know whether he meant it, but Beepy definitely seemed to be trying to antogonise. I managed to suppress the rising anger, and calmly asked him why he thought environmentalists were loonies. Unsurprisingly it was because of money. Because of the upfront costs of renewable energy and nuclear, he is under the impression that we simply cannot afford to stop the climate changing. There followed a deep discussion about the meaning of money, with me trying in vain to convince that most money is artificially created and directly into swelling house prices and other relatively fixed assets, and could much more usefully fund an energy revolution.
The upshot of the discussion were differing views on what the target for parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be. The international target for temperature rise since pre-industrial times is 2 degrees Celsius – the political point at which we reach catastrophic climate change. The general view is that we need to limit carbon dioxide concentrations to 450ppm to have a 50% chance of hitting that target, and we are almost certain to miss it if we reach 550ppm. This is a gross simplification of course, as there are ranges on all of these figures – 1 degree Celsius could be catastrophic; it might be 550ppm where we have the 50% chance of avoiding 2 degrees. And these figures ignore other greenhouse gases, such as methane or soot. You may have heard that we are on 400ppm at the moment, which is growing at an accelerating 2.3ppm per year.
Shelly asked me what level I thought we’d get to at the peak concentrations of CO2. When I said 550ppm, he looked concerned.
“Would you take that if it were offered now?” he asked.
“No, of course not. Opt for near certain catastrophic climate change? You must be joking” I replied incredulously.
Shelly kept me informed that according to a large investor, the predominant view among those in the field, from Al Gore to people in the oil industry, is that we’ll end up with 600-700ppm at the end of the century.
But does that mean we should accept it? Of course we bloody shouldn’t.
“Yes, we should. I reckon we should aim for a target of 620ppm” Beepy announced. “That wouldn’t require a huge cost, so it would be more publicly and politically acceptable”.
This brings me on to the real insight of the evening. Both Shelly and Beepy volunteered that their respective companies are not leading on climate change. They are waiting for an international policy shift – then they’ll change their policies [I assume on alternative fossil fuel extraction, exploration, Carbon Capture and Storage and nuclear and renewables].
If Beepy and Shelly are right about their companies attitudes, or if they embody in some way the corporation culture, then it is abundantly clear that they (I mean the companies, not Beepy and Shelly themselves) feel no responsibility for the fossil fuel emissions. It’s not them, it’s the government. I can hardly bloody believe it as I type. How irresponsible can you get?
Beepy did say that he thinks coal should be phased out. Shelly did say that they want to get moving on Carbon Capture and Storage (held up “by the government”, of course).
But if coal should be phased out, why exploit tar sands? If it’s up to the government, why lobby the government to avoid the introduction of measures to help curb emissions?
If this is representative of the view of the decision makers in BP and Shell, then it is not merely irresponsible, it is criminal. I am not accusing of Beepy and Shelly here at all. It is not them that are deciding that BP and Shell will go with the flow and not lead on efforts to reduce emissions – it is the decision makers within BP and Shell that are doing that.
Meeting at a human level, we discussed the differing attitude to risk. Beepy clearly thought that the costs of climate change were relatively low, certainly as compared with the costs of introducing mitigating measures. I certainly think the opposite. When it comes down to it, I suspect the difference in our opinion comes down to me including a wider set of impacts on the cost side – I’m including the impacts in the wider economy and beyond, in nature and in our own ability to sustain the global population.
BP and Shell need to start including the wider costs in their policy making and strategy. The only ways that is going to happen is one or more of the governments changing international law; markets, organisations and individuals realising the risk and moving investments away from fossil fuels; or those in the fossil fuel industry taking responsibility.
Any bets as to which of these will happen? Will the governments, markets or fossil fuel industry be the first out of the block? And hence who will be the winners, and who the losers?
Or should we take matters into our own hands?