04 June 2015

Winning the carbon war: the Vatican talks

Jeremy Leggett
"The UN negotiations are totally unsuited to the climate emergency", and the process must change "otherwise the negotiators, who have been there for 15 or 20 years, will continue their folklore," declared French Environment Minster Ségolène Royal to Le Monde on 1 June 2014. If the form of negotiations does not change, "the negotiators, who have been there for 15 or 20 years, will continue their folklore. You will find hundreds of people at their computers, discussing a point of the bracketed text or playing crosswords!"

As the heat (if not the light) intensifies in the leadup to global climate talks in Paris in December, perhaps the most interesting development is the intervention of Pope Francis, who trained as a chemist and seems keenly aware of the urgency of the problem. A sense of where the Vatican may be headed is "Climate Change and the Common Good: A statement of the problem and the demand for transformative solutions" issued on 29 April by  The Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, with signatories including leading climate figures  such as Dasgupta, Ramanathan, Archer, Crutzen, Sachs and Schellnhuber.

As Pope Francis (who took his name from the saint seen as the patron of the animals and the environment) prepares to issue an encyclical on Nature on 18 June, followed by a tour of the USA including speeches to the UN General Assembly and the US Congress on 23 and 24 September, an international group of 12 experts on climate change met in Rome on 27-29 May in conjunction with the Vatican to craft a summary statement. Amonst those participating were Ian Dunlop from Australia and the environmental and climate activist, author and historian, Jeremy Leggett.

The following is an extract from Jeremy Leggett's new book, "The winning of the carbon war". Leggett says he fought for the light side in the climate policy civil war for a quarter of a century as it lost battle after battle to the dark side. Then, in 2013, the tide began to turn. By 2015, it was clear the light side could win the war. Leggett’s front-line chronicle tells one person’s story of those turnaround years, and what they can mean for the world.  The book (to date) was published online on 3 June 2015, covering the period May 2013 to May 2015. Section will be added each month till the end of the Paris talks, and the final version will then be published as a print book in 2016.  The following extract covers the period of the expert group's Rome talks.

Rome, May 27th - 29th, 2015

The Temple of Hadrian began life nearly 2,000 years ago. Today, it is a modern municipal building built on and around what remains of antiquity. It is a place of wonder.

I have been invited here as part of an international group of 12 experts on climate change by the unlikely combination of Michael Gorbachev, the European Space Agency and the Italiani Foundation. The task of these experts is to craft a summary statement on climate change and world development, in consultation with the Vatican, in the shape of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Our work over the next two days will build on the outcome of a conference organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “Protect the Earth: Dignify Humanity” on 28th April, and draw on the action proposals in the report by the High Level Task Force on Climate Change convened by President Gorbachev with the support of Green Cross International: “Action to Face the Urgent Realities of Climate Change.”

This is going to be a task worth doing, and I am relishing the days ahead. But sadly the former President of the Soviet Union will not be here with us: he is ill in hospital in Moscow. I was much looking forward to meeting him. I wanted to tell him what an impact he made on me the day he gave a speech to an audience of scientists and others interested in arms control, in the Kremlin, in 1987. The Cold War was still on then. He was in the full flow of his efforts to thaw it. His main thrust was the dysfunctional strategic nuclear overkill maintained by both sides then (and now), and how he wanted to negotiate it away. But even then, in that speech, he showed that he knew where another existential threat to civilisation lay. He was the first world leader I ever heard talk about global warming. I sat there in the Kremlin agog, the token young scientist on the UK board of Pugwash: next to the Archbishop of Smolensk as I recall. (But all that is another story, from another time).

Alexander Likhotal, a key advisor of Gorbachev’s when he ruled the Soviet Union, now president of Gorbachev’s Green Cross organisation, reads a speech on behalf of his boss, by way of welcome. He reads of a clear and present danger of existential proportions. The window for strong action is rapidly closing. Paris is our last chance to escape an agonizingly unsustainable path. If we are to succeed, the world will need true leadership.

I wonder what, or who, Gorbachev means by that. I have had e-mails from people who – hearing I was coming here – were keen to tell me how much they hope Pope Francis will emerge as one of the transformative leaders in the Paris endgame.

The Vatican’s track record this year indeed offers encouragement for such hopes. Ban Ki-moon visited the Pope in April to talk climate, and emerged saying he expected the forthcoming Papal encyclical on the subject to be strong, and to lay great emphasis on the moral impartive to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

The emerging rhetoric from the Catholic Church on climate change has prompted a Conservative American thinktank, The Heartland Institute to visit Rome seeking to change Pope Francis's mind. Within days of their appearance of the city, a senior Vatican official renewed the Vatican’s attack on fossil fuel overdependency.

A recent poll of more than a thousand Catholics shows 76% of them feel moral obligation to help poor people hit by climate change. And two weeks ago, the Pope was very clear on how he sees the spiritual implications of the intersection between climate and world development.

“We must do what we can so that everyone has something to eat, but we must also remind the powerful of the Earth that God will call them to judgment one day and there it will be revealed if they really tried to provide food for Him in every person and if they did what they could to preserve the environment so that it could produce this food.”

I sit in the Piazza della Rotunda, nursing a beer solo at the table on the corner nearest by the Pantheon, surveying its amazing columns. A squadron of euphoric swifts swerves between them, emerging to further carve the air above the square, dodging other squadrons. I scan the Roman evening. Japanese students with orderly smiles and selfie sticks, much used. Italians walking home from work, supper in designer carrier bags. A club-foot cripple on a skateboard who all the locals seem to hold affection for. An African, coal black, offering designer handbags for sale to every passing lady save the nuns.

The passegiata builds. The locals and their double kisses. The tourists and their Justifiable awe.

Calm. Peace. Humanity.

An acoustic guitarist with an amplifier, at just the right volume, offers Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence closely followed by What a Wonderful World.

It is.

A wonderful and oh so imperilled world. Mark Doherty of the European Space Agency spent half an hour this morning showing us the very latest full-colour time-series graphics of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, rising global temperatures, rising sea level, shrinking Arctic ice, shrinking glaciers, and all the rest of the sorry tale.

It’s happening right in front of our eyes. And still there are deniers.

My fellow experts are a remarkable group. Let me take just two of them, to qualify that accolade, and give a feeling for the tenor of our discussions. Ian Dunlop is a former senior international oil, gas and coal industry executive who came to see the light on climate change. He is a past Chair of the Australian Coal Association, but now a thorn in the side of the incumbency. He has tried for the last two years to inject himself onto the board of BHP, arguing very publically that they are in process of losing their shareholders a lot of money by essentially ignoring climate change.

Bill Ritter Jr is a former Governor of Colorado, now Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. He is an advisor to President Obama on climate change, having chaired an elite committee reporting on Presidential and Executive Agency Actions to drive Clean Energy in America.

Ian Dunlop
The central thrust of Ian Dunlop’s analysis is that a two-degree target for capping global warming is too high. He is a man who understands the feedback processes in the climate system, and the considerable scope for significant natural amplifications of warming (those inappropriately named “positive” feedbacks). He follows the science closely, and makes a compelling case that the world would be on course for complete economic and environmental disaster at two degrees of global warming, up just 1.2 degrees from the 0.8 we have already unleashed since pre-industrial times. In Ian’s view, the whole Paris process is aiming to legitimise – as a best possible outcome – something that is guaranteed not to deliver a secure future for civilisation.

Bill takes a different approach, one rooted in the realpolitik of contemporary American Society. For whatever combination of reasons, a significant proportion of the Republican party, plus some Democrats, cannot or will not be pursuaded that global warming is worth worrying about. In this context, Bill argues, we are lucky to have a President who has decided to make climate change the backbone of what legacy he can craft from his second term. That requires the course of action that Obama is actually on now: doing everything he can to favour a good outcome in Paris that does not involve going to the US Senate in search of consensus. Hence the White House focus on using executive orders, the Environmental Protection Agency’s right to regulate American air quality, bilateral agreement with the Chinese and extensive procurement of low-carbon technology for the federal estate. Bill makes a convincing case that his President is trying as hard as he realistically can, that this is as good as we are going to get from the modern United States. We had better do all we can to support the man and not undermine him.

How to marry these two perspectives? One is seemingly too utopian, in the wider geopolitical context, to hit targets. The other appears too pragmatic, viewed through the prism of climate science, to offer hope of ultimate global success.

My argument in the expert group is that there is a way. It hinges on the potential for profound disruptiveness inherent in the survival technologies. If a clear direction of travel can be set towards transition in the Paris process, the disruptive power of solar, storage and all the rest can be awakened.

Readers who have made it this far in the book will be familiar with my line of argument. Ian Dunlop and those who think as he does must make as convincing case as they can, I contend, and not pull punches like so many scientists do when selling the problem. Bill Ritter and his colleagues must continue supporting Obama so that he has the best possible chance of delivering the most he can while surviving the Republican and (often related) incumbecy blowback. This, sadly, is unlikely to involve talk about a two-degrees target being too little too late.

I am tempted to the view that the news of the day, each day since my day in Paris, sits comfortably with this analysis. On May 20th, President Hollande calls for a “miracle” climate agreement in December. Business will be key: there must be a business “revolution”, he says, invoking the spirit of the French revolution. President Obama, meanwhile, recasts climate change as a national security threat in a speech to the Coast Guard Academy. This is the kind of thing he has to do, to breathe life into his search for legacy.

On May 21st, Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali Naimi astonishes Paris Climate Week by saying that the Kingdom built on oil can foresee a fossil fuel phase-out this century. Saudi Arabia could phase out fossil fuels, he says, by “I don’t know.... 2040,2050, or thereafter”.
2040? OK, that’s 25 years from now.

GDF Suez (now rebranded as Engie) also unveils a surprise this day. CEO Gerard Mestrallet, he who I saw tell the World Energy Congress not so long ago saying that gas can solve all problems and that renewables must be suppressed, now sings a different tune.

“The choice we have made is very clear”, he says, “we have stopped investing in thermal power generation in Europe and we are investing in renewables.” Thermal power investment will only happen in the developing world, Mestrallet now says.

Tony Hayward, Glencore chairman, tries to get in on the green-headline-grabbing act. He calls for an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. He still sees a big role for coal though, come what may, as any chair of Glencore would have to. He professes that solar cannot be expected to replace coal in India. Solar executives clash with him, saying that he is defending the past.

On 22nd, insurance giant Axa announces it will divest from higher-risk coal funds and triple investment in green technology. The company has become motivated to sell €500m of assets by the risks inherent in climate change, it says.

On 26th, the World Health Organisation targets the 8 million deaths per year caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution, and passes a landmark resolution. The co-operation they now intend, aiming to improve human health, will also improve the the prospects of progress on climate change, by dint of default emissions reductions.

On 27th, activist investors win a historic vote at the Chevron AGM. In a breakthrough for corporate governance activists, 55% vote for large investors to nominate a quarter of directors to the board. People like Ian Dunlop will be polishing up their cvs.

But at the ExxonMobil AGM, though, CEO Rex Tillerson stays true to form by mocking renewables. “We choose not to lose money on purpose,” he says.

As for the impacts of climate change: “Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity”.

A second day of deliberations. I multi-task, as I am forced to do so often these days if I am to keep up with the simple march of events.

Norway's $900bn sovereign wealth fund is today told by the government to divest from coal.
Nina Jensen and the WWF team I worked with on coal investment in Oslo celebrate all over Twitter. Carbon Tracker colleagues are quick to talk up the significance of this great victory of the Norwegian environment movement. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund could trigger a wave of large fossil fuel divestments, Mark Campanale tells the press.

Ambrose-Evans-Pritchard is at it again in the Telegraph today. He tours the Carbon War battlefields in masterful form, and reaches an inescapable headline conclusion: “Fossil industry faces a perfect political and technological storm.”

The FT’s Lex column chases another key dimension of the drama. In Saudi Arabia as much as one million barrels of oil a day, or more than 15 per cent of oil exports, is going up in smoke for electricity production. This is unsustainable. Solar investments beckon, Lex observes.

The FT’s Alphaville column picks stranded assets as its theme, in an article by Izabella Kaminski. “The idea of treating climate change as a financial market risk has gained a lot of traction the last few years in no small part due to the efforts of of Anthony Hobley and colleagues at the Carbon Tracker Initiative, who understood the issue had to be framed in the language of finance to make progress. That language is now blunt. Trillions of dollars worth of financial assets could be grossly mispriced due to the incorrect valuation of fossil fuel assets — many of which probably can’t ever be burned if the world is to limit global warming to 2 degrees.

And, it’s fair to say, investors, asset managers and even central banks and regulators have begun to take note now the concept of a “Carbon bubble” has been popularised.”

In the Rome expert group deliberations, we are running late. The agenda has long been abandoned. After the tea break, the chairman finally comes to my set-piece ten minutes on stranded assets and all the rest of the story FT Alphaville covered so succinctly. I have barely begun when a clergyman walks in, nods to some Italians he knows, and takes a seat.

I finish my ten minute summary of Carbon Tracker’s work. An Italian colleague, Roberto Savio, then introduces the visiting priest as Monseigneur Zucchi. The Pope, Roberto explains, is the Bishop of Rome. Monseigneur Zucchi is Deputy Bishop of Rome.

The Pope’s deputy welcomes us to the city, notes that the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be most interested in the fruits of our deliberations, and takes his leave.

I e-mail the outrageous coincidence to my colleagues at Carbon Tracker. Make of it what you will, I say.

More deliberations on the final morning. Colleagues are debating the draft. My view is that the chairman, Martin Lees, has done a good job, one I can live with. A representative of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, Tebaldo Vinciguerra, is with us this morning to observe the conclusion of the document.

More multitasking. I find to my astonishment that the Pope is on Twitter. @Pontifex is his address. One of his tweets catches my eye.

“Better to have a Church that is wounded but out in the streets than a Church that is sick because it is closed in on itself.”

I love the honesty there. I retweet it.

President Obama has also recently joined Twitter, as @POTUS. I risk a message aimed at them both.

Someone has posted a comment about The Winning of the Carbon War. I repost it chancing my arm with a thought: “@POTUS and @Pontifex on the same side on this one. And I have just learned that a third of the House are Catholics.”