Divestment and The Guardian: The right strategy but the wrong target

© 2014 Colin Cafferty

A climate change campaign calling for divestment in London last year


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…so the poem goes. But a certain Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger, clearly was stirring, not least emotionally, when he sent an email to twenty or so colleagues at The Guardian newspaper at around 10pm that night. Rusbridger had recently caught ‘climatitis’ at an awards ceremony in Stockholm when having lunch with Bill McKibbin, founder of 350.org. And so now he was convening a task force of The Guardian’s best and brightest to throw their full weight behind an ambitious project to shine a light on climate change by ‘reinventing our storytelling capacity’. Or in the immortal words of George Monbiot the following month, ‘We can’t carry on flogging a load of dead horses and flogging them in exactly the same way with exactly the same whip’.

Indeed this news story is in all likelihood the first time any editor of an internationally renowned newspaper has elevated climate change to the very top of the news agenda and Mr. Rusbridger deserves our respect for this much. After twenty years at the helm, Rusbridger is preparing to step down. He may yet succeed where Obama has fallen, that is to create a legacy in what he rightly describes as ‘The Biggest Story in the World’. The behind-the-scenes look afforded by the podcast series of the same name is refreshing, revealing and may yet be the most original piece of storytelling in the entire media campaign. I can’t help but feel like an incredibly fortunate intern who has blagged a seat around the discussion table in their special projects room; a mouse that dares not stir least he cause a stampede for the door.

The true extent of McKibben’s influence on proceedings is not acknowledged other than to adopt the hashtag #KeepItInTheGround as a maxim for focusing climate change efforts on the fossil fuel industry. Although much debate is given to selecting an angle for the Guardian story, in the end it is not a ‘global political solution’ suggested by Monbiot that is chosen but rather divestment. And it is not a conventional reporting route that Rusbridger settles on but a campaign, despite his obvious trepidation. Since campaigning for large institutional investors to divest from fossil fuel holdings has been the whole raison d’etre of 350.org for some time now, it would not be unreasonable to believe that McKibbin must have sprinkled some of his magic sauce onto the smorgasbord they both enjoyed that time back in Stockholm.

As I listen through the podcast series, I become that intern silently nodding at the table in agreement with the editorial choices Rusbridger is taking. The moral imperative for divesting is certainly a compelling force for change, particularly in the early stages of such a campaign when leadership is required. But with time, those hard-nosed investors who continue to invest in fossil fuels will be forced to react to the economic imperative as they consider the very real danger of a carbon bubble exploding in their face. In a sign that financial markets are taking the risk of stranded assets seriously, HSBC Global Research published a report in April 2015 (Stranded assets: What next?) offering economic advice on managing increasing fossil fuel risk and advocating divestment as one approach to reducing risk exposure. Neil Berkett, chairman of the independently run Guardian Media Group, proves the point when he rather unexpectedly announces in podcast Episode 4 that they have decided to divest themselves. ‘It’s been complicated as our principal accountability is to fund The Guardian in perpetuity’ he explains, ‘but as we began to analyze our portfolio we came to the conclusion that you could generate at least equal returns [without fossil fuel investments]’. And so the first, perhaps only, victory in the Guardian campaign is secured in its own back garden. The Guardian has been cleansed. It now has the moral authority to campaign for others to follow in its wake.

Here is where I part ways with the Rusbridger approach (actually it happens one episode earlier). The Editor-in-Chief goes about selecting the targets of his campaign – The Wellcome Trust, a preeminent biomedical research charity just down the road from The Guardian offices in London and across the Atlantic, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. His rationale of ‘targeting the liberals who will do something’ holds promise on the face of it, even if it’s in need of quite a bit more fleshing out. We are told that The Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world with $43.5 billion in their endowment and $1.4 billion invested in forty of the top 200 carbon reserve companies. Another fact, but not disclosed to our ears, is that Gates is also the largest private funder in the field of medical research along with the Wellcome Trust which follows in second place. Perhaps it was discussed in the room and this intern just wasn’t paying attention. But in any case, it’s not being shouted about loud enough now. I find it quite surprising that any Guardian campaign, involving two organizations sharing a fundamental interest in R&D and health, is not relentlessly and unambiguously pursuing an agenda that connects these interests to fossil fuels and climate change. And yet aside from a letter from the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations in the news publication last week (Fossil fuels are the new tobacco when it comes to health risk), there has been very little talk about all this. Perhaps there isn’t much to talk about in the first place.

I’ve decided to take issue with the biggest campaigning prize of the two. I tentatively raise my hand in the special projects room, and then think the better of it. By now, I’m actually sitting on a stool over in the corner. I couldn’t nod any more and I’d given up staring awkwardly at the knots and grain in the sustainably-sourced pine table. Bill Gates has always put his trust in innovation. In fact, it would be harder to think of anyone still alive who symbolizes technological innovation and entrepreneurship more than him. I fire up my laptop and google ‘gates” and ‘energy’, skip past the energy-saving electronic gates in the search results, and arrive at www.gatesnotes.com, the personal blog of the great man. ‘Does he really have time to blog, seriously?’ I think to myself. I’m looking at an article on energy poverty written last year where he provides a platform for Two Videos that Illuminate Energy Poverty by Bjorn Lomborg, previously described as ‘one of The 10 Most-Respected Global Warming Skeptics’. Lomborg believes fossil fuels are the only way to provide electricity to those in sub-Saharan Africa and lift them out of poverty, a view which Gates obviously subscribes to also as he admits, ‘I always find him [Lomborg] worth listening to’. I construct a news headline in my mind for the next day’s Guardian front page; ‘Gates Divests from Fossil Fuels Despite Belief Poverty will Worsen in Sub-Saharan Africa’. Best not to say that out loud.

My curiosity is well and truly piqued by now as I scroll down through the first page search results. TerraPower – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Let’s take a look at the all-seeing, all-knowing Wiki then. ‘One of TerraPower’s primary investors is Bill Gates’, it tells me. A few more clicks and I discover that he’s actually a board member. TerraPower is a nuclear reactor design company based in the US that’s developing a new class of nuclear fast reactors called the traveling wave reactor (TWR). Okay, so Gates is investing in nuclear as a novel form of low carbon ultra-efficient energy source that could be a game changer in the fight against climate change. One way of interpreting this is that he won’t have much reason to invest in fossil fuels if the technology is ever successfully commercialized. But that’s not happening anytime soon. Another voice in my head says that Gates is simply being true to himself, investing in technology, in the zealous belief that it will be the solution to providing the clean energy of the future. So far my search has not offered up any indication that The Gates Foundation has an incentive to divest itself of its billion-dollar fossil fuel portfolio.

Talk in the special projects room at The Guardian has moved on to boring economics stuff led by Larry Elliot, the Economics Editor. ‘It’s hard to see how the Russian government would be affected by a divestment strategy’, he points out. I set myself a new challenge – to employ my extensive googling skills to search for Guardian articles about The Gates Foundation that may have been actually written by some of the people present in the room. I want to know what Rusbridger and his team already know about Gates that they’re not talking about. Zero point two eight seconds and 1,930,000 results later, I’m presented with an article appearing in the papers Environment section that reports on the TerraPower connection back in 2011 (Bill Gates and China in discussions over new nuclear reactor). Feeling ever more confident, I use the search feature on The Guardian website itself, which yields 657,000 results alone. By now, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I should be getting a consultancy fee for this’. Up pops an article by John Vidal, Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering. As a technological proposal, this is as utterly radical as it gets. Gates clearly believes that climate change is a problem that should be solved by technology and The Guardian must already know this.

What does all this tell us? It tells us that Gates is going to advocate for R&D into clean energy, energy storage and the likes over divestment in fossil fuels every time. But why can’t he do both, I hear you say? Invest in technology and divest from fossil fuels? They’re not mutually exclusive after all. Well because of his old pal Warren you see. Tap, tap, tap… ‘He was the most successful investor of the 20th century. Buffett is the chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, and consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people’ (Warren Buffett – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Over on The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, I learn more from Marc Gunther about the cosy relationship between the two as he tells us, ‘Buffet sits on the board of the Gates Foundation; Gates is a director of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s holding company’ (Climate change: what Warren Buffett could learn from Bill Gates). All perfectly above board. Gates reportedly considers himself ‘very lucky’ to be able to ask the Sage of Omaha, for advice on a regular basis. So if Gates investment strategy is not common knowledge, then should we not consider the investment style of Buffet? After all, this should be transparent to just about every stock investor at trading desks, both real and virtual. What would Warren say to his old pal across the boardroom table…or even the bridge table? By now, I’m free-styling between the Wiki tab and the Guardian tab in my browser, weaving together a story, amazed at my own cleverness. Meanwhile the special projects room has transformed itself into a ‘special therapy room’ as James Randerson declares the ‘need to confess that I find climate change really hard to engage with’. Everyone else is talking psychology at this stage but I’m going way deeper than all that.

Gunther, Editor-at-Large for Guardian Sustainable Business US, goes on to tell us that BNSF Railway, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most aggressive lobbyists for the coal industry in the US. In fact, Buffet’s stake has recently been performing better than expected (Berkshire Hathaway profits bolstered by rail operator BNSF) making it very unlikely that he’ll be cashing out of high carbon investments in the near term. Indeed Berkshire Hathaway is one of the very few big US companies that has not reported on its greenhouse gas emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project. A dialogue is now playing out in my mind. ‘So Warren, old buddy, what do you make of this newspaper campaign to divest the Foundation’s fossil fuel holdings?’ ‘Well Billy boy’ begins Buffett in a Mid-West accent, ‘I’m surprised to hear you ask me that question. You know I’ve committed 99% of my $70 billion fortune to philanthropic causes, primarily via The Gates Foundation, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna see you piss it away cause of some hippie bullshit over in England!’

Armed with coloured markers and post it notes, the others in the room are getting all creative in their search for a jargon free positive story. Meanwhile, I’ve come across what at first glance appears to be the most compelling article of all. It’s from 2010 so it didn’t appear at the top of the search page – The Guardian launches global development website with Gates Foundation. If Rusbridger had made his final campaign in office into a developing country issue, then he could have appealed directly to the core objectives of The Gates Foundation. For instance, a campaign that galvanizes inward investment into a technology that assists developing countries in an innovative way, and sits outside of the hideous bureaucracy of the UN process. Something that specifically addresses the twin themes of health and R&D that Gates and his foundation already have an established track record on. Even better, he could have aligned with one of the objectives of the global development website – adaptation to climate change. Perhaps he felt such a campaign would conflict with their existing global development partnership. Or perhaps he realized that he had left it too late into his term of office to achieve something tangible and focused on this theme.

The Guardian isn’t afraid of exposing the financial affairs of Gates, just not at the time of launching a campaign that depends on his goodwill. An article by Ian Birrell that appeared in the ‘Comment is Free’ section of their website last year takes no prisoners as it asks, Bill Gates preaches the aid gospel, but is he just a hypocrite?. I’m now shielding my laptop screen just in case any of the other staffers get a glimpse and violently eject me from the room. “Moving earnings through low corporation tax countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore means the company saved itself, according to one estimate, almost £3bn annually in tax”, he reports. This figure surpasses even the $1.4 billion in fossil fuel investments held by his foundation. It seems that when it comes to business, Gates draws a distinction between ethics in business and ethics in global development. Would The Gates Foundation even exist as a philanthropic entity if for instance, Microsoft was pressured to address its tax avoidance? By now I’ve arrived at the conclusion that there may be other more obvious campaigns targeting Gates, which may not serve climate change, but nonetheless have an equally strong moral imperative.

I apologize for not having mentioned Melinda Gates so far. As co-founder of The Gates Foundation, she could yet swing the decision in favour of divestment. But again, there are no indications, to the best of my considerable googling prowess, that she is any more open to divesting of fossil fuels than her husband. Her Twitter account advocates strongly for gender equality and female empowerment within the context of global development and health (you guessed it, yet another worthwhile campaign). In the short term, The Guardian could see if they can leverage her interest in climate change as a health issue for women, one that could be better served by divesting from fossil fuels. I’m really clutching at straws now.

I find myself questioning whether Gates really has anything more to prove in terms of leadership at a global level. His public perception is generally favourable and his legacy in the business and tech community is already assured. On top of all this, he is making a real difference to global development issues in a way that entire nation states have not been able to achieve. His approach is targeted, results-oriented and hugely ambitious. When it comes to public health in developing countries, there is surely no other private organization in history that has made more of an impact. He recently played a huge part in eradicating polio in India and has his sights set on global eradication by 2018. We are talking positive impacts to millions of lives. Is he really going to be compelled to take on another leadership role, this time in the fight against climate change? If he ever decides, the evidence suggests it’s likely to be through investment in technology or global development than by divesting from fossil fuels.

I admire the consistently high standard of reporting by The Guardian on climate change and I fully support the wider campaign to divest of fossil fuel holdings. If their campaign succeeds, I will be the first one to congratulate them. But I strongly believe that The Guardian has chosen the wrong target in The Gates Foundation. An intern searching the newspaper’s own website could have shown that there’s simply no compelling reason for Gates to support their campaign. Perhaps they didn’t do their research because they knew they never needed to, because Rusbridger is taking a gamble. What’s a billion here and there when your personal fortune is valued at $79 billion (as of April 2015)? It’s a relatively modest risk in order to secure your legacy as a global leader in the Biggest Story in the World. More than one man’s legacy depends upon it.

People’s Climate March London 2014

An estimated 40,000 people gathered on the streets of London to march on the Houses of Parliament demanding action, not words, from our politicians in the UK. This demonstration of people power is part of the worldwide ‘People’s Climate March’ in the buildup to a UN Climate Change Summit in New York City on September 23rd. All photographs copyrighted © 2014 Climate Change Cafe.


Woodberry Down Fun Day 2013 – rebuilding communities

The Woodberry Down Estate in Manor House on the borders of Hackney and Haringey in North London is undergoing a massive 20 year regeneration, which involves demolishing almost 2,000 homes and replacing with more than 4,600 new properties for social rent, private and shared ownership.

London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) is working in partnership with Manor House Development Trust to deliver the Manor House PACT project, a three-year engagement, training and community-building programme of activities thanks to £1m from The Big Lottery Fund. The aim of the project is to build momentum and increase the resilience and capacity of local communities to take control of their own lives, their homes and their neighbourhood, and enable them to live more sustainably in the face of climate change.

FInd out more here – LSX – Manor House PACT

See how you can get involved – Volunteer with Manor House PACT

Climate Change and the River Thames

© Colin Cafferty 2013

Dr Becky Briant, climate change programme director at Birkbeck, University of London


Lifeblood of London

London is defined by its relationship to the physical landscape although it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees in this urban jungle. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – none of these would form an iconic backdrop to the city without the mighty Thames flowing timelessly by. And so it was entirely fitting that Dr. Becky Briant, Programme Director for the MSc degree course in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck, decided to devote an entire lecture on the challenges to the future of the river and her citizens under climate change.

Effects of climate change on the river

“We are living in what some analysts describe as a carbon military industrial complex”, she says rather ominously. Dr. Briant makes liberal use of graphs to support her case including various emissions scenarios that model the predicted outcome in terms of changes to weather patterns. “The evidence is pretty strong that we are causing the changes we’re seeing”. We’re currently on track for a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. “There’s a certain amount of climate change that’s going to happen no matter what we do”, Dr. Briant adds.

So what lies in store for us? We can expect wetter winters where peak flow in the river could increase by 40% by 2080. Between 3-24 billion litres of freshwater already flows over Teddington Weir, the upper limit of the tidal Thames. London is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to impermeable surfaces, whether that be concrete or the clay-rich impermeable soil beneath our feet. We can also expect drier summers and more intense rainfall events, which will in turn affect water quality in the river. And then there is the whole issue of surface water on our many paved streets that the Drain London Forum is seeking to address in a sustainable way.

So what does the future hold in store for the Thames?

London is fortunate to have a vital piece of infrastructure in place that can protect the city from tidal flooding, the Thames Barrier. The lifetime of this key flood defence is predicted to expire in the 2070’s due to sea-level rise at which point a new barrier further downstream at Long Reach (or Tilbury) has been proposed. But already the barrier is having to be closed more frequently due to tidal surges. Lest we forget, 307 people died in the UK due to the floods in 1953, which prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place.

Professor Gerald Roberts, Head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, remarked at the lecture’s end that he was “particularly struck by the image of London with so many rivers running through it”.  So next time, you’re out and about, keep an eye open for all those small creeks, tributaries and hidden rivers that feed the mighty Thames and remember that they could yet rise up in response to climate change. And so hopefully will we, the citizens of this great city, to take action before the cost is too great.

Useful links –

UK Climate Projections from DEFRA

Thames Estuary 2100 Plan

London Draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

The Burning Question: Can Obama deliver on climate change?

Where were you when Obama finally announced ambitious plans to tackle climate change yesterday, some five years after promising to do so as a presidential candidate? I found myself sitting in the offices of the Hub; a pioneering shared work and event space in Islington, North London, listening to Duncan Clark co-author of “The Burning Question”. Clarke eloquently argued, with the support of copious graphs, that “energy begets energy” and that it is only by addressing the fundamental issue of how do we leave carbon locked in the ground that we can succeed in addressing climate change. “We need to take on fossil fuels directly”, he says. Meanwhile in Georgetown University, President Obama is making a speech that many Republicans interpreted as a “war on coal”.

Perhaps the headline policy announced by the US President was the intention to empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control carbon emissions from existing coal and gas power plants. These generating stations account for a third of all US greenhouse gas emissions. “Power plants can still dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe and it needs to stop.” But it will be 2015 before these targets are even set and by that time the Republicans could be back in power leaving the policy to go up in smoke. No doubt that legal challenges will follow and as the clock ticks, Obama’s exhortation that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”, will become a time bomb with a rather short fuse. Any progress that Obama might make in office has already been undermined by a Republican vow to unwind any policies waged in the “war on coal”. A flawed political, electoral and judiciary system that expends vast amounts of energy pushing the machinery of progress in one direction and then the other, reflects the state of the global energy market and broader world economy all too well.

Con Ed power plant in Queens, New York City © 2012 Colin Cafferty

Power plant on the East River in New York City

The other big story was Obama’s announcement that he would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico) only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” But who’s definition of harm are we going by? The State Department has indicated that a pipeline is more environmentally friendly than transporting the crude oil by rail. And so the debate appears to be glossing over the fundamental question that is glaring us all (rather too warmly) in the face. Should the US facilitate the development of an energy source that unquestionably carries a higher carbon footprint than even conventional fossil fuels? This reframing of the debate on Keystone is an affront to our collective intelligence and must surely infuriate large swathes of American and Canadian folk alike.

Back in North London, Clark is talking about the pressing need to take on the fossil fuel industry. “The Burning Question” author sensibly advocates engaging the industry in the quest to address climate change. “What will it take to leave billions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground?” he challenges. Do we realistically think we can persuade mining and energy companies to write off their fossil fuel reserves or for investors in the global markets to write down the value of their assets? One approach he advocates would be the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a hitherto underfunded technology that would allow us to pump the CO2 from power plants into underground reservoirs where it can no longer warm the atmosphere. “Without CCS, the political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground will be that much harder” he points out soberly. Using all the tools at our disposal and converting the naysayers into “aye-sayers” are all sensible approaches but take a look at the position Obama now finds himself in. There is no stick long enough, no carrot sweet enough for a thick-skinned elephant and a stubborn donkey. He may be bypassing Congress now but just how far can he go with this approach?

So much of the wider political debate in the US is fuelled by fear – terrorism, gun control, loss of freedom and privacy. The US President’s proposals to build resilience towards climate change through strengthening of flood defences and soft infrastructure is the one policy announced yesterday that is most likely to succeed. And it is driven by fear. But most other proposed actions on climate change fuel fear in exactly the opposite way. The perceived attack on the fossil fuel industry and the angst over loss of jobs and quality of life in the US (even if unsubstantiated) needs greater reassurance from the left. A stronger business case needs to be made that can appease the concerns of those who stand to lose most from climate change legislation. Let’s hope that action on climate change will succeed because people believe it is the right thing to do rather than out of fear of averting another natural disaster such as the droughts in the American Midwest or hurricanes along the East coast.

Obama’s speech demonstrated that he definitely ‘gets’ climate change. He understands the moral obligation and he recognizes the sense of urgency. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the audience at Georgetown University. Actions and not words are what we need and it’s a telling sign when a person of such influence on the world stage cannot make a significant dint on an issue that he directly connects with the very future of his own children. But for now, there is still hope; as long as the debate is kept alive and the belief that the next generation deserves better than what we are currently prepared to offer them.

Can Obama deliver on climate change in his second term in office?


Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday gave some well-needed hope to the environmental movement by signaling that he is prepared to take action on climate change during his second term in office. It’s fair to say that many commentators and the wider public were caught on the hop. Obama’s silence on the issue during re-election campaigning has been noteworthy. And yet he devoted an entire paragraph (13 lines) to climate change in yesterday’s speech compared to just a single line in his first term inaugural speech 4 years ago. Back then he pledged, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” This sentence appears poetic, almost biblical as if he was prophesizing a future that could only be achieved by divine intervention. It also seems rather distant and disconnected from reality.

This time round, he spells out the consequences of inaction. On the squandered employment opportunities by failing to invest in renewable technology, he exhorts that, “We must claim its promise”. Indeed such inaction on the part of the US is allowing other nations such as Germany, South Korea and China to steal a march. Despite some pragmatism, his speech still carries religious undertones as he talks about “how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”. In this regard, it appears that he is attempting to reach out to Republicans by reframing the debate on climate change as a duty to God and country to protect “our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks”. However, if someone refuses to believe that man-made climate change is even real, then this new narrative is something of a dead-end. Instead, we could be listening to Obama’s own personal convictions. Obama knows only too well that just four years remain to make history and to be remembered not just for the colour of his skin but also for the legacy he leaves behind. As a family man with two young daughters, there is little doubt that they are a driving force and inspiration that reinforces his personal conviction to tackle climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. Fine words indeed but is he actually able to deliver on them?

The President of the United States may be billed as the most powerful man in the world but if Obama really does possess superpowers, then the Republican Party is surely his kryptonite.  The GOP controls the House of Representatives and has vowed to frustrate any attempts to pass legislation that harms the fossil fuel industry and other backers of the party. Even some within his own party have yet to be convinced of the need for action on climate change. A Cap-and-Trade bill proposed during his first term was defeated even at a time when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.  Perhaps this was for the better, as European attempts to control carbon emissions using the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) have failed miserably so far. The current price of carbon is trading at a measly five euros with carbon allowances flooding the markets. Hardly a meaningful incentive for power plants and heavy industry to curb their carbon emissions.

It would appear that Obama is ready to take a new tack on climate change this time round. The American political system has become so polarized in recent years that attempts at seeking consensus are futile. So rather than trying to take such a radical measure as creating a carbon market in the US, the President is likely to take a more measured approach that allows him to make full use of his executive powers that do not require congressional approval. Rather than aiming high and making little or no progress, he will most likely set his sights lower at a more modest but achievable set of targets. No doubt he and his advisors know only too well the limits of their power after four years in office. This approach obviously has a very real downside in that tinkering at the edges will not achieve the change necessary to reduce carbon emissions in time. Options already on the table are the regulation of carbon as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act and a tightening of energy efficiency measures such as the automotive fuel-efficiency standards, which are due to increase to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. One way of exploiting his executive decree and thereby circumventing Congress would be to veto the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to deliver oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the heartlands of America. Pressure exerted by Canadian conservatives and US states with oil refineries is likely to be intense. Tar sands have a much greater carbon footprint than even the dirtiest of fossil fuels (coal) and extraction methods scar huge swathes of virgin landscape, polluting rivers in the process. Energy security will most likely be cited as justification to support the project in a similar vein to fracking, which has also exploded onto the scene in recent years.

Obama will need to pick his battles carefully and so tighter regulation of fracking may be an alternative battleground to make a stand on climate change. The Washington Post proposes that EPA powers could be extended to regulate methane leaks from the burgeoning fracking industry. Fracking is a process whereby a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into fissures in shale rock to force natural gas up to the surface. Fracking technology has been one of the saving graces for the American economy in recent years, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the barren plains of North Dakota where lights from the local fracking industry are now visible from space. Methane is 24 times more polluting than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. Any methane that escapes is therefore likely to undo much of the benefit associated with burning natural gas that is “cleaner” than coal.  Equally any attempt to impose additional costs on “frackers” that could make the industry less competitive are likely to result in stalemate. The EPA already has the authority to regulate CO2 thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision. However, this only applies to future power plants and not the existing ones, which are responsible for a whopping 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions. Any action to clamp down on power utilities and the fossil fuel industry will no doubt be vigorously contested in the courts. As an outsider, I’m always amazed by the apparent injustice of the American legal system in the hands of obscenely well-paid lawyers who can defeat legislation on some obscure technicality.

One concern is about how many concessions the EPA will be forced to make as it seeks to implement the Clean Air Act. The New York Times reported last week that the Navajo Generating station in Arizona secured a further 5-year extension from the EPA meaning that it now doesn’t have to implement controls on nitrogen oxides until 2023. I was fortunate to visit the US Southwest last March and as I approached the spectacular Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I was greeted by the sight of three towering chimney stacks belching smoke high into the blue skies above pristine red-rock country. The 2,200MW plant provides electricity for customers in California, Nevada and Arizona and provides valuable employment for many Native Americans belonging to the Navajo Nation. But the owners will need to invest in the region of $1 billion to install new catalytic reduction technology to render nitrogen oxides harmless. Are they any more likely to be able to afford the costly upgrade in 10 years time than they are today? And will they be able to afford to meet new and separate requirements on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Here is a clear example of the true cost associated with fossil fuels, which are largely externalized. Nitrogen oxides not only have health impacts but also contribute to much of the haze that hangs over the Grand Canyon, obscuring breath-taking views. Similarly carbon emissions are directly responsible for the far greater (and as yet unknown) costs of adapting to future climate change and responding to the impacts of extreme weather today.

For now we can only cling to the US President’s every word in hope and attempt to read deeper meaning into those solitary 13 lines of his inaugural speech. We will need to wait until the State of the Union address in February to get a better indication of what real and meaningful action Obama plans to take and whether he is serious about creating a legacy for himself on this issue. In 2009, the President pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Many experts think this is far too little, too late from the world’s second largest polluter. Right now, there’s probably more than a few concerned environmentalists who would settle for second prize.

Chasing Ice proves that seeing really is believing

SA Agulhas passes through Tower Bridge in London on Dec 6, 2012 bound for an Antarctica expedition. “Seeing is Believing” is a a charity for avoidable blindness.

Chasing Ice – the very title appears to be a contradiction in terms. Ice is frozen water, frozen implies not moving, stuck in time and place. So how can you chase something that doesn’t move? This is the basic premise that veteran photographer James Balog and 28-year old film director, Jeff Orlowski set out to answer in the critically acclaimed documentary of the year, which previewed last night at the Curzon Soho in London. In the process, they have provided the most dramatic visual evidence of climate change in action captured to date.

Chasing Ice triumphs over audiences by virtue of its truly stunning cinematography. An iceberg equivalent in size to all of Lower Manhattan (except twice as tall as its tallest buildings) breaks away from Greenland’s Ilulissat glacier in the greatest such event ever captured on camera. The calving ice twists and turns in the water, rolling over to expose its underbelly, reminiscent of a whale breaching in the open ocean. Putting on a ballet performance to the sound of classical music, although there was no soundtrack, only the deep rumble of unimaginable natural forces, which deserved to have the volume cranked up to full. Edward Burlynsky’s images of industrial landscapes elicit the same uneasy response – a hypnotic attraction to the beauty in a scene of destruction and devastation. I found this unique footage to be eerily reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in terms of the sheer scale of destruction, the similar displacement of huge volumes of seawater, and the unique footage captured. Although the impact on human populations is far more subtle, sea level rise due to climate change is a slow burner that could potentially displace more than 100 million people by the end of the century.

Undoubtedly, the greatest single success is Balog’s time-lapse photography, without which the movie would be meaningless. Time-lapse is a technique that speeds up a sequence of imperceptibly slow movements to give the impression of a continuous moving picture edited from footage captured over days, months and even years. Balog’s photo project, known as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), comprises cameras set up in 27 remote sites from Greenland to Alaska that allow us to bear witness to the ice advancing ever so slightly in the depths of winter only to retreat in spectacular fashion. It’s hard to fathom how a technique that has been around for over a century has only now been applied to the movement of ice. Even other nature documentaries such as “The Private Life of Plants”, a series narrated by David Attenborough, used time-lapse as far back as 1995 when the connection between climate change and melting ice was already widely recognized. Nevertheless all credit to Balog for getting a team together to finally bring the project to life.

Ice is by its very nature cold, inhospitable and unforgiving. It was always going to be a massive challenge to illicit an emotional reaction from the public towards what are essentially massive blocks of ice sliding into the water. There were no cuddly polar bears or dancing penguins on show, neither were there Inuit fishing communities nor Sami reindeer herders. As a consequence, this heaped pressure on Balog’s personal story to deliver with emotional impact whilst at the same time not detracting from the main narrative of the melting ice. A task that is equally as tricky as hiking across a crevasse-strewn ice field and one in which I’m not convinced this movie succeeded in living up to. The determination of Balog to overcome technical glitches, his repeated knee operations and spurning of medical advice, the glimpses of family life, somehow didn’t come together to instill one coherent emotional response in the viewer. It could be argued that since this is a movie about chasing ice and climate change, we should not be distracted by a personal story. But in my opinion, both should blend seamlessly with each element reinforcing the other in order for the movie to succeed as a whole.

Chasing Ice is the 28 year old director’s first foray into a full-length feature and I can’t help but wonder why the task wasn’t left to a more seasoned veteran. Whilst the cinematography is breathtaking, the editing was found rather wanting. The clever use of scale to help the audience comprehend the epic nature of the ice-scapes shown on the screen and the before/after shots were certainly commendable. However, scientific facts and figures felt imposed on the viewer and there was a lack of inventiveness in sharing climate change data through the more cutting edge infographics and animation that audiences have come to expect today. Similarly, footage of Balog’s lecture tour didn’t manage to create the buzz of excitement that should have left cinema audiences wanting to replicate for themselves once they left the theatre. Climate change is not a light topic and despite the stunning imagery and my deep admiration for Balog, it was hard not to feel somewhat dejected about the future of the ice and our Planet as a whole.

It is important to draw a distinction between what this movie is trying to achieve and its role in the broader debate on the need for action on climate change. To my mind, the greatest success of this movie is to clearly show climate change in action. Seeing is believing after all. Climate change is often described as an abstract issue that people find difficult to identify with. The main pollutant (CO2) is invisible, the timescales involved are difficult to appreciate in our fast-paced world, and competing factors make the direct link between cause and effect difficult to prove. Chasing Ice has come as close as it is possible to overcoming such obstacles. Balog has provided us with the proverbial smoking gun on climate change that hundreds of the world’s greatest scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have sought long and hard to find. Rigorous peer-reviewed scientific data is an absolute necessity but translating that message into one that can be understood by Joe Bloggs on the street requires visual proof that we can all relate to easily.  Many people will identify with James Balog’s steely determination (myself amongst them) to pursue and expose the truth about the rate of change to the great icescapes of the world. But as far as I’m concerned, Chasing Ice is not about to inspire the wider public to change their behaviour and actions to follow a more environmentally sustainable path – even though this is what we need. Behavioural change is notoriously difficult and I cannot think of a single other documentary movie that has had a global far-reaching impact on a social or environmental issue of the same scale as climate change. So my advice is not to expect or demand such a thing from this movie if you don’t want to be left disappointed.

Chasing Ice will no doubt be used by NGOs such as Greenpeace in future campaigns against oil exploration in the High Arctic. Balog and his Earth Vision Trust (EVT), which aims to provide the visual evidence that inspires a billion people to change their view of our impact on the natural environment, should deservedly achieve a higher profile. Crucially, EVT hopes to screen Chasing Ice to one million high school and college students – those who will make future decisions on, and will live with the consequences of climate change. One of the greatest challenges for the movie will be to move out of the art-house cinemas and into the mainstream theatres. The launch of a documentary on climate change is certainly timely with the Arctic summer ice shrinking to its lowest extent ever in 2012 and the threat of oil exploration in the Arctic greater than ever. American audiences are also likely to be more sympathetic to the storyline in light of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the extreme drought afflicting many states last summer. However, I would question the wisdom of a release date (currently showing in many US theatres and about to show in the UK) in the build up to the holiday season, when competition is fierce from Christmas features and Hollywood blockbusters such as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Although perhaps this movie can reach a wider audience in the New Year on the basis that it succeeds in the smaller theatres now.

I believe that it will be Balog’s wider legacy that will have greatest impact in the longer term and that the Chasing Ice documentary is just one part of this. The best-case scenario to result from the movie is that it raises climate change back up the political agenda in the US. It should also be remembered that man-made climate change is still disputed by a surprisingly large proportion of the American populace. Civilian society, campaigners, and sympathetic lobbyists can use its visual evidence to shame politicians into taking action on climate change, such as by strengthening environmental legislation. A political solution is not the only approach nor is it necessarily the most effective, but perhaps it is the most realistic outcome that can be achieved by this documentary. Scientists have been criticized in the past for not communicating their story in a convincing fashion to the general public. Vested interests such as Big Oil have succeeded in spinning the argument and running rings around conventional scientific opinion in the minds of the public. We need more communicators of Balog’s ilk to sway public opinion towards believing in a cause and taking real action on climate change. Success is measured in terms of who tells not just the best story but also the most believable one. Photography is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skillful and visionary individual in search of the truth. James Balog is one such man.

Useful links –




Urban resilience and climate change adaptation in New York

A volunteer picks litter along a sandy beach in Great Kills Park, Staten Island one year after Hurricane Irene paid a visit

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend 3 weeks in New York City this July, staying at my cousin’s place in mid-town Manhattan. I first visited New York back in the early 1990’s on a J1 visa from Ireland. As a teenager, I travelled alone on my first trip out of the country leaving behind the familiarity of rural West of Ireland for the most exciting and fast-moving city in the world. Incredibly I hadn’t been back since then although I’ve dreamt about it many times. I’m a firm believer that it’s rarely possible to relive the experiences and emotions evoked by a place no matter how long you wait. Expectations are meant to be broken. But this time I had a clear sense of purpose to justify revisiting the Big Apple. I wasn’t just another tourist with a photo album to fill with smiling pictures next to iconic city landmarks. I was an ever so slightly advanced version – a photographer with an empty leather-bound portfolio to fill. Views of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building were replaced by those of power stations and litter-strewn beaches.

Rather ominously, the mercury tipped 100F on the day I arrived as large parts of the US Mid-west suffered from an epic drought causing crops to fail. New York is not the kind of city that you want to be lugging a heavy camera bag and tripod across. Heat, humidity, crowds, noise, traffic and air pollution all conspire to beat the most driven of photographers into submission. It was pretty clear to me after a couple of days that the most striking feature of New York was not the height of gleaming skyscrapers nor the bustle of grand avenues but rather how the man-made city interacted with it’s natural surroundings. Most dramatic of all is the spectacular view across a verdant Central Park hemmed in on all sides by towering blocks of concrete and glass.  But take a walk or subway ride far enough in any direction and sooner or later you will encounter water. Strutting bridges, cavernous tunnels and chugging ferries criss-cross the city’s harbour and rivers connecting all five boroughs and the rest of the mainland. I found myself spending a disproportionate amount of time along the waterfront visiting places that many native New Yorkers have never taken time to see. From marshes on wildlife reserves to beaches on the city fringes, from industrial landscapes to desirable riverside residences, I tried to get a sense of the city’s relationship with the water from a landlubber’s perspective.

Walking along Battery Park and the southern tip of Manhattan really brings home just how close one of the global centres of finance is to sea-level. Battery Park City, juts vulnerably into the Hudson on land reclaimed using earth excavated from the original World Trade Centre site. Housing the World Financial Center and a population of more than 10,000 living in high spec condominiums, it takes some stretch of the imagination on a sunny July day to picture this affluent neighbourhood under water.  But that is what happened earlier this week when the boardwalk was flooded by the tidal surge caused by Superstorm Sandy. Is this a waterfront development gone one step too far? This is not to say that city officials are guilty of ignoring the need to plan for the future sustainable growth and resilience of the city. After all, it’s rather hard to hide the fact that more than 200,000 New Yorkers live less than 4 feet above high tide – second only to New Orleans in the US.

PlaNYC was launched by the Mayor in 2007 “to prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen our economy, combat climate change and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers” This is a rather grand plan that has now clearly been exposed as lacking teeth and real action on the ground. Enhancing and protecting wetlands, planning for sustainable storm-water management, adapting to climate change – there is certainly no lack of strategy at PlaNYC, although many of the reports are not freely available to the public. One such report prepared by a panel of leading science, legal and insurance experts with the backing of the Mayor’s office is entitled “Climate Change Adaptation in NYC: Building a risk management response”. Amongst the key findings, it says that “NYC should begin to adapt to climate change today…temperature increases and sea level rise are already occurring”.  And so this leads me on to question whether these leading experts are going to revise their assessment of the risks posed by climate change to the future resilience of NYC and whether the politicians are going to sit up and put concrete measures in place. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for New York in the same vein as other global cities such as London. The Thames Barrier is London’s main flood protection against tidal surges that make their way up the estuary from the North Sea. New York has no such luxury. A sea barrier would need to be constructed at multiple points across the waterscape at an estimated cost of $10 billion. But if the city takes a hit of $20 billion on the current superstorm disaster as widely reported in the media, would that not be money well spent? Earlier this year, Climate Central, a non-profit organization that conducts research on climate change and communicates findings to the public, launched an interactive map called “Surging Seas”.  Anyone can select their neighbourhood in the US and use a slider to adjust sea levels to see the impact on local population, homes etc. When I used the tool for The Battery in New York, I was told that there is more than a 1 in 6 chance that a combined sea level rise, storm surge and tide would exceed 10 feet on or after the year 2100. And yet floodwaters reached almost 14 feet this week – many decades before the end of the century. To my mind, this shows that far from scaremongering, our scientists are being over-conservative in their judgments.

New Yorkers and fellow Americans along the East Coast are still dealing with the more pressing issues of restoring power, pumping water from subways and repairing damaged property in the aftermath of the storm’s destruction. But it won’t be long before the American public begins to ask questions of its political, business and community leaders about why their neighbourhoods were so unprepared for an event such as this. You may say that there hasn’t been a precedent but that isn’t entirely true. Hurricane Irene came dangerously close to flooding the subway last year. Not to mention Hurricane Katrina – lessons learnt in one city apparently but the same logic has not been extended to other coastal communities. Comparisons with the single greatest destructive event in the history of New York will inevitably be made. Is this latest superstorm another 9/11 moment in the history of the city (and the nation) where general consensus is swayed into taking action against another rather undefined and unforeseen threat to the city? A so-called “tipping point”. I fully understand that making any comparison with such a momentous occasion that is ingrained in the nation’s psyche is controversial. Ground Zero is hallowed ground not just in a physical sense but in a metaphysical sense also. But equally, it would be irresponsible to ignore the many similarities between both events.

Climate change and environmental issues have largely been ignored in equal measure by the Obama and Romney camps in the current presidential race. The political future of America has been framed in such a way that leaves no room for discussion on a topic that we are told will not create jobs and will only become an unnecessary financial burden on an already debt-stricken economy. A fallacy of course, but not one that I intend to debate here and now. US politicians have always succeeded in rallying support by confronting real or imaginary enemies. A struggling economy as a threat to the American way of life or a terrorist-led Jihad as a threat to the nation’s security.  Perhaps now a new threat will be added to that list – the threat to the future resilience and indeed the very existence of major cities such as New York. Neither of the main political parties has seized upon man-made pollution as a threat to the nation’s health and future sustainability in this election campaign. It is probably too late with barely a week to go until polls close. Recent events are too fresh and too raw in the minds of citizens along the East Coast to make it a campaigning issue. Nevertheless, no matter which administration makes it into the White House, it will ignore the lessons of the past few days at its peril.

Taking the Staten Island Ferry across New York Harbour, one of the world’s great natural harbours, is an exhilarating (and gratifyingly free) experience. I made the extra journey down to Great Kills Park in the southeast of the island on a sweltering July day, past the hoards of beachgoers along FDR boardwalk and beach. I walked along a narrow deserted spit of land until I could go no further. There I met a bronzed and greying volunteer picking litter along the beach. Joe talked about the debris washed ashore when the tail-end of Hurricane Irene swept through the region in 2011. Back then the beach was strewn with great big hunks of driftwood. Today, the scene in nearby Great Kills Marina is rather more sobering. Boats are flung at odd angles onto Mansion Avenue and neighbouring streets wreaking havoc on the local community. Elsewhere on the island, helicopters pluck stranded residents from the roofs of homes as flood-waters swirl below. Perhaps a new frontline has just been drawn in the battle to protect America’s citizens from the ravages of an enemy (climate change) that too many people would rather believe did not exist.

Links –

Climate Central Sea Surge website

PlaNYC website

Climate Change Adaptation in NYC summary report

Staten Island live news story