Optimism and Intrigue: An Insider's View of the 'Carbon War'

A Q&A with Jeremy Leggett about his new book chronicling the 'Carbon War:' 'It feels like a civil war...minus the bullets.'

Jeremy Leggett, a British writer, activist and solar entrepreneur, is chronicling the complex climate treaty saga in a free serial book that's unfolding online in monthly installments. "It's an epic drama, the whole thing," he says. Credit: Zero Emission Resource Organization, flickr

As 200 countries prepare for a Paris gathering in December in hopes of finalizing a climate treaty that will phase out the use of fossil fuels, a tale is unfolding of political intrigue, corporate denial and intransigence, and chess-like maneuvering that will likely be told in books and research for years to come.

Jeremy Leggett, a British writer, activist and solar entrepreneur, is already chronicling the complex saga, in a free serial book that's unfolding online in monthly installments.

The diary, called "The Winning of the Carbon War," begins in 2013, and the last chapter will portray the last night of the Paris talks. Along the way, Leggett describes his experiences from a variety of locales, among them the boardroom of coal giant BHP Billiton, a Chinese solar panel factory, a UK fracking protest and Rome, where he helped draft a climate change statement in consultation with the Vatican. "It's just one person's perspective, but I'm fortunate to have a position on the front lines."

It's just the latest project for Leggett, 61, a geologist who lectured on earth sciences at Imperial College, did research funded by the likes of BP and Shell, and explored for oil and gas in the Middle East and Asia before he had a change of heart in 1989.

He worked at Greenpeace for about eight years, and then, in 1999, founded Solarcentury, the UK's largest independent solar electric company.

Leggett, who has written several books about energy, is also chairman of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the nonprofit whose work on climate risk involving fossil fuel companies has rippled through financial and political circles. The group's first report in 2011 found that to have a chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, 80 percent of existing reserves of coal, oil and natural gas would have to stay in the ground—making them stranded assets, with essentially no market value.  

InsideClimate News interviewed Leggett about the unfolding climate tale and the "incumbency," his term for the existing energy regime of utilities and oil, gas and coal companies. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.

ICN: Why are you writing this latest book, "The Winning of the Carbon War"?

Leggett: There's so much going on, and it's all happening so fast some days that it takes your breath away. It's the totality of it, the holistic picture, that motivates me to write the book and try to draw it all in and paint a picture for busy people who don't have the time to scour all the news stories. It's so they can kind of pick up the zeitgeist and hopefully have an enjoyable read while they're doing it.

ICN: The book starts in 2013, why then?

Leggett: I take May 2013, because that was when the Carbon Tracker report on capital expenditures [by oil and gas companies] came out, the second Carbon Tracker report. I watched that really resonate in places where no arguments about climate had resonated up to then, and in multiple countries. My argument is that the turnaround period starts around then and continues to now. We're living in it.

ICN: Why did you liken the climate change story to a war?  

Leggett: It's what it feels like to me. It feels like a civil war, you know, minus the bullets of course. It's real conflict, and there are two end-member camps, pretty clearly, with a lot of fuzziness in between. And like every civil war in history, the believers in the two end-member camps very often live under the same roofs—be they inside companies, in governments, different ministries and in political parties. And of course, later in the book, we get the leak where the lobbyist [Richard Berman] tells all the energy executives [about climate and environmental opposition], 'you have to think of this as an endless war, and you have to fight dirty if you're going to win.'

ICN: You have called those camps the "light" side and the "dark side," who are you referring to?

Leggett: Anyone who believes that climate change is a serious and an existential problem to civilization, and who is really trying very hard to do something about it—they're on the light side. And on the dark side, it's the people who either deny that climate change is serious and fight hard to defend the incumbency, or people who somehow accept that and yet still are fighting hard to defend the incumbency.  

ICN: What makes you think the war is being won?

Leggett: We haven't won it yet, and we may not win it. It's the action on all the fronts—creating the great sense of what I call the winning of the carbon war. You've got the financial argument about the [fossil fuel industry's] spectacular cost inflation, the narrative about costs going down in clean energy technologies, particularly solar and storage. And now there are policymakers who care about this issue, including the U.S. president and the Chinese leadership. There are big, surprising things almost on a daily basis now.

ICN: Like what?

Leggett: The G7 announcement that they plan to be out of fossil fuels by the end of the century, and I think even more importantly, talking about cutting fossil fuel use by 70 percent by 2050—35 years from now. That really is the first definitive statement from the industrial governments to the [fossil fuel] incumbency, 'Guys, your days are numbered. We're going to zero.' That will send a huge signal into industry, into the business world.

Then the very next day, the top item for me was a poll that was done on the opinions people have of fossil fuels as risky investments. They found that 80 percent of 18-34 year olds in conservative Britain think that fossil fuel investments are risky now. Eighty percent. A world of PR from the incumbency isn't going to easily turn that around. 

ICN: What's your take on the climate standoff in the United States between the president and Congress?

Leggett: Well, it's classic civil war. That's the way it appears to us over here. Politically tribalized. I think the White House is playing a very canny game there, and I don't think that the U.S. Congress is going to stay as implacable as it has been in recent years. 

ICN: In your book, you talk about risk blindness, what is that?

Leggett: It's the oil industry, as a whole, saying that there's not a risk of any—any—of their assets being stranded [by government climate action or changes in demand]. They're telling their investors there is precisely zero chance of any of that being stranded. I think that's incredible. You've got nearly 200 governments negotiating for a treaty, and they must have some chance of doing something [that would affect oil company assets].

ICN: You also say there's risk blindness with respect to oil production from shale?

Leggett: I think we're ridiculously bullish about the shale narrative. There's irrational exuberance. People say, well, shale was a game-changer. But wait a minute, have you forgotten about economics all of a sudden? You need to make money. The shale narrative is in the process of coming off the rail in America, and people are going to be shocked by it.

ICN: Then what?

Leggett: Despite the fact that we're living with an oil glut at the moment, a global supply crunch descends very quickly once you've lost the shale, or much of the shale production from America. And if you believe what some of the doubters say about the fragility of global crude supply, we could see higher oil prices, and very high prices are probably as much of a problem to the oil and gas industry as very low prices, or low prices are, because that makes the alternatives look even more attractive. 

ICN: What should oil companies do?

Leggett: They need to change their business plans. They need to say, 'mea culpa—we can't resist this any longer.' What I recommend to them when I get invited in to speak, is to pick an end game where the energy transition [to zero fossil fuel emissions] has happened by, say, 2050. So you've got 35 years. That's a few percentage points of change per year; that's seven cycles of a five-year plan. That's why we call it a transition.

I do think that within three years, one of the big oil and gas majors will make that switch, and then all the others will come under a whole world of additional pressure. I'm not going to say which one, but it's certainly not going to be ExxonMobil.

ICN: You've said you're optimistic about the talks in Paris. Why?

Leggett: I'm cautiously optimistic that something useful will come out of Paris. I think it's a question of, are you hoping for a deal that will give you a cut-and-dried road map to 2 degrees Celsius? I don't think there's any chance of that. But this is all about direction of travel, and the signals that go into the markets that have the potential to accelerate things that are very disruptive and can go much faster than people usually calculate. On that level, I think we can be pretty optimistic of a good outcome from Paris. 

One of my big themes is that the pace at which everything's gone in the past is no guide at all to what can happen once we really get going with some of this stuff. So one of the top things making me optimistic is the pace of disruption from technology. It's very hard to conceptualize, but there's that famous picture of Fifth Avenue in 1901 and 1913. There are no cars in the first picture, and no horses in the second. It just happened so quickly. So of course, it's an optimistic book that I'm writing, but I won't finish writing it until December. It's an epic drama, the whole thing.

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