Wall Street’s denial of climate dangers is setting us up for a 2008-style financial explosion where “risk spreads in a way that cannot be contained or isolated”. Graham Steele, Stanford Graduate School of Business, December 2019
You can pretty much hear it now. It’s like being in a forest and hearing the leaves rustling in the tops of trees, just before the storm hits. Then it comes with a roar, everything shakes, and we look around wondering what will fall – and will it fall on us.
This is how I see the global economy and climate change. Everything is ready, everyone knows it’s coming, we’re just waiting for the storm to hit.
When it does, it will be the climate emergency meets financial contagion. When the global market flips to FOMO – from fear of acting too early, to fear of being left behind as everyone races for the exits.
The climate strikes over the coming weeks will focus a great deal of attention on government and the urgent need for policy action. Rightly so. But it’s also a good time to reflect on the bigger context, as this is not anything like protests of the past. There has in fact, never been a point like this in all of human history.
I called this column ‘choosing extinction’ because that is the path we are on today. There is considerable debate whether that extinction applies to us humans, or ‘just’ to millions of other species. But either way a mass extinction event is on the way, unless we choose to stop it.
What we now know, is that we are facing a time sensitive, existential risk. Failing to respond adequately, could commit humanity to widespread misery for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. It could literally change the course of evolution and human history.
It has always been clear that fixing climate change would require a massive industrial and technological transformation, with widespread social and economic consequences. The recent the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5 degrees however deeply challenges dominant assumptions about the speed and scale involved.
This has profound implications for many industries and policy makers, but perhaps most dramatically for the future of the multi-trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil and gas majors (the coal industry now being in terminal decline regardless).
For the last few years, I have been examining what to expect in such major economic transformations – from both large incumbents and disruptive new players.
The evidence suggests that when business models are overturned, the dominant tendency of large incumbent companies is to fail. That led me to question the assumption that these giant oil and gas companies would transition to become the giant energy companies of the future. Continue reading
The only rational response to the scientific evidence on climate change, is to declare a global emergency – to mobilise all of society to do whatever it takes to fix it. As the UN Secretary General Guterres recently stated: “We face a direct existential threat”.
Failure is really not an option when “failure” means we could “annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential” This is now a war for civilisation’s survival. 
Meanwhile we blunder on…. Deeply committed to making verbal commitments, while delivering pathetically inadequate actual responses. Responses that treat the clear and urgent advice of the world’s top scientists – that we face the risk of global collapse – as merely passing thoughts to be casually contemplated.
Well, time’s up. To quote Winston Churchill: “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…”
Enter the Extinction Rebellion. Continue reading
The core assumption and focus of people who work to drive sustainability through markets – as corporate leaders, investors, NGOs or thought leaders – is that we need to convince existing companies and their shareholders that sustainability is first good for their business, and secondly, they can successfully transition to a sustainable business model.
But what if both of these are wrong? As someone who has spent over 25 years in that world, I’m starting to think they both might be. If so, it calls into question the very basis of the work literally millions of us are engaged in. So, it is at least worth a discussion!
Many look around at today’s crises – climate change spinning out of control, inequality driving political instability and our oceans filling with plastic – and despair at the prospects for serious change. Most then try to apportion blame or at least seek to understand why. Business blames consumers. NGOs blame business. Everyone blames politicians.
Almost everyone who is engaged and thoughtful on this, even inside companies, at some level blame capitalism, markets and big business. This is well justified given, after all, it has been the delivery vehicle for all these crises.
But where does that leave us? As a campaigner who has spent 40+ years on these issues, I’m not satisfied with just a problem diagnosis, I need a way forward, a credible path to success. When talking about risks to the future of civilisation, accepting failure is not really a strategic option.
We’re all focused on the drama and entertainment of Trump’s takeover of the world’s centre of military, security and economic power. For some it’s exciting and entertaining, for others terrifying and apocalyptic. I too have been glued to the news – at various times having each of those responses! But now I’ve come back to earth, recognising it all for what it is. Important, but a sideshow to a much bigger and more important game. And on reflection, I’m glad he got elected.
How can a Trump Presidency be positive? Surely this is a major setback – to action on climate change, to addressing inequality, to human rights and global security. Doesn’t it make the world a scarier and less stable place? In isolation, all true, but in context, not so much. The context is the key.
It’s time to make the call – fossil fuels are finished. The rest is detail.
The detail is interesting and important, as I expand on below. But unless we recognise the central proposition: that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end, and within 15 to 30 years – not 50 to 100 – we risk making serious and damaging mistakes in climate and economic policy, in investment strategy and in geopolitics and defence.
I’ve written previously about 2015 being the year the “Dam of Denial” breaks, referring to the end of denial that climate change requires urgent, transformational economic change. While related, this is different. It is now becoming clear we’ve reached a tipping point where fossil fuels will enter terminal decline, independently of climate policy action.
Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the energy”. Continue reading
This is the year the “dam of denial” will break and the momentum for climate action will become an unstoppable flood. It will be messy, confusing and endlessly debated but with historical hindsight, 2015 will be the year. The year the world turned, primarily because the market woke up to the economic threat posed by climate change and the economic opportunity in the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. That shift will in turn unlock government policy and public opinion because the previous resistance to action argued on economic grounds, will reverse to favour action on economic grounds.
If you want to know what addressing climate change will really be like for business and investors, then take a look at today’s electricity and energy markets. Driven by climate policy, technology development, business innovation, NGO campaigns and investment risk analysis, creative destruction is inflicting itself upon the sector with a vengeance – and the process has just begun.
Value is being destroyed at an incredible scale with just one example being European utilities losing $750 billion in market cap in recent years. Another is the huge losses in value for coal companies and the cancellation of a large number of new coal mining projects around the world as the forecast growth in China and India evaporates. As I argued in my last Chronicle, Carbon Crash Solar Dawn, this is not a temporary market blip but a fundamental shift. Company strategies and business models that have been working for generations are collapsing. In parallel we see the creative side of the process, with new industries being built, entrepreneurs flourishing and massive wealth being created. Now the market is working, as it should, allocating capital to the places where risk and return are best aligned. It is at once a beautiful and brutal process to observe. Continue reading