And the outlook, warm ... very, very warm

November 5, 1999

Is the oil industry guilty of crimes against humanity? The industry says no; energy expert Jeremy Leggett says yes, and argues that if unchecked it could cause millions to perish. Alison Goddard reports.

Oil and coal lobbyists are guilty of a new form of crime against humanity, says Jeremy Leggett, Charterhouse fellow in solar energy at the University of Oxford and former scientific director of Greenpeace's climate-change campaign. He also takes swipes at scientists for their failure fully to alert politicians to the "worst-case scenario" of climate change.

In his new book, The Carbon War: Dispatches from the End of the Oil Century, Leggett argues that global warming will claim hundreds of millions of lives, yet companies such as Exxon - the oil giant and the corporation behind Esso in the United Kingdom - fought against cuts in greenhouse gas emissions long after the potentially catastrophic consequences were widely accepted.

"Is the metaphor of war - the carbon war - an overstatement?" he asks. "How can it be? After all, though we trust no actual shots will be fired, the United Nations is telling us that the casualties will be measured in hundreds of millions in the decades ahead if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut.

"The carbon war is second only to nuclear war. And there is an orchestrated campaign to hide that threat. That is a new form of crime against humanity."

A former lecturer at the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, London, Leggett worked for Greenpeace during the years in which the scientific evidence for global warming was mounting. Between 1988 and 1997, he attended the talks aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which culminated in the Kyoto protocol. Many oil and petrochemical companies, led by Exxon, fiercely opposed the protocol, rejecting the need to curb fuel consumption and pouring scorn on suggestions that fossil-fuel burning causes climate change.

"These companies sought to keep society locked into what US vice-president Al Gore called its ten-a-day habit, despite the enormity of the stakes," Leggett says. "They did this knowingly, with tactics analogous to those deployed by the tobacco industry in the face of inconvenient scientific findings. Whether we will ever see any (legal) action (against the oil companies) akin to what the tobacco industry is now going through, I don't know."

Leggett dubs those who campaigned against cutting greenhouse gas emissions "the carbon club". He reserves his wrath for certain members: "It is interesting to see how the carbon club responded around 1995-96. Some companies, such as BP and Shell, distanced themselves from the disinformation campaign. The ones who stayed with it, such as Exxon, went for obfuscation. It was grotesque. Around that period, their disinformation, manipulation and distortion just got worse."

Unsurprisingly, Exxon rejects Leggett's charges. A spokesman describes the claim that Exxon is guilty of a new form of crime against humanity as "outlandish" and says that more facts on global climate change are needed. "The potential for global climate change by elevated carbon dioxide levels is a legitimate concern, but we need to reduce the scientific uncertainty through publicly funded research," he says.

Earlier this year, Exxon's chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond, told the corporation's annual meeting that "upper-end projections" of climate change "are based on completely unproven climate models or more often on sheer speculation, without a reliable scientific basis".

Exxon continues to oppose the Kyoto protocol. "We do not believe that the current scientific understanding justifies mandatory restrictions on the use of fossil fuels and we are certain that large economic harm would result from reducing fuel availability to consumers by the adoption of the protocol or other mandatory measures," Raymond says.

Scientists, too, should have played a bigger role in highlighting the dangers of climate change, Leggett believes. The first scientific assessment report made to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 did not sufficiently highlight the potential hazard of runaway global warming. In a warming world, processes could be triggered that would amplify the problem - for example, creating more high-level clouds that trap heat rather than reflect incoming sunlight back out to space.

"I knew from private conversations that many scientists considered amplifying feedbacks to be a huge danger. Yet they could not bring themselves to spell this out graphically in the report that was going to provide the basis for negotiations by more than 100 governments. Scientists should be more political in their approach."

Leggett responded to the clout of the carbon club by trying to get the insurance industry concerned about global warming. He linked climate change to extreme weather conditions, which could result in thousands of claims, crippling the insurance industry. "Their solvency seemed to be at stake should the dice roll unkindly in an overheating world," he says.

But Leggett was disappointed by the insurers' reaction. "For all the promising rhetoric, (by the time of the Kyoto negotiations) the insurance industry had yet to agree to field a single full-time representative against the dozens from the oil, coal and automobile industries at the climate talks. For a $2,000 billion industry - bigger than coal and oil combined - this would have been laughable if it were not such a tragic lost opportunity."

Leggett is still fighting but has changed tack. He is now chief executive of Solar Century, a company that sells and services photovoltaic cells that generate electricity from daylight. The roof of his Richmond house is tiled with the cells, and Leggett generates more electricity than he uses. "(Solar Century) aims to help bring a solar revolution to the world, and to succeed in business for the sake of the environment," he says.

The Carbon War: Dispatches from the End of the Oil Century, published by Allen Lane, price Pounds 20.00.

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