Jeremy Leggett has undergone quite a few large career changes, from oil industry consultant to Greenpeace scientist to solar power entrepreneur. A geologist by training, he worked with the oil industry until his studies brought him face-to-face with the growing evidence of climate change. In an industry refusing to change, Leggett went to work for Greenpeace and was part of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) talks up to the non-binding, international climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. Seeing the strong resistance to renewable energy, Leggett decided to move in that direction himself, setting up SolarCentury, the UK’s largest solar energy company, which helps support the sustainable development organization, SolarAid. In this interview, Leggett discusses his thoughts on the latest IPCC meeting in Copenhagen and impending US greenhouse gas legislation, what he sees as promising developments for renewable energy, and why he regards culture as the key to adequately tackling climate change.
Christine Shearer: You began your career as an oil industry consultant and professor at the Royal School of Mines, helping train petroleum engineers and geologists. Could you say a bit what that was like and why you left?
Jeremy Leggett: Well, it was a lot of fun. I was really into it. I loved geology, I loved the process of studying history, I loved the research part. I researched the history of the oceans, so I came at the climate system through the research on oceans, the bottom up, as it were. My consulting, a lot of it was with the oil industry; I worked with the oil industry in Japan, in Pakistan, in other places, with BP and Shell, so I was very much, y’know, a part of the machinery and if anyone had ever said to me I’d be doing what I’m doing today I would really have doubted that. And the reason I ultimately grew disenchanted was the emergence of the worrying climate science in the mid-1980’s coming from the atmospheric guys studying the climate from the top down. When I put those two things together, what they were saying about the heat-trapping ability of the atmosphere with what I knew about the behavior of the oceans, that’s when I got really worried about global warming and of course still am.
Shearer: As you became alarmed about global warming, did you talk to your colleagues in the petroleum industry about it and, if so, how did they react?
Leggett: Sure. All of the time. And in the mid-1980’s there was growing concern. I thought it would all switch sooner than it did. As you probably know, it took BP and Shell until 1997 to actually admit there was a problem as organizations and then of course they started doing good stuff. But that’s ten lost years in which they were battling very hard to hold everything back. Even though there were very senior people in those companies saying to me, “This doesn’t look good, does it, we should be doing something about it.”
Shearer: But as a corporation they just couldn’t?
Leggett: Well, of course, Exxon is beyond the pale, still is beyond the pale as an organization with a terrible culture and a terrible attitude to the future and the mortgaging of the future.
Shearer: You then went to work for Greenpeace, and were at the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meetings up to Kyoto, which you describe in your book “The Carbon War”. What was that like?
Leggett: Yeah, really rather weird at the time. I came out of what was then one of the most conservative universities in the world, science and technology only, into what was then one of the most radical environmental groups. It was a strange culture shift, to say the least. But there were a few scientists in other environment groups with the kind of pedigree that I had built up, Dan Lashof in NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], Michael Oppenheimer in EDF [Environmental Defense Fund], and we sat down at the table with all the hundreds of climate scientists and of course also the lobbyists from the fossil fuel companies, who also had very good scientists on their books, and we did “gentlemanly” battle, a battle of ideas, and it started then and it’s still going on today.
Shearer: “The Carbon War” lays out the complete indifference of some nations and fossil fuel companies to the plight of small island nations, who were literally negotiating for their future livelihood, given rapid sea-level rise. Having been part of the fossil fuel industry, did you see such strong and resilient opposition coming, or were even you surprised?
Leggett: With the benefit of hindsight, I was pretty naå¤«e. I did think the battle of rational argument would hold more sway than it did in those days and still does today. I think collectively we humans, with the privilege of looking back and analyzing the mistakes that we made, in these crucial times, there are going to be some hard questions asked about the way we make group decisions and the way we create cultures, cultures that become impervious to logic, and I think that’s what the Carbon Club, as we call them, have succeeded in doing.
Shearer: What did you think of the latest round of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Copenhagen?
Leggett: Disappointing. President Barack Obama acknowledges the accord is not enough to head off dangerous climate charge. The EU endorses it grudgingly as the first step of many more steps. And it falls far short of salvation for developing countries, which means we cannot even be sure it can be used as a basis for Kyoto 2, when the protocol expires in 2012. Hugo Chavez gloatingly told the summit that capitalism is to blame and, annoyingly, he may have half a point. As we digest the implications of our collective failure in Copenhagen, we surely have to think hard about capitalism in the form we have allowed it to evolve, where financial speculations can become assets, while renewables struggle for funding. The fact is that, as things stand, there is no place on the global balance sheet for the assets most relevant to the survival of economies, ecosystems and civilization. Investors will still pile billions into fossil fuels; the Copenhagen accord hasn’t changed that. And that is the bottom line.
Leggett: I was late to that, I’m ashamed to say. Being one of them, when the first whistles were blown in the late 1990’s I kinda took a look at it, I saw the first real public whistleblowing paper in Scientific American by Campbell and Laherre in 1998 and I read it and thought, ‘No, that can’t be right.’ And later I thought, ‘Well, great piece of analysis there, Dr. Leggett.’ It was the Shell reserve fiasco in 2004 that really woke me up to the issue, and after that I started researching it and coming to what I hope is a considered opinion. And of course it’s different from climate change in that there are plenty of people coming out in and around the oil industry about peak oil. It’s still probably a minority view, but there are plenty of people blowing whistles. And this is one that is going to conflate with climate in a very interesting way and my hope is it will push us to accelerate what we know we have to do anyway, which is go fast and hard on low-carbon technologies, and where climate has failed the prospect of a steep descent in global oil production might do the job, hopefully.
Shearer: After Greenpeace you started SolarCentury, the UK’s largest independent solar electric company, which helps finance the sustainable development organization that you also started, SolarAid. That is not an easy task – how did you make it happen?
Leggett: I got lucky, really. Most people can have entrepreneurial ideals, but I wanted to set up some kind of candle for hope, which we see Solar Century as being, and I was able to finance it in the dark days of the dot.com era just before the crash. We’ve struggled on to the present position, where over the last five years we’ve been the fast-growing private energy company of any kind in the UK, and we’re based in several European countries, so it’s a candle for hope that continues to burn quite bright.
Shearer: You were part of the UK renewables advisory board, yes?
Leggett: I was until 2006, so for four years I was advising the government, but I think they got sick of the sound of my voice and I sure got sick of the sound of theirs.
Shearer: So is the UK somewhat moving in the direction of renewables or …?
Leggett: They bumble along. But we’re third from bottom in the lead table of European countries in the percentage of renewables in the energy mix, which is a shocking, shameful statistic. The government came into power with that statistic and it’s not changed in all their period of power, which I think they should be thoroughly ashamed of.
Shearer: What do you think could really help the use of renewables grow?
Leggett: I think it would help a lot if the vested interests and the cultures that have been created started listening to rational argument and didn’t go into default mode of defending their environmentally ruinous status quo. That’s a constant theme. In all the years I’ve been at this business, what’s struck me is we create cultures that are really resistant to change and whether they’re just naked defense of vested interest or lack of imagination or a combination of the two, to believe or see that things can be done differently, they’re cultural problems more than technology problems.
Shearer: Yes, what do you say to people who say renewables are great but not technologically or economically feasible?
Leggett: I say talk to the people in Silicon Valley. See where they’re going with their feet and their wallets. This is what excites them. Young professionals are moving out of the digital revolution into the solar and clean technology revolution generally for their vocation. So what do they know that officials in the White House or here in England or the old fogies in the oil industry don’t know? They have a different view of the world, the Silicon Valley folks, and they have the right one and the dinosaurs have got the wrong one.
Shearer: You advocate microgeneration technology, or small-scale renewables that people can control themselves. What would that look like?
Leggett: Yes, I’m in the solar business, but I don’t think it’s a magic bullet, I don’t think there are any magic bullets, and we need to mine all the numerous members of the renewable and efficient energy family, so microgeneration is going to look great with strategies like strategic harness – mixing and matching renewables to get baseload and peakload, with microgeneration smoothing out the load on the grid. Solar works particularly well with wind. Wind is most effective in the winter, solar in the summer, simple pairings like that are going to amplify these technologies as the growth rates continue.
Shearer: The US is currently debating a climate bill, which will appear to have large subsidies for “clean coal,” such as carbon capture. Any thoughts about impending US legislation?
Leggett: Washington should listen more to Silicon Valley.
Shearer: Do you see any promising fronts on the struggle to mitigate climate change?
Leggett: I do. Many. That’s what gets people like me out of bed in the morning. The growth rate of clean technology is amazing despite all the problems. A lot of people don’t realize that for the first time last year in the [United] States or Europe there was more renewable capacity brought onstream than nuclear and fossil combined. You tell people that and they say no, it must be wrong. No, it’s not wrong, it’s in the statistics. So we’re working with the grain, those of us in and around the survival technologies. So all that’s encouraging. It’s encouraging the political regime has changed in the US, away from one that was blind to all the difficulties. It’s encouraging all the demonstrations for cleaner energy. I think it’s encouraging the Chinese are looking so hard at what global warming will do to their economy. There’s no point in growing an economy if it’s going to get washed away, literally and metaphorically, by the marching armies of climate impacts. All that is encouraging.
Social entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s largest solar solutions company, and SolarAid, a charity set up with Solarcentury profits. He is author of “The Carbon War” , “Half Gone“, and “The Solar Century” , and is a regular columnist for UK newspapers. His work can be found at jeremyleggett.net.
Christine Shearer is an academic and journalist. She has worked at the Center for Investigative Reporting, KPFA Radio and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and her writings have appeared in Truthout, AlterNet and Conducive.
(This interview took place in July 2009 and April 2010. Part of it was published in Conducive in 2009.)