Just 90 companies are to blame for most climate change, this ‘carbon accountant’ says, Science Magazine,
Last month, geographer Richard Heede received a subpoena from Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Smith, a climate change doubter, became concerned when the attorneys general of several states launched investigations into whether ExxonMobil had committed fraud by sowing doubts about climate change even as its own scientists knew it was taking place. The congressman suspected a conspiracy between the attorneys general and environmental advocates, and he wanted to see all the communications among them. Predictably, his targets included advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace, 350.org, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. They also included Heede, who works on his own aboard a rented houseboat on San Francisco Bay in California.
Heede is less well known than his fellow recipients, but his work is no less threatening to the fossil fuel industry. Heede (pronounced “Heedie”) has compiled a massive database quantifying who has been responsible for taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. Working alone, with uncertain funding, he spent years piecing together the annual production of every major fossil fuel company since the Industrial Revolution and converting it to carbon emissions.
The study provoked controversy when it was published in 2013, with some complaining that it unfairly held the fossil fuel industry responsible for the lifestyle choices made by billions of consumers. “It’s a cop-out to blame the producers of products that we have demanded, and benefited from, for more than a century,” wrote Severin Borenstein, a business and public policy expert at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in a blog post.
Others, however, saw the study as a turning point in the debate about apportioning responsibility for climate change. With traditional environmental issues, such as river pollution or toxic waste, it has always been possible to identify perpetrators who could be targeted for regulation or enforcement. But greenhouse gases are emitted everywhere, in every process that involves combustion. “For decades there’s been a persistent myth that everyone is responsible, and if everyone is responsible then no one is responsible,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., who also serves on the board of a nonprofit that Heede co-founded. “Rick’s work for the first time identifies a discrete class of defendants.”
Heede’s carbon accounting is already opening a new chapter in climate change litigation and policy, helping equip plaintiffs who believe they have suffered damages from climate change to claim compensation. “Rick’s work really helps connect the dots,” says Marco Simons, general counsel of EarthRights International, a Washington, D.C.-based legal group that defends the rights of the poor. “He hasn’t sought out the spotlight, but I think his work is tremendously important.”
Heede tallies carbon obsessively. When we discussed my plans to fly out from Boston to Sausalito, California, where his houseboat is anchored, he did a quick calculation and told me that my share of the flights would add 716 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. “And if you’d driven an average car the trip would be 1.78 tons of CO2 [carbon dioxide]” he added, apparently riffing on his own compulsiveness. During my visit I noticed that when he boiled water to make noodles for lunch he put a frying pan on the pot instead of a lid—to preheat the pan so it would use a tiny bit less fuel to heat up the stir-fry. “It’s a practice of mine to figure out how I can minimize energy use.”
He was born in Norway into a long line of watchmakers, which may contribute to his own meticulousness. At 15, he and his parents immigrated to the United States. His father was a consulting engineer, but the younger Heede wasn’t keen on “fixing problems that should not have been created in the first place”—which, he admits, is exactly what he’s doing these days.
Heede has spent most of his life in Colorado, and he has the solid build and weathered face of someone who has spent lots of time in the mountains. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and then joined forces with Amory Lovins, the soft-energy guru who co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president, and his administration moved to gut subsidies for alternative energy sources, claiming that they were not economically competitive. Heede tested that assertion, analyzing the federal budget to find the hidden subsidies to the coal and oil industries, even including the cost of treating workers who developed black lung disease from coal mining.
Contrary to Reagan administration claims, Heede showed that the vast bulk of federal energy subsidies went to conventional energy sources. He wrote a report, testified to Congress, and wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t recall getting any calls as a result,” he says. It was an early taste of working in obscurity.
In 2003, he left the Rocky Mountain Institute to form Climate Mitigation Services, a consulting firm specializing in surveying and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. One of his early clients was Aspen, Colorado, a rich and progressive ski town whose leaders wanted to act decisively to reduce emissions. They hired Heede to do a baseline greenhouse gas inventory with the broadest possible scope—including not only activities within the city, but the cars and airplanes that annually brought in hundreds of thousands of tourists … in short, Heede recalls, “everything that uses energy as a result of Aspen’s existence.”
The exercise raised fascinating questions, Heede says: “What is a community, and what is a boundary? There’s leakage everywhere: airplanes, trucks, cars, visitors. How do you quantify that stuff?”
Heede interviewed airport managers and checked their logs to find out which aircraft served the more than 178,000 annual passengers, calculating fuel consumption and emissions for each flight. Standing at the main bridge into Aspen for hours at a time, he categorized the cars that went by—sedans, SUVs, trucks, vans. Then, he used his records to estimate emissions from the 13,000 vehicles tabulated by an automated counter each day. In the end, he determined that in 2004, Aspen was responsible for more than 840,000 tons of carbon emissions—”roughly equivalent to a large, diesel-powered aircraft carrier running flank speed at all times.” This and subsequent reports enabled the city to reduce its emissions despite a growing population and economy.
The carbon ripples
Aspen was an early test of Heede’s ability to gather information and see beyond obvious boundaries—the invisible ripples from every project that affect the infinitely interconnected atmosphere. In the early 2000s, for example, an Australian firm proposed building a liquefied natural gas terminal off the California coast. It seemed a good way to transition to a low-carbon “bridge” fuel. But, Heede says, “They hadn’t done any work on life cycle emissions.” When he tallied all the direct and indirect emissions—from the gas extraction in Australia to distribution in California—he found that the project would have produced nearly a third more carbon than anticipated. His analysis helped persuade California officials to vote it down.
Later, he tackled targets that produce bigger but more diffuse ripples. Several U.S. cities and environmental groups were suing the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, alleging the institutions were financing projects that would damage Earth’s climate. The plaintiffs retained Heede to analyze the carbon emissions resulting from the banks’ loans and investments around the world, from a gas project in Central Africa to a coal mine in Poland. He found that the projects were directly and indirectly emitting nearly 2 billion metric tons of CO2 per year—almost 8% of the world’s emissions. The plaintiffs won: The banks agreed to conduct environmental impact statements, create carbon-sensitive policies, and increase their financing of renewable energy projects.
Meanwhile, a new idea was coalescing in the environmental law community. For years, attorneys had litigated so-called environmental justice cases to redress the fact that poor people disproportionately suffer from pollution. By the early 2000s, it was becoming clear that the poor will also face the heaviest impacts of climate change. But how do you structure a liability case when the entire world takes part in the carbon economy? Can a Pacific Islander whose town has been flooded sue 7 billion people? Searching for more specific culprits, Peter Roderick, head of the Climate Justice Programme for Greenpeace International in London, commissioned Heede to study ExxonMobil and quantify total greenhouse emissions across its history.
Frankly, we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty.
He would have to follow a tangled corporate path. Founded as Standard Oil by John D. Rockefeller in 1870, the company became one of the world’s largest multinationals until 1911, when the Supreme Court split it into several “baby Standards.” Decades later, two of the largest of those firms merged to form ExxonMobil. Heede tracked down production figures in annual reports scattered among university archives on two continents, supplemented by court documents, news reports, and academic and industry papers. Then he converted production volumes to CO2 and methane. He included direct emissions, for instance from the fuels used to run the company’s operations, and indirect emissions released by the combustion of its products.
After 15 months of research, Heede concluded that ExxonMobil and its precursors had directly or indirectly emitted 20.3 billion metric tons of CO2 and 199 million metric tons of methane. Friends of the Earth calculated that the quantity represented between 4.7% and 5.3% of humanity’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1882.
“I thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind,'” Roderick recalls. “But I knew it was just a small part of the big picture.”
The major league
Roderick commissioned Heede to look at the entire fossil fuel industry. To make the project manageable, they limited it to companies that produced at least 8 million tons of carbon per year, the so-called “carbon majors.” The research took 8 years. Money from the original grant ran out, and after the crash of 2008 Heede’s consulting business collapsed. He maxed out his credit card, borrowed against his Colorado house, and scraped by, enlisting graduate students in several countries to photocopy and send him papers, which he checked and double-checked with a watchmaker’s precision. He filled shelves with binders of information and spent thousands of hours entering it into spreadsheets, working alone, often until midnight. “I take pleasure in that kind of stuff,” Heede says. “I like to pay attention to detail.”
Sitting at dual monitors in the captain’s cabin of his houseboat, Heede takes me on a tour of his data set, a seemingly endless series of color-coded and cross-indexed spreadsheets. Each sheet lists hundreds of entries, with columns showing the year and total production volumes for products such as crude oil, natural gas, and varieties of coal. Clicking on a company’s name opens additional spreadsheets with the company’s year-by-year production, plus screenshots of its annual reports for verification. Color-coded flowcharts display the evolution of companies as they separated or merged. The flowcharts from Russia are particularly ornate, as they incorporate the transformation of companies after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Heede got production data for the Soviet companies from Central Intelligence Agency analyses and the International Energy Agency.) Detailed annotations reveal his methods and calculations. The structure of these charts, so layered and interlocking, seems almost medieval in its complexity, and Heede seems monklike in his devotion to compiling it.
The result, peer reviewed and published in Climatic Change, showed that just 90 companies contributed 63% of the greenhouse gases emitted globally between 1751 and 2010. Half of those emissions took place after 1988—the year James Hansen of NASA testified to Congress that there was no longer any doubt that global warming had begun.
The data “just blew me away,” says Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt, which compares the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry in its efforts to raise doubts about science. “Everyone talks about this as a problem since the Industrial Revolution, but I now think that’s incorrect,” she says. Heede has shown that the roots of the problem are more recent and easier to trace. In 2011, Oreskes joined Heede in creating the Climate Accountability Institute, a nonprofit devoted to quantifying the contribution of fossil fuel companies to climate change and investigating their alleged attempts to obfuscate the science.
Sharing the blame
Other people criticize the work as oversimplified and naïve. David Victor, a political scientist and energy policy specialist at UC San Diego and a co-author of the 2015 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, doesn’t question Heede’s numbers but says his approach is wrongheaded. “It’s part of a larger narrative of trying to create villains; to draw lines between producers as responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims. Frankly, we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty. To create a narrative that involves corporate guilt as opposed to problem-solving is not going to solve anything.”
Heede concedes that the responsibility is shared. “I as a consumer bear some responsibility for my own car, etcetera. But we’re living an illusion if we think we’re making choices, because the infrastructure pretty much makes those choices for us.” He focused on fossil fuel companies, he says, because unlike industries that produce greenhouse gases as a byproduct (such as the automobile industry, which has adhered to increasingly strict mileage standards), the mission of fossil fuel companies is to pull carbon out of the ground and put it into commerce.
His data, together with an emerging line of research that uses computer models to discern how likely it is that a given storm, flood, or heat wave was related to human-caused emissions, are now driving efforts to allocate responsibility for climate change. Last year, for instance, several nongovernmental organizations in the Philippines filed a petition with that nation’s Commission on Human Rights. It asks the “carbon majors” to take remedial actions on behalf of typhoon survivors in the islands, which suffer devastating storms that may have worsened as a result of climate change. “Heede’s report is one of the bedrock pieces of science and research that helped form our campaign,” says Kristin Casper, litigation counsel for Greenpeace’s Global Climate Justice and Liability Project in Toronto, Canada. In late July, the commission sent orders to 47 of the world’s largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies, asking them to respond to the human rights charges in the petition. Similar actions and lawsuits are proceeding in several other countries.
Now, Heede is extending his carbon accounting into the future, quantifying the potential carbon release from future fossil fuel exploration. Like the other recipients of Representative Smith’s subpoena, he has no intention of complying with what he calls a “campaign to intimidate us and stop scientific research.” At the same time, he confesses an admiration for the fossil fuel industry, which has made “fantastic efforts to find resources for the betterment of humanity,” often in the harshest environments. They’ve done such a good job that we haven’t paused to reflect on the unintended consequences, he says. “And now we have to cope with the result.”
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