31 Oct 2008
Paul Dickinson left a well-paid job in design in order to investigate climate change.
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I had become convinced that climate change was something I was going to be condemned or blessed to work on for the rest of my life.’
Paul Dickinson left a well-paid job in design in order to investigate climate change. When he understood the gravity of the problem, he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to averting climate catastrophe. Recognising the significant contribution of corporate activity and greenhouse gas emissions, he created the Carbon Disclosure Project, an unprecedented coalition of institutional investors worth trillions of dollars. Together, they demand that the world’s largest companies declare their emissions and their responses to climate change. These findings are then made freely available to the public online.
In the year 2000, I had become convinced that climate change was something I was going to be condemned or blessed, depending on which way you look at it, to work on for the rest of my life. I was trying to make contact with people who had power and influence who I could work with. I had to this end made contact with Tessa Tennant, who was the founder of the environmental investment movement in Europe in 1988. She and I were talking in the summer of 2000 and we took a view that you could get a hundred people in a room who could stop climate change, and those hundred people would be the heads of the hundred largest fund management institutions. Those hundred institutions collectively control more than 60 per cent of the shares of the all world’s companies, and therefore they could instruct those companies to do pretty much whatever they wanted. That’s the big idea behind the Carbon Disclosure Project in a sense ó to utilise the power of institutional shareholders.
We advanced and tested our ideas and finally settled upon the fact that in the first instance, the most that institutional investors could do collectively would be to ask for information on greenhouse gases from corporations. We then set about a process with my colleague Paul Simpson. Paul and I and Tessa really led this until Tessa moved on and now Paul and I are at the centre of the efforts. We wanted to get a lot of large investors to sign a request for information, for disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions from the 500 largest companies in the world. We spent two years developing a set of questions that was fit for purpose and a covering letter; in fact a whole series of documentation, all of which we had to agree many months in advance of it being used. We then managed to persuade a group of 18 investors, not to sign it, but we promised not to change a word of it and we said, Can we tell other investors that you are intending to sign it?’ And they said, You can say that.’ So, 18 investors put their necks out a little way.
We then sent out our documentation to 100 investors saying, We’re not going to change one word of this. You’ve met us, we’re reasonable people. Will you put your name to it?’ And strangely and wonderfully, a number of them did. The very first signatory was Legal and General Group who are an enormous asset manager. They very kindly and intelligently in my view took the view that this was a good thing, that data feeds efficient markets, and others joined us including Allianz, Credit Suisse and UBS. With these giants we went out on 31st May 2002, we wrote our letter to the chair of the board of the 500 largest companies on earth. We got that delivered by UPS with a signature. It cost us £5,000 just for delivery. So, we sent out this letter, 45 per cent of the companies answered our questions, and we launched the responses.
On 31st May 2002 we represented $4.5 trillion of assets, which we thought was rather a lot, a few years of UK GDP. But there was more to come! We spoke to the signatory investors and said we’d like to carry on doing this, and they said, That’s a good idea.’ So we then sent another information request and this was backed by 100 investors with $10 trillion. And we then sent another information request a year later. We’d now moved onto an annual cycle. This time we represented 155 million investors with $20 trillion. The response rate was going up to 71 per cent answering the questions. What this means is that 71 per cent of the world’s largest companies send an answer to our website, and not only is this available to all the investors, but it’s also available to the public, so anyone can see what these corporations emit. Today, if you want to see what McDonald’s or Coca-Cola or Disney or Ford or BMW or IBM or Shell or Exxon ó anyone ó if you want to know what they emit, just go to our website, you can download and you can see it free of charge. In fact I was told that someone from Swiss Re Insurance once said at a conference, In any future litigation on climate change, Exhibit A will be the letter sent by the Carbon Disclosure Project, 31st May 2002, because how can a corporation say they didn’t know about climate change when so many shareholders were getting together to talk to them about it?’ There’s an Italian phrase that says, It takes the union to make the force.’
In 2006, we did something rather unprecedented: we expanded. So instead of writing to just the 500 largest companies in the world, although we carried on doing that, we expanded in Canada, the United States, Brazil, France, Germany and Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and also with electric utilities, in partnership with various other organisations. That was a big success and we then represented 200 investors, with $30 trillion. And then good things happened. We launched all over the world, bigger than ever, this time representing 280 investors with assets of about $40 trillion.
In 1999 I stopped working and sat at a little desk and looked into climate change for about six months. Then I took a view that there were a whole bunch of graphs that I’d looked at and they were all going in one direction. That the political consensus had been reached and was secure, and if I spent the rest of my life working on climate change, I would not be wasting my time. And I think also the leisure time that I had ó I did spend six months not setting my alarm clock ó in that time I did kind of allow my guts to help me decide what I was going to do with my life, and they helped me decide 100 per cent climate change and nothing but. Until I’m about 70, when I don’t know if I’ll be quite responsible in the discharge of my duties. At that point, I may go back to doing those things that people do when there isn’t a war on.
The obvious question is, Has there been an opportunity cost to doing this?’ I think it’s probably true that over the last five or six years, I’ve earned quite a bit less money that I used to. That’s kind of OK because, to be honest, there’s not that much you can really do with money that’s all that useful, except maybe fly around the world on exotic holidays, and I’ve not flown on holiday since 2001, so that particular adventure is lost to me. So should I be living in a bigger house? Should I be having a normal life and kids and things like that? It didn’t feel that difficult for me to decide to really focus on my work, and I could have combined that with having a family, but I took a view that I would have to give up either leisure or a family. I decided to give up having a family, working on the assumption that there was no shortage of children and that I have eight nephews and nieces.
I am, I would say, completely fulfilled. I’m never ill and I consider myself to be a living embodiment of the Confucian maxim that when you get the job you want, you never work another day in your life. I leap out of bed in the morning, rush to my computer and couldn’t be happier. The system is kind of set up to make people think that if they’re not earning absolutely as much money as they can all the time, they’re going to die, whereas probably the reverse is true. And people also think that if they give up one afternoon a week to help their local Green Party, they’re going to be booted off the career ladder. I do think
that there’s some utility value in keeping some balance in your life, and for example I am actually only paid 90 per cent of my salary by the Carbon Disclosure Project. Half a day of the week, I sell video telephones, because I believe that video telephones are going to change the world. I don’t think that one has to be a tycoon with a top hat and a cigar, or a monk. I think the modern world with the internet and email can permit us to live a portfolio existence that suits us personally, so being the change for me, I think, has been about being richer in every sense ó healthier, certainly happier ó and it doesn’t really get any better than that.
Being the change
You have to be absolutely sure that what you are doing is right, and you have to be sure that if you’ve been convinced that what you are doing is wrong, that you’re going to change it. There’s nothing to be admired in being proven wrong, accepting that and then not changing. You have to be flexible. You know, in some senses, I’ve sent the same email all day every day for six years, and at times it hasn’t been that interesting, but if you can remember why you’re doing it, if you can smile at the joys of nature and people and if you can be endlessly impressed with what you’re trying to conserve, that will give you the strength to do some of the fantastically dull repetitive work to deliver on what you need to do. You know I say that Confucius says when you get the job you want, you never work for another day of your life and that is true, but at the same time your desire to enact and protect and do what you need to do is sometimes going to find its expression in things that aren’t terribly interesting. I’ve met people from NGOs who want to launch a new campaign every week and have lots of exciting meetings, but you know, fairly substantial amounts of graft are the centre of the implementation of anything. Crucial to our success has been a good idea and the laser-like focus on its implementation, combined with a wide gene pool of advice, a plan which is set and followed but also flexible, and really good colleagues. If you put those together you can’t really fail.
It really isn’t that difficult to solve this problem. What gives me hope is that just because we’ve not had an apolitical global enemy before, it doesn’t mean that we, the world community, cannot rise to slay this dragon. It requires nothing more than logic, intelligence, self-preservation and cooperation, all of which have been demonstrated on a considerable scale in other circumstances in other times. And it is the overwhelming interest of parents not to make the lives of their children miserable, or indeed to end the lives of their children, and so, drawing upon the deepest purpose of living and replicating beings, I am confident that the intelligence and capability of the human race who have got us into this mess are going to get us out of it.
Beautiful Corporations, Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2000
This is excerpts from interviews featured in the book Be The Change: Action and reflection from people transforming our world. It consists of a series of inspiring interviews conducted and compiled by Trenna Cormack and published by Love Books, ISBN 978−09555−213−00, £12.99. It’s available now from all good bookshops and at www.lovebooks.co.uk and www.bethechange.org.uk
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