This piece first appeared in Business Green.





Environmentalists have long been vulnerable to their own passions. At times this can make us sound shrill and self-righteous. On other occasions it can blind us to political traps. The oil industry is now busy setting a big one for us. It is camouflaged under a call by the industry’s leaders for ‘clear, stable, long-term, ambitious policy frameworks’ to tackle climate change.

Who could quarrel? This call was set out in a letter to Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, at the end of May. In case you missed it, it was repeated in a letter to the Financial Times on June 1st. They were specific about what they wanted. Governments should, ‘introduce carbon pricing systems……[and] ….create an international framework that could eventually connect national systems.’

Let me summarise. They want a global carbon price.

Environmentalists have long been beguiled by the pollution syllogism. It runs like this: pollution is sinful; sin must be punished; taxes are punishment, ergo, tax pollution. There is no joy in heaven like that at a sinner repenting.

It would be easy to confuse oil companies calling for a carbon price with sinners repenting. They are not. They are up to something altogether more subtle. The European companies who signed the letter, their American peers declined, have woken up to the existential threat to them posed by climate change.

A brutal combination of rapid technology development and unusual global weather events is reshaping the politics of climate change. The weather events ramp up the pressure on governments to act. Rapidly falling costs for low carbon technologies lower the political risk of doing so.

To have a good chance of avoiding dangerous climate change the world must get to net zero carbon emissions by 2100. That is for emissions from all sources including agriculture and deforestation. For the global energy system it means getting to carbon neutrality much earlier – at or soon after 2050. This goal collides directly with the oil companies’ business model.

Three beliefs define the oil companies current comfort zone. The world needs their product. Governments are on their side. Energy technology change takes decades. The accelerating surge of investment in renewables and storage as prices collapse undermines two of them. Obama and Clinton choosing to pick a fight over climate change, with the Pope’s blessing, in an election year is sawing away at the third.

Changing your business model is no simple task even for a small company. For behemoths like the oil companies writing to the UNFCCC it may be impossible. I cannot think of an example in corporate history of companies this large doing so voluntarily. In recent months a more alarmed conversation has begun within the oil companies’ leadership.

Its first product is a decision to buy time to think about how to deal with the collision between their business model and a safe climate. Hence the call for a carbon price. The intent is to create the impression of an industry in favour of urgent action whilst actually slowing that action down.

It is a tenet of economic dogma that putting a price on carbon is the most efficient way of dealing with climate change. The oil companies are counting on the weight of orthodox economic opinion supporting them.

The call for a carbon price is a shield with which to defend themselves from calls for faster change. If we are not decarbonising fast enough, they will argue, it is not their fault. If only governments were brave enough to put the carbon price up higher and faster, they will lament,  we would get there sooner.

This is hocus-pocus. They know full well governments will be deeply reluctant to put up consumers bills. Ask Amber Rudd. This is simply a stratagem to re-balance the political equation. Politicians are to be caught between the pressure to protect the climate and the pain of doing it with a carbon price. You do not have to be a cynic to believe that faced with this kind of dilemma most politicians will do very little.

There is a further subtlety to this plan. Calling for a global carbon price will mobilise hostile, if covert, opposition from every finance ministry on the planet. Few national prerogatives are as fiercely protected as the right to raise (or lower) taxes. Sixty years of building a Single Market have not persuaded the nations of the EU to surrender any taxation prerogatives to Brussels.

Keeping the climate safe means persuading 190 nations to coordinate their energy policies. After thirty years of trying we are still someway from succeeding. Yet, by comparison with coordinating their tax policies this is straightforward. There is no chance that the world will agree on a global price for carbon in the forty years we have to keep the climate safe.

Oil company CEOs lack neither intelligence nor experience. They have not overlooked the political problems of calling for a global price on carbon. They are counting on them. Their purpose is clear, to set a trap for unwary policy makers and environmentalists. Shame on those who fall into it.


Tom Burke


August 10th 2015


‘Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr Jones?’ is a line from ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ by Bob Dylan



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Blue Sky Thinking – BBC Radio 5 Live


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I think that government has got far too centralised, it started under Thatcher, was taken further forward by Labour, and the level of centralisation has now really got quite ridiculous.

I would want to push a lot more power and authority, certainly over finance, out to cities and communities, so that they can determine things for themselves, and so that we can have some real accountability for the decisions that politicians make.

I would certainly want to keep a Department of Energy and Climate Change. The idea that somehow the free market is going to solve the problem of climate change and still leave us with civilisation, is a bit more optimistic than I could be.

I am much more concerned that we make sure we insulate every building in Britain, for instance, to a very high degree, and giving every single home and community in this country the right and ability to generate their own electricity from renewable sources, I think if we did those sort of things we would be helping enormously to lower bills for people, reduce fuel poverty, increase the competitiveness of our industry, and help with reducing the burden on the NHS. We would do all that and get reductions in carbon emissions as well.

The problem is that you get rid of a lot of bureaucrats telling you what you need to do to deal with the climate, and you have one bureaucrat deciding what the level of tax should be, and the truth is that no one has any idea what level of tax gets you to a safe climate. If you don’t believe in climate change, then you can come up with an idea that has no chance of success.

We should let every city, community and home in Britain decide for itself, to do that you have to set up the right regulatory framework, and you have to set up the right energy system. That’s something that government has to do, because nobody else will.






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Obama’s climate plan on Sky News – 03/08/15



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It is really important that America has now set itself out to lead on climate, and to demonstrate leading by taking action. It has been a laggard, and therefore other countries have been able to hide behind it, that shield has now been removed.

I suspect the America will find out what we found out in Europe. It is actually a lot easier to get these apparently big targets than you think at first. I suspect what we will see if Hilary Clinton succeeds Obama is we will see their standards ratcheted up, and they will discover that actually once you get going things tend to flow.

I think that is is very important that Obama is doing this without the consent of Congress, as Congress has made it clear that they would stop him from doing anything. I think that he has set a trap for the Republicans, the public in America are quite clearly behind more rigorous action on climate change, as they are here in the UK.

I don’t think that it’s a accident that three days before all of these Republicans who have been deniers are going to stand up and try to outbid each other into being even bigger deniers.





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This is the address I gave at the Atlantic Council event Climate Security: The Next ‘Battle Ground’? on June 17, 2015 in Washington DC.












Security professionals often distinguish between human security issues and national security issues. Of course both these aspects of security are linked. Climate change makes that linkage very intimate. There are no hard power solutions to climate change. But there will be hard power consequences to climate policy failure.

Europe this summer is illustrating just how intimate these links already are. Currently between half and one million migrants on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean are seeking a way into Europe. This pressure is causing mounting anxiety among European publics.

This anxiety has proved a rich substrate of support for populist and nationalist parties throughout the EU. Mr Putin has been quick to spot and take advantage of the opportunity to sow dissent. He is now providing overt, and covert, support for such parties.

Climate change is only one of several forces intensifying the migrant pressure on Europe. But as the global temperature from just below 1°C where it is today towards 2°C  climate’s share in increasing these stresses will grow. With it will grow the opportunities for mischief making by Mr Putin.

The first imperative for any government is to maintain territorial integrity. If it cannot maintain this it is no longer a government. The second imperative is to maintain internal stability. The first imperative cannot be met if the second fails. The third imperative is to maintain water, food and energy security. These are the basic requirements for human security.  Unless they are satisfied neither of the prior imperatives can be met.

Climate change is making this latter task increasingly difficult and eventually will make it impossible. Climate security is necessary for the maintenance of human security which, in its turn, is necessary for national security. There are, of course, many other threats to national security. But they are well recognised. This threat is only just beginning to receive the serious attention it deserves.

Climate policy failure matters most in cities. Half the world’s population now live in them. By 2050 it will be three-quarters. They generate 80% of global economic growth. It is often said the fish rot from the head down. States rot from the city out. As we see in Libya and Syria.  Climate change will impose escalating costs on urban populations through water and food price spikes and constant disruptions to essential infrastructure.

The growth of these burdens will make it ever harder to meet the expectations of rising urban populations. This increases the difficulty and cost of maintaining social stability. Further more as these costs grow they cut into the income of the bottom two quartiles of urban populations in the merging economies. These are precisely the incomes that are the critical fuel for global economic growth.

Many cities are already acting vigorously to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for the consequences of a changing climate. But if national and international climate policy fails their own efforts will be overwhelmed. Current government policies will fail to preserve climate security. They need to act faster and more aggressively. City political leaders need to play a larger and more vocal part in pressing them to do so.


Tom Burke















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NEGOTIATIONS: Warming’s impact on global security a critical issue for Paris talks, experts say


Here is another report of the panel I spoke on at the Atlantic Council event Climate Security: The Next ‘Battle Ground’? on June 17, 2015 in Washington DC.


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NEGOTIATIONS:  Warming’s impact on global security a critical issue for Paris talks, experts say

Brittany Patterson, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, June 18, 2015


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The major impact climate change will have on global security is one of the key issues that unite the world and will be immensely important during the U.N. climate negotiations to be held in Paris at the end of this year, said Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States.

“The climate has always posed threats to security,” Araud said speaking at an Atlantic Council event yesterday on climate security and the Paris talks. “Climate disruptions upset the full range of economic and social equilibrium and therefore threatens countries’ internal security.”

Araud cited examples of climate-related maladies that spanned the globe, including the social unrest and deployment of troops in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the fight for water resources between Egypt and Sudan. He also mentioned the terrible weather of 1788 that sparked a food crisis in France and contributed to the start of the French Revolution, although it wasn’t the doing of climate change specifically.

Climate change poses both a human security and a national security issue, added former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke.

Although climate change is not directly a military issue, she said the well-funded, trained and oiled machine that is a country’s military has a role to play via the way it does business.

Through purchasing of clean energy and pushing technology forward, the U.S. military has made strides, but the United States still has work to do in thinking about the bigger picture in terms of how the world will physically change and the likely increases in humanitarian aid missions the military will be called upon to do, according to Burke.

‘States rot from their cities’

Across Europe, there are huge political implications of a changing climate, especially with regard to the migration of climate refugees, said Tom Burke, founding director and chairman of E3G — Third Generation Environmentalism.

For example, as instability drives half-a-million people to seek shelter in Europe, citizens are responding by voting for populist candidates, a move Russian President Vladimir Putin can use to his advantage, Burke said.

“States rot from their cities,” he said. “If you don’t maintain water, food and energy security, you are not able to keep order.”

Looking forward to the Paris conference, Araud said he was heartened by the mobilization of not just countries, but states, cities and businesses that see not just the security implications of a changing climate but the economic value that creating a low-carbon society will have.

Burke added that in countries without structured grid systems, creating a renewable energy system is a great opportunity to connect countries through building a distributed power system.

Expanding our definition of national security and reaching out to cities and states that are already adapting against climate change will be key to moving forward, even if Paris fails to produce a meaningful agreement.

The challenge, Araud added, will be leaving Paris with a common agreement, while recognizing that each country’s goals for getting there will be different.




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CLIMATE: National security concerns could spur Hill action — ex-DOD officials?






This is a report by Environment & Energy Publishing of the panel I spoke on at the Atlantic Council event Climate Security: The Next ‘Battle Ground’? on June 17, 2015 in Washington DC

The reporter misheard what I said about America. What I actually said was: ‘Winston Churchill, who had an American mother, once said that you could always count on America to do the right thing but only after it had explored all the  other options. America is still going through the process of exploring all the other options  but if you looked at what was actually happening beyond Washington, in the cities and states, you could have no doubt at all that it would get there.’



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CLIMATE: National security concerns could spur Hill action — ex-DOD officials?

Ariel Wittenberg, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, June 17, 2015

National security issues could be the best hope for bringing Congress in line with any agreements made at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris later this year, former military officials said today.

Speaking at an Atlantic Council panel on climate security and the Paris talks, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy Daniel Chiu and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke said they were not optimistic that anything could get Congress to move on climate change — but national security concerns are the best bet.

“The question is critical,” Chiu said. “We know that if we can’t get Congress to move after Paris, we are going to have some real obstacles to making progress.”

Climate security issues show some promise, he said, because they present global warming as “not an issue Congress can or should ignore because it has fluffy implications they won’t see.”

“We emphasize it is an issue that has real implications on national security,” he said.

Burke said that while she hopes security is an area in which Congress “can come together and agree on investments, I would also say don’t wait for it.”

“It keeps me up at night that climate change is still a political issue in our country,” she said.

Tom Burke, chairman of the British nonprofit Third Generation Environmentalism, said the United States lags the international community in political acceptance of climate change.

“You can always count on America to do the right thing, but only after it explores every other option,” he said. “We look at Washington, D.C., and we’re not seeing anything that will make us believe America will get there to the point of having climate legislation.”

Former Virginia Sen. John Warner (R) told the panelists that the Paris talks “have the potential to move the base of public opinion in our country in a positive way.”

But, he said, he was concerned about whether Congress would be willing or able to “further foster” any Paris agreements.

Without congressional intervention, Warner said he was concerned the military would have to pick up the slack when issues like migration due to sea-level rise in Bangladesh come up.

“Who would be the first to respond to a problem there? One of our aircraft carriers,” he said.

Chiu said that he agreed with Warner’s analysis and that the United States’ reliance on its military worries the international community. During his time at the Pentagon, Chiu said, he was approached by European officials worried that the Defense Department’s energy initiatives were “militarizing” climate change.

That concern is a legitimate one, Burke said. She noted that climate change can cause humanitarian crises like food and water shortages that could turn into military conflicts. But she cautioned that using the military to solve “human security and national security” would be problematic.

While the American people overall have a respectful relationship with the military, Burke said, that is not the case in other countries where the armed forces are seen as sources of corruption or instigators of coups.

“Assigning civilian roles to the military is a slippery slope,” she said.

Even in the United States, she warned, using the military for humanitarian needs would not be sustainable because “our primary mission is to fight and win wars.”

She said broader policy changes are necessary to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Relying on the military for either would be “blunting the tool for what you need it for and also under investing in other tools of state power that could better address climate change,” she said.



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Climate Security: The Next ‘Battle Ground’? – Atlantic Council event – June 17, 2015

I will be speaking at the Atlantic Council event Climate Security: The Next ‘Battle Ground’? on June 17, 2015 in Washington DC.


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As the international community heads to COP21 in Paris this December, much of the public discourse focuses on the relationship between climate and the environment.

Equally important, however, are the ways countries address the global security threats that arise from climate change.  From a national security perspective, climate change is viewed as a risk multiplier or conflict aggravator and a source of nontraditional threats that require nontraditional responses.

What local and global actions can be taken to reduce the stresses climate change has on economic, social, and political systems? How can security planners and actors address the threat of climate change on international security? What are the dangers of inaction and could an international climate regime contribute to reducing instability and conflict risks?

In honor of the European Union’s (EU) Climate Diplomacy Day, please join the Atlantic Council and the EU on Wednesday, June 17th, 2015 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for a discussion exploring the critical dynamic between climate change and global security.

An introduction will be delivered by H.E. David O’Sullivan, the Ambassador of the EU to the United States and keynote remarks will be provided by H.E. Gérard  Araud, the Ambassador of France to the United States. Panelists include Sharon Burke, Senior Adviser to the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, Tom Burke, Founding Director and Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, Major General Munir Muniruzzaman (Ret.) , Chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC) and President and CEO of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), and Dennis Tänzler, Director of  International Climate Policy at Adelphi.

The discussion will be moderated by Dan Chiu, Deputy Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.  Welcome remarks will be provided by The Hon. Richard Morningstar, Founding Director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.


Follow the conversation on Twitter at #ClimateDiploDay and @ACenergycenter



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G7 fossil fuel pledge is a diplomatic coup for Germany’s ‘climate chancellor’ – The Guardian


I was quoted extensively in an article in The Guardian by on why the plan outlined by the G7 on Monday to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century is, for some member countries, not quite as ambitious as it sounds.


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Tom Burke, environmental advisor to Shell, Rio Tinto and Unilever, said Merkel had made a big play”.

“It’s more aggressive than you would have expected. That’s been helped a lot by the US démarche with China and the growing signs are that China is probably going to do better than a lot of people are expected,” he said.

He said that outside the numbers, the G7’s primary function was to send signals to other countries and to markets and that the announcement today would shift things significantly.

“Everyone gets over focused on what the text of the treaty is. What really matters is what gets done in the real economy and the extent that the players in the real economy react to this signal. You’re going to shift the needle of interest in the investing community away from oil and gas and towards renewables, storage and energy efficiency. And I think that’s further than probably the oil companies had anticipated,” said Burke.


Burke also noted that decarbonisation probably didn’t mean the total abnegation of fossil fuels. The world can still burn a few gigatonnes of carbon per year and remain carbon neutral by relying on natural uptake of carbon. He said the reality of the phase out would probably allow for gas being burned for heat and carbon-fuelled planes.




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Pester power: The new weapon in the fight against global warming – The Independent


I was quoted by The Independent in a piece about how influential young people are in the fight against climate change.


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“Young girls have enormous influence on their fathers. In the work I have done I would say that the most influential group of people of all are 12-year-old girls; they have their fathers wrapped around their little fingers.”


Continue reading…



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This article first appeared in BusinessGreen





The politics of climate change is changing. Astonished listeners at a recent conference in Paris heard the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, announce ‘one of these days we are not going to need fossil fuels’. He went on to make it clear he was thinking in terms of decades not centuries. Then he said, ‘I believe solar will be more economic than fossil fuels.’

This cannot have been comforting listening for oil industry moguls already disturbed by the accelerating momentum of the global divestment campaign. Just how disturbed they have become is clear from the report that Shell, BP, Statoil and Eni are about to announce the formation of new industry body. Its purpose will be to get the industry speaking the same language.

This follows a series of speeches from oil industry leaders around the world on the theme of getting their voice ‘heard by members of government, by civil society and the general public. The idea that their voice is not already being heard, loud, clear and often, by governments is laughable. So what can they possibly mean? A seam of doubt is starting to run through the industry’s innermost councils. They have always deeply believed that governments would promise much and deliver little on climate change. Now they are beginning to wonder. They have also believed deeply in their dominance of energy markets. That belief, too, now looks under threat.

Governments are fickle friends at the best of times. The early politics of climate change were driven by scientific knowledge. By 1992 governments at the Earth Summit in Rio agreed there was a problem. Then they quickly put off taking effective action. By 2008 action was unavoidable. Something really would have to be done. The two degree ‘threshold’ of danger was accepted by global leaders.

At Copenhagen politicians looked closely for the first time at what avoiding danger would mean for their economies. They balked again. By this time the dry analyses of science had been given dramatic political life by validating events. Most people in most countries now believe that human beings are changing the climate.

Experience has now replaced knowledge as the primary political driver of climate action. As Harold Macmillan replied when asked what he feared most, ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Or, as we might say in these more vernacular times, ‘Stuff happens’. ‘Stuff’ is now happening to the climate.

Politicians are skilled at ducking the facts. Events are more difficult. It is just beginning to occur to oil industry leaders that governments may do more than they expected. Not enough to solve the problem, perhaps, but a lot more than would be comfortable for them.

Furthermore, other voices are beginning to compete for the ear of government. Unilever’s Paul Polman told a recent conference that extreme weather had already pushed up his costs by £316 million. The dominant business voice in the climate debate, however, remains that of the fossil fuels industries and their customers.

This leaves governments facing a choice between today’s winners (oil companies) or tomorrow’s possible winners ( renewables and efficiency). For governments this is a no brainer. You back today’s winners. Polman’s intervention implies that this comfortable asymmetry may come to an end.

The real costs of climate change are already falling on tens of thousands of businesses around the world. But they are not being captured. The high level aggregates used by economists to estimate these costs conceal more than they reveal. They significantly underestimate the impact of a changing climate on business. As global temperature climbs inexorably beyond 1°C towards 2°C over the next decade these other business voices will grow louder.

This will present governments with a different political equation. The choice will be today’s losers (the non-fossil businesses) plus tomorrow’s possible winners or today’s winners. This equation does not resolve so favourably for the oil industry. In any case, they may not be winners for as long as they think.

Tomorrow’s winners are becoming today’s winners far more rapidly than anyone forecast. Deutsche Bank recently published a report on solar pointing out that it is now at grid parity in more than 50% of countries. They are not alone. Citi has announced the establishment of a $100 billion fund to invest in renewables. The fossil fuel consultancy, Wood McKenzie pointed out that solar farms were already displacing gas-fired generation in the US. Renewables compete directly with gas putting the oil companies’ balance sheets under further stress.

Climate events on the one hand and accelerating deployment of renewables on the other now threaten the political support the industry has assumed. Governments will not abandon the oil industry. They rely too much on it for taxes and dividends. But the industry fears they will bend too far. The point of raising their public voice is not to tell governments things they already know. Its real purpose is to muddy the waters of public debate to reduce the danger that governments will act soon enough to keep the climate safe.


Tom Burke

May 25th 2015




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