The best green economy speech I ever heard

James Murray recalls a memorable trip to Finland that posed the question, what does the fossil fuel industry have in common with America’s 19th century whalers

23 Nov 2012, 00:05

It will be three years ago this winter that I heard the best speech on the green economy that I have ever heard.

It lasted no more than four minutes and provided the most exquisite riposte to the tired arguments about the unacceptable costs of transitioning to a low carbon economy. It came from the unlikeliest of sources and posited a case for the green economy that has become ever more important in recent months, as studies warning about climate impacts have metastasised and the voices of vested interests desperate to protect the status quo have grown ever louder. I can't count the number of times I have wished I had the eloquence and the confidence to deliver a similarly devastating speech. This is how it happened.

I was in Helsinki as part of Foreign Office initiative to promote the UK's Climate Change Act overseas and had been tasked with providing a perspective on why many British businesses supported the legislation and its binding emission reduction targets.

The presentations from myself, the man from the Foreign Office, and one of the UK's leading climate scientists went pretty well and the floor was then opened up to questions from the 100 or so Finnish civil servants and business leaders in attendance. The discussion started off broadly positive, but in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has attended debates on the green economy it quickly drifted towards concerns about the cost and viability of meeting the Climate Change Act's targets and genuinely transitioning to the low carbon economy.

One executive in particular – I think I'm right in saying he worked for Finland's sizable paper mill industry – repeatedly trotted out all the legitimate yet short-sighted arguments levelled against climate change policy the world over. "We have to mindful of the cost," he argued. "How will we compete with overseas competitors?" he asked. "Of course, we need to tackle climate change," he maintained, "but we can't be too ambitious about it, we can't take too many risks."

It was at the point this litany of complaints reached its apex that a man in the front row seized the microphone and stood up. "I've been listening to this debate quietly, but that's it, I've heard enough," he said – he actually said that, "I've heard enough". He was a big man, who clearly spent a lot of time in the gym and he immediately commanded the room. It was the US ambassador, Bruce J. Oreck.

A lawyer by training and apparently a former body-building champion, Oreck is the head of the US League of Green Embassies and is one of the most powerful advocates of climate change action within the US State Department – those arguing for a watering down of green ambitions stood no chance.

It is almost three years ago so I cannot remember Oreck's diatribe verbatim, but I'm pretty sure it started along the lines of "with all due respect sir, you do not know what you are talking about".

"Do you know what the largest employer on the eastern seaboard of America was in 1850?" he asked the room, to be greeted by the inevitable silence. "It was whaling."

He went on to explain how New Bedford was once the world's biggest boom town, how whaling was one of America's largest industries, and how tens of thousands of people made their fortunes from the whale oils, blubber, and bones they bought ashore. And then, how within 20 years, it was all virtually gone.

There are actually a variety of reasons why America's whaling industry collapsed to do with rising costs and a dwindling of supply as whales were hunted to near extinction, but the main cause was remarkably simple – businesses invented something better. As Oreck explained, the gas street lamps that began to emerge just as the industry peaked in the 1850s and the electric bulbs that followed a few decades later eviscerated the demand for whale oil just as surely as Massachusetts' whalers eviscerated the whales. Add in the growing difficulty of catching over-hunted whales and the development of a host of synthetic materials to replace various whale products and the industry was completely dead within 50 years.

As if the parallels with today's carbon intensive industries weren't already explicit enough, Oreck spelt them out. "If you don't adapt, your business is going to die," he told the hapless man from the paper sector, or words to that effect. "You don't have a choice. Right now, new and better and cleaner technologies are being developed all around the world and they are going to blow you out the water."

And that was it. It only lasted a few minutes and it only made one point – that the emergence of better technologies has always killed off incumbent industries that are unable to adapt to new realities – but it was one of the most effective speeches on the green economy I have ever heard, and definitely the most effective take down of the tired arguments protecting the carbon intensive status quo I've ever come across. What's more it didn't even have to mention climate change, although the climate side of the argument came later in the day, when Oreck admitted the research the State Department and CIA were doing on climate risks was little short of terrifying.

It is also an argument that has become ever more important as a number of carbon intensive industries and interests have responded to the opportunity presented by a global economic slowdown to argue ever louder about the cost of climate change action.

Of course, at a micro level they have a case, there are serious problems with energy costs, carbon leakage, and the still immature nature of some clean technologies. Clever policies are still needed to overcome these challenges and ensure the shift to a greener economy is achieved in a managed fashion, without the societal and economic damage that otherwise comes with the rapid collapse of established industries and the bursting of financial bubbles associated with overvalued assets.

But at the macro level, as the latest reports of grave climate impacts have proven, the green economic transition is inevitable. There is the mounting evidence emerging clean technologies are not just reducing carbon emissions, they are also outperforming and under-cutting carbon-intensive incumbent technologies. High carbon businesses can either accept this reality and join the low carbon transition or find that within a few decades they have more in common with America's whalers than a casual disregard for the natural world.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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