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16 March 2024

Optimism & Change: Sexuality, Climate & Engineering.

Tag(s): History, Languages & Culture, Technology, Current Affairs
I recently attended the Tacitus Lecture, a large-scale event organised by the Worshipful Company of World Traders and held in the Guildhall. This was the 37th iteration of this event and the speaker was the very distinguished former Group Chief Executive of BP, John Browne, now the Lord Browne of Madingley. Working across the energy sector for nearly five decades, John Brown has had a prolific career, bridging the gap between science and technology, and investment and infrastructure. Browne joined BP in 1966, becoming the company's Group Chief Executive in 1995, During his 12-year tenure, Browne led the energy giant through a period of significant growth and transformation, shaping how BP - and the industry - addressed climate change.

In July 2021, Lord Brown founded Beyond Net Zero, a climate growth equity venture established in partnership with General Atlantic. The organisation combines General Atlantic's global platform with leaders and advisors across financial, Industrial and climate sectors, with the aim to support high-growth businesses that have the potential to combat climate change at scale.

The John Brown Charitable Trust (JBCT) supports causes associated with Lord Browne's life as an engineer, businessman, patron of the arts, and son of a Holocaust survivor. Over the last two decades, the JBCT has distributed more than £3 million in funds, including to the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Royal Academy of Engineering, just like us, Stanford Business School, paintings in hospitals, and the Royal Opera House.

Lord Browne is currently Chairman of maritime predictive intelligence company, Windward, and chairman of Spark Cognition, an AI tech company. He is also chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the Francis Crick Institute, and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Browne was knighted in 1998 and made a life peer in 2001. From 2010 to 2015 he served as the UK government's lead Non-Executive Director.

Lord Browne opened his lecture by telling us about his mother Paula who had survived Auschwitz. This experience had taught her that nothing good comes from being pessimistic. Instead you needed to always believe that the best is yet to come. She had instilled this philosophy in him so strongly that he had indeed adopted an optimistic attitude throughout his life. However, he fully recognised that for many people the world is getting much worse with great uncertainty. The experience of the pandemic, increasing military conflicts, the threats of climate change, the rise of populism, the cost of living crisis, and perhaps other issues on a local level.

The antidote to these problems is effective policies. But populism and the media have derailed these policies. An all-prevailing mood seems to be that we are in chaos at this time. Browne referred to the Swedish Doctor and renowned public educator Hans Rosling, who wrote a marvellous book called Factfulness that shows the degree to which humanity has progressed, but also that the majority of people do not recognise this because of bias and misinformation. I blogged about this book just over a year ago and I rate it as one of the best books I have ever read.[i]

The three subjects that Lord Browne wanted to cover in his lecture are in the title: Sexuality, Climate and Engineering. He actually took them in reverse of that order, starting with engineering. As an engineer he wanted to look at the pace of change. He also wanted to question whether the climate Inferno is too great for us to deal with. And as an openly gay man he wanted to question whether diversity has gone too far.

John Browne was born in 1948. Since then Flu vaccines have been discovered that have largely eradicated the mortality of the disease. In 1990 one in ten would die of it. That is now down to one in 25. The average life expectancy has increased by 25 years since 1950. 75 years ago, more than 50% of the world lived in extreme poverty. That is now down to just one in 10. Literacy has risen hugely across the world up to 86%. And Lord Browne attributes these successes to the contribution made by engineers. Science and Engineering can solve many of the problems we face. As an example many famous people who succeeded in changing attitudes for the better like Martin Luther King needed engineering in order to get their message across through microphones and radio and later television and now the Internet. Lord Browne is excited about the promise of Artificial Intelligence. We need new forms of energy. And we must not slow the pace of innovation. The precautionary principle is not the answer.

But it's not the invention itself that matters, but how it’s used. It's been established by historians over centuries that good men employ these innovations well.  Not so good men use them badly. And closer to his own home, fossil fuels have been responsible for great progress, but ironically, using them has damaged the planet and its climate.

This links to his second theme, that of climate. He is clear that climate change is now an undisputed fact. But back in 1997 he was invited to speak at Stanford University in California, and with his team at BP, he decided that this was an opportunity for him to be the first leader of the fossil fuel industry to show awareness of the problem with greenhouse gases and climate. Because the significance of this event was that he was the first leader of a major fossil fuel company to say this, but certainly not the first leader to say it. Margaret Thatcher had been saying it during her time as Prime Minister several years before. However, John Browne’s speech was very badly received by his industrial colleagues.

Even Pope Francis has stated that civilisation needs energy, but that energy must not destroy civilisation. To measure global warming, for Lord Browne the most important measurement is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. That is now 15% higher than it was when he made his groundbreaking speech in 1997. And of recent years, ten of them have been the warmest on record. But with his optimistic frame of mind, Lord Browne stated that solar energy costs have come down by 50%, wind power by 60% and batteries by 85%. Some technologies are ready to transfer to renewables. Others are immature but should still be given a chance.

For Lord Browne, the direction of travel is on course, but the pace of that travel is too slow. It needs a radical plan, and that might involve geoengineering. That cannot come without risk. Investment at a colossal level is required if we're going to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2°. It has been calculated that there will need to be a spend of $3.5 trillion per year for each of the next 10 years for this to be achieved.[ii] But it also needs a selective approach to have the greatest impact. This requires both innovative engineering and finance, such as a carbon price. But he does acknowledge there are global issues as well. In Europe, some progress is being made. However, countries like China, India and Brazil, three of the largest by population in the world, are resisting such change. China continues to build coal power stations. It is essential that we find sources of clean energy. And some of these countries like Brazil, for example, are actually very good locations with their forests for carbon sinks. A global financial ecosystem is required that should not be regarded as charity but investment. As it is only by working together all over the world that these problems can genuinely be solved.

Lord Browne is now an openly gay man but for many years he lived in fear of coming out. He believes that genuinely open and inclusive societies boom because if all people are treated fairly and equally then the best will contribute what they can regardless of their sex, gender etc. He learned from his mother to be optimistic when the going gets tough. But he also learnt from her that if you have a secret but tell it to one other person then it is no longer a secret. And so it proved in 2007 when he was outed. He resigned as Group Chief Executive of BP as a direct result.

He thinks there has been good progress in the UK in the legislative sense. Homosexuality is now legal and so are same sex marriages. But legislative reform is not the same as a general change in attitude and that is still required.

The World Bank has calculated that prejudice in India costs them $32 billion of GDP every year. Innovative companies have more engagement and generate higher returns which can represent an additional 2% on equity, a huge difference. Large institutions must work harder. The LGBT community lack role models.  Only 4 of Fortune 500 leaders are openly gay. Lord Browne thinks the true figure should be more like 25-30. Some are either in the closet or there is discrimination and some are probably opting out.

Lord Browne admits that leaving BP was his lowest point but since then he has remained an optimist. He is clear that discrimination of any kind is an enemy of progress whether it is against women, the LGBT community, Jews, Muslims, people of colour or any other minority. If we deal with this we will create a greater talent pool and we will all benefit.

[i] Factfulness 25th February, 2023
[ii] If we assume a global population of 8 billion then by my calculations this is $4,375 per person per year which seems a very tall order.

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