Last October, The Guardian published a blockbuster article on “the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions,” including giants like Saudi Aramco, Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP. The data had been compiled by Richard Heede, whom The Guardian called “the world’s leading authority on big oil’s role in the escalating climate emergency.” Reading the article, I felt a burst of irrational pride. Richard Heede, or Rick, as I’ve always known him, has been my friend since the early 1970s, when we went to the same high school in Connecticut. Co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute, a tiny think tank, Rick has attracted widespread attention for his research on carbon extraction and emissions. “Working alone, with uncertain funding,” Science reported in 2016, Heede has “spent years piecing together the annual production of every major fossil fuel company since the Industrial Revolution and converting it to carbon emissions.” Rick’s research has been crucial to efforts by Greenpeace and other groups to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable for their actions. His fans include other scholar-activists, like climatologist Michael Mann and historian of science Naomi Oreskes. My old pal recently answered a few questions about climate change, the pandemic and other issues. – John Horgan

Horgan: Were you green as a kid?

Heede: More blue than green: always in search of water, whether liquid, or gas, or solid: on the ocean, exploring the bays and rocky coast of the islands in southern Norway with my wooden rowboat, swimming in chilly water, and skiing into the quiet forest. A deep awe of the natural world fostered my sense of stewardship.

Horgan: When did you first start taking global warming seriously?

Heede: From my first undergraduate encounters with early thinking on climate change (Matthews et al. 1971) in the mid-1970s while I was canvassing humanity’s most intractable threats. This crystallized into a focus on climate variability and human impacts in my graduate work under Gilbert White, Will Kellogg, Mickey Glantz, and Roger Barry. In my thesis I quantified and mapped the global geography of recoverable fossil fuel resources, in which I concluded that 4,000 gigatons of recoverable carbon far exceeded the remaining carbon budget under CO2-doubling (Heede 1983). This meant that humanity had to manage the production and use of fossil fuels. Given the political and economic power of the oil and gas and coal industries and the public clamor for cheap fuel steered me to seek out Amory Lovins’s radically sensible ideas on least-cost ways to provide energy services rather than commodities — people want hot showers and cold beer, not lumps of coal or gooey oil, he used to say — as a path to solving the climate problem (Lovins et al. 1982; Lovins 2018). At Rocky Mountain Institute from 1984 to 2002 I quantified Federal subsidies to the US energy sector (which perversely favored fossil fuels and nuclear power (Heede & Lovins 1985)), studied energy efficiency in buildings and office equipment, investigated strategic materials, wrote a book on home energy savings (Heede 1995), co-authored a cost-effective plan to reduce a liberal arts college’s emissions to net zero (Heede & Swisher 2002), and wrote a brief on saving carbon in the home (Heede 2002).

Only later did I pivot to the oil and gas and coal companies and their contributions to climate destabilization.

Horgan: How did you become a “carbon accountant”?

Heede: I have always appreciated Peter Drucker’s maxim that “what’s measured improves.” I started a consultancy in 2003 to measure emissions of greenhouse gases for municipalities, corporations, government agencies, and environmental organizations. My Climate Mitigation Services (a sole practice) quantified emissions attributable to communities, supply chains, oil and gas production, carbon production on Federal lands, liquified natural gas (LNG) supply chains (helping to derail BHP’s proposed Cabrillo LNG terminal off Los Angeles; Heede 2008), package delivery, aviation, shipping, industrial facilities, households, and everyday activities — “from grams to gigatonnes” — in order to prioritize options for reducing emissions. I also did a carbon inventory of the energy portfolios of the Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corp., quasi-public agencies of the U.S. government, on behalf of NGOs (Heede 2004).

Then a friend in London called me up in 2003 and asked me to research the emissions attributable to a single fossil fuel company over its history. We chose John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co., documented the company’s production of crude oil, natural gas, and coal over its history from 1882 through its dissolution in a 1913 Supreme Court antitrust ruling to its recombination as ExxonMobil in 2002. I developed a model to quantify emissions from fossil fuel production (deducting net non-energy uses, accounting for the carbon content of various fuels and ranks of coal), and estimated emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from its operations and, more importantly, from its extraction, refining, and marketing of its carbon fuel products to global consumers using the fuels as intended. Friends of the Earth published a report of our findings (FOE 2004). In 2005 I was commissioned to expand the dataset to cover the historical emissions attributed to over one hundred oil, gas, coal, and cement producers from as early as 1864 to 2018 (Heede 2014; Taylor & Watts 2019). This database underpins scientific analyses of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration, radiative forcing, surface temperature, and sea level rise attributable to each of these globally dominant companies responsible, in aggregate, for 70% of all fossil fuel and cement emissions since 1750 (Ekwurzel et al. 2017). Colleagues and I have modeled the impact of these fossil fuel companies on acidification of the oceans (Licker et al. 2019). The legal community has taken notice, and most of the lawsuits and human rights investigations of oil, gas, and coal companies regarding their impact on climate and damages rely on our peer-reviewed results (Hasemyer 2019).

Horgan: What’s the best application of your research?

Heede: That depends on who is asking. If it’s an oil and gas company, our data can be used to gauge the company’s cumulative impact on carbon dioxide emissions and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and methane, or to evaluate precautionary strategies for protecting its brand reputation and to shore up its vulnerable social license to operate by aligning future production with the Paris Agreement. A climate analyst can use the data to model the sea level rise attributable to the historical emissions of several top fossil fuel companies. A climate diplomat can use the data to negotiate a Loss and Damage agreement that calls for contributions from fossil fuel companies, whereas international lawyers may use the results in establishing an Atmospheric Recovery Trust Fund (Wood & Galpern 2015). Human rights investigators can identify the companies that have contributed the lion’s share of anthropogenic emissions (Amnesty International 2019). A philosopher or an historian may look to the data in weighing responsibility for climate change between carbon producers, consumers, and nations, and a geographer might chart coastal land submergence attributable to oil producers (Shue 2017; Frumhoff et al. 2015). Economists might use the results as a basis for calculating the financial damages attributable to leading fossil fuel companies, whereas an attorney will use the data in formulating a strategy for litigation against carbon producers. In fact, most of these issues are already being explored. 

Fossil fuel producers are betting their companies if they fail to exercise duty of care with respect to the climatic and societal consequences of extracting and marketing carbon fuels.

Horgan: Critics in the fossil-fuel industry have accused you of bias. What’s your response? Can you be a researcher and activist?

Heede: Industry and trade associations accuse me of bias in order to deflect from the notion of their culpability (Walrath 2019). I am opinionated, I work openly on corporate accountability, my positions are well known, and my publications are all publicly available. At the same time, I practice sound science, and I clearly state my assumptions, methodology, and caveats. My research is robust and the model has been thoroughly peer-reviewed. The data is chiefly based on companies’ self-reported annual production of fossil fuels, as required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission since 1934.

The fossil-fuel interests and their paid supporters can impugn my motives, but they fail to discredit my scientific integrity. None of the companies, industry trade associations (such as the National Association of Manufacturers (Manufacturers' Accountability Project 2020), or the Independent Petroleum Association of America), conservative bloggers, the House Science, Space & Technology Committee (which subpoenaed my communications in 2016), or oil company defense lawyers have challenged my results other than by innuendo or by documenting that the Climate Accountability Institute receives funding from foundations. 

Industry critics accuse me of being motivated to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for costly climate impacts of their carbon fuel products and for my position to eliminate market-distorting subsidies to fossil fuel companies (Heede 2019). I also support internalizing climate costs by putting a price on carbon in a gradual and predictable carbon taxation scheme.

Understand that the fossil fuel industry is at a crossroads: demand is falling sharply, there is rising pressure to reduce global emissions to net zero by mid-century, oil, gas, and coal companies have a vital part to play (or face pressure on their social license to operate), and there is a rising threat of successful litigation for climate damages. 

The industry (particularly US oil and gas companies and trade associations) failed the country by ignoring the foreseeable and foreseen impacts of their carbon products, which the industry has been aware of for decades (Franta 2018; CIEL 2017; ICN 2015), with lobbying for legislative and regulatory relief to perpetuate the use of carbon fuels (Brulle 2018), and by misinforming citizens and lawmakers about climate science (Supran & Oreskes 2017; Oreskes & Conway 2010).

A sound global decarbonization plan must include the participation of the oil & gas and coal companies — both investor-owned and state-owned — and other corporate contributors to global emissions, such as forest products companies, cement manufacturers, agricultural interests, and the animal and meat industry. Successful companies will chart a course that aligns with the Paris Agreement, and I support such efforts.

Horgan: Environmental writer Michael Shellenberger claims that some climate-change activists—like Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg--are excessively “apocalyptic.” What do you think?

Heede: Broadly speaking there is no need to fault activists for ringing the alarm, loudly. We have ignored climate change for decades, concerned citizens and activists have been ridiculed, scientists have been harassed, and sensible politicians have been railroaded out of office — all for urging rational action to reduce climate-altering emissions. 

Should activists parse their language? Yes; exaggeration is not useful: there is plenty to be concerned about that is real and present. We glibly speak of “stopping global warming” when that train left the station decades ago. When it comes to prognosticating what might happen, some commentators get, shall we say, too animated. There is no scientific basis for arguing that humanity is facing extinction. But extinction of life as we know it — cultural changes, reduced agricultural productivity, malnutrition and starvation, crippling loss of biodiversity (Trisos et al. 2020), migration of peoples and species, droughts, increased flooding, loss of natural capital, deadly extreme weather, unstoppable sea level rise, threatened cities, submerged island states, shrinking winters, deglobalization of trade, and the rise of insufferable populists — are all likely. Lots of developments alter life as we know it — smartphones, novel viruses, scientifically illiterate Presidents — yet we adapt.

Horgan: What do you do to reduce your carbon footprint? What should the rest of us do? Should we give up eating meat?

Heede: I work at home, eliminating a typical commuter’s carbon emissions, I eat lower on the food chain (though not a vegetarian), I chase down energy-wasteful behavior, minimize hot water use, and buy wind power from my electric utility. I am allergic to consumerism, but I enjoy good food, travel, and interesting experiences. I designed and built a passive solar rammed-earth home high in the Rocky Mountains that emits three-quarters less carbon per square foot than my neighbors (solar orientation, efficient appliances, gas-filled low-e windows, super insulation, and other off-the-shelf techniques). The passive solar design is backed up with in-floor propane heating when needed. I hop on the bus when going skiing. I fly a lot, which is my most carbon-intensive activity, and I drive a gas-powered car (though <5,000 km/yr). My retirement funds are chiefly invested in technology and I avoid carbon-intensive companies. In my writings I urge individuals to do their part to reduce emissions at home and in their daily activities, but the climate crisis requires government and corporate action and deep structural change, as well as accelerated international climate diplomacy. I also believe that well-educated wealthy elites have a moral responsibility to lead with personal action to measure and reduce their emissions, many of whom have two or more estates, a personal jet or two, perhaps a helicopter for short hops, a yacht, and a host of carbon-intensive habits and widgets. Such carbon profligacy begs for climate mitigation (Chakravarty et al. 2009). Lest I forget: I vote for climate-literate candidates.

Climate saintliness is not required; climate sanity will do. We need to walk our talk (Foley 2020).

Horgan: If you were the U.S. Environment Czar, what policies would you recommend? Would you push for more nuclear energy?

Horgan: I possess none of the skills required for this job. A few guiding principles and opinions: governments should steer, not row, not choose favorites; markets should be fair; corporate welfare should be minimized; wealthy individuals who have accumulated the lion’s share of economic gains from tax reform should pay higher taxes (and higher rates for carbon emissions above a per capita average — though I have no idea how this can be equitably accomplished). Carbon production and emissions should be taxed. Energy subsidies should not distort a level playing field and should preferably be eliminated. A moratorium on fossil fuel leasing on Federal lands on- and offshore should be passed. Opportunities to absorb carbon from the atmosphere with a focus on building soil carbon in forests and agriculture and other means of drawing down carbon should be promoted (Hawken 2017), although a well-regulated and rising cost on carbon will foster appropriate solutions.

I am convinced that “solving” the climate crisis can be profitable, restore jobs, and avoid deep climate mayhem. It must be led by competent politicians and progressive industry leaders. 

With respect to nuclear power as a climate solution, let me point out that it is far cheaper, safer, and without the proliferation risk to invest in saving carbon and in renewables and innovative technology than in nuclear power. If modular reactors can be proven safe and cost-effective, then I’ll support their deployment. Meanwhile, let’s unleash the market on safe and cost-effective solutions rather than throw subsidies at another capital-intensive energy technology that our children have to clean up.

Horgan: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will affect efforts to curb carbon emissions?

Heede: Global demand for transportation fuels is in a nosedive, and daily carbon emissions have declined by 17% compared to a year ago, ~half from surface transportation (Le Quéré et al. 2020). Global trade and capital flows will diminish. Working from home and video conferencing will endure and will reduce fuel used for commuting and air travel for meetings and conferences. Commercial energy demand will contract as more employees work from home. A rebound is inevitable but may not recover previous levels. Smart policy in rebuilding the global economy based on energy efficiency, innovation, and new technology will assure continued decline in greenhouse gas emissions in every sector.

It’s evident that anti-scientific policymaking and lackadaisical preparedness by the Trump administration exacerbated the infection and mortality rates of this pandemic. It is also clear that a similar anti-science position with respect to climate policies is hazardous to our welfare. We can, as Kim Stanley Robinson suggests, flatten the coronavirus and the carbon curve if we get off the “multigenerational Ponzi scheme” of exhausting the planet (Robinson 2020). Clearly, there are ways to leverage responses to COVID-19 that also benefit the climate recovery agenda (Rosenbloom & Markand 2020). That said, dealing with climate change challenges the power of a trillion-dollar interests seeking what Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay” by blocking needed change (Westervelt 2020).

Horgan: I wrote recently that the pandemic might push us leftward. What do you think?

Heede: The anti-science attitude of the administration and its sycophants, its defunding of sensible programs to protect the American public, and its cynical sundering of our international programs and leadership will put Mr. Trump’s depravity on display in this year’s presidential and congressional elections.

I agree with Naomi Klein that the pandemic “is laying bare the extreme injustices and inequalities of our economic and social system.”

Horgan: I’ve been veering back and forth between optimism and pessimism lately. How are you feeling about the future?

Heede: I am an optimist by choice. We have tremendous capacity for resolving serious issues once we address them head on with truthfulness and commitment. American drive and ingenuity put a man on the moon “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” We are innovative, we are capable, and we are fundamentally moral beings. We aspire to create a better world. We have not, however, faced the climate crisis squarely, and we have not yet built public awareness and support for action on climate change. Political leaders have filled the void with lies and delays, with subsidies and regulatory easing, with false choices, and with vacuous support for Big Oil and Big Coal over climate stewardship. It is time for America to rise to the challenge after decades of dithering.

Horgan: What’s your utopia?

Heede: That’s easy: a world in which the invisible heart rather than the invisible hand of the market place motivates thought and behavior with compassion for all humanity and our common future on our precious planet.


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