Posted on

Oil Industry Expresses Concern, Not Alarm, About Biden Comments

HOUSTON — Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s promise that he would “transition” the country away from oil and natural gas might hurt him politically in Texas and Pennsylvania, but it did not come as a surprise to many in the energy industry.

Oil and gas executives have been keenly aware that the world is starting to move from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, although they strongly argue that their industry will continue to provide cheap and plentiful energy for decades to come. And several of them said on Friday that while they did not like Mr. Biden’s comments, they were not alarmed by them, either.

What ultimately matters to the industry is not whether there would be an energy transition, but how rapid it would be and whether companies would be allowed to exploit oil and gas reserves by offsetting their environmental impact by capturing and storing greenhouse gas emissions.

Large European oil companies are embracing the change that Mr. Biden called for as concerns over climate change grow and investors begin to shun fossil-fuel businesses. For example, BP has announced that over the next decade it will shrink its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase investments of renewables tenfold, to $5 billion a year.

But the U.S. oil industry, which has donated much more to President Trump’s campaign than to Mr. Biden’s, has been more reluctant to change its business models.

Executives note that natural gas is rapidly replacing coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Gas also complements renewables by providing power when the sun does not shine and the wind is still. Some energy executives have even endorsed levying a tax on the emissions that are causing climate change, arguing that it would create incentives for carbon capture and storage, which would reduce emissions.

“There needs to be a large workhorse, and ultimately that is what we are,” said George Stark, director of external affairs for Cabot Oil and Gas, which has extensive natural gas operations in Pennsylvania. “We complement wind and solar. You need something that can run on an ongoing basis.”

Keep up with Election 2020

Mr. Stark, like others in the industry, said he found Mr. Biden’s comments concerning, but stopped short of criticizing the former vice president harshly. “The opportunity will be there for a greener dialogue that has to take place regarding this whole notion of a transition,” he said.

In Thursday’s debate, Mr. Biden said he would seek to replace fossil fuels with renewables “over time,” noting that the oil industry “pollutes significantly.”

But he had previously said he was against ending hydraulic fracturing of shale fields, a common practice in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio. And some oil and gas executives said they liked parts of an energy plan that Mr. Biden put out this summer.

After the debate, Mr. Biden sought to clarify his remarks by saying fossil fuels would not be eliminated until 2050. In remarks that seemed designed to appeal to Democratic progressives and working-class voters who rely on fossil fuel jobs, he added that he wanted to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

“Of course we were disappointed in the vice president’s comments,” Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s leading lobbying group in Washington, said in an interview. “You can’t just snap your fingers and get to a place where you are suddenly no longer using natural gas.’’

But Mr. Sommers also noted that Mr. Biden had expressed enough ambiguity that a rapid change in oil and gas shale fields was not likely.

The timing of the transition is hard to pin down, in part because the energy industry has been undergoing rapid change in recent years. The United States was importing increasing amounts of oil and natural gas just 15 years ago when suddenly hydraulic fracturing produced a glut of both fuels and made the United States a large exporter.

Now electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, and the costs of wind and solar power are dropping rapidly. Coal, which was the dominant power fuel at the beginning of the century, is in deep decline, losing out to natural gas and renewables.

“The fact that oil and gas are 70 percent of the world’s energy means that you can’t change that on a dime,” said Jon Olson, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin. “If we don’t manage the transition really well, we could end up with energy shortages and all kinds of disasters.”

That still leaves the enduring politics of oil and gas in places, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, that the Democrats would like to win but where tens of thousands of jobs are directly or indirectly linked to fossil fuel production or processing. One plant, being built by Royal Dutch Shell in Western Pennsylvania to produce plastics from a natural gas byproduct, is providing construction jobs for thousands of workers.

After watching the debate, Mike Belding, chairman of the Greene County Commission in Western Pennsylvania, said he was concerned about the economic consequences of a Biden presidency.

“Regionally, coal, natural gas and oil have been an economic and work force-driving industry over the past century,” he said in an email. “Newly developed technology, like fracking and cracker plant operations, have great potential to drive our economies for the next century.”

But the growth of oil and gas exploration in recent years has also angered some voters in Pennsylvania, who said it had not been an economic boon to many residents and criticized the industry’s environmental record.

“We’ve been transitioning, and let’s keep transitioning,” said Lois Bower-Bjornson, a resident of Washington County in Southwestern Pennsylvania and a field organizer for the Clean Air Council, an environmental group. “It’s a question of economics. They’ve produced too much gas and have nowhere to put it.”

Peter Eavis contributed reporting.

Posted on

Calamities Challenge California’s Economic Foundation

SAN FRANCISCO — Businesses shuttered by the pandemic are slowly reopening, but technology complexes are quiet, their workers carrying on from home indefinitely. The smoke-filled skies had started to clear, but new fires have arrived in a fierce wildfire season that shows the intensifying effects of climate change.

Now California and its $3 trillion economy are confronting a profound question: How much will go back to normal, and how much has been permanently changed?

This is still the home of 40 million people, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the country’s largest farming industry and port complex. In August, amid the pandemic, Apple became a $2 trillion company, just two years after hitting $1 trillion.

But the message from the recent calamities is clear. If California is to continue leading the nation’s economy deep into the future, its leaders and residents will have to rethink where and how the state grows.

For decades, California has operated under a trade-off: In exchange for high taxes and a high cost of living, its companies reap the rewards of an educated populace, an inviting lifestyle and a culture of innovation.

The events of 2020 have forced a closer look at the calculus. While the state is now recovering from the coronavirus, an assessment from the U.C.L.A. Anderson Forecast predicts it will be at least two years before the economy has fully recovered. Mirroring the national economy, office vacancies are rising, small businesses are teetering and temporary layoffs are being made permanent.

Superficially, the forecasts for California are no better or worse than the nation, with some sectors, like tourism, badly hurt, and others, like technology, barely touched. But between climate change and remote work, the state is facing questions that uniquely cut to the core of its economic identity.

In the case of the pandemic, companies may increasingly ask whether the high cost of California cities is worth it if their workers can work remotely with the same productivity. Some companies may choose to leave the state altogether. And the spate of wildfires has brought new scrutiny to the spread-out development patterns that have accommodated an expanding population — and pushed people to cheaper inland areas most exposed to fire.

“These have long been questions that have been in the back of people’s minds, but now there’s an actual drill,” said Ted Egan, chief economist for the City of San Francisco.

Companies have long moved sales and customer-service jobs to cheaper cities like Phoenix. But they have been more reluctant to do so in areas like software engineering and management, figuring that proximity to the talent, research universities and venture capital in the tech epicenter outweighed the higher cost of labor.

Even before the pandemic, there were indications that that was starting to shift. Silicon Valley companies were increasingly putting jobs in engineering hubs in cities like Austin, Texas, and Toronto. Now they have an opportunity to run a remote-working experiment on a scale that wouldn’t have otherwise been tried.

Google and Facebook have said they will allow employees to work remotely until 2021. Stripe, a payments company, recently announced that it would pay employees $20,000 to leave the Bay Area if they accepted a salary reduction of up to 10 percent based on the cost of living wherever they went. Citing a shift toward more employees working from home, Pinterest, which allows people to save images to virtual pinboards, paid $90 million to cancel a lease for 500,000 square feet in an unbuilt office building in San Francisco.

Nobody knows how efficient large-scale remote work will be over time, or if such arrangements will be attractive once people feel safe on public transportation and urban amenities like bars and restaurants have reopened. But if workers untethered from their offices flee the state, or companies start basing more high-paid workers elsewhere, it will have huge ramifications for California’s outlook. The past decade of economic expansion was heavily indebted to the boom in technology, and the state’s budget, with its highly progressive tax structure, is unusually dependent on wealthier residents.

Despite the diversity of California’s vast economy, there is near-universal agreement on one barrier to growth: the exorbitant cost of housing. The median price for single-family homes and condos in the state is closing in on $600,000, according to the real estate site Zillow, more than twice the national level. The figure reflects a longstanding shortage that has also caused rising rents, crowded households and two-hour commutes used to offset the cost of living. Much more than taxes, the reason that companies move jobs out of the state is lower-priced housing and the lower labor costs that go with it.

“When you think of any economy in the long run, you need young, aggressive thoughtful folks who see an opportunity to build a life,” said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, a consulting firm in Los Angeles. “And if you continue to squelch young population growth with bad housing policy, those folks may well turn somewhere else.”

Economists and planners have long counseled that the best way to relieve this pressure is to build more housing near the coastal job centers, but California has continued to sprawl, a pattern that has undermined the state’s own emission-reduction goals by encouraging longer commutes, while placing more homes in fire zones. In 2010, the last year with available data, nearly a third of California housing was in the so-called wildland-urban interface, where wildfire risk is greatest, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“Climate change is here — this is not some far-off theoretical thing — and we build houses over a multi-decade time frame in which they are going to be standing in these areas well into the time when the impact on the climate will be much more severe,” said Kate Gordon, senior adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom on climate and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

“So there’s no question we have to think differently about how we grow in the future, with a focus on compact development in previously built-out areas and not taking over undeveloped land,” she added.

This would seem like an easy enough mandate. After all, California has invested heavily in renewable energy, was the first state to mandate solar power in new homes, and is run by a governor who has spoken of a “a climate damn emergency” and recently signed an executive order banning sales of new gas-powered cars in 15 years.

Yet there is ample indication that the politics of living with climate change are even more fraught than the politics of trying to prevent it. See, for instance, the debate over insurance rates in wildfire areas: California is trying to keep rates low in fire-prone areas, something voters want, even though many experts say states should let insurance rates rise in the long run to dissuade building in flood- and fire-prone areas that are increasingly vulnerable.

Or look at the state’s long-running debate over housing. Going back to 2017, the Legislature has begun each of the past few years with a flurry of bills intended to curb local zoning regulations and increase density by steering growth to existing areas — in other words, the same measures that climate experts say are crucial to tamp down wildfire risk. But despite a Democratic supermajority, the most ambitious bills have been undone by a strange-bedfellows coalition of tenant advocates worried about gentrification and suburban voters fearing neighborhood change.

“When it comes to making the massive changes necessary to adapt to warming temperatures, it’s really California against itself, and we’re going to need to make some major reforms if we want to survive this period,” said Micah Weinberg, chief executive of California Forward, a nonprofit group pushing to shape the state’s economic and government agenda.

Having a prosperous and growing economy ultimately means finding new ways to add jobs and homes. So California’s looming battles over climate change promise to be another round in a debate that predates statehood, which is how many people it really wants, and how much water will be required to sustain them.

Credit…Harold Postic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a season of perpetual fires and apocalyptic orange skies, and with home prices only continuing to rise, it seems open to question whether the state can get much bigger. But even in the age of climate change, some economists project that growth will find a way.

In a 2006 book, Robert Mendelsohn, an economics professor at Yale who focuses on the impact of climate change, sketched a surprisingly rosy picture of what the California economy might look like in 2100, assuming global temperatures rise 1.4 to 3.3 degrees Celsius. The state has 92 million residents. They live with less water, more heat waves and more forest fires. Still, somehow, there is a thriving economy.

There are small changes, like Northern California yards that in place of lush vegetation are decorated with rock lawns like those in Phoenix. There are bigger changes, like neighborhoods of fourplexes replacing single-family homes. Dr. Mendelsohn is aware that his vision of denser development probably sounds like hell to many Californians.

It even sounds a bit like hell to him, a professor who is nearing 70 and lives in a single-family home in Connecticut. “It might be hard for me to make that adjustment,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean a future generation couldn’t see something different.”

A world that is warmer, drier and more crowded may not be the world they asked for, but they’ll still be looking for jobs, while coping with the world as it is.

Posted on

U.S. and European Oil Giants Go Different Ways on Climate Change

HOUSTON — As oil prices plunge and concerns about climate change grow, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and other European energy companies are selling off oil fields, planning a sharp reduction in emissions and investing billions in renewable energy.

The American oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil are going in a far different direction. They are doubling down on oil and natural gas and investing what amounts to pocket change in innovative climate-oriented efforts like small nuclear power plants and devices that suck carbon out of the air.

The disparity reflects the vast differences in how Europe and the United States are approaching climate change, a global threat that many scientists say is increasing the frequency and severity of disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. European leaders have made tackling climate change a top priority while President Trump has called it a “hoax” and has dismantled environmental regulations to encourage the exploitation of fossil fuels.

As world leaders struggle to adopt coordinated and effective climate policies, the choices made by oil companies, with their deep pockets, science prowess, experience in managing big engineering projects and lobbying muscle may be critical. What they do could help determine whether the world can meet the goals of the Paris agreement to limit the increase of global temperatures to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels.

The big American and European oil and gas companies publicly agree that climate change is a threat and that they must play a role in the kind of energy transition the world last saw during the industrial revolution. But the urgency with which the companies are planning to transform their businesses could not be more different.

“Despite rising emissions and societal demand for climate action, U.S. oil majors are betting on a long-term future for oil and gas, while the European majors are gambling on a future as electricity providers,” said David Goldwyn, a top State Department energy official in the Obama administration. “The way the market reacts to their strategies and the 2020 election results will determine whether either strategy works.”

To environmentalists and even some Wall Street investors, the American oil giants are clearly making the wrong call. In August, for example, Storebrand Asset Management, Norway’s largest private money manager, divested from Exxon Mobil and Chevron. And Larry Fink, who leads the world’s largest investment manager, BlackRock, has called climate change “a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.”

European oil executives, by contrast, have said that the age of fossil fuels is dimming and that they are planning to leave many of their reserves buried forever. They also argue that they must protect their shareholders by preparing for a future in which governments enact tougher environmental policies.

BP is the standard-bearer for the hurry-up-and-change strategy. The company has announced that over the next decade it will increase investments in low-emission businesses tenfold, to $5 billion a year, while shrinking its oil and gas production by 40 percent. Royal Dutch Shell, Eni of Italy, Total of France, Repsol of Spain and Equinor of Norway have set similar targets. Several of those companies have cut their dividends to invest in new energy.

BP tried a transition in the late 1990s and early 2000s under the leadership of John Browne, then chief executive, but financial results from renewables were disappointing and the company eventually dropped its moniker “Beyond Petroleum.”

In an interview, Mr. Browne said this time would be different. “There are many more voices now,” he said, adding that the Paris agreement was a watershed, the economics of renewables have improved and investor pressure was building.

This month BP and Equinor announced a partnership to build and operate wind projects along the coasts of New York and Massachusetts. The governors of those states want to reduce their reliance on natural gas, which this effort will aid.

American oil executives say it would be folly for them to switch to renewables, arguing that it is a low-profit business that utilities and alternative energy companies can pursue more effectively. They say it is only a matter of time before oil and gas prices recover as the pandemic recedes.

Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

For now, Exxon and Chevron are sticking to what they know best, shale drilling in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, deepwater offshore production and trading natural gas. In fact, Chevron is acquiring a smaller oil company, Noble Energy, to increase its reserves.

“Our strategy is not to follow the Europeans,” said Daniel Droog, Chevron’s vice president for energy transition. “Our strategy is to decarbonize our existing assets in the most cost-effective way and consistently bring in new technology and new forms of energy. But we’re not asking our investors to sacrifice return or go forward with three decades of uncertainty on dividends.”

Chevron says it is increasing its own use of renewable energy to power its operations. It also says it is reducing emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And the company has invested more than $1.1 billion in various projects to capture and sequester carbon so it isn’t released into the atmosphere.

Its venture capital arm, Chevron Technology Ventures, is investing in new-energy start-ups like Zap Energy, which is developing modular fusion nuclear reactors that release no greenhouse gases and limit radioactive waste. Another, Carbon Engineering, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to convert into fuel.

All told, Chevron Technology Ventures has two funds with a total of $200 million, about 1 percent of the company’s capital and exploration budget last year. The company has a separate $100 million fund to support a $1 billion investment consortium that aims to reduce emissions across the oil and gas industry.

“We need breakthrough technology, and my job is to go find it,” said Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, which employs 60 of Chevron’s 44,000 employees. “The transition is not an 11:59-on-Tuesday event. It’s going to be gradual, and evolving and continual over decades.”

Exxon has also largely steered away from renewables and has instead invested in roughly one-third of the world’s limited carbon-capture capacity, which has been so expensive and energy intensive that few companies have been willing to underwrite large-scale projects.

It spends about $1 billion a year on research and development, much of which goes to developing new energy technologies and efficiency improvements that reduce emissions.

One project involves directing carbon emitted from industrial operations into a fuel cell that can generate power. That should reduce emissions while increasing energy production.

In a separate experiment, Exxon recently announced a “big advance” with scientists at University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for developing materials that help capture carbon dioxide from natural-gas power plants with less heating and cooling than previous methods.


Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

Credit…Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

The company is also working on strains of algae whose oils can produce biofuel for trucks and airplanes. The plants also absorb carbon through photosynthesis, which Exxon scientists are trying to speed up while producing more oil.

“Step 1, you have to do the science, and it is impossible to put a deadline on discovery,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s vice president for research and development.

Research into fusion, algae and carbon capture has been going on for decades, and many climate experts say those technologies could take decades more to commercialize. That’s why many scholars and environmentalists feel the American oil companies are not serious about tackling climate change.

“Oil companies don’t do things that put themselves out of business,” said David Keith, a Harvard professor of applied physics who founded Carbon Engineering. “That is not the way the world works.”

But some energy analysts argue that the American oil companies are right not to rush to change their businesses. They argue that U.S. lawmakers have simply not given them enough incentives to make a radical break.

“If this is the sunset time for oil and gas, someone forgot to tell consumers,” said Raoul LeBlanc, a vice president at IHS Markit, a research and consulting firm. He said while sales of electric cars may have picked up, it will take decades to replace the more than a billion internal-combustion cars on the road now.

It will probably take just as long, if not longer, to replace the large fleets of trucks, airplanes and ships that run on fossil fuels. There ought to be enough demand for oil over the next 30 to 40 years for Exxon and Chevron to exploit their reserves and make money, though the profits will decline over time, said Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist who studies energy policy.

“Investors can invest in Tesla or any renewable or electric company,” he said. “Why should an oil firm with the skills for large-scale hydrocarbon developments be able to compete against these new players?”

But Mr. Helm, who published the book “Burn Out: The End Game for Fossil Fuels” in 2017, said he believes that all oil companies have a dim future beyond the next few decades because technology advances will make them obsolete in a world economy dominated by electricity, battery storage, three-dimensional printing, robotics and other breakthroughs. “These companies, in the end, will die.”

Posted on

Conservative Media and Trump Dismiss Climate Change as Cause of Fires

Rush Limbaugh told millions of his radio listeners to set aside any suggestion that climate change was the culprit for the frightening spate of wildfires ravaging California and the Pacific Northwest.

“Man-made global warming is not a scientific certainty; it cannot be proven, nor has it ever been,” Mr. Limbaugh declared on his Friday show, disregarding the mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary. He then pivoted to a popular right-wing talking point: that policies meant to curtail climate change are, in fact, an assault on freedom.

“Environmentalist wackos” — Mr. Limbaugh’s phrase — “want man to be responsible for it because they want to control your behavior,” the conservative host said on the show. He added that they “want to convince you that your lifestyle choices are the reason why all these fires are firing up out on the Left Coast.”

Hours later, that message leapt to prime time on Fox News, where the host Tucker Carlson said those who blamed climate change for the fires were merely reciting “a partisan talking point.”

“In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systemic racism in the sky,” Mr. Carlson told viewers. “You can’t see it, but rest assured, it’s everywhere, and it’s deadly. And like systemic racism, it is your fault.”

Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Carlson are two of the most prominent commentators in the right-wing media sphere, where a rich history of climate denialism has merged with Trump-era cultural warfare to generate a deep skepticism of the notion that climate change is a factor in the fires devastating the West Coast.

Like President Trump, conservative media stars dismiss climate change — which scientists say is the primary cause of the conflagration — and point to the poor management of forestland by local (and, conveniently, Democratic) officials. Fringe right-wing websites, like The Gateway Pundit, have blamed left-wing arsonists, fueling false rumors that authorities say are impeding rescue efforts.

Visiting California on Monday to witness the destruction firsthand, Mr. Trump took Western states to task for failing to manage the forests properly. During a meeting with California officials who pushed him to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires, the president said: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, replied.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Mr. Trump retorted.

The president’s comments were likely to resonate with fans of the conservative media personalities who routinely defend his agenda.

“This has nothing to do with climate change, it has nothing to do with man-made climate change, and it sure as hell would help if these forests in these timber areas were free to be properly managed, but they’re not,” Mark Levin, another popular right-wing radio host, said on his nationally syndicated show on Friday.

Credit…Leah Millis/Reuters

Like Mr. Carlson, Mr. Levin drew a link between climate advocacy and recent demonstrations for racial justice, suggesting that both causes — widely associated with liberals — offered a cloak for more sinister intentions.

“They want to talk man-made climate change because, out of this, they want to control you,” Mr. Levin said. “It’s just like the race stuff — ‘systemically racist’ — well, what do you want to do about it? Control you. Beat you down. You need to change your lifestyle, need to confess to something.”

Some right-wing writers see even darker origins in the outbreak of a lethal blaze.

The Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy website with a healthy online following — its chief writer, Jim Hoft, was welcomed to the White House by Mr. Trump — published posts asserting that left-wing anarchists were to blame, not the environment.

“Many arsonists have already been arrested in Oregon, Washington and California, but the Democrats continue to blame the wildfires on climate change,” a Gateway Pundit story said on Monday, alongside a video purportedly showing a woman in Oregon confronting an arsonist on her property. The site claimed that mainstream news outlets were ignoring this story because “it goes against their global warming and anti-gun narrative.”

A man in Oregon was charged last week with starting the destructive Almeda Fire in a small town that was under orders to evacuate. But the authorities say rising temperatures are a predominant cause of this year’s outbreak.

Read More

Posted on

Jeff Bezos Commits $10 Billion to Address Climate Change

SEATTLE — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and the world’s richest man, said on Monday that he was committing $10 billion to address the climate crisis in a new initiative he called the Bezos Earth Fund.

The effort will fund scientists, activists and nongovernmental organizations, he said in a post on Instagram. Mr. Bezos, who has been pushed by Amazon employees on climate issues, said he expected to start issuing grants this summer.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” he wrote. “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”

Mr. Bezos has in the past done little philanthropy. With a net worth of $130 billion, he long preferred to focus on Amazon and other private ventures, such as Blue Origin, which makes rockets. Mr. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.

More recently, Mr. Bezos has ramped up his giving. His largest donation to date was $2 billion, unveiled in September 2018, to help homeless families and build a network of Montessori preschools, an effort that he announced with his then-wife, MacKenzie.

After the couple divorced last year, Ms. Bezos said she had signed the Giving Pledge, which asks the world’s richest people to commit to giving away at least half their wealth during their lifetime or in their wills. Mr. Bezos has not signed the pledge.

In September, Mr. Bezos unveiled the Climate Pledge, in which he said Amazon would meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years ahead of schedule and would be carbon-neutral by 2040. As part of the pledge, he said Amazon was ordering 100,000 electric delivery trucks from Rivian, a Michigan-based company that Amazon has invested in.

At the time, Mr. Bezos said Earth’s climate was changing faster than predicted by the scientific community five years ago. “Those predictions were bad but what is actually happening is dire,” he said.

Mr. Bezos made that pledge after Amazon’s employees agitated on climate change. For a year, workers pressed Amazon to be more aggressive in its climate goals, staging walkouts and talking publicly about how the company could do better.

With vast data centers that power cloud computing, and a global network for shipping and delivering packages, Amazon’s own impact on the environment is substantial. In September, the company revealed its own carbon footprint for the first time, disclosing it emitted about 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 — the equivalent of burning almost 600,000 tanker trucks’ worth of gasoline.

“That would put them in the top 150 or 200 emitters in the world,” alongside oil and gas producers and industrial manufacturers, Bruno Sarda, president of CDP North America, a nonprofit organization that encourages carbon disclosures, said in an interview at the time.

Amazon employees cheered the company’s Climate Pledge, but continued to push executives to stop providing cloud computing services to the oil and gas industry. They argued that making fossil fuel exploration and extraction less expensive would make it harder for the global economy to transition toward using more renewable energy.

Amazon has resisted the pressure, saying in a policy statement that “the energy industry should have access to the same technologies as other industries.”

Some employees have also said Amazon has retaliated against them for their activism. Amazon has said the employees should channel their ideas through internal forums, like company meetings and lunch sessions with the sustainability team.

The workers, through their group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, said on Monday that although they applauded Mr. Bezos’ philanthropy, “one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.”

They added, “The people of Earth need to know: When is Amazon going to stop helping oil and gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells? When is Amazon going to stop funding climate-denying think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate-delaying policy?”

Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the history of tech companies, called the new Bezos fund “a very powerful statement” and said the Amazon chief executive’s actions followed the steps that other tech moguls, such the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, had taken to address the warming planet.

Philanthropy, she added, typically comes in the wake of amassing great fortunes. “This is yet another reminder that we are in a second Gilded Age,” she said.

Mr. Bezos provided only rudimentary details about what the Bezos Earth Fund would do and did not directly address priorities that he would support, other than “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

Since at least high school, Mr. Bezos has seen space exploration as a way to preserve the Earth. He has posited the idea that heavy industry could be in space, leaving the planet cleaner for human use.

“If you want to protect the Earth, save the Earth, we have to go to space,” he said in a speech a year ago.

The new fund will provide donations, rather than make investments that Mr. Bezos would expect to see a profit from, according to a person with knowledge of the plan who was not authorized to speak publicly. The new fund is not connected to Amazon. The donation is one of the largest known commitments made by an individual, according to a database run by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Even if Mr. Bezos were to spend all $10 billion immediately, he would still remain the world’s richest man, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. This month, Mr. Bezos sold more than $4 billion in Amazon shares as part of a prearranged trading plan, according to regulatory filings. Amazon declined to comment on the share sales.

Mr. Bezos has also been spending his fortune in other ways. He recently agreed to pay $165 million for a Beverly Hills estate owned by David Geffen, the media mogul and co-founder of DreamWorks. Separately, Bezos Expeditions, which oversees The Post and Mr. Bezos’ charitable foundation, is buying 120 undeveloped acres in Beverly Hills for $90 million, though the deal is not complete.

Posted on

How a Vegan Ends Up With Leather in Her Portfolio

Investing well is hard enough, and introducing your personal values into the mix only compounds the confusion.

What matters most? How can I have the biggest impact? And am I a traitor to myself if I own stocks in companies I would otherwise shun?

Consider just one issue that inspires deep feelings: animal welfare. It is one of the newest niches that socially responsible investment companies seek to serve, and it offers a useful template for the kinds of questions that all of us need to ask if we want to craft a portfolio that points the same way as our moral compass.

There are two noteworthy examples of how one can attempt this.

First, the US Vegan Climate ETF. It is an index of sorts, with 268 American stocks, and it begins with subtraction: removing companies, and even whole industries, that it considers animal unfriendly. Pharmaceuticals? Poof, because of all the animal testing. Companies that extract and refine fossil fuels are gone, too. After all, animals are outdoors more than we tend to be, so climate change threatens many of them even more than us.

The Karner Blue Animal Impact Fund, named for the endangered butterfly, takes a different approach. It is an actively managed mutual fund, with fewer than half the number of stocks in the Vegan ETF, including companies not based in the United States.

Another big difference: It employs so-called positive screening, picking best-of-breed companies in as many industries as it can stomach.

“We are not animal avoidant,” said Vicki L. Benjamin, president of Karner Blue Capital. “We are animal engagement.”

This gets tricky rather quickly, and it may mean something like the following when it comes to the raising of meat, according to Ms. Benjamin, who is not a vegan but tends to stray from a plant-based diet mostly in the piscine direction: People are going to eat animal flesh for a good long while, so why not treat the animals better?

Do that, and it becomes more expensive to raise animals, since you’re doing so humanely, which is a good thing. The cash cost of eating meat will go up, people will eat less, and emissions will fall.

That’s how Karner Blue ends up with Chipotle in its portfolio: It likes the chain’s animal welfare efforts (its continuing food safety questions aside). But the parent of Burger King didn’t make the cut, even though it has a vegetarian Whopper with an Impossible Burger patty these days. That’s because the parent, Restaurant Brands International, also owns Popeyes, which only recently agreed to take a big step to improve its treatment of chickens.

Any edge cases reflect the kinds of compromises that nearly any kind of investment may require for most consumers. Because of its desire to direct capital to above-average companies in as many industries as possible, Karner Blue sometimes ends up in a situation where it’s effectively buying the best house in a bad neighborhood.

Take retail, home to lots of chains selling lots of animal skin. Karner Blue owns H&M, because it appreciates the chain’s stance on staying away from leather that comes from animals raised on rainforest land. The fund manager is less fond of the fact that consumers don’t tend to keep the retailer’s cheap clothing for very long.

“We have a problem with the sustainability of the product,” Ms. Benjamin said. “You have to hold your nose sometimes.”

The other approach involves compromises, too.

The Vegan ETF nixes fossil fuel companies, but it still owns stock in automakers that make gas-powered vehicles with leather interiors. Here, the fund’s creator, Beyond Investing, saw an opportunity to push the car companies toward skin-free seating, given that Tesla has made that move with some models.

“We think that means others should change as well,” said Claire Smith, chief executive of Beyond Investing.

Scour her holdings and you’ll probably find something that is personally objectionable. I wouldn’t want to own Intuit, given all of the reporting from Pro Publica about how it tried to keep people from filing their income tax returns for free. Equifax also makes an appearance, which hurt my heart. We people are animals, too, after all, and Equifax treated us shabbily in the wake of its horror show of a security breach.

And what price perfection, or only modest imperfection, in pursuit of a portfolio that is as close to morally pristine as can be? New funds tend to be costly, and these two are no exception.

The Vegan ETF features a fee of 0.60 percent, which is a lot for an index fund. Let’s say you put $2,500 into an everyday index fund that requires only a 0.10 fee. And let’s also say you do that every year for 45 years and earn a 6 percent annual return. The fund with a 0.60 fee ends up with $471,456, while that lower-fee fund ends up with $547,100. That $75,644 difference is real money, and it could go a long way toward advancing any of your chosen causes.

Ms. Smith said the company had every intention of starting to reduce fees once it passed $50 million or so in assets. Right now, she said, there was about $15 million in the ETF.

Karner Blue funds can cost even more, though the exact amount depends on how much you invest and whether you’re using a financial adviser. Ms. Benjamin said investors knew what they were signing up for, including the fact that the fund’s overarching organization also features an animal welfare advocacy and research organization, a political action committee and a foundation. And, she said, the fund managers are constantly pressing company executives for changes in their animal impact policies.

As with any socially conscious investment, questions about performance always linger somewhere in the background, even though research has shown that this sort of investing need not mean sacrificing returns that match the overall stock market.

Still, the focus on animal welfare is narrow enough that it could skew the holdings in a direction that is not ideal if you care about having an allocation of financial assets that matches a prominent, diverse stock index. This is particularly true with the Vegan ETF, where you sit out whole swaths of the economy.

I asked Ms. Smith whether kindness may actually guarantee alpha — the investing industry term for performance beyond what owning any particular index fund might deliver.

She answered first by talking about the upside of the choices she is making, namely the effects of changing consumer behavior. “People are more conscious about what they purchase and the sustainability of products,” she said. That demand drives revenues, profits and so on.

A bigger concern is what could happen to her investors’ returns if Ms. Smith put their money in industries that harm animal habitats or treat them poorly.

If we eat no meat or just a lot less, what will happen to giant feedlots that publicly traded entities own far from urban centers? Quite possibly, nothing at all. “I don’t think,” she said, “that they are going to start putting luxury estates there.”

Posted on

Climate Change Could Cause the Next Financial Meltdown

FRANKFURT — Climate change has already been blamed for deadly bush fires in Australia, dying coral reefs, rising sea levels and ever more cataclysmic storms. Could it also cause the next financial crisis?

A report issued this week by an umbrella organization for the world’s central banks argued that the answer is yes, while warning that central bankers lack tools to deal with what it says could be one of the biggest economic dislocations of all time.

The book-length report, published by the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, signals what could be the overriding theme for central banks in the decade to come.

“Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to human societies, and our community of central banks and supervisors cannot consider itself immune to the risks ahead of us,” François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Banque de France, said in the report.

Central banks spent much of the last 10 years hauling their economies out of a deep financial crisis that began in 2008. They may well spend the next decade coping with the disruptive effects of climate change and technology, the report said.

The European Central Bank, which on Thursday concluded a two-day meeting in Frankfurt focusing on monetary policy, is beginning to grapple with those challenges. The bank did not make any changes in interest rates or its economic stimulus program on Thursday. Instead, other issues are coming to the fore.

Christine Lagarde, the central bank’s president, who took office late last year, has pledged to put climate change on the bank’s agenda, and it was a topic of discussion at the last monetary policy meeting, in December.

Members of the European Central Bank’s governing council argued “that there was a need to step up efforts to understand the economic consequences of climate change,” according to the bank’s official account of the discussion.

Global warming will play a big role in the European Central Bank’s strategic review, a broad reassessment of the way the bank tries to manage inflation. For example, when trying to influence market interest rates, the bank could decide to stop buying bonds of corporations considered big producers of greenhouse gases.

This new awareness of the financial consequences of a hotter earth comes as central banks are contending with another new challenge: technologies that threaten their monopoly on issuing money and their power to combat a financial crisis.

Unofficial digital currencies like Bitcoin or Facebook’s Libra, which is still in the planning stages, bypass central banks and could undermine their control of the monetary system. The obvious solution is for central banks to get into the digital currency business themselves.

On Wednesday, the central banks of Canada, Britain, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland said they were working together with the Bank for International Settlements to figure out what would happen if they did just that.

It’s complicated, though.

Like cash, people can use digital currencies to pay other people directly, without a bank in the middle. Unlike cash, digital currencies allow person-to-person transactions to take place online.

Such a system could be more efficient, but also risky, according to a report issued on Wednesday by the World Economic Forum, the organization that stages the annual conclave in Davos.

Commercial banks might become superfluous, and fail. Central banks would in effect become giant retail banks. But they have no experience dealing with millions of individual customers and could be overwhelmed. If a central bank collapsed, so would the monetary system.

Climate change also takes central banks into uncharted territory. Think the subprime crisis in 2008 was bad? Imagine a real estate crisis caused by rising sea levels and coastal flooding that renders thousands of square miles of land uninhabitable or useless for farming.

By some estimates, global gross domestic product could plunge by 25 percent because of the effects of climate change. Central banks have enough trouble dealing with mild recessions, and would not be powerful enough to combat an economic downturn of that scale.

“In the worst case scenario, central banks may have to intervene as climate rescuers of last resort or as some sort of collective insurer for climate damages,” according to the report, published by the Bank for International Settlements, a clearinghouse for the world’s major central banks.

It suggested some precautionary measures central banks could take.

Central banks, which often function as bank regulators, could require lenders to hold more capital if they hold assets vulnerable to the economic effects of a shift to renewable energy. An example might be a bank that has lent a lot of money to fossil fuel companies, or to the Saudi government.

The auto industry already illustrates how investors are moving their money away from companies seen as polluters and into companies seen as green, with disruptive effects on economies. Tesla’s value on the stock market is more than $100 billion, second only to Toyota among carmakers.

In this way, Tesla is being rewarded for producing emission-free electric vehicles. But the migration of capital away from the established manufacturers makes it difficult for them to invest in new technology, and threatens massive job losses and social and political upheaval.

Central banks need to coordinate their policies to deal with these new challenges, according to the Bank for International Settlements report. Unfortunately, coordination is not something that central banks are very good at right now.

“Climate change is a global problem that demands a global solution,” the paper said. But it added that “monetary policy seems, currently, to be difficult to coordinate between countries.”

Posted on

Hoping to Shape the Conversation at Davos

Several members of the Global Shapers Community answered questions from The New York Times. Their responses have been edited and condensed.

With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

I will be attending as part of an inspiring delegation of young people from the Global Shapers Community, which is an initiative of the World Economic Forum. I look forward to connecting and working with those who are leading at the front lines of their communities in the fight against climate change, who are restoring nature, who are helping to drive equitable societies, and who are committed to creating a more caring and inclusive world.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

The most important part of the Global Shapers Community is the word “community.” At a time when our generation faces ecological, economic and values crises, some of the most vital “technologies” in navigating the path ahead are not necessarily artificial intelligence, blockchain or robotics — they are empathy, collaboration and justice. I hope, as a community, we can be a constant reminder of that, as this year’s annual meeting in Davos seeks to redefine what truly matters as a measure of success for governments and corporations.

With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

There has been a fair bit of criticism of Davos in the past, questioning whether the world’s elite has the courage to take necessary action in terms of climate change. For the 50th anniversary, the World Economic Forum has launched a new manifesto that is looking to hold companies accountable and nudge them to be more responsible, which I believe is crucial when we now have around 10 years to drastically reshape our societies to become more circular and self-sustaining.

In my eyes, it’s actually quite simple: We only have one planet, so business as usual is no longer an option. Our current model is clearly not going according to plan. Luckily, circular societies and circular business models would not only make us less vulnerable to the very scary consequences of the climate emergency but also create new opportunities for jobs and economic growth. After all, the pioneers of today will be the market leaders of tomorrow. That makes me hopeful.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

With the COP25 summit, formally known as the Conference of Parties, concluding at last month’s U.N. Climate Talks, there is a clear pressing need for countries to set more ambitious targets to scale up renewable energy. I personally look forward to meeting world leaders and sparking discussions on how we enable a global clean energy transition.

We have never been better equipped to take on the challenges we face, and we could create much more democratic, decentralized and decarbonized energy systems for the future while lifting up to a billion people out of energy poverty in the process. If the future can be bright, why would we choose differently? This is a question I would like to discuss with world leaders.

With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

I think it’s interesting and important to bring together different representatives to discuss shaping new economies, and I am proud to represent the youth and future generations. I look forward to meeting fellow Global Shapers and hope to meet women in power, to learn about barriers they have had to overcome and best practices to accelerate empowerment for future leaders.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

I will represent the Shaping Fashion project and show how young people in 45 cities around the world have come together to share knowledge and tools, run collective action campaigns and change personal behaviors to revolutionize the fashion industry.

Besides shifting consumer sentiment, the $2 trillion industry needs drastic change and I will be calling for multi-stakeholder collaboration to measure, improve and transparently communicate environmental and social sustainability of fashion.

Transparency is something I feel very strongly about. It is our right to be able to choose companies and products that meet our values and we need information that is complete, comparable and trustworthy to do so. The industry and legislators need to empower us to make these decisions. It’s what can truly accelerate the sustainable fashion revolution.

With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

Davos may have the reputation of being a space where business and political leaders come together to sign deals, and perhaps forward their own short-term interests. However, there is no doubt that the decisions made today will affect our environment for centuries to come.

I wish to be a voice for future generations and young people, who will be the most impacted by these decisions. I seek to have empathetic and courageous conversations with those in power, and to advocate for a long-term, values-based lens in decision making.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

Davos also brings together phenomenal leaders across sectors, and I believe they have a genuine desire to improve the world. One could call it idealistic, but I very much resonate with Margaret Mead’s notion “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

I look forward to exchanging ideas, and forging relationships with those also committed to restoring the health of our planet, and fostering the self transformation of individuals with the intention that this will support greater collective action and impact.


With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

The Davos 2020 meeting comes at the onset of a new, vital decade, and 2020 is also the year that countries are required to renew their commitments with even greater ambitions. I hope this meeting will coerce world leaders to take action, especially in reducing emissions by 7.6 percent in 2020 and every other year! I hope the world will look back at this meeting in 10 years as one among many that jolted world leaders to take action.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

Deliberately leaving no one behind is the only way we will achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030. Over 70 percent of Africans still reside in rural areas and continue to be alienated from development.

We must urgently listen to concerns from those on the streets and from deep in the rural interiors — whose voices are rarely heard or examined — with the primary aim to design and redesign and implement relevant action points with measurable outputs. As such, the question on my mind as I head to Davos is how to marry social innovation with technological innovation to achieve a cohesive and sustainable world!

With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

In Davos, I’ll be rubbing shoulders with many chief executives and heads of state who will no doubt acknowledge the importance of tackling climate change. However, those watching may view these words as lip service to the sustainability and stakeholder capitalism narrative.

While my country is experiencing the worst bush fire season on record, globally climate change is set to cause increasing harm in the coming decades. Now is the time to find innovative solutions for urgent climate action.

In Davos, I will be representing progress toward these solutions, seeking to convince business leaders that utilizing carbon emissions can in fact ease the pressure on the bottom line.

At Mineral Carbonation International, we have developed a technology platform that transforms carbon dioxide into building materials like cement and plasterboard. This is a long-term, safe storage solution that has the potential to lock away billions of metric tons of emissions from industry or captured from the atmosphere.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

This year, we have the opportunity to spark real climate change action in many areas. I hope to demonstrate that carbon dioxide is a resource that can help, not hinder the planet.

If I can convince business leaders that decarbonizing is profitable, this will encourage desperately needed climate action, contribute to our Paris Climate Change targets and provide hope for humanity.

With some of the mixed perceptions about Davos, what are your expectations of the conference?

Davos is often viewed as an elitist and exclusive event. Even if this is true, it also serves as an opportunity for impact — thought leaders and experts take the stage to influence our world’s decision makers and their agendas.

The theme this year, “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World,” spotlights this point at the onset of a critical decade: It is our last chance to limit global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and safeguard our future. My expectation and hope are that whenever plans are being made about the future — onstage or offstage — reducing emissions must be at the core of these plans.

I expect our world leaders to be bold in their decision making and actions. We need them now more than ever to lead from a place of empathy to serve those most impacted by their decisions including vulnerable coastal communities, minority groups and the young people of our world.

What do you hope to accomplish at Davos?

I hope to use this opportunity to support the voices and messages raised by young people around the world. We must listen to the scientists — we are not running out of time, we are now out of time and we need ambitious, deliberate, action. I urge world leaders to take the following actions in true partnership with local Indigenous communities.

• Make the policy changes needed to meet the Paris Agreement, as we must reduce global emissions by at least 7 percent every year until 2030 to safeguard our planet.

• Support the protection of at least 30 percent of our planet by 2030 and invest in nature-based solutions and biodiversity.

• Recognize young people and nature as primary and core stakeholders and authentically incorporate their interests and voices into decisions and actions that will impact them.


NYT > Business > Economy