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Climate change, greenwashing, and COP27: Interview with David Shukman

In October 2022, the School’s leading podcast, LSE iQ, explored climate change and asked: How can we survive the next mass extinction?

"I think there's been a transformation in the way the public view climate change, in that it's no longer some abstract thing that some environmental campaigners are banging on about. It's actually becoming more of a lived experience."

You can listen to the full episode with Anna Bevan, Dr Ganga Shreedhar, and David Shukman on LSE Player, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud or YouTube.

For bonus content, take a look at our Instagram reel on the episode. 

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David Shukman

Listen to the full, behind-the-scenes interview with David Shukman below and read along with the transcript of the interview. 

Interview with David Shukman Interview with David Shukman
Full behind-the-scenes interview with David Shukman LSE IQ

David, you led the BBC's coverage of climate change from around 2003 to 2021. What changes have you seen in the public's perception of climate change over the past 20 years?

I think there's been a transformation in the way the public view climate change, in that it's no longer some abstract thing that some environmental campaigners are banging on about. It's actually becoming more of a lived experience.

In almost every country in the world I think that's the case, because we're seeing, as we're living on a planet that's at least a degree hotter than it was 100 years ago: more heat waves, more violent rainstorms, more flooding. And I think once people feel those extremes in their own lives, there's a kind of resonance that's completely different to if you are perhaps moved by reading about climate change.

When you really live through it, it starts to make sense in a very, very different way. And I think that's reflected in the opinion polls. Even in countries which have traditionally been quite reticent, should we say, or even hostile to the idea of action on climate change, I think we're really starting to see a shift now.

How has the corporate sector changed its response to climate change?

There's been a dramatic shift in engagement by the corporate sector. When I got going, I got press releases and interaction with big environmental NGOs, different scientific teams, universities, policy centers, and think tanks and government ministries, but not a dicky bird from any company.

I mean, it was really quite striking when in about 2005, one of the major international banks got in touch to say they had plans to be carbon neutral. It was HSBC. And this email, when it landed in my inbox, really stood out at me because I hadn't had anything like that from anybody before. And now, of course, they're all falling over themselves to look green and we've gone from it being really quite unusual for a major company to have a climate strategy to it being really unusual for them not to.

Of course, some are more sincere than others about that. We are, I think, knee-deep or waist-deep perhaps in a tsunami of greenwash. I mean, the amount of claims and promises to be green that are just being sprayed out there under liberal doses of green paint is quite extraordinary. And I think what's really key now is to make sure that as many of those promises as possible are kept and delivered. And we don't just get green claims, we get green action.

How do we get that green action?

Through transparency, and that's something that's really on our side: it's easier than ever before to know what companies, countries, governments and organisations are up to.

That's partly through the brilliant work of some amazingly diligent NGOs, who go through corporate accounts and they study satellite pictures, and they track, for example, if it's beef from the Amazon, they track the cattle. Which pastures are they on? What was that land before? Was it rainforest that was illegally chopped down? A whole lot of tools that kind of maybe existed are much more effective now and we can trace and track corporate activity in a far more detailed way than we could before. So that's one thing on our side.

I mentioned satellites. We now have fleets of satellites in orbit looking not out at space, but down at earth, giving us the ability to see where methane is leaking from coal mines or gas pipelines. I mentioned deforestation, where the trees that we depend on are being hacked down illegally. Where pollution is spilling into the ocean.

So, a whole lot of stuff is now much more visible. I think if you put together the transparency of, let's say, corporate accounting and all the rest of it, with the technology of satellites and put it together also with the growing regulation for corporate activity, requirements to be open about what they're doing, investor pressure, and public pressure to be more open, I think we've got a better chance of nailing the greenwashing - pointing out, “look, you're saying this. In reality, you're doing that.”

It's a huge job and it won't happen overnight, and companies will still try to get away with it, but it means that it's harder and harder for them to do that. So, if they're wavering about whether to engage on the climate agenda sincerely or not, they may want to think, “okay, look, let's go with it because we'll get more grief if we don't.”

Do you think that the corporate sector's doing enough?

Not enough, no. Doing way, way more than it did - I think there are some incredibly positive signs. I think the fact that, for all his idiosyncrasies, Elon Musk has completely upended the very, very slow fossil fuel-based car industry by producing a, not necessarily affordable, but a very popular, good-looking and effective electric car, range of electric cars, suddenly the giants - VW, General Motors, Ford - are all having to scramble around to look electric and look green, and develop their own plans to electrify their fleets. I mean, that's one example.

I think the fact that brilliant engineering companies have got involved in renewables means, with the help of government regulation providing incentives, we've now got a landscape where the price of solar panels and wind turbines, which was high relatively, has now crashed down. And to a point where it's really quite easy, it's a no brainer for many companies to invest in these things.

I mean, I filmed, it was now 2003. I filmed the rather forlorn site off the Northumberland coast of Britain's first offshore wind farm. And there were these turbines, not far from the beach, and all the experts I consulted said: “Ah, it's never going to work. Don't they know there are storms in the North Sea? This is naive and fool hardy. And even if it does work, it's going to be way too expensive.”

Then 10 years later, I was filming a massive wind farm being installed in the Irish sea. Huge, I climbed these huge towers to get to the hub at the top of the turbines, and the blades were longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. And the engineers proved that they could do it. It was still mind-blowingly expensive, but they proved they could do it.

Fast forward to now, and the price, not only have the engineers shown they can do it, the prices have come right down and Britain became a world leader in offshore wind. And it's a staggering success story. China's now overtaken us because the scale is mind-blowingly different. But this shows how with the right kind of corporate engagement, with the right incentives laid out by government and consistent policy, you can really, really get somewhere.

I was talking to someone who runs some of Britain's biggest ports and they have huge flat-roofed buildings, and they've just plastered them with solar panels. And I asked, I think it's probably no longer now, but when I was speaking to them a few months ago, it was Britain's largest single rooftop solar installation in the in the Humber Estuary. And I said, "Did you do this for climate reasons?" They said, "No, no, no. We did it for business reasons." I said, "Well, normally in a business you expect a quick return. How many years will it be before you get your money back on whatever it cost to put all these solar panels on your roof?" Expecting the answer: 8, 9, 10 years. He said, "Only two years."

Solar panels are so cheap now. And electricity prices are so high that it made business sense, never mind climate change, business sense to make this investment and cover their roofs in solar panels. And they'll be getting cost-free electricity effectively in two years’ time. Now that's a gob smacking shift of a kind unimaginable to me 20 years ago when I was setting up to report on this.

I think when you see that kind of change, it's not only exhilarating, it's a source of optimism, because you think this whole thing may not happen fast enough, but at least the right kind of levers are being pulled and the right kind of cogs in the machine are being installed and are operating. And I find it really exciting to think that these kinds of organisations are thinking this way.

You mentioned a little bit about greenwashing. Could you unpack that - explain what greenwashing is and what the impact of it is?

In the mid 80s, a young, then young, American surfer was in Fiji and one of the islands he went to, to find the perfect wave, had a hotel resort on it, and he didn't have the money to stay in this luxury resort, but he was camping nearby. And the longer he was there, the more he learned about what had happened there. Which was that to expand the resort, the owners had dynamited a coral reef so that they could install more rooms and make the hotel bigger, and attract more customers, and make more money.

This chap, Jay Westerveld, was kind of outraged by that, particularly when he snuck in to one of the hotel rooms to use the bathroom and he saw the little sign that's now commonplace, has been for years in hotel bathrooms about: “help us save the planet. If you want a new towel, chuck an old one on the floor. But if you're happy to spare the laundry and detergent, and heat, and all the rest of it, hang your towels up and we won't give you new ones.” And he just thought, what is happening here? The hotel is talking about saving the planet with these little tiny measures about laundry, having dynamited the coral reef.

And he, Jay, invented the term, then and there: greenwashing. And I think a lot of it is misunderstood, but it's basically making yourself look green when really your activities are still highly-damaging, highly-polluting. And it's a way of covering up, effectively, business as usual, pollution as usual, and giving yourself a veneer of being on the right side of history and being environmentally aware. We've seen it for years and it was a term, I'd been talking to this chap Jay, and it was a very, very prescient and clever invention because after he coined it, everybody picked up on it.

And you saw the rise of corporate greenwashing. Even the most carnivorous fossil fuel heavy company spending quite a bit of money looking green. On their website there'll be a picture of a little girl holding a planet earth and some kind of climate manifesto or whatever. And there may be, in a lot of these companies, in fact there are, let's be honest, lots of really good actions and really good initiatives that do make a difference and are shifting the dial. But alongside that there are a lot of unjustified claims.

We are in an era bluntly of climate bullshit, where people are saying they're doing one thing and doing something else in reality. I think we're in an era where that's becoming more, and there's a real premium now on action against it. And that can happen in many different ways.

One is the authorities. I mean, it was astounding recently that a division of the massive German bank, Deutsche Bank, which had been selling some investment opportunities that were marketed as climate friendly, that were marketed as being environmentally-sound and good for the planet, actually involved a lot of money going to fossil fuel activities. The German authorities clocked this and raided this company. Now, that tells you that, thank God, in some countries, the authorities are taking greenwashing seriously. The authorities in Holland, when they were alerted to the national airline, KLM, claiming carbon neutral flights. One look at that showed that that was greenwashing. And they forced the airline to pull the ads and rephrase everything.

There are examples of the authorities jumping, vigorously, on claims that are unjustified, but it needs to happen comprehensively. And it's been recognised by the United Nations, the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres. At COP26 in Glasgow, he said, I'm seeing some positive signs, but I'm seeing an awful lot of greenwash. People want to get on the climate bandwagon and not really do what they need to do. So, he set up a special kind of commission or committee, a taskforce of 15 or so experts and asked them in a pretty short period of time, in fact ahead of COP27, to come up with some kind of guidance, some rules, I suppose you could call them, for how we can all judge what is greenwash and then what to do about it.

And I think because he's raised it at his global level, I think that's really going to start to make a difference. I think that's critically important. Because the wonderful French former diplomat Laurence Tubiana, who was instrumental in the Paris Agreement and is now working independently, at Glasgow, she said, and this is a measure of how important greenwashing is: greenwashing is a new form of climate denial. Because if you are saying, “Oh yeah, we've signed up to the Paris Agreement. We've got a net zero target. Blah, blah, blah. We're fully engaged. Come to our conference about what we're doing.” And in reality, you are not delivering, you may as well be a carbon heavy, fossil fuel, climate denier because the effect is the same. You are not doing what's needed.

I think perhaps one of the most critical issues, and something that I'm personally passionate about getting engaged on is, by whatever means, trying to make sure that key decision makers don't flannel, don't greenwash. Don't reach for the pot of green paint and slap it all over business as usual policies, because otherwise we're never going to crack this thing.

And you mentioned there about COP27. Going back to COP26, I believe this was your 10th UN Climate Change Conference.

That's right, yeah.

What changes and impact have you seen from the first one you attended to the last one?

The first one was a slightly surprising event for me because it felt like it was detached from the real world. It was in Montreal, it was COP11 in 2005. And the critical issue there was trying to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive, which was the first attempt at a kind of climate treaty to cut greenhouse gases and only involved effectively the richest nations.

And it faltered and didn't really achieve much. And the meeting itself only involved Environment Ministers. Obviously there were some media there like me, there wasn't much of a media presence, there was a bit. There were the environmental NGOs. And what really struck me then was that decisions were being taken or needed to be taken about big, fundamental economic questions. How do the big economies of the world shift away from fossil fuels and towards a zero carbon future?

The issues involved, it seemed to me, needed to involve treasuries because huge amounts of money were required for this transition, shifts in taxation. Well, the economic ministries, the treasuries, they weren't there. It was all on the shoulders of Environment Ministers.

Now, if you look around at most governments, the Environment Ministry, particularly in the UK, DEFRA, these ministries tend to be minnows in their government structures. I mean the big headline actions and the big money is obviously treasuries. It's the big ministries like Health and Education, and Social Security, and normally a lot of attention is focused on Foreign Ministries or Defence. Environment, whatever you call it, tends to be slightly the ugly duckling. If you are an Environment Minister, you're never one of the big figures in the cabinet. And I thought, my impression of Montreal COP11 was, actually, this is never going to shift the dial. You've got the wrong people here. And that impression continued over subsequent COPs.

And then we got to COP15, Copenhagen, 2009, where you did get a big turnout of leaders, President Obama and so forth and Gordon Brown, then prime minister, and they, they got nowhere. I mean, nothing happened. It all fell apart. It was badly organised, a lot of bad blood. And at that point I thought, "I mean, why do I keep covering these things? There are other things to do, like climate science, climate impact. What's happening to people." And actually for the next few years, having done four or five of these things, I thought, "I really can't be bothered." And I didn't go to one for a number of years. I kind of did some reports on them from London, but I didn't want to go. I couldn't see the point.

Anyway, then they gathered a bit more momentum. And then you get to Paris, COP21, 2015, again, massive turnout of leaders and much more serious engagement. By then, the science was much clearer that we were heading in the wrong direction and things were going to get nasty. And we then, we saw the birth of the Paris Agreement, which was only possible by the way because it's all voluntary. There are no set targets for anybody. People can do what they want effectively.

I mean, there are a few, there's the ratchet mechanism designed to encourage tougher and tougher action, but nevertheless, it's a success. It's a framework. The first global treaty on climate change. And the COPs since then have all been about really fine tuning the Paris Agreement and trying to give it more meaning, and put some flesh on the bones.

And then you get to Glasgow, which on that front was a success. They finalised the rule book for the Paris Agreement, which is something that previous COPs had failed to do. There was, in addition though, at Glasgow, an awful lot of bluster. Now, I'm someone who thinks, look at the glass as half full, rather than half empty. I think it's better that you had a lot of politicians, a lot of companies, a lot of NGOs, an awful lot of drama, a lot of bold claims that are never going to be kept. But I think better to have that level of noise and engagement and out of it gets something tangible than to rewind to the miserable event of Montreal in 2005, where there was really no hope of anything happening.

So I think we're in a better space than we were, provided we keep a really sharp eye on promises made but not kept.

In the episode “How can we survive the next mass extinction?”, Anna Bevan talks to: Dr Ganga Shreedhar, Assistant Professor in LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, and Associate at the Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change and the Environment and the Inclusion Initiative; and former BBC Science Editor, and now Visiting Professor in Practice at the Grantham Research Institute, David Shukman. Listen to the episode here

LSE iQ is a monthly podcast from the London School of Economics and Political Science, in which we ask some of the smartest social scientists - and other experts - to answer intelligent questions about economics, politics or society.