Climate change is an intriguing topic, subject to an unusually high level of scientific uncertainty but nevertheless now firmly part of the wider political agenda. This means that science itself is only one parameter in what has become an increasingly complicated debate.
In early 1997 I was instrumental in changing British Petroleum's stance on the climate change issue. We felt that there was little point in pursuing a policy of denying that there was anything to be concerned about, because of the nature of the uncertainties inherent in the science.
This meant that the question of determining the impact on future climate of increases in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, would inevitably be subject to a wide range of interpretation. But since there was clearly a political consensus on the importance of the issue, the wise tactical response was to move to a position of participating in the development of policies that would help contribute to a solution, should one subsequently be required.
It is a stance that is equivalent to -- but subtly different from -- the "precautionary principle."
My view is that it is essential that the hydrocarbon industry always be in the position of offering solutions for issues perceived by the public to be of concern. If we genuinely believe that there is no need to be concerned about a particular issue, then we have to influence the debate at an early stage to ensure that our views have at least a chance of prevailing.
Once the debate has moved on to a point of widespread consensus, then in my view we should respond positively and constructively to the viewpoint that has prevailed, albeit at the same time actively seeking to influence the next issue.
The paradox with which we are faced today is that there is now widespread political acceptance that the climate model projections for increasing surface temperature are a cause of major concern. Although the scientific basis for this deduction remains very fragile, the IPCC process has led to the perception that the majority of scientific opinion also supports this viewpoint.
The difficulty we have in adopting an opposing position relates to the nature of the uncertainties in estimating the discrete climatic impact of changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration. These uncertainties are large, because the feedback mechanisms are complex and not well constrained, and CO2 concentration is only one of a number of quite different factors that influence the world's climate.
However, the temperature impact of CO2 by itself is well constrained by atmospheric physics. The relationship is highly non-linear, but there is no doubt that an increase in CO2 increases surface temperature, if all other parameters are held constant.
It should therefore be apparent that arguing that CO2 is irrelevant and can safely be ignored, is unlikely to gain any credence.
Furthermore, when this position is argued on behalf of the oil industry -- with our regrettable history of lack of public confidence -- it is guaranteed to be counterproductive.
Illuminating the quite amazing climatic variability that the planet has experienced in its (geologically) recent past could be very helpful in getting more thoughtful commentators to recognize the context in which future climate changes should be viewed. In addition, demonstrating the inherent instability in the climate of the planet -- and the fact that equilibrium is absolutely impossible -- might help move political thinking toward an appreciation that the real issues are actually ones of adaptation to change.
Imagining that stabilizing CO2 will somehow stabilize the world's climate is patently absurd, but it is the type of myth that could gain credence.
Given the realities of the current position on climate change, the key issue for the oil and gas industry today would seem to be to ensure that hydrocarbons continue to remain an essential component of the world's energy system. The political perceptions of the impact of hydrocarbon combustion on the earth's atmosphere certainly pose a threat to that position.
Since I've explained that attempting to change those perceptions is a high risk objective, it therefore follows that adopting a strategy that works in the direction of offering to make hydrocarbon-based energy emission free, hence removing the key plank in our opponents' argument, would at the very least move the debate to a totally different place.
It would also help counter the view that the only safe future is one based on renewable energy.
The technological means to deliver emission-free energy from fossil fuels is available today, but at a cost. There are a number of research initiatives addressing how those costs could be reduced, and the oil industry is to a degree engaged in some of these efforts.
Adopting a more proactive stance is an option open to us. It remains doubtful that society would be willing to pay but that would then be their choice. At present there is no credible choice on offer and no coherent policy from government to give incentives to provide one.
Getting ahead of a debate with the importance and degree of uncertainty applying to climate change is certainly risky. Being left behind could be fatal.