A Mining Adviser's View of Global Warming Tom Burke is an environmental adviser to one of the world's largest mining operations and the British government. At heart, he's an environmental activist, but he's pragmatic about what it will take to shift corporate and political thinking on climate change.
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A Mining Adviser's View of Global Warming

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A Mining Adviser's View of Global Warming

A Mining Adviser's View of Global Warming

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Attempts to tackle global warming will inevitably involve a joint effort by business, government and environmental leaders. Next, NPR's Richard Harris introduces us to a man who already wears all three of those hats.

Tom Burke works for one of the world's largest mining companies. He advises the British government and he is a leading environmentalist.

RICHARD HARRIS: Tom Burke is at heart an environmentalist, but life in the corporate world and in the halls of government also make him a pragmatist. So even in the face of climate change, he doesn't plan to give up his creature comforts. And he doesn't expect others will either.

(Soundbite of ringing phone)

Mr. TOM BURKE (Environmental Adviser): I'm on my way down.

(Soundbite of door opening)

HARRIS: He lives in a swank apartment that opens up to a Japanese garden, complete with a waterfall and a pool of carp. From the balcony, he could easily pitch an olive pit from a martini into the Thames River, though he prefers scotch and fine wine.

Mr. BURKE: How are you doing?

HARRIS: (Unintelligible)

The lofty apartment is filled with books and art. That is a striking painting. Would you tell me about that?

Mr. BURKE: Yeah. Alan Rankle is the painter. And if you look around the room, most of the paintings in here are paintings by Alan.

HARRIS: They look like misty Turner landscapes. Only the suggestion of pastoral beauty is marred by broad brushstrokes of blue and titanium white.

Mr. BURKE: They communicate what's happening to the planet in a way that strikes people in their stomach, not in their head. Therefore it creates an impulse to do something.

HARRIS: Burke spends every day trying to do the same thing, whether he's working for the mining company, the British government or as an environmentalist. He has short-cropped gray hair framing his round face. And back in the early '70s, he was a firebrand environmental activist, leading campaigns to save the whales and fighting nuclear power, eventually, as leader of Friends of the Earth in the U.K.

Mr. BURKE: There's a limit to, you know, campaigning. I mean, it's a very important note in the opera that makes up environmentalism. But environmentalism is an opera. And - there are lots of different songs to be sung at it, and I in a sense, sung the campaigning song. I wanted to go sing the political song.

HARRIS: He ran for parliament twice with a green agenda. He lost. So he decided to pursue an environmental agenda behind the scenes. And as the science about climate change grew, that became his central issue.

Mr. BURKE: We still, for the most part, think of this as just another environmental problem. You know, we deal with it when we've got the time or we can afford the money. And it's not. This is a problem, which, if we don't fundamentally solve it in the next two decades, could make civilization impossible.

HARRIS: Dealing with it isn't impossible, but it is daunting. We basically have to change the way we generate power for the global economy. Burke doesn't think small scale. His lamps still burn conventional light bulbs, for instance, and at the age of 60, he could get a free pass for London's buses and the Underground. But instead, he rides his beefy BMW motorcycle a few miles to his office at the mining company.

(Soundbite of motorcycle starting)

Mr. BURKE: And now, off we go.

HARRIS: We loop past the Globe Theatre, cross the Thames, and dodge in and out of traffic along the embankment. A right turn brings us into the heart of London.

Mr. BURKE: This is Trafalgar Square, center of the empire. Well as was - now just a good place for a demonstration. I've organized many here.

HARRIS: Burke pulls his motorcycle into the garage at the offices of Rio Tinto. It's one of the world's largest mining companies.

Rio Tinto has huge coal and uranium mines in its energy division. And its operations for processing aluminum and copper ores consume vast amounts of electricity. The company video reminds viewers that the world economy is growing rapidly, and with it our appetite for power.

(Soundbite of Rio Tinto video)

Unidentified Man: This vast increase in demand for energy has huge implications for the global environment however it's produced. So Rio Tinto Energy is at the center of the climate change debate.

Mr. BURKE: I started out wanting to work for any company, not a mining company in particular, because I wanted to learn how the corporate sector worked. Another good reason for doing this is to get a mining company to work for me and to some extent, I've been able to do that.

(Soundbite of people talking)

HARRIS: For example, a few years ago, Burke suggested that the company hire a top executive to deal specifically with climate change issues.

Mr. BURKE: I didn't do that because I said, yeah, boy, you have to do that, it did that because when you debated the issues internally, it became pretty clear that was a sensible way to proceed. You're not going to abandon the coal industry, but nor were you going to think that it's business as usual, and we don't give a damn.

HARRIS: Burke says there's no way in the world we're going to stop burning coal. So he's trying to get companies and governments together to capture the carbon dioxide that power plants emit. And put it under the ground instead of into the air.

Let's be blunt, he says. This will costs real money.

Mr. BURKE: There is no question that we can afford to do this, should we choose to. If you ask me what I think the prospects of that, I think they're slim. But they're political problems, they're not technological or economic problems.

Okay, we should go. We're going down here.

HARRIS: To that end, Burke spends a day a week as an adviser to the British government. We head out of the Rio Tinto office and walk through St. James's Park toward Whitehall.

Mr. BURKE: And the fact that they're 15 minutes of walk away is quite convenient for me, but actually, you can't solve the problem without being able to move from government to business and business to government.

HARRIS: Burke's political challenge is to get governments to think beyond their parochial interests. Right now, climate negotiations are actually a surrogate for other issues, with countries like the United States and China jockeying for economic advantage.

That won't go away, but Burke says, given the stakes, we need to think bigger. The Kyoto Treaty won't get us there, he says, and we can't solve the problem simply by taxing carbon emissions.

Mr. BURKE: It's just the idea that, somehow, we can get the price right and it will all fall into place, is completely stupid.

HARRIS: Burke says the world needs to recognize that we have to spend money to combat climate change, just as we spend money on health care and defense. And the public needs to convince their politicians that that's the case. That requires a shift in values.

Mr. BURKE: Behavioral change is culturally driven, not economically driven. And that's something that the people trying to deal with climate change have not actually grasped.

HARRIS: Can you really be an architect for a human culture. I mean, isn't it driven by chaos theory not by, sort of deliberate action.

Mr. BURKE: I think it's even more troubling than that. It's - let's look at the people who wanted to do things at that level. They were called Adolph Hitler or they were called Joseph Stalin. So there are huge dangers in working at that level. All I'm trying to understand is, how do you deal with a problem that could literally make it impossible for us to continue to live in the way we do, without reaching that level? I don't know. I'm not counsel of comfort here.

HARRIS: We stop in front of the entrance to the U.K.'s Foreign Office.

Mr. BURKE: I'm going in here now.

HARRIS: Burke has an appointment with Britain's Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. Burke has the advantage of working with a government that's a leading voice in climate change policy. But he's not deluding himself.

Mr. BURKE: I have no hope, in the sense of the outcome coming right. That's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because you see the problem, and not to try to do something when you see the problem would be a moral failure.

HARRIS: Burke says his job, really, is to draw out that feeling in all of us -to tap into what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, and to do that before our world is as horribly transformed as it is in the paintings he awakens to every day.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can learn more about Tom Burke's ideas at npr.org/climate. And while you're there, you can nominate someone you think is making a difference in the climate change debate. We might end up telling that person's story on the air.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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