Investing

ZEUS: Doomsday Clock and the return of the scientists; plus the oil credit watch

By David Callaway, Callaway Climate Insights

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — One might be forgiven for thinking the removal of Donald Trump’s Twitter account did more to save the world from imminent annihilation than anything global leaders can do on Covid, climate change or nuclear disarmament.

But the damage done to science and scientists over the past four years in the U.S. — and other countries — is going to take some time to repair. Time we don’t have.

Like most journalists, I’ve been aware for decades of the Doomsday Clock, the iconic hands of time pointing toward nuclear catastrophe. But I hadn’t had occasion until recently to meet and speak with the team at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the media group founded by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists in 1945, which manages the clock.

Their annual announcement was today and for the second straight year, they’ve left the clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been. Over the years, the clock has moved back and forth between two minutes and five minutes to midnight, at one point in 1991 pushing back to 17 minutes to midnight after the end of the Cold War. But it’s been steadily ticking down during the Trump presidency, and now with climate change and Covid as major threats, the group’s Science and Security Board decided it would remain at 100 seconds.

Dr. Rachel Bronson, president and CEO, said Covid is an “historic wake-up call” that shows how little prepared governments are to manage the threats of nuclear weapons and climate change. A huge part of the problem is “the deliberate erosion by politicians of science and our core institutions,” she said.

To turn the hands back, the group called on President Joe Biden to take leadership by promising “no first-use” of nuclear weapons and taking the ability of launching a nuclear war out of the hands of one person, in this case the president, among other things. On climate change, it called for further decarbonization of major economies, for China to reorient its Belt and Road initiative to show leadership, and for global banks to reduce capital flows to fossil fuel companies.

In a virtual breakout discussion after the clock event, the ideas got more specific. The group I was invited to discussed the chances Biden had to make headway against a divided Senate and Trump-stacked courts in pushing through regulations. One idea that seemed interesting was simply through government procurement. Using its massive buying power to reduce harmful emissions.

We saw an example of this earlier in the week, when Biden said he would swap the federal vehicle fleet of 650,000 gas-guzzling cars and trucks to electric vehicles. Another is the purchase of carbon-free electricity, also announced. A third is in the area of harmful cement; almost half of the 83 million metric tons which is produced each year to make concrete is purchased by the government. Other ideas around racial justice and international cooperation were also stimulating.

Biden, for his part, acted quickly. On Wednesday he signed a memorandum protecting federal scientists from political interference. A first step toward some of the badly-need rebuilding he’ll need to do in government departments ravaged over the past four years.

It will take more than announcements and press conferences to restore faith and credibility to science after years of disinformation campaigns, but at least it’s a start. Groups like the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists attract great thinkers, which in turn generate ideas for governments. As long as they’re listening. . . .


. . . . Oil company stocks fell Wednesday after S&P Global Ratings said it might soon downgrade the credit ratings of fossil fuel giants such as Exxon (XOM), Chevron (CVX), Total and Shell (RDS.A), citing climate change and a global push toward renewable energy. The move was a kick to an industry already downed by lower oil prices and the growing decline of capital provided by banks and pension funds.

Exxon, fighting a corporate activist on climate moves, also said it is considering adding some new members to its board, after activist Engine No. 1 formally proposed four names. All four have renewables cred, but the one who caught my eye was Anders Runevad, former CEO of Danish wind turbine giant Vestas. The announcement did little for Exxon stock, however.

Access to capital is the lifeblood of these global conglomerates. As the squeeze continues, we should expect more renewable announcements from them, as we’ve seen from BP (BP), for instance. Investors will want to watch their revenue mixes closely, for signs of any real change.

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