Billionaire Capitalist Speaks the Truth About Climate Change

During the past 100 years the relentless burning of fossil fuels has accelerated global warming. (Jeremy Grantham/GMO)

During the past 100 years the relentless burning of fossil fuels has accelerated global warming. (Jeremy Grantham/GMO)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

WESTPORT, Mass. — The talk was titled “Race of Our Lives: Trying to Live Successfully with Climate Change,” and it was one of the best presentations about climate change, its impacts, its causes and the solutions this reporter has attended.

The speaker, Jeremy Grantham, is a billionaire, has been called a “famed investment manager” and a “legendary investor,” and is a self-proclaimed capitalist. He’s also a renowned environmentalist and philanthropist. He spoke with passion, honesty and frustration, all sprinkled with a touch of profanity.

Despite his affinity for capitalism, the venture capitalist had no problem blaming his favorite economic system for many of the climate-related challenges now facing the world.

“Capitalism is mythically good at everything, but there are a handful of things it doesn’t do well,” said Grantham, noting that it has helped orchestrate a tragedy of the commons. “Capitalism will pollute at will. It will always take the cheap route unless mandated not to. To a capitalist, grandchildren have no value.”

He noted that all but a few corporations are “profit maximizers.” He mentioned Unilever as a rare exception to the rule.

The Westport resident co-founded the global investment management firm Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo (GMO) four decades ago. Prior to that, Grantham co-founded Batterymarch Financial Management in 1969. That company became a pioneer in quantitative investing.

Grantham has made a fortune for himself and his clients, and 20 years ago he began putting a sizable slice of his own wealth into environmental charities. In 1997, he and his wife, Hannelore, used their shared wealth to create the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. The Boston-based organization “seeks to raise awareness of urgent environmental issues” and believes “climate change represents the world’s primary environmental threat today.”

The husband-wife team launched their foundation to concentrate on climate change and agriculture. Their philanthropy has since expanded its areas of focus to include renewable energy. Grantham’s interest in climate change was forged by global travels that exposed him to masses of clear-cut forests.

Grantham called the intersection of climate and finance a “sparsely populated space.” He’s been writing about the implications of climate change and resource scarcity for several years. His writings are published in his quarterly investor letters. He has given climate presentations to the Untied Nations, the Gardening Club of America and at an MIT Climate CoLab conference. On March 4, he was the featured speaker at the Westport River Watershed Alliance’s annual meeting at Bittersweet Farm on Main Road.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has grown by nearly 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. (Jeremy Grantham/GMO)

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has grown by nearly 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. (Jeremy Grantham/GMO)

His climate-change concerns center on the issues of overpopulation and climate emissions/fossil-fuel use. He said overpopulation and climate change have partnered to produce a food-shortage problem that has led to the overuse of fertilizers and the creation of superbugs. He noted that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has grown by nearly 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution.

“In a blink of any eye we added 120 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere,” Grantham said. “We will add another 120 before we are done.”

The parts-per-million stress point, according to scientists, academics and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. Currently, the level is at 408.35 ppm.

Humankind’s appetite for fossil fuels has also made us more productive in bed.

“The Industrial Revolution, the use of coal and oil, hurled us into the future,” Grantham said. “Three hundred hours of human labor were replaced with a gallon of fuel. Fossil-fuel power has carried us farther than is sustainable. ... With surplus food, we began to breed like rabbits. Like rats and beavers, we moved up to the limit of the food supply.”

When Grantham was born, in 1938, the worldwide population was 2 billion. In his lifetime, the 79-year-old has seen the planet’s population more than triple. By 2100, the population is projected to reach between 10 billion and 16 billion. He said female education and family planning, most notably in Africa, are a must if the world wants to adequately address this growing problem.

“A more careful population in Africa is needed,” Grantham said. “It’s the biggest problem we face in regards to overpopulation, but it’s hard to talk about in NGO circles.”

Population, climate change and consumption are inextricably linked in their collective global impact. This triumvirate is stressing the planet’s finite collection of natural resources.

The continuing increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, are causing a rise in atmospheric temperature, which in turn melts glaciers and ice sheets and raises sea levels.

Grantham said the warming atmosphere holds more water and contains more energy, increasing the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events such as downpours, when an inch or more of rain falls. His PowerPoint presentation showed that the combination of higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, resulting in more droughts and flooding, is decreasing crop yields.

“The climate is moving much faster than anyone would have expected,” he said.

Grantham noted that humans have been around for 300,000 years and began practicing agriculture some 12,000 years ago. But he points to the past 100 or so years as the time period that has accelerated global warming.

He said he is far more optimistic about technology’s ability to solve energy problems than most environmentalists. But he’s pessimistic about our ability to feed a rapidly growing global population.

“If we froze the population at 1.5 billion from 100 years ago, we would have no problems. We’d be cruising right along. We would have solved global poverty,” Grantham said. “With today’s population at 7.5 billion, if we froze the tech from 100 years ago, we’d be absolutely toast. We’d have no chance.”

Besides placing the blame of runaway global warming at the feet of capitalists and human reproduction, Grantham also took at shot an unexpected group: climate scientists. He said for far too long scientists have protected themselves against the risk of making an overstatement rather than accurately noting the true climate danger the planet faces.

“We're making a dreadful mistake by understating climate science,” he said. “Scientists should say what they honestly believe instead of being so damn conservative.”

He noted that during the past year more scientists have begun to admit that climate change is accelerating.

“We’re not just losing the war, but we’re losing at an accelerated rate,” Grantham said. He noted that “the powers of disinformation fueled by fossil fuels” are a big reason why we are now in this predicament. The gutting of environmental regulations is only making the problem more profound, he added.

“Speaking as a capitalist, we need regulation and government involvement,” he said. “Good regulation is a must.”

Of note: During the March 4 annual meeting of the Westport River Watershed Alliance, Evelyn Wilbur was recognized as Volunteer of the Year and Julie Morotti was named Teacher of the Year.