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A Mining Adviser's View of Global Warming

Tom Burke started out his career as a firebrand environmental activist. Then he decided to pursue an environmental agenda from behind the scenes. Today, he's an adviser to mining company Rio Tinto and the British government.
Richard Harris / NPR
Tom Burke started out his career as a firebrand environmental activist. Then he decided to pursue an environmental agenda from behind the scenes. Today, he's an adviser to mining company Rio Tinto and the British government.

In his efforts to tackle global warming, Tom Burke wears many hats. He's a businessman at one of the world's largest mining companies, as well as an adviser to the British government.

And at heart, he's an environmental activist.

But Burke is a pragmatist in the corporate world and the halls of government. He doesn't plan to give up his creature comforts and he doesn't expect that others will, either. He lives in a swank London apartment that opens onto a Japanese garden, complete with waterfall and carp pool. From the balcony, he could easily pitch an olive pit from a martini into the Thames River; though he prefers to drink scotch and fine wines.


Burke's lofty apartment is filled with books and art, much of it the work of painter Alan Rankle. Pointing to the misty Turner-esque landscapes marred by broad brushstrokes of blue and titanium white, Burke says, "They communicate what's happening to the planet in a way that strikes people in their stomach, not in their head, and therefore it creates an impulse to do something, as opposed to an idea to think about."

He spends every waking day trying to do the same thing, whether he's working for the mining company or the British government or as an environmentalist. Today, Burke has short-cropped gray hair that frames his round face. But back in the early 1970s, 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 United Kingdom.

"There's a limit to campaigning," he says. "Environmentalism is an opera, and there are lots of different songs to be sung in it, and I'd in a sense sung the campaigning song. I wanted to go sing the political song."

He ran twice for Parliament 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, global warming became Burke's central issue.

"We still for the most part think of this as just another environmental problem, and it's not," he says. "This is a problem which, if we don't fundamentally solve it in the next two decades, could make civilization impossible."


Dealing with climate change isn't impossible, but it is daunting. Societies have to change the way they generate power for the global economy, Burke says. He doesn't think on a small scale. His lamps still have conventional light bulbs, for instance. And although, at the age of 60, he could get a free pass for London's buses and the underground, he instead rides a beefy BMW motorcycle a few miles to his office at the mining company.

Looping past the Globe Theatre, crossing the Thames and turning past Trafalgar Square — the old center of the British Empire, where Burke has organized many demonstrations — he pulls his motorcycle into the garage at the offices of Rio Tinto, 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. A company video reminds viewers that the world economy is growing rapidly and, with it, our appetite for power.

"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," Burke says. "Another good reason for doing it is to get a mining company to work for me, and to some extent, I've been able to do that."

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

"It didn't do that because I said, 'Boy, you've got to do that,'" he says. "It did that because when you debated the issues internally, it became pretty clear that 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."

Burke says there's no way countries are going to stop burning coal. So he's trying to get companies and governments together to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and put it under the ground instead of into the air.

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

To that end, Burke spends one day a week as an adviser to the British government. "The fact that they're a 15-minute's walk away is quite convenient for me," he says, leaving the Rio Tinto office and walking through St. James' Park toward Whitehall. "But actually, you can't solve the problem without being able to move from government to business and business to government."

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. But Burke says, given the stakes, we need to think bigger. He says that the Kyoto Protocol and taxes on carbon emissions won't fix the problem.

"The idea that we can get the price right and somehow it'll all fall into place is just completely stupid," he says.

Burke says countries must spend money to combat climate change, just as we spend money on health care and defense. And the public needs to convince politicians of that need. But that will require a shift in values.

"Behavioral change is culturally driven, not economically driven," he says. "And that's something that the people trying to deal with climate change have not actually grasped." Still, Burke remains cautious of going too far in regulating behavior, mentioning dictators like Hitler and Stalin, whose social engineering projects ravaged their societies.

"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."

At the United Kingdom's Foreign Office, Burke has an appointment with 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.

"I have no hope, in the sense of the outcome coming right away. That's not why I'm doing it," he says. "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."

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 it before our world is as horribly transformed as it is in the paintings he awakens to every day.

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