Why is global warming still an issue we have left on the back burner?

Fifteen years after BP relaunched itself as "Beyond Petroleum" to burnish its green credentials, the time is ripe for the energy majors to think again about clean technology, says <b>James Ashton</b>

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The Independent Online

At the Hay Festival, the astronomer royal Lord Rees was keen to plug Asteroid Day, which is hurtling closer like a lump of rock falling from the sky. On 30 June, events are planned to educate people on how better to protect the planet from unpredictable space debris.

While there is always a risk of such disaster, it is no different to what faced our Neanderthal antecedents, Lord Rees pointed out – which is in direct contrast to the rising threat of man-made disaster from extreme climate change by the end of this century. Why fret over whether radioactive waste can be made safe in 10,000 years’ time, he added, when so little attention is being given to global energy policy even 30 years ahead?

Lord Rees advocates a huge increase in research spending to generate energy from new sources, but also to explore how to store it. Despite our reputation for academic excellence, I must admit surprise that UK spending on research and development is a smaller proportion of gross national product than the OECD average. That can’t be right. With apologies to medical research, surely saving the planet is the ultimate cause to get the next generation of British engineers excited?

Fifteen years after BP relaunched itself as "Beyond Petroleum" to burnish its green credentials, the time is ripe for the energy majors to think again about clean technology. It would be an ideal riposte to the current push for pension funds to divest their stakes in fossil-fuel companies. Lord Rees is ambivalent towards that campaign, reasoning that someone like the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, representing his foundation, might be more effective making a rabble-rousing speech at a company’s shareholder meeting instead of just selling out.

He also revealed his is working on two books. One has the typically ambitious title What We Still Don’t Know; the second is an updated version of Our Final Century: Will Civilisation Survive the Twenty-first Century? First time around, the tome was renamed Final Hour for American readers who obviously demand instant gratification. With a title like that, how many will have hung around for what may be a bleaker update?

Thomas Cook took leave of its senses

Two years ago I interviewed Harriet Green about her turnaround of Thomas Cook. There is much to credit in what she did at the company, not least reintroducing a sense of purpose, and much to question about the abrupt manner of her exit.

Ms Green made the point that even though the holiday company’s weak finances had been plastered across the press, a steady 25 million customers had still booked to go away with it that year.

I do hope many of those holidaymakers question their loyalty to Thomas Cook after the appalling treatment of the family of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, the children killed nine years ago on holiday in Corfu as a result of a faulty boiler leaking toxic carbon monoxide. It is hard to think of a more ham-fisted corporate response to a tragedy, from failing to apologise, to trying to stop an inquest taking place, to trying to make amends by pledging an arbitrary portion of share awards to charity.

What is clear is that there is no right answer. Were Ms Green or her successor Peter Fankhauser to hand millions of pounds directly to the grieving parents, it would not be enough to resurrect a happy family unit.

But plotting a way ahead together, instead of formulating a response using the myopic prism of public relations, would be far better. And how long must we wait for Manny Fontenla-Novoa, who led Thomas Cook when the tragedy took place, to step from the shadows? All this from a tour operator that rebranded itself with a heart logo a few years ago. Shameful.

Talk 'Brexit', give negotiations an edge

It is no surprise that differences of opinion over the UK’s future in Europe are bubbling into the open. The spat at the City of London Corporation between its de facto leader, Mark Boleat, and more Eurosceptic committee members is a reminder that business will struggle to speak with one voice on this issue.

As David Cameron tours European leaders to win support for his reform agenda, business leaders would be wise not to give their unstinting support to whatever is written on the piece of paper that he eventually waves in so-called victory.

For so many reasons, such as remaining a central part of the world’s largest trading bloc, the UK is better off within the European Union. But it could also prosper by going it alone.

To raise the prospect of an exit, which the Eurosceptics who have yet to find their voice will do, is to give real edge to these negotiations. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t want the UK to quit any more than I think our electorate does.

Board diversity is too academic

Charities and universities have smashed the glass ceiling before most blue-chip companies. But there are still all-male preserves to overcome. So it was heartening to see Louise Richardson being nominated as the first female vice-chancellor of Oxford, although she will be a loss to my alma mater, St Andrews.

What is unclear is why women thrived first away from the corporate world, where it has taken a sustained government campaign to diversify leadership. And why, when these figures lead huge, complex organisations with heavy financial requirements, haven’t more of them been hired as FTSE 100 non-executive directors? On the board of drugs giant AstraZeneca, the University of Manchester’s Dame Nancy Rothwell is an honourable exception. Let’s have a few more.