Paul Dickinson is the Executive Chair of the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), an NGO that runs a carbon disclosure system to enable companies, cities, states and regions to measure and manage their environmental impacts.
Paul is shouting across the room as we open the call.
P: “What do you see in the picture?
He turns back to the screen.
P: “I’m just checking with a colleague who has known me for ages... Hold on....” Someone shouts back:
Paul asked for his picture to be taken on the steps of the Ministry of Defence and I had spoken to the security guards at the door to see if it would be possible. The response was a clear refusal but, in a moment of chat and banter, there was mention that each evening the doors were closed, monitored only by CCTV. It felt like a ‘No’ that I could work with.
We meet at the building on a warm, balmy evening. Paul is chatting about the Photo-Dialogue project and his choice of casual clothes for the photograph. We don’t have much time, he has another appointment and I wonder how long it will take for the guards to turn up, but I hear his care and concern for me as we work. I struggle to reconcile the man before me with the impression I hold of him as an inevitably hard-edged activist and business leader.
CDP’s numbers are staggering. Paul started the project in 2000 with the idea of creating a global economy that would work sustainably and prevent dangerous climate change. Now they have more than 6000 companies and 500 cities reporting annually through them. They represent supply chain members with a purchasing power of $2.7tn and investor assets of $100tn. In addition, a total of 71 states and regions now measure their environmental impact through CDP.
S: So, how do you conceptualize the future? What does ‘vision’ mean for you?
P: The simplicity for me, is that since I became very concerned about climate changes, I found myself immediately surrounded by just a hell of a lot of pictures from scientists about the future. A colleague once asked, “Have you read the 3rd Assessment Report?”, which is from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and I said, “Well, I’ve sort of looked at it.” And he said, “No, have you read it?” and I said, “It’s one and a half thousand pages...” He said, “No, no, you have to read it.” So I did. And in that one and a half thousand pages were just lots and lots of pictures of the future. And often with some choices, of course. We can get away without much trouble or there might be a lot of trouble.
S: If I’ve understood you, it feels graphic, visual, but I wasn’t sure if you meant you were literally seeing pictures or you were converting the text into pictures.
P: Well, on that specific on that specific point, if I think about the big ‘felt’ moments; I studied at Schumacher College and Stefan Harding was talking [on global warming], I was a bit facetious to him. I said, “So what if Bangladesh floods, and it’s always been too cold here.” He said, “No, no, the Gulf Stream is going to shut off and it’s going to be freezing here and we haven’t got enough snow ploughs.” So the first sense that I had, a real sense of climate change, pictures if you will, was the discontinuity between my childhood, which was a happy childhood, and then a future that was going to be different, so I felt that discontinuity, that was my first real climate change feeling.
The second picture that had a big impression on me, a huge impression on me to be honest, was from a 1999 paper from the Clinton White House about the Kyoto Protocol. Anyway, the point was that it had the graph of CO2 against temperature and they seemed to move in lockstep for 650,000 years and then the CO2 goes up sharply and the temperature starts rising and you’re like ‘Aarrrgh...’ And my third picture that I’ll just offer up is that, quite often, if we’re in a bit of a quandary around here, as we often are, we’ll say, “Well what’s in the best interests of the starving or struggling Bangladeshi child. And that Bangladeshi child might be now, or in 2050, or they might be in 2100, but the notion of vulnerability and country... it’s a sort of an abstract picture, in a way. You literally see someone in your mind’s eye who’s, you know, who’s without technology or financial resources and cannot feed themselves or has no drinking water or they’re in a refugee camp or something. The focus doesn’t get sharpened but it’s the impulse....
S: I like that. It’s shorthand for quite a lot of things really isn’t it? And when you invoke ‘the Bangladeshi child, that’s something that you and your team share well enough?
P: It’s probably my pictorial style and not everyone in the organisation will mention the Bangladeshi child but they will probably say, “Which way is most effectively going to measure on our mission or our vision?” But the reason I like to evoke it is just to try and remind ourselves that we are not doing something abstract, these are not quarterly figures or we’re not seeking to win a Nobel prize, there’s actual lives....
S: I guess I’d be interested to talk about the children, the childhood images. What is it that you particularly recall about your childhood?
P: I mean, you know, now you could say snow, for example. I’m 52, about to turn 53, and we would have snow 3 times a year or more than as a child and that’s sort of stopped. So it’s a small thing but I just notice it. A bigger thing would be would be the idea that there could be a New York style 'Snowmageddon' here, that we would just get frozen to the core. But I suppose what happened was that I had a sort of comfortable childhood; my parents weren’t particularly rich but they were certainly comfortable and they were reasonably sort of attentive and, you know, behaved themselves for the most part, and so I felt pretty safe, I suppose, and if somebody said, “Well, you've spent a lot of time working on this problem, why is that?” It’s because I like the idea of people feeling safe.