Interview with Thomas O’Neill, Research Director, InfluenceMap

The EIT Climate-KIC community comprises a rich diversity of expertise, skills and perspectives across our alumni, start-ups, innovation partners, advisors, and associates, all of whom contribute to our innovation capacity. Here we spoke to Thomas O’Neill, Research Director, InfluenceMap.

What is your professional title? And involvement with InfluenceMap?

I am the Research Director at InfluenceMap.  I manage a small team of analysts and researchers and devote much of my time to implementing our innovations.  

What’s the problem you’re hoping to address via InfluenceMap?

We see corporate lobbying as the primary obstacle to climate change legislation. The world will not avoid catastrophic climate change without effective political support.  We will also not succeed in combatting climate change if we do not bring business with us, globally.

How does Influence Map turn this problem into an opportunity?

We are a data-driven organization.  We believe that if the right people have the right information, they will drive ambitious climate action as the case for it has an intrinsic logic.

What are some other challenges in the lobbying and policy world, as related to climate action?

I would divide the lobbying and policy-related challenges to climate action into two.  Firstly, there is the climate-doubt machine which is funded and driven almost exclusively by several men in the United States.  Its influence is largely limited to the Anglosphere and is lessening over time, but its arguments still form the basis of how, for example, the US Republican party can construct an argument which denies the intrinsic logic of responding to climate change.  Secondly, there is the carbon-industrial complex. Companies are lobbying to prevent regulation that puts additional costs on their business or will undermine the market for their products.  Cement companies don’t want to pay to change the way they produce their product; German car-manufacturers want to sell lots of large, polluting cars.  The problem is that it is overwhelmingly more profitable in the short-term for a company to hire lobbyists in Brussels than to address its climate impact. Lobbying works, it works too well and skews our democracy in favour of those who can commit resources to the practice.

What are some other opportunities, as related to climate action?

We need effective regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but if you look at where the political discourse is we are very far behind.  As a first step, by now we should have globally banned new coal production or plants and implemented a high global carbon price.  Policies such as this will almost inevitably happen eventually as the implications of climate change become more severe. But by this point, it will be too late.  This is Gidden’s paradox and the reason why, as a movement, we have to drive the policy agenda.  Secondly, the global financial system has an immense capacity to de-fund undesirable practices and encourage low-carbon alternatives.  Companies can rarely build coal plants in Indonesia without finance, so we need to stop Japanese banks funding them.  On the other hand, if the market could better see the financial risks associated with high-carbon industries they would be more willing to invest in low-carbon alternatives. And whether you like it or not, the financial markets will bring the politicians with them. 

What is Influence Map’s innovation? How is it different from current offerings?

We are probably the first organization to systematically analyze and quantify the impact of corporate political influence.  We are climate-focused but our method could equally be applied to any issue: lobbying on tobacco, sugar, alcohol, etc.  We are also in the process of launching a new product which will allow anyone to understand how much oil, gas and coal every major investor effectively owns.  

How does it work (as much detail as possible)?

We are working with Climate-KIC on InfluenceMap’s Aligning Portfolios with Paris platform. This aims to accelerate the transition of capital markets towards a low-carbon future.  Specifically, we aim to create and make publicly available climate-tilted metrics on key investment portfolios that are increasingly dominating finance.  These are the 150,000+ listed funds (ETFs, Mutual Funds, Investment Trusts etc.) that are used by asset owners and individuals globally to access a variety of investment opportunities.  Our metrics will enable all of these investors to incorporate their climate concerns into their choice of funds and hence through the finance and corporate value chain.  This is a multi-year project being conducted jointly with the 2 Degrees Investment Initiative and the WWF European Policy Office.

What kind of changes do you see happening in the lobbying and policy world in the coming years, as related to climate change?

We can see two drivers for change: business logic and increased external pressure. InfluenceMap has, for example, recorded a strategic shift in the lobbying of major European utilities.  Companies such as Enel have recognized that their future business is in low-carbon energy and are using their political influence to create the policy framework to support this. 

Companies have also observably become less openly hostile to climate policy, although many effectively use trade associations to launder negative political influence. However, the hypocrisy of this position is becoming increasingly untenable. For example, investor pressure (including a shareholder resolution in 2017 and a lot of media attention) has forced BHP to look at the lobbying behaviour of its trade associations.

The result is a market-leading example of how companies should ensure the sum of their political foot-print is aligned with their values.  I very much doubt companies such as BP and Shell will be able to maintain their position that it is OK to fund groups such as the Western States Petroleum Association – which runs fake grass-roots campaigns to undermine climate policy – for very much longer.

What is next in your project pipeline?

We will shortly be launching our Finance Project and will release several conclusions with this. For example, the project will reveal which investors have been investing or divesting from the fossil fuel economy and which climate-titled funds are bizarrely invested in oil, gas or coal. 

What is Influence Map’s connection to EIT Climate-KIC? How might it have been supported?

We have a young team and would benefit from any opportunities relating to training or experience, such as workshops.

What’s your climate message to the world?

GHG emissions are not going to dramatically reduce without effective Government policy.

 

Thomas and his team will be at the Climate Innovation Summit in Dublin on 6-8 November 2018 to showcase an interactive map and analysis of the landscape of institutional investors funds and their assets. For more information visit climateinnovationsummit.org.

 
Location
United Kingdom
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