Snowmass researcher Rick Heede’s work turns up heat on world’s largest carbon emitters |

Snowmass researcher Rick Heede’s work turns up heat on world’s largest carbon emitters

Rick Heede runs the nonprofit Climate Accountability Institute from his home in Snowmass. His work identifying the world's largest carbon producers could play a critical role in reducing emissions.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

In the battle to prevent humans from cooking Earth, Snowmass resident Rick Heede is playing a critical role as a foot soldier.

Heede, 67, a former employee of Rocky Mountain Institute and the founding director of Climate Accountability Institute, is receiving international recognition for groundbreaking work on sourcing carbon emissions. In painstaking research, Heede and assistants have identified the top 20 carbon producers worldwide between 1965 and 2017. It comes as no surprise that the troublesome 20 are oil, gas and coal companies. Combined, they produced 480 billion tons of carbon dioxide and methane, 35% of all fossil fuel emissions over that 53-year timeframe.

The work in 2013 gained attention after it was highlighted in thorough and aggressive reporting on climate change by a British daily newspaper.

“With the help of The Guardian it raised a ruckus,” Heede said.

“They have the skills, the resources and, to my way of thinking, the moral obligation to correct the problem.” — Rick Heede

He focused on top producers because he feels the corporations have a responsibility to the world at-large to prevent catastrophic climate change.

“They have the skills, the resources and, to my way of thinking, the moral obligation to correct the problem,” Heede told The Aspen Times.

Heede has spent his entire life interested in and concerned about the health of the planet. He spent his first 15 years in Norway with a “natural affinity for the outdoors.” He moved to the United States with his family and was drawn to issues facing humankind. While his education was in geography, his master’s thesis focused on climate change — before the term was widely known or understood. He recalled educating his adviser about the topic.

Heede signed on as a volunteer researcher at Rocky Mountain Institute shortly after its founding in 1982 in the Roaring Fork Valley by Amory and Hunter Lovins and later became part of the paid staff. He initially focused on federal energy policy and then headed home efficiency programs. After 18 years with RMI, he wanted to “get back to my passion,” which is climate change. He started a company in the early 2000s that measured emissions. The city of Aspen was one of his first clients. When consulting work dried up during the Great Recession, Heede gravitated into research on corporate emissions accountability. A friend and colleague in England was hired to look into the impacts of what was once Standard Oil, now splintered into several oil and gas firms. He hired Heede.

Heede took the research further by looking at the major emissions producers and had a paper published in 2013 in the journal Climate Change. The Guardian, which has declared the climate emergency the defining issue of our times, took note and reported on the findings.

Heede co-founded Climate Accountability Institute, which he operates out of his home in Old Snowmass, in 2013 “to confront fossil fuel companies” by digging further into their roles.

The Guardian again highlighted his nonprofit’s work as part of a recent series on climate issues. Climate Accountability Institute identified the top 20 emissions producers, headed by Saudi Aramco and followed by Chevron, the U.S. oil giant, Russian oil and gas producer Gazprom, ExxonMobil of the U.S. and, rounding out the top five, National Iranian Oil Co.

“We chose 1965 as the starting point for this new data because recent research has revealed that by mid-1960s the climate impact of fossil fuels was known by industry leaders and politicians,” Heede said.

His work has attracted interest not only from environmental heavyweights such as Greenpeace, but also litigators trying to hold accountable the major contributors to climate change.

An Aspen Times reporter met with Heede recently at his high-efficiency house, which also commands unbelievable views of Snowmass Creek Valley, Mount Sopris and the surrounding landscape from a perch atop Gateway to Snowmass subdivision.

AT: You were asked to write an opinion piece for The Guardian. What was the main message you were trying to convey?

Heede: That the leading gas and coal companies have a responsibility not only to their customers but the world at-large to adjust their investments and future production of fossil fuels in line with the best science. That’s the core message, to their boards as well as to their consumers. They have the skills, the resources and, to my way of thinking, the moral obligation to help correct the problem. And insofar as governments are too slow to avoid the worse climate change, corporations have a social license obligation to not make the problem worse.

AT: Why focus on corporations? What is the importance of that?

Heede: Corporations typically have a social contract, a social license to operate that includes acting responsibly, to not only its customers but to the world at-large. So to the extent that fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their products would cause climate harm, identifying which companies have contributed the most atmospheric change make sense for various audiences such as their shareholders, who want better corporate performance, citizens, consumers, litigators and other audiences who are concerned about climate change.

AT: Have the fossil fuel companies attacked your work?

Heede: There are more than a dozen cases in various jurisdictions across the U.S. None of those lawsuits have yet entered the evidentiary phase. When and if that happens, they will surely attack the work and the basic credibility and methodology. That said, to date, they have not challenged the results, mostly because I used their own self-reported production data on how much oil, gas and coal they produced. It’s well-known how much carbon is in each type of product. And whereas there might be some disagreements on the margin, the core results are unassailable.

AT: Do you think you’re going to be called as an expert witness in some of these suits?

Heede: Probably.

AT: In some of the coverage of your work, there’s been some criticism of (focusing on corporations). We are the consumers, we are demanding what the companies are producing. How do you answer that?

Heede: I fully support the notion that individuals, homeowners, corporations and manufacturers all have a role to play in reducing emissions as well as state and national governments. But the corporations that have known for decades that their products cause harm and invested tens of millions in dis-informing the public about those harms, they have a commensurate burden to address the problem they helped create. In addition they have lobbied for and received billions in subsidies. That’s a market distorting mechanism assuring that we produce and consume more than the market would demand otherwise. The oil and gas companies in particular have helped determine what kind of economy we have, arguing against renewables, changing subsidies away from renewables, keeping their own subsidies, determining that we for decades only had access to carbon-based fuels.

AT: What’s your hope for how this information gets used — accountability for the major producers of emissions?

Heede: I think the major corporations in Europe are better at reading the writing on the wall, far better than most American oil and gas companies. We see coal companies going bankrupt in the United States for over-investing in their product. We see American oil and gas companies being fairly intransigent in terms of setting targets that respect climate science compared to their European counterparts.

AT: Are European companies investing in a lot of renewables?

Heede: Uh-huh. These days you see a lot of green-wash television advertising about how wonderful oil companies are in investing in alternative fuels, but that’s a miniscule percentage of their capital investment in additional fossil fuel reserves. That’s the case with European companies as well, but to a much smaller degree. They have much larger commitments to investing in renewables.

AT: What is the responsibility of normal households?

Heede: Well, Aspen has very good building design codes, although I think we often tend to build houses that are larger than they need to be. Householders still have the responsibility to reduce the energy intensity of their home, large or small. We have a program here to help homeowners make some of those investments and recover some of those costs, the REMP program for example. In terms of our own transportation choices, we can make better choices in the vehicles we choose and how much driving we do and how we drive. Same thing with air travel, although driving your own car to Denver to avoid flying from Aspen to Denver is twice as carbon intensive as flying.

AT: Do you fly a lot for work and if so, what do you do to offset that?

Heede: Some years I fly a lot for work. I do not offset my emissions other than the work I do. I have assured, however, my own home is three times less carbon intensive per square foot than my neighbors. I work out of my home to save on transportation. I always take the bus to Aspen or up and down the valley. I have a low carbon intensive lifestyle other than my flying. I also believe that life is to be enjoyed. I don’t encourage wasting fossil fuels but I don’t argue that we shouldn’t use any. We live in an economy that is carbon intensive but we should focus on what changes we can make that can reduce our overall carbon emissions. We all have different choices to make.

AT: With the work you’ve done, are you optimistic or pessimistic or don’t you think of it in those terms as to whether humankind will rise to the challenge?

Heede: I’m optimistic as a person. I know for sure we’re not going to avoid all climate change. It can’t be stopped as much as ameliorated. But I don’t want to see my fellow citizens make it worse, either. We can avoid the worse. I want to help create an awareness and a system by which we avoid the worse of climate change. We don’t want to end up in 50 years looking at 3 or 4 degrees centigrade temperature rise across the globe. That would be a complete disaster. If we can keep temperature rise to about 1.5 degrees centigrade, we will avoid a lot of human suffering and dislocation and planetary disruption.


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