Green Warrior In Gray Flannel

Why business listens to activist Jeremy Leggett

Like the Greenpeace radicals who recently paddled kayaks into a French nuclear testing zone off Tahiti, Jeremy Leggett is a fierce environmental campaigner. The difference is in tactics. Instead of paddles and flares, the pinstriped director of Greenpeace International's solar campaign uses slides and statistics to bring about change. His mission: convincing insurance executives that global warming could bankrupt their industry. And he's getting results.

So far, some 50 European and Asian insurers have signed an accord with the U.N. pledging to consider the issues of climate change and other environmental problems in all business practices. Dozens of banks have signed a similar U.N. pledge, fearing that many of the industries they lend money to--such as coastal resorts--could be devastated by climate change. That would leave the banks with devalued or stranded assets. "Jeremy Leggett was the catalyst for a shift in our attitude and awareness," says Rolf Gerling, a billionaire who heads the Gerling Group of Insurance Cos. in Germany.

HURRICANES. The likely extent of global warming is still being debated by scientists armed with ultracomplex computer models. But a consensus has emerged. Last December, the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that by 2100, worldwide temperatures would rise by 1 to 3.5 degrees centigrade (chart). This warming will be caused by an increase in carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that capture and hold heat escaping from earth. Fossil-fuel burning is the main source of these gases. Some scientists believe that one consequence of this warming will be more frequent extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods.

In the past, industry has been loath to acknowledge that global climate change is a problem. Leggett, 42, is particularly well suited for changing that. He is a former oil-industry consultant and lecturer at London's Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine, and, according to Kaspar Mueller, a Swiss management consultant, "he speaks the language of business."

When Leggett first approached insurers about four years ago, they were reeling from a record-breaking string of natural disasters--and ready to listen. Of the 24 largest insured U.S. weather-related catastrophes ever, 21 took place in the past decade. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew cost insurers more than $17 billion and bankrupted eight of them. If such storms become more common, the industry could face huge losses. "Climate change poses a real threat to our business," says Franklin W. Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Assn.

Leggett's new incarnation is a big change from the days when he jetted around the globe as an industry consultant, hunting for untapped oil reserves. After earning a doctorate in earth sciences at Oxford University in 1978, Leggett took a faculty position at Imperial College, where he spent 11 years researching ocean geology and consulting for oil companies.

As scientific evidence mounted that trapped greenhouse gases were hiking the planet's thermostat, Leggett grew dissatisfied with academia and his consulting work. But because his department was heavily funded by oil companies, there was little room for serious questioning of their practices. In 1989, he decided to join Greenpeace--the first university professor to do so.

Leggett's arrival coincided with the group's realization that it needed business to help achieve lasting goals. While Greenpeace campaigns could spur consumer demand for green products and technologies, the organization didn't have the money to develop and market them itself. Last year, Greenpeace's budget sank to $136 million, down from its peak of $176 million in 1990.

So far, the changes Leggett has prompted in the insurance industry have been limited to little more than expressions of good intentions. Insurers aren't dumping their oil investments or lobbying governments to set firm limits on carbon dioxide emissions yet. But they have promised to support insurance products and services that promote sound environmental practice--and to refuse to sell insurance to at least some businesses that don't. In the past year, for example, Norway's Uni Storebrand has refused to insure more than 350 ships for failing to meet stringent safety and environmental standards.

HIGH HURDLES. Bringing the financial-services industry into the debate over global warming also has big consciousness-raising value. Last fall, insurer Swiss Reinsurance Co. took out a full-page newspaper ad confronting the issue. The company argued that reducing the risk of catastrophes related to global warming was a better policy than merely raising premiums or refusing to insure some risks.

The next step for Leggett is to persuade insurers and bankers to take decisive action to curb greenhouse gases. "Environmental groups aren't going to solve the world's problems," insists Leggett. "Industry will." He also hopes to kick-start a "solar revolution" by getting insurers and banks to divert some of their investments away from fossil fuels and into environmentally friendly power sources such as solar energy.

Leggett recognizes the steep obstacles he's up against. No American insurer has yet signed the U.N. accord. And investments in alternative energy may be limited--partly because regulators in most countries don't permit insurers to make risky investments. Leggett admits Greenpeace hasn't had much success galvanizing public concern over global warming. Unlike a redundant oil rig, "climate change is not an obvious talisman for support," he says, alluding to Greenpeace's successful effort to prevent Shell Oil Co. from dumping the Brent Spar--a defunct rig--at sea.

Still, in the long run, an artillery of pinstriped eco-warriors such as Leggett and some of his Greenpeace colleagues may prove more powerful in achieving environmental goals than a fleet of activists in kayaks.

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