Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ex-BP chief John Browne talks oil, climate change and life in the closet

Lord John Browne was in India to promote his new book, 'Make. Think. Imagine', on the future of civilisation

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Dec 7, 2019 06:03:36 AM IST
Updated: Dec 6, 2019 05:02:03 PM IST

Ex-BP chief John Browne talks oil, climate change and life in the closetAccording to Browne, climate change is one of the most urgent issues engineering can help solve

John Browne, formally known as Lord Browne of Madingley, served as the CEO of oil and gas major British Petroleum (BP) until 2007, when he turned in an untimely resignation after his sexuality was outed by a newspaper. Browne was in the closet until the age of 60, and kept the secret also because his mother, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, had advised him to stay quiet, to “never be part of a minority group”.

Browne, who also serves as the chairman of the board for Huawei UK, has written five books, some of which deal with corporate life in the closet. In India to promote his latest, Make. Think. Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation, Browne delves into issues of privacy, techno-phobia and big tech, and takes a hard look at the role of engineering in the modern day. Edited excerpts from an interview with Forbes India:

Q. Based on your experience, and in the context of this book, how do you react to the phrase ‘data is the new oil’?
Partly, I think it’s wrong. Oil is part of energy, and energy is the world’s biggest business. In order to do anything with anything, we need energy; it enables the growth of people, their wealth, happiness, health. But I understand the meaning of the phrase, and that data has become dynamic. There’s so much more you can get out of data.

Now that we have the super gigantic hardware infrastructure—which people think is the cloud, but is actually huge data centres with powerful computers—we can find interesting things from data to objectives we set. So it transforms many things we do, whether it’s medicine, health care, traffic control, how we manufacture, and so on. Everything can be made better optimised, and indeed, sometimes brand new things can be done with data.

Q. Many see that as cause for concern…
Like everything, there are good parts and dangerous parts to it. Data alone can’t do anything—it’s what you make with it. And the doing of it is an engineering product; it always has both intended consequences and unintended, or sometimes, darker consequences. So right now, there’s a big debate on just what Google should be doing with health data, especially after the Fitbit acquisition. There’s already been a real scandal, where data provided from the NHS [the UK’s National Health Service], which was meant to be anonymised, was used incorrectly by Google.

But most people would say, if we can solve great problems in the world, and no one exploits it, I’ll give you my data for the common good. That’s fair. I think there are issues around preventing these systems from doing the wrong thing with data, and that requires an engineering approach to changing algorithms. We need regulations.

Q. How does global politics link to engineering? Huawei, for instance, has been caught in a crossfire.
Huawei has been almost like a football between two great powers—the United States and China. Huawei has very significant technologies that it has created itself—hardly surprising, as it spends $16 billion a year on R&D and employs some of the finest brains around the world. So it’s got the ascendancy at 5G, and it’s doing other things that have caught everybody by surprise. I would say it’s two years ahead of anybody else in 5G, and that ‘everybody else’ is not actually US companies. So the US is reacting to the fact that they are not a leader in a critical technology, a doctrine that they have established since the Sputnik. There are plenty of reasons why they do this.

Is it security? Doesn’t look like it. Could it be security? Obviously, yes, because in security, today’s friend could be tomorrow’s enemy. So every system has to be protected, and every system has holes. So in the case of the UK, the government is examining it to see whether or not they can actually use Huawei and be secure at the same time. There’s no evidence that Huawei has done anything wrong. People look at the cautionary principle, but if you take that to an extreme and say ‘no risk’, then you do end up with nothing.

Ex-BP chief John Browne talks oil, climate change and life in the closetWith his new book Browne wanted to put a human face on engineering

Q. You say you wrote this book because you were ‘increasingly angry with people who thought civilisation was based on art and culture’; but you are a patron of the arts. How does this dichotomy work?

I wanted to give engineering some more airtime. I think arts and culture do get that, and of course, they’re very important and determine the way we think. But actually, without engineering, none of this would be possible. I wanted to put a human face on engineering. Quite a lot of people in the world today are techno-phobic; they worry that engineering just produces bad things. It produces facial recognition, which is used to discriminate against people. For example, in China, it produces drones that are used to kill people rather than deliver medicines. And they say we should hold all this. But that’s not how progress is created. The solution to the bad things is more engineering, not less.

Q. You mention visiting the Holocaust museum in Washington DC with your mother, and seeing an IBM computer that could tabulate and identify Jewish people with ‘inhuman efficiency’. What sort of responsibility do we need to inculcate to prevent that sort of human intervention?
All of us have a responsibility to make sure people’s human rights are not abused. I’ve seen this very personally. The sad news is that if someone sets their mind to do it, with force or power, they can do it. They don’t do it very often, but when they do, it’s really bad—whether it’s the Nazis or Pol Pot in Cambodia. So education and connectivity are critical. The first level is trying to teach everybody that these amazing tools should not be used to destroy humanity. Then have people lead who believe the same thing, who can use that power to stop its misuse. Then, use regulation, law and international treaties, where they work.

Q. You’ve built a career in oil, and at some point you decided you want to look at alternative sources. What brought about this change, and what has the pivot been like?
Twenty-two years ago, I was just three years into being CEO of BP, and even at that time, in the ’90s, I looked around and said, ‘You know, there’s a problem here. We’re producing too much carbon’. Twenty-two years ago, I made a speech saying the oil and gas industry will do something about it and stand accountable. BP had a very clear plan and executed it while I was CEO—almost nobody else followed. And they were very defensive. Many old companies were in the camp of saying it [global warming] doesn’t really exist; others did tiny activities of dealing with their own emissions. And now they’re beginning to discuss just really what to do.

So I concluded that first of all, the energy business is not just oil and gas. It’s everything—coal is still a big part of it, and it’s also renewables, nuclear, hydro, biomass and biofuels. I thought, wouldn’t it be good to do everything? On the one hand, take carbon out of hydrocarbons, which we now have the tools and technologies to do. On the other hand, we could create new energy sources. So when I left BP, I did exclusively renewables, and ran a big fund [at private equity firm Riverstone]. And then after a period, I thought I would get back into oil and gas, and have worked to create a very big independent private company [Wintershall DEA] that produces 700,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day, 70 percent gas. It’s doing pretty well for now, and one day, it’ll float in the stock market—likely in the second half of next year.

So now I’m thinking about doing more alternative renewable [energy] activity. I think they go hand in hand and I think people need to just reflect on the energy system of the world. It is huge. It is directed by economics, politics, by behaviour, and by science and engineering. There’s no one solution to everything. When we have these debates sitting in the US and the UK, we often forget how ‘most of the world’ is consuming energy, or countries that aren’t around the region. We’re going to be using oil, gas and hydrocarbon for a long time to come. So we need to think about how to handle that. The more nations grow, the more energy they need. The more you store in the cloud, the more energy you need. Software doesn’t run energy-free. That’s why we need to think about the system here.

I fully understand why people pressure governments to say, no hydrocarbons. You can say that but you can’t do it. India couldn’t work without hydrocarbons; Saudi Arabia would collapse without it. That’s just two examples.

Q. What would you say is the way forward?
Decarbonising hydrocarbons and adding more energy sources, but hand in hand. The oil and gas companies have to think through how to decarbonise, and what they need from the government to get kick-started. Is the time right? It’s not without significance, these riots on the streets. Generally, there’s a sense that the weather is changing. Wildfires in the middle of Los Angeles, for instance, have really caught people’s attention.

Q. What would you say to activists like Greta Thunberg?
Carry on! I do think the activism is a good thing, because there’s no doubt that we’ve got to do something about climate change. But the precise plans that they have don’t work—you can’t make the world hydrocarbon-free by 2030. You can’t even do that for just the UK, which is 65 million people.

Q. You say that we’re long since the point where anyone can have a private life, online or offline. As someone who has had to separate his private and professional lives, what sort of dangers do you see with that?
Part of it, we’ve brought on ourselves, because we’ve sat in front of the screen and blindly clicked ‘I agree’ every time a notice comes up. As a result, we’re no longer anonymous. We’ve been giving away our privacy. And we’re not going to get that back.

Privacy has new meaning. A lot of tests have been conducted with successive generations where people don’t actually care too much about this. They have some very, very small limits on privacy. I think most people object to government intervention without approval on their data. In the UK, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has been a very important protection. But the key is to not get an over-reaction that will prevent us from using data for the common good.

On an individual basis, when you’re in the public eye, I don’t think you can keep your secrets. I tried to keep a secret up until I was 60, that I was gay. I did it because I came from an era where it was not socially acceptable. It was stigmatising, it was illegal. My mother, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, told me to never tell anyone, to never be identified as a minority, because the majority always hurt the minority when the going gets tough. So I decided I would bottle it all up. What I hadn’t realised in all of this was that my impression of myself was fixed in time, but the world was moving ahead.

In 2007, I was outed in a newspaper, and it was a huge scandal. 2007 was not 2019—but what I didn’t realise was that enough had also changed back then. In fact, rather than lose friends, I got more. What’s in your head is the most difficult thing to move. For me, it was a great lesson to remind oneself to look around and absorb how things are moving.

A lot has changed between 2007 and 2019. I was one of the people promoting marriage equality in the UK, and I’m pleased that happened. I think it’s more acceptable now in many parts of the world. But in some parts of the world, it’s still dangerous to come out. There’s no one rule, and the context will determine whether or not you should come out. But it’s overall good for individuals, and it’s good for business—if you can bring your whole self to work, you’re bound to do better.

Q. Do you think you would have done things differently in hindsight?
If I had started today, yes. I probably would not have stayed in the closet. But I say probably, because it depends on the context. Even today, people who were out at college or university, sometimes go back to the closet when they join the workforce.

You see, there are problems when there’s a particular rise in nationalism. People just don’t like people who are not like themselves. But that needs to be pushed back heavily, because it is a violation of human rights. People should be themselves, that’s the first right you’ve got.

Q. What do you think are the most urgent issues that engineering could help solve?
Two things: The first is climate change; engineering can definitely solve that but we first need public policy to move. Economic signals must be given nation by nation, and there needs to be some sort of broad cooperation.

Number two—and I know India worries about this—is the abusive use of antibiotics. This could create some existential threats to us. Penicillin saved millions of lives, but now we need to curb the over-use of antibiotics over prescription, the behaviour of not taking a whole course, feeding a lot of it to animals for beef and things like that. The world needs to think that through, because we may find ourselves creating microbes we can’t kill. It takes time to engineer a solution, but in case of resistant microbes, we don’t have time.

(This story appears in the 20 December, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)