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Looking for Mike Cannon-Brookes

Jun 18, 2019 • 16m50s

As Al Gore continues his fight against climate change, Mike Cannon-Brookes has become the movement’s Australian face.

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Looking for Mike Cannon-Brookes

16 • Jun 18, 2019

Looking for Mike Cannon-Brookes

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

Al Gore is travelling the world looking for people like Mike Cannon-Brookes. He is Australia’s first tech billionaire, but he is also at the forefront of investment in climate mitigation. Mike Seccombe on how the entrepreneur became the Australian face of a former vice-president’s campaign to fight climate change.

[Theme ends]

[Music starts]

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"Thank you for being a part of this training. Wow, Thank you very much."

MIKE:

A few weeks ago in Brisbane, Al Gore, the former American Vice President who's now one of the great apostles of climate change, of course, held the forty-first in a series of Climate Reality Project leadership training courses.

ELIZABETH:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s National Correspondent.

MIKE:

And on this occasion he had 700 plus people, most of them from Australia but also from a lot of other countries in the region. A sort of combination of civil society groups and representatives of business. They took over a cavernous room in the Convention Centre in Brisbane. It's pretty much like any other convention. You know they break periodically, and go outside for sandwiches, very healthy sandwiches in biodegradable packaging, and and a series of speakers instructed them on how they could more effectively take action to ameliorate the effects of climate change.

[Music ends]

And in this case, the star turn was Mike Cannon-Brookes.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"Is pretty famous here in Australia, pretty famous in the US also..."

MIKE:

The co-founder and co-CEO of Australia's most successful software company Atlassian.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"US is probably your biggest place of doing business in the world, right?"

MIKE:

Cannon-Brookes is a multi-billionaire, I believe, who also it turns out is a very dedicated environmentalist and very plugged into all the various ways in which climate change might be addressed.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"Just first off the bat, Mike. We got to know each other..."

ELIZABETH:

So he's sitting there speaking to Gore on this stage at the leadership course. What is it that they get into?

MIKE:

The most interesting part to me I guess, was the recounting of the story of how Mike Cannon-Brooks was involved in the setting up of what's called the “big battery” in South Australia. The basic story I guess is he tweeted a message to Elon Musk from Tesla challenging him to help solve South Australia's energy crisis by installing a very large battery in South Australia, in association with renewable energy, to store and smooth out the energy supply.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"And then he responded he's said 100 days or else I pay the full cost is that serious enough for you?"

MIKE:

And Elon Musk promptly tweeted back saying that he would do it and he would do it within 100 days, and if he didn't achieve that he would do it for free. And so the government anted up that 90 million dollars. And it was in-fact built on time, on budget and has proved to be extraordinarily successful. It's made by Cannon-Brookes estimate about 33 million dollars for the South Australian Government, so far, by bringing more competition into the market. It has completely confounded the various naysayers, many of whom I might add were in our federal government…

ELIZABETH:

Including the prime minister…

MIKE:

Including the prime minister in fact, in fact Cannon-Brooks got a bit of a laugh from the audience when he recalled some of the comments that had been made by the Prime Minister and others in government.

Archival tape – Mike Cannon-Brooks:

"Large politicians called it the ‘big banana’ of Australian Energy, the ‘Kim Kardashian’ of Australian Energy Projects, got a whole bunch of rude names and then it worked spectacularly well."

MIKE:

So they scoffed at it and, now they look a bit silly dare I suggest.

ELIZABETH:

Is there anything worse than a politician bringing a Kardashian into it? I don't think so. Mike, what does Cannon-Brookes think is most important about the battery project?

MIKE:

Well he says the real significance of it wasn't in the fact that it was now significantly profitable, but that it served as a ‘lighthouse’ project he called it.

Archival tape – Mike Cannon-Brooks:

"Because once it’s done, everyone goes ‘Oh, if it’s possible and it’s profitable,’ then you get a whole rush of projects behind it, doing effectively similar things."

MIKE:

It convinced a lot of other investors that market forces would work to their benefit and that therefore having done it once, they looked at it they said "It's successful, it's profitable. We can do it too". His takeaway was that given the attitude of our current federal government, not a lot is going to happen in the next three years, at least, and that the problem is too urgent to wait for government. So market forces and corporate players and people will actually have to get out there and lead the way.

ELIZABETH:

So you talk to him about some of the climate focused investments that he's made, much along the logic that you just described. Can you talk me through what some of those were?

MIKE:

Yes I can. He's he's on the board and has invested a significant amount in a company called Zoox, in the States, which is trying to get up autonomous electric vehicles. Another one that he's got into is control environment, agriculture, and vertical farming. So, essentially you grow things indoors. You grow them in a very controlled environment. And as a result you use 95 percent less water and a great deal less energy.

ELIZABETH:

And Mike, the last investment he's kind- of involved in, or at least an idea he has, is about this farming of seaweed on the continental shelf?

MIKE:

Yes, the situation is, as he understands it, Australia is blessed with a fairly broad continental shelf, a lot of it with not a lot growing on it, at this stage, he thinks it’s possible that one could cultivate seaweed there. Like other plants, seaweed absorbs carbon. It’s a carbon sink, so it will absorb some of the excess carbon dioxide that is currently going to the oceans. So, yeah, he’s approaching it in all sorts of different ways, and a lot of them very interesting.

ELIZABETH:

And so, his investments, at this point, are on the border of somewhere between business and philanthropy?

MIKE:

That's right. He and his wife also have a private investment vehicle, as I understand it, from which they've they've drawn a large amount of money to put into projects of various kinds. He wouldn't say precisely how much he'd invested. But he said it was significant nine figures and growing fast, so we're talking, I guess, 100 plus million dollars he's put into various projects.

With that nine figure investment, he's invested in various parts of what he calls the climate wheel, which encompasses things like emissions from agriculture, emissions from transport, emissions from energy generation. So, he's looking at a variety of different ways in which in which various problems can be addressed. He obviously doesn't think all of them will necessarily generate a return. But his hope is that they will they will open up opportunities for others to follow. And people will realise that there's a buck to be made there because that is a powerful motivator to get people to address the problem.

ELIZABETH:

So Mike what is, what is Cannon-Brooks actually like to talk to. I mean, those are his investments but what's he like to talk to?

MIKE:

Well, he's fairly intense. He's very enthusiastic. He's kind-of like you would imagine a tech dude to be, you know, he was.. Al Gore gets about in a suit...in sort-of, you know, Vice Presidential style. Where as Cannon-Brooks is your T-shirts and jeans kind of guy, and he ‘leans in’, as they say in America, and enthuses, the ideas just, you know, come out of him one after another. He's fascinating to talk to.

ELIZABETH:

And Gore?

[Music starts]

MIKE:

Al Gore is quite a different sort-of a character from Mike Cannon-Brooks, obviously. He's astonishingly encyclopaedic. At one stage, we got into a bit of a discussion about previous methods by which acid rain had been reduced and by which the ozone hole had been fixed. He knows everything about it, and Al Gore is travelling the world, in-part, looking for people like Mike Cannon-Brooks who's entrepreneurialism will allow them to do things that governments at this stage, anyway, aren't doing.

ELIZABETh:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Mike, you've been in Brisbane for one of Al Gore's leadership training sessions. You've seen this famous PowerPoint, of course, that he puts on. Tell me about that.

MIKE:

Well, the PowerPoint is tremendously powerful. And when he gives his ##presentation on stage, it goes for, you know, two, two and a half hours.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"This is the first picture of the earth fully illuminated, that any of us ever saw, on the last of the Apollo missions, and it changed the way humanity thought about our common home."

MIKE:

As far as I could see, he wasn't using a teleprompter or anything like that. And he strides about like a combination of sort-of science wonk and, you know, holy-roller preacher. I mean he's really, really very impressive.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"By now there are only three questions remaining: must we change, can we change and will we change? So, let’s take them one-by-one."

MIKE:

So, you know, I couldn't do justice to it in the time we have, because obviously it takes two hours. But some of the some of the points that I took away. You know, at current levels the greenhouse gases that we've already admitted into the atmosphere trap as much heat energy as 500,000 Hiroshima bombs every day.

Archival tape – Al Gore:

"The science community all around the world has been telling us for a long time, we have to yes, and now mother nature is telling us. But let’s take a look at why."

MIKE:

In Pakistan, they've begun mass graves in anticipation of heat killing a lot of people every summer. Last year saw the highest minimum temperature, not maximum, but minimum temperature ever recorded on Earth, which was in Oman, where it never fell before to forty two point six degrees Celsius overnight. In January 24, 2019, 91 of the Hottest 100 places on earth were in Australia. So these things just fall out of him, and they're tremendously, tremendously moving, I guess is the word. And and he goes beyond simple simply that you know that the world's getting hotter, right.

He goes to things like the geopolitical consequences of climate change, which is, the way he put it to me is that we're now entering a period where the climate crisis and the democracy crisis are interwoven. An example of that, was that in 2010 there was record heat and huge fires and drought in Russia, which not only led to the direct deaths of some 55,000 Russians, but also devastated the country's grain harvest. And Russia is a very big wheat exporter. So, the government's response was to halt wheat exports, which in turn meant that global grain prices shot up, which in turn resulted in food riots in 60 countries including in Tunisia, where one particular food vendor set himself on fire having first lamented: “How am I supposed to live?” And that is generally accepted as being one of the precipitating factors of the Arab Spring. He cited The Lancet, the prestigious medical journal, which estimated that there would be a billion climate migrants or refugees in the next century as a result of droughts, floods, sea level rise, or simply the fact that the heat becomes so great in some places that they are literally unlivable. And that in turn, of course, brings the rise of anti-immigrant populism which was a factor obviously in Brexit. So it really is not just a climate problem. It's a much broader political and social problem.

ELIZABETH:

Mike, these are sobering statistics, one after the other, what is his kind of bearing like after he delivers this run up shocking prophecy or horrible prophecy?

MIKE:

Well I asked him this, I said “Does this make you a pessimist or an optimist?” And he said that he is an optimist. And in part that was because the alternative was despair. And as he said, despair is just another form of denial. And we don't have time for it. The other part is that he takes a lot of comfort in the fact there are a lot of people like Mike Cannon-Brooks and those corporations that have signed up to reduce their own carbon emissions, even though he's he's unimpressed by his own government and by the Australian Government. There are a lot of other governments in the world. He thinks about, I think he said, about 65 of them that are on track to meet their Paris targets. So Australia is well behind the eight ball here.

ELIZABETH:

And yet according to people like Cannon-Brooks, we could be placed to become a renewable superpower?

MIKE:

Indeed we could. There are plans afoot now to start harvesting some of our vast solar and wind energy. I think we're actually the number one in the world in terms of the amount of solar power we have access, and in the top couple in terms of wind access. So Cannon-Brooks was telling me about a couple of these projects, there's one called Sun Cable, which is up in the Northern Territory, which has plans to generate three gigawatts of energy, from an array covering 15,000 hectares of solar panels and then they will transmit that 3,800 kilometres by high voltage DC cable to Singapore, where obviously that they don't have the space to generate their own renewables. There's an even bigger one planned in Western Australia. So the opportunities are there. It's just that Australia is both blessed and cursed with an abundance of energy including, you know, old energy like coal and gas to which our governments are currently beholden. But given the amount of renewables we have, we could be exporting that directly to the world or indirectly exporting it by using that renewable energy to produce hydrogen, for example, and then shipping that off to power other parts of the world much as we currently ship off gas.

ELIZABETH:

Mike, if we basically leave this to corporations and we say, well investment and private investment in innovation are going to save us where governments aren't acting. What does that mean for the impact on policy decisions, that we could otherwise be finding?

MIKE:

As Al Gore put it to me, we can't leave this entirely to corporates. Government has to be involved but we can take a cue, I guess, from market forces and from people with capital. But at some point we need governments to be involved in regulating and planning because that's why we have governments in the first place. The problem with our current government is that they're heavily linked into the fossil fuel industry, rather than renewables industry, and that's what has to change.

ELIZABETH:

Mike, you've been covering climate for a long time. Has a few days with Al Gore changed your view of things?

[Music starts]

MIKE:

Oddly enough, it's made me a bit more optimistic, I think, I get the clear impression that his message is getting through to all. There were a lot of impressive people in that room, 700 impressive people in that room. I see more and more people coming to the conclusion that it is real, it is urgent, and it has to be addressed so. So yeah ultimately I think it made me a little more optimistic than I was.

ELIZABETH:

Thanks, Mike.

MIKE:

No worries.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:
Papua New Guinea has contradicted Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, over his suggestion that the controversial $423 million contract with Paladin for services on Manus Island be extended. The contract is the subject of investigation by the National Audit Office. Papua New Guinea’s immigration minister says his government expected the contract to be terminated at the end of June and has written to the Home Affairs Department to reflect this.

And the minister for Indigenous Affairs, Ken Wyatt, has intervened in the copyright dispute over use of the Aboriginal flag. The flag’s designer sold the copyright to a private company, which has since requested Indigenous organisations cease using it. Wyatt said he was - quote - “hopeful” for a resolution.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Wednesday.

Al Gore is looking for people like Mike Cannon-Brookes. He is Australia’s first tech billionaire, but he is also at the forefront of investment in climate mitigation. Mike Seccombe on how the entrepreneur became the Australian face of a former vice-president’s campaign to fight climate change.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Cannon-Brookes and the new climate guard in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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16: Looking for Mike Cannon-Brookes