Most of the readers of this blog probably think that I spend all my time birding in Beijing… If only! I try to keep my work and leisure separate but, just this once, I thought I’d explain what I do for a living and how it links to my passion for birds and wildlife.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been in South Africa at the UN negotiations on climate change – or COP17 if you like the jargon (the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change).
I’ve worked on climate change issues since 2004, initially for the UK government but more recently as Policy Director for a non-governmental organisation called GLOBE International. My main role is to work with legislators in 17 countries to advance legislation on climate change. Recently, I have worked directly with lawmakers in Japan, Mexico, South Korea and South Africa on climate-related legislation and I am currently working with the Chinese government to help inform the development of their climate change law. In January I will be travelling to India to support Indian MPs developing legislation there…
A key element of my work is to produce an annual study of countries’ progress with climate change laws and I presented the latest study to over 80 legislators from 16 countries in the South African National Assembly in Cape Town on 3 December, from the very seat at which the architect of the Apartheid regime, Hendrik Verwoerd, was stabbed to death by a parliamentary usher in 1966. It was inspiring to hear the Speaker of the South African parliament, Max Sisulu, comparing the climate change challenge to Apartheid… quoting Nelson Mandela – “It always seems impossible, until it’s done”. If any country knows how to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, it is South Africa.
So, why do I work on climate change issues? Since a very early age – as far back as I can remember – I have been passionate about the natural world, our biodiversity and the impact that humans are having on our environment. When climate change first came to mainstream attention in the 1980s, it was considered an environmental issue.. a warming world was going to threaten polar bears, coral reefs and rainforests. As a geeky teenager, this got my attention. As time went by and scientists better understood the impacts, it became apparent that climate change was not just an environmental issue. It was going to affect human development, our economies, our health and even our security. I began to read more about the issue and knew I had to do something.
When I examined the science behind climate change, I found it overwhelming. The climate is complex and we do not fully understand exactly how it works or all the influences on the climate system. However, the physics of global warming – that greenhouse gases trap the sun’s rays and warm the atmosphere – is a physical fact that is not in dispute. And humans have significantly increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) in pre-industrial times to almost 390 ppm today, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels. This is undoubtedly causing the climate to warm and, as carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for around 100 years, even if we reduced our emissions to zero today, we would already be committed to a significant amount of warming. With that warming comes risks.
Natural scepticism is healthy but I have no time for those who try to discredit the science. Those that do are almost all part of an unholy alliance motivated by vested interest – in particular the large profits associated with the major oil companies – or that have an ideological aversion to regulation and think that the UN wants to run every aspect of our lives in some sort of socialist utopia. It is interesting that, in all my dealings with legislators from around the world, the so-called ‘sceptic’ movement is only prominent in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. I simply haven’t seen it in China, India, S Africa, Brazil etc etc… all of these countries understand the science, understand the risk and they want to do what they can to insure against that risk. Climate change is not about belief… to ‘believe in climate change’ makes it sound like a religion that cannot be proved one way or the other; it is simply about understanding the science and understanding and managing the risk.
So what are the risks? Even an average global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 (a very conservative estimate given the path we are on) comes with significant risks and will likely have devastating effects on many parts of the world. An average of 2 degrees Celsius warming will not affect all parts of the world equally. Equatorial regions will probably see less warming but polar regions will see much more. And, although some regions (e.g. Siberia) may see improved agricultural yields, the overwhelming effects around the world will be negative. Longer, more severe droughts in Africa, more extreme weather events, greater intensity of storms and sea-level rise threatening low-lying islands and coastal cities (many major cities are built on coastal estuaries – London, Shanghai, New York etc) are all predicted to occur. And in a cruel twist of fate it is those least responsible for the problem who will be the most affected.
Sometimes people tell me that the climate always changes, so why should we try to do anything to stop it…? This is a very natural and understandable question. The answer is that natural climate change usually takes place over a very long periods of time. So long that, over a single generation, changes are almost impossible to detect. The pace of that natural variability is so slow that people and nature can adapt. The difference with manmade climate change is that the pace is fast, very fast. We are seeing huge changes already and many species are struggling to adapt. It is now possible, maybe likely, that there will be an ice-free summer at the North Pole in the next decade or two. The extinction rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate and we could be experiencing the world’s largest ever mass extinction event right now. It is no coincidence that this is happening at a time when man is altering the climate.
The shocking and sad thing about all of this, is that the international community can fix the climate change problem with the existing technologies it has at its disposal. Renewable (solar, wind, wave, biomass) and nuclear energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles… they all exist and, if the world deployed these technologies at scale, the cost would come down incredibly fast. And, even now, the upfront cost of fixing the climate is tiny in relative terms. Most respected estimates put the cost at around 1-5 per cent of GDP. This is the equivalent to 1 or 2 years growth in most countries (or 6 months in China!). Is this really too high a price to pay? It shocks me that the world (particularly the rich countries) is arguing over whether it can afford this.. The cost of doing nothing is likely to be many times more but somehow we think that costs in the future are not to be worried about today.
People ask me whether I am an optimist or a pessimist about the world’s ability to tackle climate change. I am an optimist by nature but the truth is I oscillate. Whenever I feel pessimistic, I watch this, a truly inspirational speech by a young Canadian girl at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. I defy you to watch it and not be moved by her passion, her honesty and her damning critique of the way the world is being run. One of the biggest injustices in the world is the lack of intra-generational fairness… how we value wealth today much more than wealth tomorrow. The fact that we appear not to be prepared to invest just 1 to 5 per cent of our wealth for a safer future for our children and our children’s children, as well as greater social justice, is a damning indictment of the greed and selfishness of man. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that if youth had a greater say in running the world, we’d be living in a much better place.. ok, we might not be quite as rich in monetary terms.. but that would be more than offset by the cleaner air, more stable climate, greater biodiversity and the fairer world in which we would live.
Aksed whether he was an optimist, Nelson Mandela said: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
We CAN fix this…. and I am convinced that the more people understand this is not an insurmountable problem, the more they’ll demand their politicians to fix it. You can start by writing to whichever politician representatives you…
Now, if you have reached this far, I am sure you’ll be pleased to hear that this is where I will stop and I won’t mention climate change again…. On Saturday, I plan to visit Wild Duck Lake, the first time since late November. The weather has certainly changed since then… it’s now well below freezing (around -10 degrees C) and the icy wind is coming straight from the Siberian steppe. The perfect way to get away from global warming!