How Climate Change and Environmental Damage Threaten Humanity, and What We Can Do to Protect Our Future. In this exclusive interview series, we speak to H.E Anote Tong (President of the Republic of Kiribati, 2003 to 2016), Achim Steiner (Director of the Oxford Martin School and former Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme UNEP), Professor Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize Winning Physicist), Professor John Knox (United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment), Professor Robert Bullard (Dean of the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University), Professor Sir Martin Rees (Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge – Astronomer Royal to the UK), Yann Arthus-Bertrand (photographer, reporter, journalist and environmentalist) and Laurie David (Author, Producer & Environmental Advocate). We discuss the fundamental workings of our climate and environment, the potential impact of climate change and environmental pollution, and how we can change outcomes for the future.
“A million years after the birth of our sun, the violent explosion of a nearby supernova nearly ended life on Earth before it began. Over the next four and a half billion ears, forces of nature shaped our planet and the life it harboured. Barely surviving the traumatic birth of the Moon, buffeted by supernovae, and bombarded by asteroids, the resilient Earth endured. And despite planet-freezing ice ages, devastating mass extinctions, and ever changing climate, life not only survived, it thrived…” (The Resilient Earth, Hoffman & Simmons, 2007)
When we consider that our Earth survived its early years in a stormy young solar system, that life emerged at all and that millions of years of evolution created the abundance and diversity of species on our earth, including ourselves… It’s apparent that life, in it’s aggregate, broadest sense, has an almost heroic hue. Our own species are relative newcomers to this story, yet perhaps the first with the ability to see the narrative that has been playing out.
If we imagine the species of our Earth as ancient nomadic people, in our own image, who have inhabited this place for millions of years, we are then the rogue-nation, that has emerged with the technology to kill, consume and build. We are the ‘black swan’ event which, in an unimaginably short time, has set- in motion- a potentially existential threat to the well-being of practically every single living creature on this planet.
Yet, we don’t need to anthropomorphise to trigger these emotions. Studies estimate that climate change directly contributes to the death of over 400,000 people a year, and costs the world economy over $1.2 trillion per-annum. If we factor in man-made environmental pollution alongside climate-change, over 4.5 million people each year die as a direct result of man’s impact on this planet.
“The people of the world are gambling for colossal stakes.” Wrote Lord Nicholas Stern, “Two centuries of scientific enquiry, founded in basic physics and powerful evidence, indicate that the risks from a changing climate over the next hundred years and beyond are immense. There is a strong possibility that the relationship between humans and their environment would be so fundamentally changed that hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, would have to move. History tells us that this carries serious risks of severe and extended conflict. We are the first generation that through its neglect could destroy the relationship between humans and the planet, and perhaps the last generation that can prevent dangerous climate change.” (Why Are We Waiting? Nicholas Stern, 2015).
In this exclusive interview series, we speak to H.E Anote Tong (President of the Republic of Kiribati, 2003 to 2016), Achim Steiner (Director of the Oxford Martin School and former Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme UNEP), Professor Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize Winning Physicist), Professor John Knox (United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment), Professor Robert Bullard (Dean of the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University), Professor Sir Martin Rees (Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge – Astronomer Royal to the UK), Yann Arthus-Bertrand (photographer, reporter, journalist and environmentalist) and Laurie David (Author, Producer & Environmental Advocate). We discuss the fundamental workings of our climate and environment, the potential impact of climate change and environmental pollution, and how we can change outcomes for the future.
His Excellency Anote Tong was the fourth President of the Republic of Kiribati. He was first elected as President on 10 July 2003 and subsequently won two more elections in 2007 and in 2012. He served in total from 2003 to 2016.
Anote Tong was born in 1952 on Fanning Island (also known as Tabuaeran) in the Line Islands and is a member of the Kiribati House of Parliament from the constituency of Maiana Island in the central Kiribati group. Educated in New Zealand and in England at the University of Canterbury and the London School of Economics respectively, President Tong holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Economics under his belt.
Since the beginning of his presidency, President Anote Tong has become a strong climate change advocate and has built worldwide awareness of the potentially devastating impacts of climate change.
He has stated on many occasions that Kiribati may cease to exist altogether and that its entire population may need to be resettled not as climate change refugees but as citizens who migrate on merit and with dignity. With one of the lowest carbon-emission footprints in the world, Tong has often described Kiribati as a “frontline country” that has been among the first to experience dramatic climate change impacts.
As an extraordinary measure to set an example for the rest of the world, President Tong created the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), one of the largest marine protected areas in the world with a size of 408,250 km2 which was inscribed as a United Nations World Heritage site in 2008. Notwithstanding this historic milestone, Tong had bigger plans on his mind and in 2009 he created the Pacific Oceanscape concept designed to protect, large ocean areas, inclusive of island, coastal, open ocean, and deep sea habitats.
President Tong has won a number of awards and recognition that acknowledges his contribution and leadership on climate change and ocean conservation. In 2008, President Anote Tong was presented with the David B. Stone Award from the New England Aquarium in recognition of his commitment to conservation and his leadership in establishing the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. In 2009, President Tong received two medals from the Republic of China (Taiwan), one from the President of Taiwan called the Order of Brilliant Jade with Grand Cordon (Taiwan’s Highest Order of Decoration for non-military officials) and another from the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan called the Medal of Honour in recognition of his contribution to promoting exchanges between lawmakers of the two countries. In 2012, President Tong was awarded with the Peter Benchley Ocean Award from the Blue Frontier Campaign for Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean and later that year was also awarded with an Honorary Doctorate Degree (Ph.D) in Engineering from the Pukyong Natonal University (South Korea) in recognition of his contributions to maritime affairs and nature conservation. In February of 2013, Tong was presented with the 2012 Hilary Laureate Award for Leadership in “Climate Equity” from the Hilary Institute of International Leadership.
The United Nations General Assembly in 2006 unanimously elected Mr. Achim Steiner as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme for a four-year term, and subsequently for a further four years in 2010. Following the decision of the 68th General Assembly of United Nations, Mr. Steiner’s mandate has been extended for two years up to June 2016.
From March 2009 to May 2011, he was also Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON). Before joining UNEP, Mr. Steiner served as Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from 2001 to 2006, and prior to that as Secretary General of the World Commission on Dams. His professional career has included assignments with governmental, non-governmental and international organizations in different parts of the world including India, Pakistan, Germany, Zimbabwe, USA, Vietnam, South Africa, Switzerland and Kenya. He worked both at grassroots level as well as at the highest levels of international policy-making to address the interface between environmental sustainability, social equity and economic development. Mr. Steiner serves on a number of advisory councils and boards including as the International Vice Chair of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED). His work has been recognized for a number of awards such as the Tallberg Foundation’s Award for Principled Pragmatism and the Steiger Award for “commitment and important work in the protection of the planet”. In 2009 His Serene Highness, Prince Albert of Monaco conferred upon Mr. Steiner the decoration of Officer of the Order of Saint Charles.
Mr. Steiner, a German and Brazilian national, was born in Brazil in 1961. His educational background includes a BA from the University of Oxford as well as an MA from the University of London with specialization in development economics and policy. He also studied at the German Development Institute in Berlin as well as the Harvard Business School.
Brian Schmidt is a Laureate Fellow and Distinguished Professor at The Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory. Brian was raised in Montana and Alaska, USA, and received undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 1989. Under the supervision of Robert Kirshner, he completed his Astronomy Master’s degree (1992) and PhD (1993) from Harvard University. In 1994 he and Nick Suntzeff formed the HighZ SN Search team, a group of 20 astronomers on 5 continents who used distant exploding stars to trace the expansion of the Universe back in time. This group’s discovery of an accelerating Universe was named Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year for 1998. Brian Schmidt joined the staff of the Australian National University in 1995, and was awarded the Australian Government’s inaugural Malcolm McIntosh award for achievement in the Physical Sciences in 2000, The Australian Academy of Sciences Pawsey Medal in 2001, the Astronomical Society of India‘s Vainu Bappu Medal in 2002, and an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship in 2005. In 2006 Schmidt was jointly awarded the Shaw Prize for Astronomy, and shared the 2007 Gruber Prize for Cosmology and 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Physics with his High-Z SN Search Team colleagues. For his work on the accelerating universe Brian Schmidt was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly with Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, The United States Academy of Science, Royal Society, and Foreign Member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences. In 2013, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. Brian is continuing his work using exploding stars to study the Universe, and is leading Mt Stromlo’s effort to build the SkyMapper telescope, a new facility that will provide a comprehensive digital map of the southern sky from ultraviolet through near infrared wavelengths. Schmidt also runs Maipenrai Vineyard and Winery, a 2.7 acre vineyard and small winery in the Canberra District which produces Pinot Noir.
John Knox is an internationally recognized expert on human rights law and international environmental law. In July 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed him to a three-year mandate as its first Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and in March 2015, his mandate was extended for three years and his title changed to Special Rapporteur.
In addition to his work on human rights and environmental protection, his recent scholarship addresses the human rights obligations of corporations, citizen suits in international environmental law, and the extraterritorial application of U.S. law, among other topics. In 2003, he was awarded the Francis Deák Prize, established by the American Society of International Law to honor a younger author who has made a “meritorious contribution to international legal scholarship.” For four years, until 2005, he chaired a national advisory committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the first regional environmental organization in North America. From 2008 to 2012, he provided pro bono assistance to the Government of the Maldives and the Center for International Environmental Law in their efforts to bring human rights law to bear on climate change and other environmental problems.
After graduating with honors from Stanford Law School in 1987, Professor Knox served as an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of State from 1988 to 1994, where he helped to negotiate the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the first protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. He spent four years in private practice in Austin, Texas, and taught at Penn State for eight years before joining Wake Forest in 2006.
Robert D. Bullard is often described as the father of environmental justice. Professor Bullard received his Ph.D. degree from Iowa State University. He is the author of eighteen books that address sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, industrial facility siting, community reinvestment, housing, transportation, climate justice, emergency response, smart growth, and regional equity. He has testified as an expert witness and served as a technical advisor on hundreds of civil rights lawsuits and public hearings over the past three decades. In 1990, he was the first environmental justice scholar to receive the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Conservation Achievement Award in Science for “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality.”
Professor Bullard was featured in the July 2007 CNN People You Should Know, Bullard: Green Issue is Black and White. In 2008, Newsweek named him one of 13 Environmental Leaders of the Century. And that same year, Co-op America honored him with its Building Economic Alternatives Award (BEA). In 2010, The Grio named him one of the “100 Black History Makers in the Making” and Planet Harmony named him one of Ten African American Green Heroes.” In 2012, he was featured in Welcomebooks Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time by Katrina Fried. In 2013, he was honored with the Sierra Club John Muir Award, the first African American to win the award. In 2014, the Sierra Club named its new Environmental Justice Award after Dr. Bullard. And in 2015, the Iowa State University Alumni Association named him its Alumni Merit Award recipient—an award also given to George Washington Carver (1894 ISU alum) in 1937; and the same year he was honored with the American Bar Association 2015 Award for Excellence in Environmental, Energy, and Resources Stewardship.
His book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (Westview Press, 2000), is a standard text in the environmental justice field. His most recent books include Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (MIT Press, 2003), Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (South End Press, 2004), The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (Sierra Club Books, 2005), Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity (MIT Press, 2007), and The Black Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century: Race, Power, and the Politics of Place (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). His latest books include Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (Westview Press, 2009), Environmental Health and Racial Equality in the United States: Strategies for Building Just, Sustainable and Livable Communities (American Public Health Association Press, 2011), and The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities (New York University Press, 2012).
Martin Rees is a cosmologist and space scientist. He is based in Cambridge, where he has been Director of the Institute of Astronomy, a Research Professor, and (until recently) Master of Trinity College. He was President of the Royal Society during 2005-2010. In 2005 he was appointed to the UK’s House of Lords. He has received many international awards for his research, and belongs to numerous foreign academies including the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy and the Pontifical Academy. He is currently on the Board of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and has served on many bodies connected with education, space research, arms control and international collaboration in science. He will chair the advisory group for the 100m dollar ‘Breakthrough Listen’ project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He lectures, writes and broadcasts widely for general audiences.
His books include ‘Before the Beginning’, ‘Our Final Century?’ ‘Just Six Numbers’, ‘Our Cosmic Habitat’, ‘Gravity’s Fatal Attraction’, and (most recently) ‘From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons’, an expanded version of his BBC Reith Lectures. A further book, ‘What we still don’t know’ is forthcoming.
Ever since his book ‘Our Final Century?’ was published, he has been concerned with the threats stemming from humanity’s ever-heavier ‘footprint’ on the global environment, and with the runaway consequences of powerful novel technologies. These concerns led him to join with colleagues in setting up a Centre for the Study of Existential Risks (CSER). This is based in Cambridge but has a strong international advisory board.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand, born in 1946, has always had a passion for the animal world and the natural environment. At the age of 20, he settled in central France and became the director of a nature reserve. When he was 30, he travelled to Kenya with his wife with whom he carried out a three-year study on the behaviour of a family of lions in the Massaï Mara reserve. He quickly started using a camera as a visual aid to capture his observations and enhance the written reports they compiled. While in Africa, he earned his living as a hot-air balloon pilot. This was when he really discovered the earth from above and the advantages of viewing what he was studying from afar to gain an overall picture of an area and its resources. He discovered his calling: to demonstrate the Earth’s beauty and show the impact of mankind on the Planet. His first book, Lions, was born of this adventure – he likes to call these lions his “first photography teachers.”
Little by little, Yann became a reporter focusing on environmental issues, and collaborating with Géo, National Geographic, Life, Paris Match, Figaro Magazine etc. He then started a personal work on the relationship mankind/ animal, which led to the books Good breeding and Horses. In 1991, he founded the first aerial photography agency in the world.
For the First Rio Conference in 1992, Yann decided to prepare a big work for the year 2000 on the state of the planet: it is The Earth From the Air. This book encountered a great success and over 3 million copies were sold. The outdoor exhibitions have been seen so far by about 200 Million people.
Yann then created the Goodplanet Foundation that aims to raise public awareness of environmental issues, implement carbon offset programmes and fight deforestation with local NGOs. Within the Foundation, he developed the 6 billion Others project, that has just changed names and become 7 billion Others. More than 6000 interviews were filmed in 84 countries. From a Brazilian fisherman to a Chinese shopkeeper, from a German performer to an Afghan farmer, all answered the same questions about their fears, dreams, ordeals, hopes: “What have you learned from your parents? What do you want to pass on to your children? What difficult circumstances have you been through? What does love mean to you?” Forty or so questions that help us to find out what separates and what unites us.
Due to this involvement, Yann Arthus-Bertrand is today considered more an environmentalist and activist than a photographer. It is because of this commitment that Yann Arthus-Bertrand was designated Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme on Earth Day (April 22nd, 2009).
In 2006, Yann started the series Vu Du Ciel, a television documentary series of several one-and-a-half hour episodes, each dealing with a particular environmental problem. It was shown on French public television and is currently being distributed for broadcast in 49 countries. Encouraged by his television experiment, Yann Arthus-Bertrand undertook the production of a full-length feature film, HOME, that deals with the state of our planet. The film was released on the 5th of June 2009 on television, on the Internet, on DVD and in cinemas simultaneously worldwide, almost entirely free of charge to the public. More than 600 million people have seen it so far.
In 2011, Yann directed two films for the United Nations : the film Forest, official film of the 2011 International Year of the Forest, and the film Desertification. Both were screened during UN General Assemblies.
Yann founded a non-profit production company, “Hope”. For the World Water Forum in March 2012, Yann, Thierry Piantanida and Baptiste Rouget-Luchaire directed a film narrating the history of water and reminding us that reasoned management of water is a crucial challenge for our century. This documentary was broadcast on French national television on the 20 th of March 2012.
For Rio + 20, Yann directed the film “Planet Ocean” with Michael Pitiot. This film aims to promote understanding of the importance of oceans in the ecosystem. In the same time, the GoodPlanet Foundation initiated a “Ocean Programme”, to raise awareness of the importance of marine ecosystems. At the heart of this programme, the publication of the book “L’Homme et la Mer” by the Editions de la Martinière, available in bookstores from the 18 th of October 2012. In July 2013, Yann Arthus-Bertrand opened his photographic studio in Paris (15 rue de Seine – 75006). This friendly place, open to all, aims to enable everyone to find his way to work, to learn more about what happens behind each of his photos and meet his team (www.atelieryannarthusbertrand.com).
In 2015, his HUMAN film is a preview simultaneously to the Venice Film Festival and at the United Nations General Assembly in the presence of Ban Ki-Moon. Through its multiple stories filled with love, happiness, but also of hatred and violence, HUMAN confronts us with the Other and refers to our own lives. The film demonstrates more than ever the will of Yann awaken collective awareness and responsibility in the context of more awareness. That same year, on the occasion of the Cop21, Yann has another film, TERRA, which recounts the great epic of living.
For over a decade Laurie David has brought her passion and dedication to a variety of important environmental and food issues, from global warming to America’s overconsumption of sugar.
An Inconvenient Truth, produced by Laurie David and featuring Al Gore, woke the world up to the global crisis of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Released in 2006, the film went on to win many awards, including the prestigious Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
In 2013 Laurie partnered with award-winning journalist Katie Couric to executive produce Fed Up, a feature-length documentary that examines the causes and impact of the childhood obesity epidemic.
Laurie’s most recent book, The Family Cooks: 100+ Recipes to Get Your Family Craving Food That’s Simple, Tasty, and Incredibly Good for You, is for novice chefs of all ages, and is the follow-up to The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids One Meal at a Time, which encouraged families to sit down and enjoy home cooked meals together.
She also co-authored The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming, which has been published in over ten languages.
On her latest project, Laurie is the editor of a collection of writings by an unknown poet who began writing poetry when she turned 90. Poems from the Pond: The Writings of Peggy Freydberg will be released this June.
Laurie has received numerous awards and honors, including the Producers Guild of America’s Stanley Kramer Award, a Humanitas Prize Special Award and a Gracie Allen Award. Laurie has been honored with the Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award, the Feminist Majority’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award and the NRDC Forces for Nature award.
Laurie, a regular blogger on The Huffington Post, has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. She was named a 2006 Glamour Woman of the Year and has been profiled in People, Glamour, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Elle, Wired, House & Garden, The New York Times and Vanity Fair.
Q: How did you get passionate about climate advocacy?
[Laurie David] I’ve always been quite sensitive to issues of injustice, even as a little girl I was on high alert. I remember having a big fight with my mother because she used to smoke cigarettes in the car, and then dump the ash from the ashtray out in the streets, it horrified me. As a young girl, I became an advocate against littering!
When I became a mom, I was spending a lot of time walking my neighborhood in Los Angeles trying to get them to sleep and I started to notice that everyone drove SUV’s, even my progressive friends!
I’d started to read about climate change at the time, and in my mind the dots connected between gas guzzling cars and what they were contributing to the atmosphere–which meant I was forced to address what I was seeing, and spread the word. That was really my trigger to start my journey in climate advocacy. After all, we only have one planet.
The situation is getting frightening. In An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore goes to Miami, Florida where they are now experiencing flooding on sunny days. Just think about that, because of sea-levels rising, water is coming up through drains even when it hasn’t been raining. Here in California where I live, we’ve had a terrible drought which is impacting farmers. There are so many examples of how global warming is effecting us, that every single person is starting to feel it.
Q: What does climate change mean for the people of your nation, Kiribati?
[H.E. Anote Tong] Kiribati is a low lying atoll nation, on average about two metres above sea-level, and our islands are narrow strips of land. Climate change is not something that’s happening in the future, we’re experiencing it now.
Our people are already experiencing flooding, and some communities have already left their villages. A number of other communities are finding that food-crops are dying because sea-water has gone into fresh-water ponds, contaminating their lakes.
At the beginning of 2015, when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, we were also severely impacted. We’ve never had that experience in the past. These are new things that are happening, and whatever is causing it – it’s concerning for the future of our people.
Q: How serious is climate change?
[Achim Steiner] Climate change is very serious.
The scale of change that climate-change implies in terms of the world that we know today, is unprecedented in the history of modern humanity. We are literally looking at a time-window of 50-100 years where we are likely to have moved through a change in terms of global warming surpassing a two- degree threshold. That, in a world of seven billion people, and trillions of dollars of infrastructure simply implies a very serious prospect, and serious risks.
With everything that science tells-us, and that we’re observing now… the time window for actually being able to control these global-warming trends is closing far more rapidly than the world is accustomed to responding to major challenges- environmental or otherwise.
If countries do not act in the next few years, and move towards a zero net-carbon global economy by 2060-2070, you can forget it, there will be nothing we can do to reverse this change. There isn’t a ‘no regret,’ option, only regret if we do not act.
We are seeing droughts, floods, sea-level rise, natural disasters and more that are all aligning themselves to scientific predictions. This is no longer the realm of scientific hypothesis, but scenarios that are starting to play out.
[Professor Brian Schmidt] Climate change is a huge potential threat to humanity, the same scale as nuclear war, but different in the sense that nuclear war could take a second to inflict its damage- yet climate change takes time to inflict the damage, most of which will be done through war and conflict- indirect problems associated with people being dislocated and not having enough.
The impact of climate change comes down to the amount of warming we will have. One of the common misconceptions people have is that 2 degrees isn’t that much. In truth, it’s not much (compared to what could happen), but with business as usual? We could look at 5-7 degrees of temperature change- and that could have profound implications.
Humanity’s ability to cope with huge, broad, external shocks has never been good. The big danger is ourselves trying to deal with the huge changes that will come if the temperature goes up.
[Professor Martin Rees] We don’t precisely know how serious climate change will be. There’s an important factor, called ‘the climate sensitivity factor,’ which is the amount by which the average temperature goes up if the carbon dioxide concentration doubles. We don’t know what that factor is, and if carbon dioxide levels change? That will also impact water vapour levels, cloud-cover and so on. The rate of warming we will experience is still uncertain- perhaps by a factor of 2.
The key-factor which is important for climate policy is that if we carry-on as we are? There is a substantial risk that by the end of the century, the temperature of the world could have risen by 4 or more degrees centigrade, and that will cause large, disruptive, regional variations. The policy question is how-much we do now, to remove that threat from the lives’ of our future generations.
It’s still not completely clear to what extent extreme climate events are more common now versus the past, this is still controversial- but there are reasons to expect that when there is more energy, water-vapour and latent-heat in the atmosphere that these events will become more extreme. Of course, the 2nd law of thermodynamics also states that if you have lots of energy churning around in the atmosphere, it degrades into heat…. Warming.
Q: What is the state of public understanding on climate change?
[Laurie David] I’ve seen a tremendous shift in people’s understanding of what’s happening.
We’re at a point where climate change simply cannot be ignored. Its one thing to try an imagine melting ice at the Arctic, is a whole other thing to see it in your own town in the form of droughts or wildfires or epic flooding or bizarre tornadoes even strange new bugs like Zika.
The only people ignoring climate change are the ones who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, for their own personal greed.
NOAA just announced 2016 as the hottest year on record and this is the third straight year in a row that we’ve broken temperature records. That was front page news in the New York Times- six years ago, it would barely have made the front third of the paper. We can’t deny the numbers and the reality of climate change any more – and businesses and world leaders are all focused now on solutions.
There has been wonderful progress in all fronts of this battle and if VP Al Gore can be optimistic about the green revolution, than I can too. The Paris Accord was a giant step forward and the result of six decades! of hard work. The world came together and agreed that we all have a moral obligation to address this crises.
I remember ten years ago when I was speaking up on the issue I would warn audiences that climate change was going to seriously impact their grandchildren.
Today I have to say that it is already seriously impacting them. Here and now.
Q: How did you become fascinated with the Earth and turn your art into a movement?
[Yann Arthus-Bertrand] I’m very interested in ecology. I began my journey when I was very young, managing a huge reserve at the age of 21 and working closely with the animals and nature. This was a different time, people didn’t talk about climate change, deforestation, the plight of the rhino, elephant and so on. My idol was Dr. Jane Goodall, she became a mentor and friend and when I was 30- inspired by her work- I went to study Lions in Kenya. What she had achieved studying apes, I wanted to achieve with Lions. I spent three years working on a thesis on Lions with my wife, and to make my living during this period I used to fly hot air balloons- and that’s where I discovered my love of high-altitude photography.
From the air, you see a territory in a different way- you understand so many things from the sky that you couldn’t possibly see from the ground.
Our planet is a piece of art, there is nothing more beautiful than a hawk in a tree, or the oceans from the sky. I am very close to the evident beauty of our Earth. From the air, you also see the impact of man on our planet. You can clearly see the traces humanity leaves.
As I travelled, and began my work with NGOs in the field and other groups I became very close to many of our world’s ‘bottom billion’ – They are brilliant, they may not be able to read or have the education we have, but they are the same as us. They want a better life for themselves, their children. They are curious, loving, deep and wonderful people- just like us.
Everyone has seen the destruction that humans have caused to our planet- everyone has seen broken ice-sheets, cities choking under pollution, but we accept it. We see this evidence and we still buy diesel cars, we still have diesel buses in Paris, we still emit toxic fumes from industry, we accept it. That’s why I’m now focussing on telling the stories of us- humans. We are part of the problem we have created – it isn’t nature on one side and us on the other, we are part of the same continuum.
When you live in Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere you see how we live in the rich world. You see our salaries, you see our lives, and yet you live in a country without democracy, without a functioning economy, without education and without jobs. You don’t see a solution for you, and so you plan the best way to leave- that’s how it is for hundreds of millions of our fellow humans on this Earth; we don’t have enough to take care of all of us- and this is a much bigger, and much more immediate problem than climate change.
Q: What have you learned about climate change from photographing the Earth?
[Yann Arthus-Bertrand] We are not going to stop climate change… since the beginning of time, we want to grow. Every civilisation that has existed has been based around this sense of wanting more and more. That’s who we are, that’s what we work for, and we don’t have another way.
When I was born, there were 2 billion people on this planet and now there are 7.4 billion and yet, we think that the way we sustained 2 billion people is appropriate for sustaining 7.4 billion when this simply isn’t true.
As rich nations, we are seen as paradise by so many nations. People want to live like us! How can we explain to those people living in Mali, Ethopia and elsewhere that in fact it isn’t paradise, and the society we have built is killing our planet?
For the future of our planet, we need to live together, with less, and with a sharing mind-set.
Q: Why has the world been so slow to act on climate change?
[H.E. Anote Tong] Why aren’t people acting faster on climate change? …This is, perhaps, the question I ask myself the most.
I have been campaigning for over 10 years, and I have seen some change. There are a lot of denial, and many very powerful interests involved- and we can see this in the reaction of a number of countries.
My read of the science is clear, and anybody with common sense should understanding what is happening to our world.
I am speaking to you from the UN Climate Talks in Paris, and what is happening here, what I am hearing, is very different to what I’ve heard before – so maybe there is a chance of some change.
There are some countries that simply refuse to change their attitudes toward climate change, it’s disappointing, and we must not allow this.
We cannot let the actions of a few people sabotage the future of everyone.
[Yann Arthus-Bertrand] Our education, economy and societies are based on factors which don’t allow us to see that we are causing not just climate change but exacerbating the pain and suffering experienced by many billions on this planet.
Every day we have news of another hotter year, and more climate induced natural disasters but- for a moment- think of the Elephant. There were 20 million elephants at the beginning of the century, and now we are down to a few thousand, and we’re losing more- the Elephant may become extinct within our lifetime. Our growth, our wars, our resource utilisation, our needs, our selfish needs mean there is no room for the Elephant on this Earth.
We must accept climate change; we must accept that it will be more difficult to sustain the billions of us who live on this planet. We also must accept that the future is unknown… there are thousands scientists who are publishing in reputable journals, as we speak, talking about how man may have sparked the sixth great extinction.
Voila, we must continue.
Q: How can we fight political pushback against climate change mitigation?
[Laurie David] Donald Trump has been talking about peeling-back much of the progress we’ve made on climate change, but I do not think the citizens of the United States will stand for that. Pretty unanimously people want a liveable future and support strong environmental policies.
I really don’t believe that even the people who voted for Trump, want to see the planet burn up. Trump has very little credibility on environmental issues being a developer who has shown over many years little sensitivity to environmental issues. The guy has never even read a book, and has already shown his lack of regard for science!
Trump does not represent the average American on these issues. On top of which, climate is a gigantic national security issue that is of huge concern to the pentagon.
We’re seeing people activated, engaged and ready to march in the streets for core American values. Young people in this country have an even more vested interested in protecting the planet and they aren’t going to sit by and watch corporate greed and the dirty coal and oil industry destroy their future.
One of the very few positives of the Trump election has been to unite the progressive, democratic, social movements around all these issues. I also think that people are waking up to the fact that all these issues are connected, women’s rights, immigration, environment and they all need to be defended. A lot of people protesting right now are fighting Trump’s horrible and sick immigration ban and these are people have never marched before in their lives! I participated in the women’s march in Park City, and many people I met there- young mothers and daughters- had never marched before. We have a whole generation who have never had to get out in the streets to fight for their basic rights, but they’re doing it now- and in record numbers and we are just getting started.
Q: How complex is our environment?
[Professor Brian Schmidt] Our climate has layers of complexity…. You could be curious about the weather outside your house tomorrow, or worried about our climate a billion years from now. In many respects, some of the big questions are easier to answer than the little ones.
It’s difficult for me to predict whether it will rain tomorrow, but much easier to predict what- on average- the universe will do.
[Professor Martin Rees] Our climate is very complex, but the one thing we can say with confidence is that as carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere, it makes it warmer than it would otherwise be. That warming trend is- of course- super-imposed on top of all those other complex effects that make our climate fluctuate on timescales up-to decades.
We understand broadly how our climate works, but there are many aspects such as cloud-physics- for example- which are immensely complex interactive systems. That’s why forecasts are uncertain, even today.
We will never understand the details of our climate, and even if we could predict long-term trends, we could not predict the short term fluctuations. Our weather forecasts can predict a few-days ahead, but we can’t predict a month ahead very well. I could confidently predict that if I was speaking in July, that it would be colder in 6 months’ time… and we can fairly confidently predict it will be warmer, on average, 50 years from today because of the enhanced carbon dioxide concentration. It’s important to realise that when we talk about global temperature rising- that rise, be it 1,2 or 4 degrees, is an indicator of larger weather pattern changes, and we don’t know what the regional impacts will be. Some parts of the world could be colder, the rainy parts of the world and dryer ones may shift as well. What we’re talking about when we worry about long-term climate change is actually our worry about regional climate.
Q: Are we certain of the causes of climate change?
[Achim Steiner] We understand the causes of climate change sufficiently well to look into the future, not with the ability to determine with certainty what will happen, but with enough knowledge and empirical record to envisage what the consequences would be.
If you look at the world in 2015, the debate about the science is effectively not-over, but not the central criterion. There will always be people who question things, sometimes for ideological reasons, but sometimes because science and knowledge are not perfect. As a human species, we will never be able to predict or know the future with absolute certainty. Even in medical science, we go into an operating theatre knowing fully-well that an operation on a tumour in the brain is on one hand a mechanical intervention, but still dealing with a complex organism that we don’t understand entirely.
We are not lemmings as a human community, we judge risks- and the necessity to act, on evidence. In the case of climate change – the evidence has moved beyond the point of theory. Right now, the focus has shifted. If these really are risks that could materialise, and we have the opportunity to act, we must do so. This is where global consensus is converging.
The debate now is more about what we can do in such a way that it’s a win-win with minimal trade-offs. This debate is the focus at national level. If we go towards a low-carbon economy, are we shutting down part of our economy? Or transition into a more efficient version? That’s where the debate has it’s centre-ground now.
We now have a better understanding of things we may have previously observed as singular phenomena, for example- extreme weather events. These are increasingly being understood as a pattern.
Our knowledge about the linkage between global-warming and what we’re observing in our biosphere and ecosystem is becoming ever more evident.
The frontier of science and ecology is now around ‘tipping points,’ We do not understand our planet well enough to understand these. When- for example- all the methane trapped in the permafrost in the Siberian tundra is released, we simply don’t know what will happen.
The International Structure for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) published a report about the extreme weather events and natural disasters that have occurred in the past 20 years. 90 percent of natural disasters have been caused by extreme weather events. In little more than one decade, over 4 billion people in the world were affected by natural disasters. That is the magnitude we’re working with here. Climate change amplifies trends in our ecosystem and atmosphere.
[Professor Brian Schmidt] It is very clear scientifically that humans are changing the climate now, and the amount we are changing the climate will have significant implications for how our species live on Earth.
While it is true that there is natural variation within the climate’s history, some of which is as large as what we are likely to experience now, when we run the numbers we find that in the absence of human impact… we would not expect a major climate problem to occur for over 50,000 years.
Everyone thinks they know which way the wind-blows! People come and tell me that they don’t understand science, but they’re instant experts on climate change. It’s great to have people so involved in a scientific issue, but it’s bad when they discount expert advice for their own intuition- which is rarely a good thing- especially when there has been so much effort put in by experts, around the world, on this issue.
Humans have been able to grow and thrive because the climate has been so stable. If we want to be here for hundreds of thousands of years, we will have to figure out how to manipulate our climate, or adapt much easier than we do today.
[Professor Martin Rees] The one thing we’re confident about, is that the emissions of CO2 (rising because of fossil fuel consumption) are going to cause warming over and above all the other things in our climate. The trend of warming is going to dominate if we’re not careful!
There are many other fluctuations, El Niño and so on- which can amplify or cancel-out the trends over decadal timescales.
Q: What have been the human implications of climate change?
[Professor John Knox] I began to work on this issue [climate change and the environment] around 7 years ago, when I was doing pro-bono work for the Government of the Maldives. The Maldives were trying to bring- to the UN- the idea that climate change was not just an environmental disaster, but a human rights disaster as well. Over that time, I became increasingly familiar with the vast variety of ways that climate change is already beginning to interfere with the enjoyment of human rights to life, health, water, food etc- and how seriously it could affect those rights in the future.
Climate change is happening unevenly; for example, the poles are heating up much faster than other parts of the planet. In the Arctic regions, indigenous peoples that rely on subsistence hunting are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Permafrost is melting, meaning their homes are often collapsing or needing to be re-built. There are villages in Alaska that are already having to evacuate and move to firmer ground. For people who depend on a symbiotic relationship with the environment, this is devastating.
As we go forward, those kinds of effects will be felt farther in the middle of the world. We will have increasingly severe weather events… We’re already seeing examples of this. The strongest hurricane in history hit the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Fortunately, it hit in an area where relatively few people live, but it was devastating for people who were there. The fact that this hurricane didn’t hit more populous areas was just luck, and as more of these extreme weather events happen, we may not be so lucky. In the Philippines, they’ve had a whole series of devastating hurricanes- around one a year- which has changed the dynamic of their country politically. They see climate change as not just something that could have devastating effects in the future, but as something that is happening now.
It’s really important to understand that the people who are most affected and devastated by climate change are also those who are most vulnerable for other reasons. They are often the most marginalised, or who have the fewest resources. They already have the least ability to protect themselves from man-made and natural disasters. It’s unfair that these individuals are the least-able to protect themselves but also have had the least contribution to the problem. The poorest people in the world are not significantly reliant on burning fossil-fuels to make energy.
Framing climate change as a human rights issue helps bring the urgency home. The people who are most affected by it are the least responsible for it, and the most vulnerable for other reasons.
Q: How can we frame human rights within environmental law?
[Professor John Knox] Nobody thinks human rights perspectives should replace the need for environmental regulations. No-one thinks the UN Human Rights Council should try to negotiate a climate agreement. What it can do is provide three kinds of attributes that environmental law and policy need.
First, human rights views make it clearer and easier to understand what the stakes are. It’s not just technical or economic efficiency… A healthy environment is necessary for us to enjoy a life of human dignity, freedom and equality- and those are the things that human rights laws are there to protect.
Second, human rights norms help to explain how policies should be made and carried out- not just for environmental policies- but certainly including them. Human rights norms make it clear that the people most affected by policies have rights to information, participation and remedy in those policies. In the environmental context, that means that human rights law underpins the need for environmental impact statements, transparent and full dissemination of environmental information and the need for people to have their voices heard in the development of environmental policy.
Finally, human rights institutions can provide effective remedies. Increasingly, at the national, and international level- human rights organisations and courts are hearing environmental cases in the human rights context. More than 90 countries in the world now have a constitutional right to a healthy environment, for example… That’s built into their fundamental law! Not all those countries have courts that are effectively implementing those laws, but an awful lot do… If for whatever reason the environmental regulatory system is not doing its job, it gives people another mechanism to take those people to court, or through the remedy process, as environmental issues can significantly impact their human rights.
Q: What’s the state of environmental democracy around the world?
[Professor John Knox] In many places around the world, being an environmentalist and standing up for the natural environment, is extremely dangerous. A report by Global Witness in 2014 identified over 900 killings of environmentalists over the past decade, and the numbers are getting worse- we’re now at over 2 killings each week. We cannot lose sight of the fact that in many parts of the world, it’s far too dangerous to be an environmentalist- this is urgent.
Around the world, environmentalists are at risk of being harassed, disregarded or even treated as an enemy of the state! People who are questioning or opposing economic development project are not enemies of state or society, they are working for the better angels of our nature. They want our society and economy to grow in ways that are sustainable in the long-term.
Q: How effective are global institutions at defending environmental rights?
[Professor John Knox] The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a real-effort to get the international community to collaborate for the next 15-20 years with the understanding that economic development which benefits everyone in the world (eliminating poverty, hunger, and so on) requires the world to have a sustainable and healthy environment.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a revolution- internationally- in how people think about environmental protection. It’s no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Q: To what extent is there a moral or ethical responsibility to act on climate change?
[Professor John Knox] Human rights laws are not simply a number of technical rules, but are grounded in fundamental, universal conceptions about moral and ethical requirements. By harming the environment, we are undercutting the ability of others to enjoy their human rights.
At its best, human rights law is applied to living human beings! However, nothing in that approach prevents us from thinking of the rights of future generations… It’s overlooked that future-generations are already here. I have a 3 year old and 1 year old nephew, I expect they have a good chance of seeing the end of the century. When we talk about what will happen in 2100? There are people alive now who will experience the world in 2100. We are too-quick to draw a line between present and future generations. Those future-generations for whom we need to protect the planet? They’re already here! They’re arriving every day.
[Professor Martin Rees] Ethicists are concerned primarily around future generations, but we also must understand climate change has other outcomes such as increasing the rate of species extinctions and so-on. The extent to which Earth’s biodiversity has intrinsic value, apart from the value of the plants and animals to humans, is an important ethical issue.
The great ecologist E. O. Wilson felt that if human actions led to a high rate of extinctions? It’s the action that future generations will least forgive-us for. The Church has also recently become vocal on this, moving from a position of ambivalence- built on a position that Man has dominion of nature. Pope Francis has clearly stated that the environment has value in it’s own right; this is hugely important- The Pope has immense influence politically, and over the public in Latin America, Africa, East Asia and perhaps even other parts of the world.
It’s only in the last half-century that the human impact on climate has been significant, before that? Natural forces dominated the hazards of climate! Now that each of us, as humans is so demanding of our planet, we’ve entered the age of the ‘Anthropocene,’ where human actions impact climate and the environment.
Q: How can we make a difference to our climate?
[Yann Arthus-Bertrand] We must think about what we can do ourselves. We cannot wait for government. It’s great that politicians are doing their work, but they don’t have the vision of the grass-roots movements. In 20 years, little has changed.
If we want to make a difference for the future of our climate, it starts with us.
We have to be curious and ask big questions. Why are we still fighting like the middle ages? Why can we not forgive? Why do we still make and sell awful weapons? Why is our society so full of contradictions? Why do we treat women so badly when they are the ones who give us life?
We are born with empathy, and slowly hate, suspicion and greed take over.
It’s too late to be pessimistic, we need action- and action is me. Action is what I can do myself regardless of whether people follow. Everyone has to find their own solutions for what they can do for our planet.
Q: Should we have a rights framework for the environment (independently of us)?
[Professor John Knox] Since the dawn of the environmental movement, many people have pointed out that there’s something incomplete about the idea that the environment exists solely for instrumental reasons- that is, to serve human interests. A fuller-understanding of the moral and ethical framework would- perhaps- require us to recognise that the environment has intrinsic value, in and of itself.
We increasingly realise that in order to enjoy the human rights we have that relate to the environment, we have to fully-protect the environment. We cannot treat it like a grocery or hardware store from which we take whatever we need- assuming there will always be more. That’s not how the environment works…
The whole area of environmental ethics also includes people who take an eco-centric approach, that is- we should stop putting ourselves at the centre of the ecosystem. We should realise we’re part of a broader framework. The difficulty however, is that it’s very difficult for humans to put themselves in anyone else’s shoes. We can do that to a certain extent with other human beings… but it’s harder for us to do that with non-human and the non-living environmental components. This is changing… Ecuador and Bolivia have recently enacted laws that recognise the rights of Mother Nature. The problem, however, is who gets to speak on behalf of nature, as mountains won’t speak on their own behalf! My own perspective is that we can’t think of ourselves as apart from nature. We’re not astronauts that somehow depend on nature as a life-support system. In order to really live lives of human dignity and freedom, we need an environment that is supportive and healthy.
The environment deserves to be treated as an end, and not just as a means for our benefit.
Q: Do we have political and social will to act on climate change?
[Professor John Knox] There’s no doubt that climate change is a difficult problem to frame in most people’s minds. When the effects are vivid and immediate, we get action. In the United States, famously, a river in Ohio caught on fire because it was so polluted! When the situation gets that bad, people realise they have to act.
Many effects of climate change are felt over the long-term, and the causal sequence of connections is difficult to perceive… for example, most people wouldn’t link driving their car to the store as having increased the chances of a severe hurricane in the future.
Virtually all the countries in the world have made commitments to mitigate carbon emissions, and I’m hopeful. Are those commitments enough? No… but we’re a lot further on than we were even a few years ago. Once you take the first steps to solving an environmental problem, subsequent steps are often cheaper than they first appeared, easier to take, and more effective.
Once we seriously try to address climate change, we will be able to move quickly. It’s one thing to commit, but another to carry-out…
Q: How does environmental health impact communities?
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] The environment is a major contributor to health and well-being, in a positive and negative way. Built environment is incredibly important because if it’s used improperly? It can have adverse and negative impacts on residents as well as the wider-ecosystem. To a large extent, planners, builders and policy-makers have vastly underestimated the impact of the built-environment as it relates to public health. They’re just now beginning to get a feel for how to reverse those negative impacts, and the environmental justice movement was a major impetus to get policy makers to understand how man-made environments have a disproportionate negative impact on populations.
Q: What is environmental justice?
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] Environmental justice embraces the principle that all communities and populations are entitled to equal protection of environmental, health, transportation, civil and human rights laws. Those laws and regulations should be applied equally, across the board, without regard for race, income or ethnicity. It becomes a major policy-imperative to make sure no one segment of the population receives its share of the bad or good-stuff!
Q: How are different communities impacted by pollution?
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] If you look at the geographic and spatial location of pollution, environmental degradation and so forth- which we can now map very clearly- we can see, very clearly, that in the United States, zip code is the most potent predictor of where locally unwanted land-uses such as landfill, incinerators, petrochemical plants and so forth are located. Zip code is also the best predictor of health and well-being to the extent that if you tell me your zip code, I can pull up a map and specifically show you how healthy you are!
Geography is a predictor of health and well-being, and that geography is highly correlated with access to things that make people healthy! Parks, green space, healthy foods, full service grocery stores, good schools, political power and more.
Environmental justice also examines the extent to which there may be structural and institutional barriers that limit public participation. That goes to the heart of environmental democracy and decision making! For a long time, access to decision making was limited by law if you were not from certain ethnic groups, or if you had a lack of resources. This stopped communities from mobilising, accessing lawyers, and getting their voices on the table when it came to environmental decision making.
All these things- the political, economic and social part- all go hand in hand in reproducing marginalised communities that often-times become environmental sacrifice zones… communities that are overburdened with pollution, and under-represented with residential amenities such as parks, green spaces, medical facilities and so on.
Q: How are different communities impacted by environmental disasters?
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] When we look at disasters, and map vulnerability, you can see there’s a high relationship between socio-economic vulnerability and vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters.
Which communities are over-polluted by industry? These are the same communities that are not zoned to receive environmental protection – flood control, flood management, levys and so on. The most vulnerable communities to industrial pollution and environmental degradation are the very same who are most vulnerable to climate change, sea-level rise and extreme weather events.
The environmental justice community, for over 40 years, have been campaigning for the fact that environmental protection should be equal for all communities- not limited to those who have the money to buy resources, lawyers, and have political process to impact their economic infrastructure.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, the world saw who was left behind… who was left on the rooftops… who were left in the super-dome and the convention centre…. The world saw that misery did not come in every colour or economic class. It was disproportionately people of colour, and those at the lower end of the economic spectrum who were left behind.
Q: To what extent are environmental decisions racist?
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] A lot of racism is real, it’s not a concept or theory.
For a long time in the United States, land use decision making and zoning was race based. You had racially identified areas that defined who could live where. How tax dollars were spent, what industry went where, these decisions were often defined by that racial demarcation. Before the civil rights act of 1964, it was legal. Even in the time from 1964 to now, the residue of this racism still exists…
In the past 40 years, we’ve quantified and documented the negative impact of environmental racism and injustice on communities. For example: looking at the concentration and saturation of industrial facilities in certain areas, and then looking at diseases associated with those industries and their pollutants, the cumulative impact is clear. Communities are suffering disproportionately from having so-much pollution dumped on them. The injustice doesn’t stop there… the residents in those communities rarely even get jobs from those industries on their doorstep! They could walk to work, but the jobs are not for them- the jobs are taken by individuals who drive in, spend 8 hours at work, and drive out- they take the income and salary with them, and even the tax base- and leave the pollution behind. A lot of communities that are fence-lined to labour intensive and polluting industries find their tax base, property values and health are compromised. They’re getting sick, and often dying. Communities are saying that at some point in time, there should be a threshold where no more pollution should be dumped into a community, by law. At the moment, there is no threshold to show communities are overburdened – there are so many sacrifice zones that have become toxic wastelands- they exhibit high levels of diabetes, asthma, learning deficits and more. Heavy metals, pollutants, arsenic and so forth just fall right down onto school playgrounds, parks and so on. These are where young kids play, and for the most part these are not wealthy kids- nor are they white. In most cases, it’s African American, Latino, Asian and Native American children. The environmental justice movement is about protecting the most vulnerable population, to make sure their voices are heard. Children can’t vote – they can’t organise and mobilise – they can’t hire lawyers. The adults who represent them, must do those things for them. Fighting for children’s health is the main front-line issue for environmental justice.
When we talk about environmental racism and injustice, and talk about how environmental vulnerability maps closely with racialized places- it’s real. This is not something that a wild-radical sociologist is making up!
Q: Is climate change compounding the environmental justice issue?
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] Climate change is the number one environmental justice issue globally. If you look at the communities that are feeling the effects of climate change first, worst and longest? It’s those communities that also feel the impact of industrial pollution – often becoming no-mans lands. These are communities disproportionately impacted by flooding, severe weather events, tornados, hurricanes, droughts and more.
The environmental justice movement has expanded from pollution to include climate change. We define climate change way beyond just the emission of green-house gases, to include the issue of vulnerability and adaptation. A lot of our communities are already hurting and feeling the impact!
The countries who have contributed the least to climate change are feeling the greatest effects, and they’re seeking climate justice from the richer countries.
Communities are starting to embrace clean energy and energy justice to make sure that poorer communities are not stuck with the dirty coal-fired power stations and industry whilst richer communities transition to renewables. That gap occurs right now…. Affluent communities are getting sustainable and renewable energy – that has to be harmonised.
We can’t build a green economy on inequity, and we must address legacy inequality.
Q: Is the world taking the issue of climate change seriously?
[Professor Brian Schmidt] From a political perspective, it’s very difficult for the world to take the issue of climate change seriously enough in the short-term. It is almost certainly going to be cheaper for future generations, if we start dealing with these issues now…. But one’s perception comes down to the discount-rate assigned current investments, and the variable-mileage of those interventions! It’s very difficult to price, what might be quite catastrophic situations, into the optimal path forward- and that’s an issue for economists- one of which I’m married to!
[Professor Martin Rees] Climate change is hugely discussed, but the actions we are taking are inadequate.
The key-debate is not so much about different areas of science, but rather- our economics and ethics.
If you apply a standard discount rate…. You don’t give high priority to deal with climate change. Why? In that scenario, you don’t care much beyond 2050, and nobody thinks a major climate catastrophe will occur before then. That’s why Bjorn Lomborg and his fellow economists down-play the importance of climate change versus other ways of helping the world’s poor.
If you take the view of ethicists (which, I may add is shared by economists such as Weitzman and Stern) you will think it appropriate to take a lower discount rate for the long term, and be prepared to pay an insurance-premium now, to remove a possible serious threat that might emerge after 2100. We don’t know how big it will be, but the worst case could be catastrophic for our species.
In a policy context, we have to be sure we are not discriminating on the grounds of date of birth, and thus we must make sure we value the lives’ of our grand-children as much as we value our own.
The problem faced with getting climate change higher up the agenda is that it’s consequences are remote in time, but also remote in space for those of us in Europe and the USA- the worst effects will be felt in tropical areas, where they can least-well cope and adapt to these changes.
Q: What are the greatest opportunities to act on climate change?
[Achim Steiner] In order to achieve the transformation we need in our economy; the starting point is every individual. We all need to understand what is happening and why.
When we talk about climate change today, we’ve moved away from the ‘parts per million’ narrative that’s very disempowering to the public. Rather, we’re talking about extreme rainfall, seasonal changes, and so forth- people can relate to that.
You don’t need to understand climate science as a climate scientist to be able to understand climate change. We don’t understand the inner workings of an iPhone, yet we use it because we know what we need to know to be able to use it.
If we take what the IPCC has drawn together from tens of thousands of research projects and efforts, the next level is policy. Governments must create the right signals in the economy to trigger transformation. The major emitting sectors- agriculture, energy and transport- must lead this change… we can then remove fossil-fuel subsidies, encourage the introduction of renewable energy systems and encourage electric mobility.
At the level of cities, we’re seeing many of the world’s major cities, with their mayors and locally elected officials being the pioneers of these new policy systems. This applies to companies too- from their factories to supply chains, companies are seeing what their true carbon footprints are and encouraging their suppliers and partners to be part of efforts.
Individuals play their part too, we have to change our consumption trends in the government and commercial environment.
Real transformations are happening. Kenya now relies on geothermal for 50% of it’s energy, Denmark uses renewable sources for 40% of it’s energy, Germany is 30%, Spain and Portugal 40% too. China now has the largest solar and wind infrastructure of any country in the world. Change is happening! But we need more alignment.
Acting on climate change is less about economies shutting down, but more about how quickly we can transition to a low carbon economy that creates jobs, opportunities and new technologies.
[Professor Martin Rees] There’s a lot we could do to combat climate change, a great first-step would be to get nations to stick to the promises they have made, and change their internal policies and incentive systems- that would do a great deal.
Realistically, the most important thing we can do is to accelerate the development of clean energy generation. I’m a supporter of the so-called ‘Apollo Programme’ for energy, which aims to persuade the main G20 nations to double the publically funded R&D into clean-energy. This will accelerate the time taken for clean-energy systems to be cheap enough to be competitive against fossil fuels, and thus remove the incentive that developing nations will otherwise have to build coal-fired power stations to meet their legitimately growing energy needs.
There has been a lack of market incentive to do this, only 2% of publically funded R&D HAS gone into this areas… I personally think that publically funded R&D into clean-energy should be comparable with healthcare and defence. In the ‘Apollo Programme,’ we’re rather modest, and aim to increase it from 2% to 4% and focus the spending on Solar energy, energy storage (which is crucial) and smart grid technology (necessary to manage our energy, and to help solar energy get from sunnier countries, to cloudier ones, and to smooth-over peak demand across time-zones).
Q: How is astronomy helping us to understand our earth climate?
[Professor Brian Schmidt] As astronomers, we are developing planetary atmosphere simulators to test on Venus, Mars Exoplanets and so forth. The people doing the work are learning, doing the work, coming up with ideas which- eventually- might well be applied on Earth.
We simply don’t know what discoveries astronomers or climate scientists will make that will be useful in each-other’s fields. That’s the wonder of science! You build up knowledge, and that knowledge is surprisingly useful across fields. It can be extremely unpredictable and rewarding to humanity to do this.
Q: Do we have a plan-b for climate change?
[Professor Brian Schmidt] The ‘plan-b’ for climate change is geo-engineering. It’s surprisingly easy to geo-engineer, and we’re inadvertently doing it now with CO2. We could really go out and do this. It’s not a panacea however, we are- in effect- inducing another form of climate change, and we have no idea of what the range of implications will be.
The Earth is a giant non-linear system, and that makes it very hard to predict, especially when it’s shocked.
Geo-engineering is not something I’d be planning to rely on, but my guess is that we will eventually do this out of desperation- but I hope we do as little as possible.
You can cool the Earth, but it will have consequences- rainfall patterns will move, the weather will change and much more- and it will not save coral reefs from acidification, it will not refresh water quality, it will not reverse so much of the damage we have done from over-utilising the Earth’s resources.
[Professor Martin Rees] Many commentators such as Professor Stephen Hawking have spoken of emigration to space as our ‘alternative,’ but let me say that I think this is nonsense. Even though I hope there will be colonies living in space by the end of the century, the idea of mass emigration is ridiculous. Nowhere else in space is as-comfortable as even the top of Mount Everest.
I suspect that we won’t do enough in the next 20 years or so to turn-around annual CO2 emissions. 20 years from now, we’ll also have much firmer evidence around how sensitive our climate really is to CO2. There’s no-doubt that our climate is warming because of it, but by then we’ll know the factor. Firstly, we’ll have 20 years more data to analyse- but secondly, we’ll also have a much-better theoretical understanding combined with more powerful computer models. This will help us understand how dangerous climate change will be. If the prognosis is that warming will be gradual, people will relax- but if it’s clear that the rise is rapid? There will be pressure for a ‘plan b.’
The most likely candidate for a ‘plan b’ will be geo-engineering, where we tinker with the atmosphere to cancel-out the warming. This is a much discussed and controversial subject, but it is clear that it would be feasible for us to put enough ‘stuff’ into the atmosphere to absorb or reflect-out 2-3% of the sunlight that would otherwise hit the Earth, and cancel-out the warming. In principle this is possible, and it’s almost dangerously cheap… We would be committing ourselves to continuing however; if we cool the Earth by these methods, we are not impacting the CO2 emissions or concentrations and if we stopped? We could get a sudden and catastrophic warming. Unless we were very confident in our models, we also wouldn’t know exactly what the effects would be…. Different countries would of course, want to turn-down their thermostats by different amounts, and this would lead to endless litigation and international disputes.
If countries could blame each other for the weather? We’re entering into a whole new class of international disputes! It would be disastrous for international relations!
Q: What would be your message to future generations?
[Achim Steiner] Young people must become involved and engaged, they can’t leave it to our generation to ‘fix’ climate change. It is very disempowering when you hear about the complexity of climate change, but young people are extraordinarily inventive, innovative and can generate a sense of enthusiasm and commitment that surpasses their elders.
Young people need to get informed, they need to start doing things where they are now- in their home, their families, at their schools, in their football clubs. Everywhere we live, play and work we can do something to create change.
Guilt is not the greatest motivator. I was struck recently when I was listening to the grand daughter of Mr Rockefeller who made his money in Oil. She’s now a board member of their family foundation, and announced a total divestment from fossil fuels. Are her ancestors culpable? No! At that time, bringing oil into the economy was an extraordinary boost to the development of the United States and the rest of the world. Things change… what we know today, we didn’t know then. In just 2 or 3 generations, young people will take different decisions to their predecessors.
This isn’t about pointing fingers at the past, it’s about acting on what we know now, and the opportunity we have to do something. We live in a community, and every small decision is part of a big change.
[Professor Brian Schmidt] Each generation has a moral obligation to leave a legacy which will allow the next generation to be at least as prosperous as their own. That’s our moral imperative to our future generations, and we’re simply not doing it right now.
[Professor John Knox] By the time we hand-over the globe to the next generation, I hope we have dealt with the climate change problem so that they don’t have to. On the assumption that we have done that? I hope the generation after ours is able to move forward to a more mutually-beneficial relationship with the environment.
For most of human history, we have seen the environment as a source of natural resources and a place where we can dump our waste. I hope we start to move back to a way that many indigenous groups see it, as a place that is semi-sacred, where we renew ourselves, and which we don’t exploit.
[Dean Robert D. Bullard] I hope the generation after ours keep the message of justice, fairness and equity- front and centre. Young people need to understand that every social movement that has ever been successful has had a strong youth and student component. The voices of young people, the generation that will inherit the earth, will inherit the issues of climate justice and sustainability.
This is not a sprint… this is a marathon-relay! You run your 26 miles and you pass the baton to the next generation who will run the next 26 miles and so on.
Young people today are fearless, they want an issue to make their own- and climate change is that issue. They’re stepping up, preparing themselves, shaking off the baggage of the previous generations and are merging health, environment, social justice, energy, marriage equality and more into their movement.
20-30 years ago, civil rights and environmental groups were different movements, suspicious of each other. Today? Groups are working together, and young people can take these issues across the finish line.
[Professor Martin Rees] We should think longer term about our planet. In business, we expect to return our investment in a relatively short-time and that’s how we decide our investments, but that’s not how we should be thinking of the long-term future of our planet, and of generations yet to be born.
We ought to learn from our predecessors. The UK today benefits hugely from the infrastructure built by the Victorian’s almost 200 years ago- and it would be sad if we didn’t think ahead about what legacy we’re leaving….
The medieval cathedral builders lived at a time where their horizon’s were limited to Europe, where they thought the world was only a few thousand years old, and would only last a few thousand more. That didn’t stop them building great cathedrals which were often not finished in their lifetimes.
It seems shameful that with our resources, and with our far greater horizons in time and space, that we think so short-term and so narrow. In fact, there’s only one context in which we think of the long-term, and that is in the disposal of radioactive waste, where we must make the depository safe for 10,000 years- that’s the requirement. It’s ironic when we can’t plan energy policy 30 years ahead.
Actions we take now, will resonate at least a century ahead. If we lead to irreversible warming of the Earth? That will be something that future generations will curse, not thank us for.
[H.E. Anote Tong] I was in Malta yesterday and the day before at the meetings of the commonwealth heads of government. I was hearing some very strong and powerful statements, and the most powerful of them was by the new Prime Minister of Canada.
Canada has historically been a denier of climate change, and it seems that a new government has changed this… Whether this is a generational issue or not, I can’t say for certain, but he is a young-man and is talking from the view-point of young people.
We need to have more contributions to the climate change debate from young people, it is their future, and their lives which are most at stake.
[Yann Arthus-Bertrand] We all spend so much time talking about the pessimistic things in our world, we need to look forward, to the future.
How can we possibly think we can give advice to the next generation? All we can do is tell them to love.
I am an ecologist, and my job is to love life, love the trees, love nature, love myself and love the other. In French we call it bienveillance (goodwill). We need more bienveillance around us, and less scepticism and cynicism.
We are blind. We know the truth, yet we do not want to believe it.
[Laurie David] Young people are so anxious and stressed right now, they are (frankly) scared about
what’s happening in our world. So my advice to them would be the same advice Obama gave them in his farewell address; participate!
Everyone has to participate; you can’t sit on the sidelines and expect other people to be fighting on your behalf. We cant take anything for granted. But I would add, no one can do everything, so pick your lane. Choose the thing you are most passionate about, and devote your energies to that. We can’t talk our values, we have to live them.
And after you march, think about running for an office yourself or supporting others who do. Subscribe to a newspaper, or other journalistic outlets that are doing the hard work every day. This is so important because honest journalism is under attack. The free press is under attack by the President himself! Its horrifying but its up to all of us to make sure we protect and defend and subscribe!.
The need for action, advocacy and activism was the big wake-up call from the recent US election. People got
complacent after 8 years of Obama thinking everything would be OK, that our country was on the right course, and they could just focus on their own lives.
We have a generation of kids waking-up, and that’s extremely powerful. We will see a whole new generation of activists and our country will be better off for it.
This election has been an enormous game changer. The current state of affairs is stopping people in their tracks and making them evaluate how they should spend their next few years. I’m going to have to get back out there myself and doing more. Years ago I did a tour with Sheryl Crow through colleges in the South and the deal was that if you wanted to hear her sing? You had to listen to me give a talk first! After this interview I am going to email Sheryl!
We all have to be voices of sanity and reason and justice for the sake of all our futures.
Q: What does the future hold for the people of your nation?
[H.E. Anote Tong] We [the people of Kiribati] have to accept the brutal reality that science indicates our islands will be underwater.
If we want our islands to stay above sea-level, we will have to undertake very significant and substantial adaptation- we will have to raise the level of the island.
Now, do we have the resources to raise our islands? The answer most probably is no. The next question arises… what happens to our 100,000 people? Will we be able to accommodate them on the land that is raised? The answer to that is also, most probably, no.
We have plans to build-up our island in the meantime, but we have to accept the reality that because of climate change many, many of our people will have to migrate.
“Through our long evolution, we have inherited fundamental and universal cognitive wiring that shapes the way that we see the world and interpret threats and that motivates us to act on them.” Writes George Marshall, “Without doubt, climate change has qualities that play poorly to these innate tendencies. It is complex, unfamiliar, slow moving, invisible, and intergenerational.” This observation is important, “We are best prepared…” he continues “to anticipate threats from other humans. We are inordinately skilled at identifying social allies and enemies, identifying the social cues that define loyalty to our group and that identify the members of rival out-groups. Climate change is immensely challenging in terms of this categorisations. It is not caused by an external enemy with obvious intention to cause harm. It therefore tends to be fitted around existing enemies and their perceived intentions: a rival superpower, big government, intellectual elites, liberal environmentalists, fossil fuel corporations, lobbyists, right-wing think tanks, or social failings such as overconsumption, or selfishness.” (Don’t Even Think About it, George Marshall, 2014)
Here’s the challenge. Climate change does not fit into the nature of how we- as a culture- understand threat. It is not a rogue-ideology, nation-state or individual. It is not a malevolent species, nor even a supernatural phenomenon. Climate change is a multivalent phenomenon, there is nobody and nothing specific to blame, yet each and every individual on the planet is partly culpable to greater or lesser extents. In many ways, our way of life as a species simply is not compatible with it’s own survivability.
Every generation that passes casts a shadow on the future. We look through history, and see individuals, communities and nations that came together to fight wars, disease, injustice and disaster- these heroes of our past provided the roots on which the tree of knowledge was built, giving us iconic scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and more. Generations that follow ours may celebrate our ingenuity, but there’s every likelihood they will curse our inaction to act on what is- perhaps- the greatest challenge ever to affect our species. That being to protect our climate, and our environment.
For many ancient civilisations, nature was metaphysical. The environment, our animals, plants and natural phenomena were held in a mystic-realm of culture- they were protected because they were special, unknowable, interconnected and god-like. Perhaps now that we think we’re gods however, we’ve relegated the environment to the realms of the physical world- along with the rest of our possessions. We’re no longer a part of nature we think, but rather- as something ‘else.’
We have developed a wilful blindness. In truth, we are made of the same ‘everything,’ that everything is made of. And in spite of everything, to most everyone? that means nothing…
It’s time to open our eyes.