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Politicians hold back solutions to global warming
The science is telling us that a two degree increase in global temperature will be catastrophic. Why then are extremely well respected policy reports recommending countries set their thresholds much higher than that – for instance, a three degree increase in Australia and four degrees in the United Kingdom? Australian author David Spratt and climate and energy campaign manager from Greenpeace in China, Yang Ailun, expose the reasons why politicians and policy makers in both the East and the West aren’t taking immediate action to address global warming.
To listen to this episode of Cool Change, simply click on the play button in the audio player just above.
The full with David Spratt and Ailun Yang follows:
Chris Richards: Hello and welcome to Cool Change – progressive perspectives about climate change. I’m Chris Richards and east is about to meet west as we welcome two prominent climate change advocates onto our airwaves. David Spratt, sitting in Melbourne, Australia, is co-author of the book ‘Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action’. Yang Ailun, sitting in China’s capital Beijing, is the Climate and Energy Campaign Manager from Greenpeace China. And the very fertile ground that we will be tilling today is why world politicians aren’t taking climate change seriously enough.
Davit Spratt, let’s start with you. The science is telling us that a two-degree increase in global temperature will be catastrophic. Why then, in the western world, are extremely well respected policy reports recommending countries set their thresholds much higher than that – for instance, a three-degree increase in Australia and a four-degree increase in the United Kingdom?
David Spratt: I think the sad truth is that western governments’ view of climate is largely delusional. That is, that they don’t understand the evidence base of the issue. And in many cases they don’t understand that they don’t understand. That is, there is a profound ignorance.In terms of the reports, one of the issues that we have identified is that both from some, and I must say not all, but from some of the climate advocacy groups and from some of the scientists, there has been a view that what they should say is what they think is politically possible; a sense of pragmatism rather than what is scientifically necessary. And given that there is now a large gap between the scientific evidence base and political pragmatism, we are seeing a discussion which will produce targets and results that will not solve the problem.
Chris Richards: Well let’s go into what these thresholds mean in a very brief and practical sense. What will it mean for the globe, for the people in it and for other species, if the global climate increases by two degrees?
David Spratt: Many of the climate scientists say that at two degrees, we’ll actually go over the tipping points. And we’ve seen that in the evidence now that in the Arctic North, the sea ice is disappearing very fast and some 80% by volume of it is gone. The scientists say in five years it may be gone all together. There isn’t a serious scientist in the world who will tell you that without Arctic sea ice in summer, Greenland can other than melt and Greenland is five to seven meters of sea level rise.
So what we have in place now at less than one degree is already dangerous because it will trigger large sea level rises. At two degrees, it will just be much worse than that. We know the Arctic sea ice will be gone; Greenland will be melting. We may be on the edge of starting to trigger permafrost. We know that the climate systems will have changed. We can talk about China where the northern monsoon is already changing. The monsoon patterns are changing very quickly. If we get to two degrees by mid century, much of the Himalayan ice sheet will be gone and the melt water that keeps more than a billion people alive.
So at two degrees, which seems like a small figure, because people go to the beach in the summer when its just two degrees warmer, they don’t think it’s anything. But two degrees… our planet has not been two degrees warmer since modern humans walked this planet. That’s the essential issue.
Chris Richards: I’m going to go up to three degrees now. What will we lose?
David Spratt: If we get to three degrees, we will have certainly triggered the melting of the Siberian permafrost. There is more carbon in that permafrost than in the atmosphere now. That means that the climate will just sweep out of all human control, all capacity for humans to bring it back to a safe level. It would mean that the CO2 level will double from what we’ve already done.
That means four or five degrees and (this is Jim Lovelock’s view) once you get above four degrees you kill the algae and the seas become half-dead that they’re so acidic. This is a planet not suitable for most people and most species.
Chris Richards: And so in terms of species, what kind of loss are we looking at?
David Spratt: Probably 80% to 90%.
Chris Richards: And four degrees, very briefly, what kind of thresholds are we looking at there?
David Spratt: Four degrees… our planet, we wouldn’t recognize – no rain forest, no ice sheets, most species dead. Lovelocks says once you get to four degrees you’ll get to six or seven because you’ll lose the algae in the upper layer of the ocean which draws down carbon. And he says you get to six and seven and the only part of this planet that will be habitable for humans would be from Melbourne, south and London, north.
Chris Richards: So Yang Ailun, can I bring you into our conversation now. China is governed by one party, the Chinese Communist Party. What is the CCP – the Chinese Communist Party – telling your people about how much the global temperature can safely rise?
Yang Ailun: I think there isn’t really a debate about whether it should be two, three or four degrees. However, I think that the government now is fully aware of the problem of climate change and also we have seen that climate change is already hitting China very hard. And so with all these climate change impacts going on in China, the climate discussion is very much in the context of sustainable development.
Government is quite clear about the kind of climate change impacts that China is already suffering. However, it does quite openly deny whether two degrees should be the objective. The excuse that the government is giving people right now is the Chinese scientists themselves haven’t looked into this scenario enough to say that two degrees is the right target for China or for the world. I think that the deeper reason behind that is, obviously, if the world accepts the two-degree objective, it means a very dramatic change of the way that we live. And I think that the government is concerned about what that would mean for the development of China; how that would limit the growth of China.
David Spratt: Can I ask one question? Just in my reading …the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its report last year, said it could be reasonably expected that the ice sheet on the Himalayas would be gone by the middle of this century, which obviously has devastating impacts on China amongst the rest of Asia, given that half the population of China live in the two main valleys who depend on glacial melt for water, particularly in the dry season. Is that understood and being talked about at all?
Yang Ailun: Yes. Actually, Greenpeace China led three expeditions to the Himalayan region in the last two years. And we try to witness the impacts there with our own eyes. We were really shocked by what we saw there. We took a picture with us, which was taken 30 years ago and the ice there was simply gone.
David Spratt: Oh yes, this is a very famous photo. I use it in my PowerPoints in Australia these days, you’ll be pleased to hear.
Yang Ailun: Thank you for that. When we showed this to the Chinese people, they were really concerned.
David Spratt: It just seems to me that China will probably suffer as much or more than any of the large nation on earth. Is this understood in policy circles? I mean even if it’s not on the front page of the newspaper, do you perceive that amongst policy makers and opinion makers these problems are part of their conversation?
Yang Ailun: We do see a very dramatic change in the last two years. I think that for a long time people started to feel that something is going wrong with our climate but then they might not link it directly to climate change. However, they talk very much now on Chinese media and people start to make this link. And I think that policy makers on different levels in this country, no matter whether they are on a national level or on a more local level…they start to know how climate change is going to really affect the people.
But on the other hand, there is such a large population of China that’s still below the poverty line. And when you [talk about] how these people are going to be affected by climate change, that means that all the economic achievements made in the pat 20 or 30 years are going to be gone very soon.
Chris Richards: This is a very important point you’ve raised because we’re talking about the god of growth here. And I’m wondering, first of all before we jump into that particular debate… in terms of what’s being said in China at the moment there’s no question that growth in China has brought, in the view of the Chinese Communist Party, 200 million people out of poverty. So growth is something that is very much chased in the capo-communist environment of China at the moment. Is that an incentive for the Chinese government to effectively ignore climate change; to actually play it down so that people will still support very high levels of growth in China. And what does Greenpeace think will happen if that is the reason?
Yang Ailun: While people are celebrating the achievements we’ve made in economic development, people are also increasingly aware of the environmental consequences that we are paying for this kind of destructive economic growth. So across the country there’s a lot of talk about environmental protection and the very key question being asked right now is: is this the right way for us to develop? And obviously not, because for the last 20 years it’s very much only about economic development and the environmental protection has been so neglected. So how to correct it is really what’s higher up on the agenda. The government officials, on different levels… they are also the ones who are currently benefiting from our current development model. So it’s also about a struggle of how to break this tie and I think that the government, in order to still stay in power – it’s also in their interest to see that environmental damage is not just something that’s nice to talk about; it’s really threatening local development and, in some areas, starting to create social instability. So this is really something that they start to pay a lot of attention to, and try to correct.
Chris Richards: Can I go to David Spratt now about the god of growth. Back in the Western World, leaving aside what’s happening in China at the moment, David… you mentioned before that environmental organizations have been looking for a pragmatic approach just as politicians have been doing. One expects politicians to be taking a less panicked approached so that they won’t disrupt the global economy, particularly at a time when markets are crashing. I’m wondering what you see as the impact on the god of growth if we respond properly to climate change?
David Spratt: I think the Australian Government and western governments view growth as the determining policy and everything else falls around it. So environmental and climate change issues have not been integrated into policy, they sit on one side. And combined with that has been – particularly in the English speaking countries – an absolute belief in the unfettered role of the market. So all environmental policy must be expressed through free market mechanisms.
There’s a fetish, for example, with carbon trading rather than the state going, building, and doing what is necessary. And that of course has come up against the financial crash where the whole ideological basis for modern government… get government out of the market… has now been turned on its head. So there’s an opportunity now to try and turn that around, but they haven’t thought through this question at all.
I think the essential problem is that politics, in the West at least, is incremental, short-term, and pragmatic. It’s about getting to the next election: the next news cycle. If there’s a deep-seated problem, it’s about solving 10% of it, putting it off or blaming the opposition or somebody else for it. The political process does not come to grips with solving fundamental problems anymore.
Chris Richards: But this is crucial, isn’t it? I mean what you’ve just described before is this.
David Spratt: Yes. But they don’t know that their policies are death sentences. They don’t know that they don’t know.
Chris Richards: Surely, they must. I mean in Australia, the Garnaut Report is telling them this, the Stern Report in England was telling them that. We have very high-level advisors to government saying this is catastrophic.
David Spratt: I think there’s a disjuncture. I mean we’ve seen it in the Stern Report and the Garnaut Report where both of them said: ‘Here’s the science. It’s really severe. Here’s what we should do but that’s too economically difficult so let’s do something that’s really weak and won’t work.’ And that’s accepted. And that contradiction between the science and the policy runs right through it. It’s as if these people have had a lobotomy.
Chris Richards: But what you’ve just said is the market is always more important than the environment, the people in it and the species.
David Spratt: Absolutely. And we even have environment groups in this country (not Greenpeace but others) who say: ‘We will not say anything on climate unless we have an economic argument in our favour.’ So we even find environmental groups trying to frame climate issues within an economic rationalist context, which means they’ve actually fallen for the three-card trick.
Chris Richards: So does that mean that governments in the Western World effectively won’t apply the brakes?
David Spratt: I think they don’t want to. I don’t think they understand how to. I don’t think they’re getting the right bureaucratic advice because the public administration is run through and through with free marketeers. The scientific advice they get is heavily filtered. The media commentary is very poor. The IPCC is too conservative and if you want to cherry-pick the minimal things you can do, you can find enough people to keep you happy with a minimalist position, and that’s what they’re doing.
Chris Richards: One of the reasons why they might not be telling the people how bad it is, is that it might cause panic. And that panic might be bad for everybody, not just markets but the quality of life and the way in which people respond to climate change. Is that, do you think, a possible reason?
David Spratt: I think one of the problems is that the major conservation groups sometime ago, perhaps because some of them are involved in corporate cuddling and that sort of thing… (laughter) well they are!… decided that you should have a rosy, positive picture of what you can do on climate change because that will empower the politicians. And we’ll all feel good about it and we’re marching under the renewable banner and all these sorts of thing. And the consequence was that they played down the goals in order to have that sort of feel-good thing.
And as Ken Ward, who used to be Deputy Director of Greenpeace in America said: ‘The fact is that if we’re on the road to cataclysm and we need transformational action, then we’ve got to stop celebrating dinky achievements.’. There’s too much of that going on. Because it’s so late in the climate day, we only have one chance to do this right. A trial run is not an option. We can’t try a set of policies for 10 years, if they don’t work, then adjust them. This is not incremental politics. This is not like any other form of politics where an incremental improvement is an improvement.
In this it’s like the war. If you don’t win, you lose. You’ve got to do enough at once to win or it’s all over. You’re dead. And that is not understood sufficiently.
Panic is not a good thing. We need a careful, rational response based on a brutal assessment of the truth. Pessimism in fact; optimism of the spirit. You can’t play fancy with the facts because that’s delusory: ‘No, we’re doing really well. The economy is great! Whoops! It’s all broke.’ I mean, that sort of thing is not helpful. What is helpful is carefully analyzing where you are, working at what needs to be done and understanding that transformational action is possible.
Whatever the challenge, it can be done if there’s the social and political will because the Second World War countries spent between 40% and 70% of their economy solving one emergency problem. We have now a problem, which even Stern says is much greater than any war, depression or all of them put together. And we have these ridiculous debate about spending 1%.
There’s Churchill who said: ‘If you’ve got a big problem, in the end, you have to deal with it; not hope and pray that it will go away.’ And as he said in dealing with the question of the preparations for war: ‘When you have a really large problem you’ve got to be brutally honest about it.’ Spin works well with minor problems. With life and death problems, not being honest with people is in itself a death sentence and we need an honest public conversation. And if we had one, that will be the first sign that we’re on the right track.
Chris Richards: Yang Ailun, can I bring you back into the conversation now. Are you being brutally honest with the Chinese Communist party and if so, what are you saying to them and how are they reacting?
Yang Ailun: Greenpeace keeps a global line on what we think should be done to protect our climate here. So two degrees is definitely our task. The Chinese government actually… it’s very much exactly like what David has just described. This whole pragmatism about what is actually feasible for the economic development and what could be possibly done. But added on to that is an additional concern for the Chinese government which is the equity issue in solving this climate problem. So if we all agree that the whole world should do something to tackle the climate change problem, how much should the developed world do because they’re still responsible for the majority of the CO2’s already emitted. But then how much should a developing country … being the one that’s lacking of technical and the financial capacity… how much should a developing country do.
So I think that the fear we might not get an equitable deal and also the fact that after so many years of talk, developed countries haven’t really shown how much they are really committed to solving this problem, that thing doesn’t help. It’s also the fear about we don’t really want to be at the full front of this whole fight because if we would do that then actually we’re not going to make it fair for our own people. It’s this part that makes it especially difficult.
And I think if the government is sacrificing the interest of the environment, then I think it’s easier for environmental groups to come out and say that. But whenever there’s this equity issue between the developed countries and developing countries that come out, that’s actually what makes it very difficult for environmental organizations like Greenpeace.
Chris Richards: I’m wondering though, irrespective of the equity issue (and the equity issue is vitally important – what the minority world needs to do to compensate the majority world… countries like China… for the disaster that they’ve created)…. but I’m wondering irrespective of that equity issue whether there is adherence within China to an understanding that they can’t go beyond two per cent global warming and they have to keep their carbon footprint low to ensure that that’s the case? Or is there a feeling that they can go above that because the West really has to fix this problem itself?
Yang Ailun: I think there is the feeling that the country needs to, first of all, develop its own capacity to protect its own people. Whether it should be the responsibility of China to accept the two-degree objective, that’s something that we can put aside. It’s more about how to strike the best balance between development and protection – climate protection – for China itself. But this is a very selfish point of view because if every country thinks like that then obviously stronger or richer countries will be better able to protect themselves from climate disasters. But how about countries in Africa? How about countries in the Pacific Island? Those countries will be gone. This is really the mentality we need to stop, a country only acts in their own interests.
Chris Richards: Indeed.
David Spratt: What you’ve pointed to is a certain selfishness and given that the West owes the rest of the world a large carbon debt for what its done in developing its economies over the last 200 years, I suspect in the cases of China and India, those Governments are saying: ‘If we develop really quickly now and build those coal-fired power stations now, we can pull our people out of poverty before the carbon issue gets really, really serious.’. So it’s an attempt to jump on the train while it’s still at the station which, as you say, doesn’t work for the really poor parts of Africa for example. But I think there is a: ‘Let’s grab hold of this chance because it’s going to be more difficult later on’.
And the other issue I think which swirls around and around this question of the global agreement is that everybody is looking and waiting for everybody else. And everybody has got an excuse to wait. Everybody has a reason not to act. It’s the tragedy of the commons where if every farmer puts their sheep on the commons, there’s no grass for anybody but nobody wants to be the first to take themselves out of that situation. And it’s led me to the conclusion that we really need to argue strongly in our own countries that there is a moral reason for each country to act even if the others don’t.
Chris Richards: Ailun, is the Chinese Communist Party saying to the people of China: ‘We have to be careful. We have to conserve energy at the moment’? And if so, what is it saying?
Yang Ailun: The Chinese Government has actually introduced some very progressive policies. For example, it has set a target that by the year 2010, China wants to improve its energy efficiency by 20%. That’s actually a very ambitious target. And also, China has announced a target that by the year 2020, they want to have 15% of energy coming from renewable energy. And so China really wants to see itself as the global leader in renewable energy nowadays. These are very progressive developments and I have to say, for all those developed countries who are saying that two degrees is not possible, actually that is very much neglecting what’s already happening in big developing countries like China.
David Spratt: The thing we should not forget, as I understand it, is that China has more renewable energy installed capacity than Australia has total electricity capacity. So we in Australia should not look at China and point the finger because they’re doing a lot more on renewables than we are being a much richer country.
Chris Richards: Yes. Can you tell us about that debate in China between, say for instance, coal versus renewables and what is actually being done, Ailun?
Yang Ailun: Well the problem is obviously that China depends way too much on coal. We depend 70% on coal and we are developing so fast. So part of the reason why China’s renewable energy industry also developed so fast is also because there’s a huge demand. So it’s not like closing down something and replacing them with renewable energy, it’s just a big space for everything to grow. The newly installed capacity of coal-fired plants is also scary in China. And when you think about it, these things are going to emit CO2’s for the next 30 years.
David Spratt: Ken Ward who was a Deputy Director of Greenpeace in America made the point. He said: ‘When the global deal comes, the West will transform their energy systems and that will pave for the rest of the world to transform theirs as well.’ I mean if the United States can put $700 billion in one day into solving a market problem, that sort of money spent in China or India would go a long way towards solving the coal and energy problems. So I think the deal that nobody wants to talk about at the global level is that those with the capacity will pay for everybody to make the transition.
Chris Richards: Well that has been talked about at a global level. Whether or not it happens is the question. I’m just wondering, Ailun, on what you talked before… about the need for the world to see itself globally; for this to be an international debate where compromises are negotiated and made on all sides. This would be a turnaround for the Chinese Communist Part if they adopted that attitude. They have very much taken an attitude on the international front of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, and that a country should make its own decision and not question another country for making its decision.
Yang Ailun: Well, China understands that nowadays there is no way for China to escape and just pretend that we’re not there. Those kind of responsibilities have to be really taken on by the Chinese government and they have already shown willingness to do that. However, when they are doing that, they also always make sure that they bring up the equity principles.
Chris Richards: David Spratt, I’m wondering what you see as life being like in the developed world as a result of the changes we need to make to our lives to respond effectively to climate change.
David Spratt: I think the principle point to make is that the obstacles are not technological or economic. Solar energy, solar thermal, geothermal, even electric cars, limited use of biofuels, recycling carbon through the agriculture system, foot tracks where you can’t do electric cars and so on. These are not rocket science issues. These are questions of political and social will. I think the problem is that we actually have to transform and rebuild our economies and our societies in the West – how we move, the pace at which we move, how we live, our relationship, the size of our cities, the fact that we have to electrify our transport systems, our train systems wherein all the money goes in the cars and freeways. It requires the rebuilding of our economies.
Chris Richards: And our expectations.
David Spratt: And our expectations. I think a lot of it will be good. I think the principle problem is that what is required is transformational and this is outside of the political possibilities as conceived by narrowly concerned, narrow-minded political elites.
Chris Richards: That was David Spratt in Melbourne, Australia, who’s the co-author of the book ‘Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action’, which should be mandatory reading…it’s just a fantastic book… and Yang Ailun in Beijing, the Climate and Energy Campaign Manager for Greenpeace China. Thank you both so much for being with us today. That was illuminating!
David Spratt: Thank you.
Chris Richards: Bye for now!
Yang Ailun: Bye-bye!
Chris Richards: You’ve been listening to Cool Change produced by me, Chris Richards, for New Internationalist Publications.
The music that’s just coming up now as we’re saying goodbye, comes from that wonderful CD Dig Dig performed by Bob Brozman and René Lacaille from the World of Music Network’s wonderful collection of music from around the world. Check it out at www.worldmusic.net and talk with you soon. And check out the chats in these series at the New Internationalist website… www.newint.org. Bye for now and speak to you soon.