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Science, public policy and climate change

Interview with Sir Crispin Tickell by Barbara Geary of Rolex, December 2000.

The list of honours and accomplishments associated with Sir Crispin Tickell is mind-boggling. Diplomat, adviser on environmental issues to three successive British prime ministers, Convenor of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development - to name just a few of his recent titles - Tickell was one of the first people to call attention to the hazards of global warming. Author of "Climate Change and World Affairs", he is also in the unique position of understanding both science and public policy. A member of the Selection Committee of the 2000 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Sir Crispin graciously agreed to be interviewed on the subject that has captured his expertise, energy and imagination for decades.

You have been speaking about the dangers of climate change for nearly a quarter of a century. What prompted your interest in the subject in the first place?

I took on the subject in 1975 when, during a sabbatical year at Harvard, I decided to write a book about climate change and world affairs. I wanted to see how climate change would affect the world. Since then, I've always tried to occupy a bridge position between politics and climate.

There is still an uneasy relationship between the two, as typified by the World Climate Conference in Geneva, in 1990. The first three days of the event were devoted to the scientific side of things, and next few days to the political aspect. It was interesting how very rarely the two agendas came together. In those days politicians - with the notable exception of the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - knew nothing of the scientific background to climate change and cared little about the issue.

As the scientific case for climate change has become clearer, it impinges more and more upon the world of politics. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced reports in 1990 and 1996, and is shortly to produce its third. With each report, the predictions have become more precise and the prospects of climate change have become more certain.

I was in China late last year when the country was experiencing a three-month drought and subject to sandstorms from the Gobi desert, and in Britain we have had nothing but rain for several months. These extreme events may be unconnected to climate change, but they are coming along exactly as predicted, and that's very persuasive material for politicians.

What, if anything, could politicians do to use scientific research more effectively in the shaping of policy?

Scientific research always needs money, and on the whole climate change research has attracted a lot of funding. Indeed, if you pick up scientific journals today you will find that every issue contains results of some new climate change-related research. But the politicians have to do more than commission research; they need to change their policies. And this is proving much more difficult.

Those who signed the framework convention on climate change in 1992 made certain commitments to reduce the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) factors that contribute to climate change. Then came the Kyoto Protocol, which is yet to be ratified largely because of the attitude of the United States, and those other carbon dioxide polluters Canada, Australia and Japan, who hide somewhere within the skirts of the United States. The United States has four per cent of the world's population, yet accounts for about 24 per cent of its carbon dioxide emissions. The so-called developing countries are unlikely to alter their ways until they can see the industrial countries setting an example.

Were you surprised by the failure of last year's talks on climate change in The Hague?

It does not surprise me at all that the talks failed and it is probably just as well that they did. The reason they failed was that the Americans wanted to include in their part of the bargain forests that already existed.

Carbon uptake, or introducing measures to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is a confusing issue, but the idea that you can just use your existing forests is unacceptable. The whole point of the treaty and the Kyoto Protocol attached to it is what is known as the principal of 'additionality' - whereby anything you agree to do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions must be in addition to what you are already doing. This was the essential point on which negotiations broke down.

I believe, however, that negotiations will start again before too long. And had we accepted the deal from the Americans, there was absolutely no guarantee that the American delegation could have delivered it. The impending change of presidency might have left them completely powerless. For this reason I did not grieve when negotiations broke down.

What do you think about schemes like carbon sequestration and emissions trading?

They're actually more symbolic than real. The only way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is to reduce emissions. The science is pretty double-faced because some areas are sources of carbon at one time of year and sinks - or absorbers - at another. Likewise, trees absorb carbon in their youth, but emit it in their old age.

The whole question of sources and sinks needs to be much better worked out. I'm not against carbon trading, but enforcing it is very difficult. What are you going to do when a country fails to honour its obligations? A lot of the fancy devices discussed at Kyoto are really ways of getting certain countries off the hook.

How realistic a start date is 2002, for the Kyoto Protocol coming into force?

At the moment it is doubtful, which throws up the question of whether or not those countries that are capable of putting the Kyoto Protocol into effect should sign up and go ahead without the Americans.

My view is that we should forge ahead on our own. If the US persists in being the world's biggest polluter, then the rest of the world will have to consider introducing measures such as taxing US exports to compensate for the lack of a national emissions tax in the United States.

Why is it taking people so long to wake up to the issue of climate change?

My experience is that it takes a long time to get public opinion interested, but once you're over the hump it becomes much easier. I think that business and industry are going to play a very positive role once they realise what could happen and start taking measures accordingly. It is interesting that these measures often lead to much greater economic efficiency, proving that you don't have to produce so much waste and you don't have to emit so much carbon. The big problem is with small- to medium-sized enterprises operating on very small profit margins.

Larger companies are already making a killing on the back of growing environmental concern. The market in environmental services is already worth billions of dollars a year, and there could be good dividends for Europe and those countries adhering to the Kyoto Protocol.

In 10 to 15 years time we could see European manufacturers doing much better than American ones, thanks to the greater anxiety in Europe over issues such as climate change. European firms will have learned lessons of greater efficiency in not emitting so much carbon, not producing as much waste and in being more responsible to their shareholders.

In what became a famous speech you made in 1989, you envisioned millions of "environmental refugees" fleeing the effects of natural disasters due to climate change. Do you still foresee something like this?

It is already happening. There is no question that in an overpopulated world - and the world population is still going up - people become much more vulnerable to any kind of change.

It is interesting that all the major industrial countries are now busy constructing barriers against political and environmental refugees. There are many places all over the world where there could be huge pressure from human beings desperate for help, from Europe to North America, to Australia.

We must therefore tackle the problem of climate change at its root, and try and help countries discover what is likely to happen to them. The Chinese National Academy of Science has already conducted a great deal of research on how climate change is likely to affect China, which has almost one quarter of the world's population but only 4 percent of its water. China could find that rains will cease to fall on areas of traditional Chinese civilisation - but could instead fall in the north-west, an area of dry, wind-hewn soils that cannot retain moisture. People are talking of the danger of drought in very alarmist terms. They are even considering vacating Beijing should certain trends continue.

What can we as individuals be doing to help mitigate the effects of climate change?

The first thing we ought to be doing is changing our ways so that we deliberately emit less carbon. We do not need to be so wasteful, and as individuals we should be asking for new sorts of car propulsion, for example, energy production and waste disposal. As electors we should be demanding of our representatives that they take proper account of our concerns. The technology for all of these things already exists - it's just a question of getting people to understand it.

The use of cars, for example, is clearly something that is going to have to be changed quite substantially. I was at a conference in Washington DC when someone asked the manufacturer of a modern, low emission car what he would do with 100 million dollars. The expected answer was that he would spend it on research, but instead the manufacturer said "public relations". The technology for hydrogen- and fuel cell-driven vehicles exists. It is just a question of getting people to understand it, and establishing a new infrastructure.

What steps would you like to see taken this year with respect to climate change?

Countries must have a rational energy policy, which dictates effective priorities and tries to direct investment to the right places. The view of Britain's Thatcher government in the 1980s was that the market would determine everything, but this is grossly inadequate. The market is a useful device only in the short term - in the longer term you need sustainable energy policies that will ensure a country is supplied with energy over a long period of time.

Europe is pretty much aware of all this, although the current climate change levy - the Energy Tax - is not the best way forward. I'd prefer to see a carbon tax, as would many other European countries. This said, we're quite vastly ahead of the Americans.

Sir Crispin, you served on the 2000 Selection Committee of the Rolex Awards. What was the most interesting part of participating in the judging process, and which were your favourite projects?

I learned a lot from being a Rolex Award judge. I greatly admired some of the people coming forward with projects - their courage, determination and even their obstinacy, in pursuing ideas other people thought a bit wacky or unrealistic. It was extremely difficult to make a final decision on five Laureates and five Associate Laureates.

I really liked Anabel Ford's El Pilar project, which straddles the border between Guatemala and Belize. I was impressed by the way she is going back to pre-Columbian methods of agriculture and trying to see how the land had produced so much food to feed so many people more than 1,500 years ago. To me it was an ideal project, and one that was politically important.

Another project that I, as someone interested in climate, particularly favoured was Bernard Francou's plan to analyse ice cores from the top of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, to try to get a long-term view of past El Nino events.

In addition to this, I was delighted to meet my fellow judges - a good selection of people from many different backgrounds. I think we all enjoyed the experience enormously.

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