Dont wait for a global climate change pact

Mike Hulmes interest in politics shows up in his research on climate change. Kaushik Das Gupta caught up with the former director of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UK, at an event organized by the British Council. Edited excerpts

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Sunday 15 November 2009

What do you mean when you speak of plurality of views on climate change?

I do emphasize the need to allow different voices. But some voices are louder than others. National governments, some multinational corporations and certain environmental organizations have loud voices. In my country, in England, some of the loudest voices on climate change are from the media and environmental organizations.

But I dont mean giving equal emphasis to all voices. What we need to understand is why some voices are loud and others are not heard.

How do we hear more voices?

We need to ensure environmental education. The science of climate change is clear.Human emissions are altering the global climate. Just because there is consensus on the science of climate change, it does not mean there has to be a consensus on the politics. I believe there will always be disagreement about solutions to climate change and we need to have room for a variety of voices.

When does politics take over from science in finding a solution?

Science can only take it so far in finding solutions. I am not saying science has stopped. We are always enquiring, always testing ideas, always discovering. But if we think the science about climate change can tell us what we should do, we misunderstood its role. It is the role of politics in an open society to debate and argue about policies.

What do you think of the political process on climate change issues?

We are trying to create a global framework which 190 nations under the UN sign up. It is very difficult. The idea is to get good international environmental governance through multi-nationalism. In climate change that has not worked. And I am sceptical it will work in the future. My argument is we should not pin all our hopes on getting an international agreement signed by everybody. Instead we should look for agreements between different sectors or maybe individual nations. UK has committed to reduce its emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. We did that irrespective of international negotiations.

So are you advocating regional-level or even sector-level solutions?

It can involve initiatives at local, regional, national and maybe at cross-national levels by focusing on different sectors. The solution should not hinge on mega-deals. Some local-level solutions will fail, some will have an adverse impact, but some will be successful. It happened in Delhi a few years ago when several vehicles switched from petroleum to cng. We can act at different levels; we do not have to wait for an agreement signed by 190 nations.

What about civil society pressure that brought about the change in Delhi?

Yes. Many of the significant regional decisions have been a result of civil society campaigning. That is more likely to make progress rather than waiting for top-down solutions from the UN.

You have written against exaggerating figures on climate change.

We need to be careful when we communicate climate change. In some casesmedia, in my countryfocus on the worst case scenario and even exaggerate it. We have to realize there are things we do not know and our predictions are conditional and liable to change. Organizations might exaggerate because they think that is likely to lead to political action. Our research shows if you talk about climate change in terms of catastrophe and disasters, people are less likely to believe it and take action.

Your comments on solving climate change as a means, not as an end.

Rather than thinking the ultimate goal is to stop climate change, we need to ask how do we try to bridge the poverty gap, conserve biodiversity, ensure the economy can continue to grow and try to improve the quality of local environment. I do not think stopping climate change is the end. It is the means to get the end we want. And the end might be different among people and societies.

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