Politics of climate change

08 December 2015

Interview with

Dr Julian Huppert, University of Cambridge

This week, representatives from more than 190 nations have been gathering inEiffel Tower COP21 Paris to participate in the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) and at the top of the agenda is climate change. The aim is to pull together a binding political agreement that everyone signs up to and which will limit future global temperature increases. But what are the chances of this working? And what challenges will politicians face in trying to implement the sorts of strategies that are going to be necessary to keep a lid on climate change. Chris Smith went to speak with Cambridge University's Julian Huppert, who - as well as being a scientist - is a former member of parliament who has campaigned previously on environmental issues...

Julian - Well what we have in Paris is the conference of the parties; all the players from around the world, governments, non-governmental organisations, coming together to try to work out what the options are to limit carbon emissions to try to make sure that we don't see warming of more than 2 degrees.  This is a slightly arbitrary figure; we know that 2 degrees is harmful but it now seems almost impossible to achieve no change at all, so 2 degrees, I guess is bad, but not too bad.

Chris - What actually is it going to take do this?  Is it even feasible?  It's one things getting people round a table, are they actually going to achieve anything?

Julian - I think if you look at the history of all of these, one has to be somewhat sceptical about the long term achievements.  Some of these conferences have been successful, some less so.  I don't think there's an option to say we can't do it.  Nobody has a better way of achieving global change by getting global organisations to work together. It's hard to get people together on something like this and there are a number of particular challenges for climate change.  One is it's very hard to see it directly; people can't immediately see what's happening; it's a long term programme and it takes long term action to achieve a solution.  There's nothing we can do that will fix things by tomorrow or undo the damage that's already been done.  That makes it a really, really tricky political problem because it's all the things politicians wouldn't want; it's fairly intangible, it's very, very long term; it's very hard to bring things back to where they want to be, and it relies a lot on people trusting things they can't actually see for themselves directly.

Chris - It's outside the political cycle isn't it because in Britain we vote every five years, in Australia every four years?  The consequence of that is that people are looking at short term things that will win them the next election.  Not necessarily giving people a hole in their pocket in order to look at something 100 years hence.

Julian - There's certainly an element of that and politics is perhaps better than it's sometimes portrayed at looking at longer term issues, but they tend to be thing where people immediately are aware.  So there has been some useful work outside of the political cycle looking at the care system in the UK for example, because it's not hard for people to understand that people are getting older; their parents, grandparents, neighbours, whatever it might be, will be getting older, will need help..  The problem with climate change is that you can look out of your window and not really notice it.  That doesn't mean it's not real, it really is there, but it's less obviously there and that makes it harder for politicians to pick up but it is also the fact that it's just a very, very long term issue.

Chris - Recently we've seen the Premier in India saying "we are going to open a new coal fired power station on roughly a monthly basis for many years to come, and we're going to do that because we need to.  At the same time you guys, you've had your cake and eaten it you developed countries, so if you've got a problem with what we're doing, you sort it out."  How do we deal with that?

Julian - I mean it's a very frustrating attitude but I can understand why.  It certainly isn't right for us to say look we've got all the power that we need.  Frankly people in the UK, for example, generally getting power is not a challenge for most people.  Very hard to say to a country like India, no I'm sorry you can't do this.  I think part of the shame is we haven't done enough, early enough to provide really good alternatives.  I don't think India would be interested in going ahead with coal fired power stations if we had really good solutions; you know better solar panels, better wind turbines, at an affordable price.

Chris - One of the points that David Attenborough was making in Paris was we should get the scientists round the world who know how to deal with this problem, technologically speaking, together and just throw them at the problem and actually facilitate that interaction, so there is a tangible carbon neutral solution to the energy crisis we face.

Julian - I don't think it's as simple as that.  The problem is working out how to actually make this happen, how to actually get the governmental buy in to do things - some of this will involve investment; how to get community based buy in if we're talking about getting people to, for example, save energy emissions by not travelling to work as often.  You know a huge effect in the UK on congestion on air pollution, as well as on carbon emissions.  If people even could work from home on average one day a week, that involves much more community based human change and I don't think a bunch of scientists in their stereotypical ivory tower saying "ah ha, we have the answer," is likely to get implemented.  We are not really short of ideas on how to reduce energy usage; we're not really short of ideas on how to generate energy, the problems are about economics, about the societal impact, about making it actually happen.

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