'Talks on climate change need different tracks simultaneously'

The Inquirer

'Talks on climate change need different tracks simultaneously'

Professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, Mike Hulme has prepared climate scenarios and reports for the UK government, the European Commission, UNEP, UNDP, WWF-International and the IPCC and has recently come out with his book ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’. Currently on a lecture tour in India for the British Council’s ‘Talking Climate’ series, Hulme spoke to Devika Sequeira of Deccan Herald in Goa. Excerpts:

With more recriminations surfacing at the Bangkok climate talks between the poor and the rich nations, what can one now expect from the Copenhagen negotiations in December?
I think the outcome of the COP15 will be a big disappointment for those who have hoped that some new startling global deal about climate change will be reached. The expectations have been rising for some time now and it is unhealthy and unhelpful. There are so many climate-related problems which have been piggy-backed onto the negotiations and so many competing interests from the political actors involved that in only an Utopian (world) could one believe that a deal satisfying these interests can be reached. The most likely outcome is an agreement to continue talks for another two years.

Considering that you hold the view that the climate debate means different things to different stakeholders, what can be defined as the ‘common interest’?
Well, in an abstract sense the ‘common interest’ is the fact that we all live on one planet with limited resources and a growing population seeking greater consumption. But converting this abstract notion into practical consensus politics is quite another matter. Indeed, I believe there are too many issues around which we disagree to suggest that it is as simple as putting self-interest aside. Many of the issues that have got wrapped up in the climate change negotiations — technology transfer, development, biodiversity conservation, rights of indigenous peoples, world trade, etc — are issues where disagreements multiply. It is unrealistic to think there is such a thing as one global ‘common interest’ on these matters.

The US and the EU now want to discard the Kyoto Protocol framework, and India has condemned the fact that at the final phase of negotiations, the goal posts were being changed. Do you see hope for any meeting ground?
I think the political reality is we in fact need to pursue lots of different tracks simultaneously rather than placing the entire burden on the talks in Copenhagen. Countries like India are pushing for a protocol that redresses some of the legacy effects of imbalance in global economic power and colonialism, but this is not primarily what the West is offering. My suggestion is to break out the negotiations into a wide variety of different fora where it may be easier to make progress — eg: bilateral or sectoral cooperation and goals, reaching the MDGs, forestry conservation — but these should all be freed from having to fit all together into one global mega-deal.

Some scientists suggest that even if we are down to zero emissions, it may be impossible to stop sea levels from rising by at least two metres with the expected 2 degrees Celsius warming. Is this an alarmist view?
There are certainly changes ahead of us which no amount of GHG (green house gases) reduction would eliminate. Sea-level is likely to continue to rise for centuries, but at exactly what rate we do not know. It therefore becomes a matter of risk evaluation and risk management, and we know from other studies of risk that there is no one scientific answer to the ‘true’ risk of anything. It depends on one’s psychological, political and cultural disposition. A risk of rapid sea-level rise might appeal more to the instincts of the West; a risk of restricted economic development might appeal more to the instincts of Indian politicians. Both are risks, but it is difficult to compare them.

In most developing countries awareness is very low. How should governments around the world be addressing this issue specially since personal choices can help lower emissions?
While citizens should be aware that human actions can alter climates around the world, in fact the best way to engage and sensitise people to the environmental consequences of personal actions is to focus on the local scale and the more immediate environmental impacts of behaviour. Thus it is easier for people to see that switching vehicle fuel from petrol to CNG is beneficial for local air quality (quick, visible benefits) than it is beneficial for slowing global warming (long-term, invisible benefits). The psychology of environmental communication and public engagement is very important to study, understand and act on. Global climate change is a very abstract risk for most people — whether in England or in India.

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