Blog Action Day | A Personal Journey – from Lomborg to Pachauri via Stern (and Homer Simpson!)
Bjorn Lomborg. Credit: Urban Mixer
If someone had suggested to me six or seven years ago that I would end up working on climate change, I would have taken it with a pinch of salt. If I thought much about the issue at all I would probably have been in the Bjorn Lomborg camp – the lauded and vilified (in equal measure) author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Surely the predictions must be exaggerated a tiny bit by the green lobby groups? Surely there were more pressing priorities to spend money on, meeting basic needs in the here and now? I remember voicing these doubts in front of well-intentioned people brought in to tell us why we should take climate change so seriously.
Admitting to this is a little embarrassing frankly, in view of my current job. There are so many committed people who have worked on the subject for years and really earned their credentials. Am I merely jumping on the climate change bandwagon? It’s a fair question.
Sir Nicholas Stern speaking at the DFID Conference. Credit: Geoff Crawford
The truth is that my intellectual transformation began some years ago. I date it to 2006 when I read the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, led by the then-Chief Economist to the British Government, Sir Nicholas Stern. This book addressed the big questions that had been bugging me, considered the costs, the benefits, the risks and uncertainties associated with climate change, and did so dispassionately. I believe Sir Nick is on record as saying he had no views about climate change before he started work on the Stern Review. That, to me, made it all the more convincing. It changed my world view.
At the time I was working in Indonesia. We held a brown-bag lunch in our office to discuss the Stern Review. That same week I caught The Simpsons movie, which also contributed to my environmental awareness (not really, but it is about the environment, and made me laugh quite a lot). But what made the issue real for me in Indonesia was seeing at first hand some of the work being done under a DFID-funded forestry programme. Deforestation accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but about 80% in Indonesia. What was crystal clear was that no lasting solution would be possible that did not take fully into account the interests of the millions of predominantly poor people who live in or around these forests, and depend on them as sources of income. In other words, tackling climate change is intimately linked with tackling poverty.
Since moving to my current job last year, the closeness of the links between climate change and poverty have been driven home to me. Despite its reputation as an emerging economic power, India is home to over 450 million poor people (19% more than the whole of Africa) and has one of the world’s highest rates of child malnutrition. These are the people who will be – indeed, already are being - most affected by climate change, which will increase poverty, hunger, child mortality and disease, and threaten access to safe drinking water.
At the same time, any plan for reducing growth in greenhouse gas emissions in India, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, would be neither morally defensible nor politically saleable if it did not allow the economy to keep on growing fast enough to lift those 450m plus out of poverty. This in turn will mean expanding access to safe, reliable and affordable energy, which remains a critical unmet need for the majority of India’s poor.
This perspective – the urgent, pressing challenge of safeguarding economic growth and poverty reduction – is central to the Indian government’s approach to any global deal on climate change. It is also central to the British government’s approach - I’m delighted to say, otherwise my job would be a lot more difficult.
Rajendra Pachauri at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. Credit: WEF
Finally, there’s one more critical element of my intellectual journey, which is the overwhelming scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is real and accelerating. Very few serious scientists now dispute this. It’s a body of evidence that is personified for me by Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian scientist and Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore).
One of the privileges of my current job is getting to interact with Dr Pachauri from time to time. Speaking to DFID staff recently at an event organised by The Energy & Resources Institute, which he heads, Dr Pachauri’s sobering message was that that even the bottom end of the range of IPCC projections for climate change would have serious damaging effects – which are already starting to be felt. Dr Pachauri has considerable faith in the power of scientific evidence to compel political action – I wonder if he will be proven right.
Before I sign off, allow me to apologise for my self-indulgence – as it’s my first blog I hope I’ll be forgiven! In future posts I will aim to share with you some of the lessons we are learning as we grapple with the practical challenges of climate change and development.
This blog features as part of Blog Action Day and the Act on Copenhagen campaign