Climate change — beyond John, Tim, Miranda — and even Al…

31 May

… and yet not Left as some might conceive it.

I am still processing a heap of new stuff that is coming my way, but not from the Americans. All I can confidently say is that it is worth looking into. There are names here that in my ignorance I had never even heard of, and yet at least one of these is a name that John Howard must surely have heard of — and what a gloriously British name it is! Sir Crispin Tickell. “Coldstream Guards, diplomat, Ambassador to Mexico and the United Nations during the 1991 Gulf War. Sir Crispin was warden of Green College, Oxford between 1990 and 1997, when he made George Monbiot a fellow. Tickell wrote Margaret Thatcher’s speech on global climate change…”

Interviewed on the “BBC Breakfast with Frost” in 2002 he said:

SIR CRISPIN TICKELL: The trouble is that these debates get too polarised. It is consistent with global warming but it’s not proof of global warming. It’s just part of the instability which comes when you warm up the planet. But the trouble is that you can’t be too precise about saying it’s this result or that result because it’s just too uncertain the whole thing.

HUW EDWARDS: Those who say it’s consistent with global warming also say that the pattern is pretty clear, it’s been developing for many years and that yes, there could be some bad weather but actually it’s part of a much bigger pattern. Do you think that people are slow to recognise that – and by people, I mean governments too?

SIR CRISPIN TICKELL: I think people are slow [to] recognise [this] because it requires some rather uncomfortable choices to be made because if in fact it is human agency which is producing global warming – and the scientist in their great majority say that it is – then a whole lot of new policies have got to be pursued and we’ve got to attack the energy problem particularly. And of course I must add that the problem of floods and the problem of untoward weather is partly that we’re changing the surface of the earth. So it’s forest cutting, it’s logging, it’s all those different things that come together and so it just means uncomfortable choice above all for governments on what they ought to do.

Then there is this letter:

Professor John Guillebaud
14 Hid’s Copse Road
Cumnor Hill
Oxford OX2 9JJ

20 May 2004

I am very sorry that I cannot be with you to mark the tenth anniversary of the Environment Time Capsule Project at Kew Gardens on 12 June.

It would be nice to think that in the last ten years real progress had been made in coping with the problems we then raised. In fact things have gone backwards. In 1994 there seemed to be increasing awareness of the dangers humanity was running. Today people’s minds are elsewhere, and environmental issues, in particular the results of ever increasing human population, seem to have lower priority. In some ways human proliferation can be seen as a maladaptation in which a species, too clever by half, multiplies beyond its natural limitations and does irreparable damage to the ecosystem of which it is no more than a part. But the reckoning cannot be postponed for ever. The longer it is postponed, the greater the damage, including to the species itself.

Our fundamental requirement is to think differently, not only about the Earth as a whole but also about human society and its organization. We still pursue a form of economics in which production of goods and services rather than human wellbeing has priority. Politicians sing hymns to economic growth without knowing what it means. Unlimited growth is the doctrine of the cancer cell. We still need to recognize that our ultimate aim is a society in balance with its resources and the natural world as a whole. Some thirty urban civilizations have already collapsed since the end of the last ice age. There are signs that ours may be going the same way. Future generations will be the judge.

With all good wishes

Crispin Tickell

Here in Oz Howard continued to ignore the problem at that time, Tim was in full snigger mode, and Miranda was then much as she is now…

Tickell had been on to this very early. His Climatic Change and World Affairs was published by Harvard University in 1977 (Pergamon Press 1978). The full text of that book plus a range of papers and articles coming right up to the present may be found on his rather amazing website: Crispin Tickell.

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald you will find two pictures of The Rongbuk glacier, the biggest glacier on Mount Everest’s northern slopes. The photo above was taken in 1968 and the one below was taken this year (2007).


The photographs are of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, which is called the world’s “third pole” because it contains the biggest fields of ice outside of the Arctic and Antarctic. Its glaciers are the source of Asia’s biggest rivers – Yangtze, Yellow, Indus and Ganges.

The melting of this glacier is also significant because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last month that if current trends continue, 80 per cent of the Himalayan glaciers, the water source for a sixth of the world’s population, could disappear in 30 years if the current rate of emissions is not reduced. Other reports have suggested that the impact would be lower, at about 30 per cent…

China has acknowledged that global warming is adversely affecting its environment and has pledged to reduce its emissions, but this week, along with India, another developing country and also the world’s second most populous, again rejected mandatory targets because it would slow development.

Sir Crispin Tickell has much to say about China: “Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak and listen to a succession of Chinese Presidents and Prime Ministers, and am always impressed by their knowledge and grasp of environmental issues (better than most of their Western counterparts), and of the enormous political issues involved both nationally and globally.” In the February 2007 talk from which that comes he says:

Current interest in China is so great that it is now hard to say anything interesting – let alone new – about it. The Times ran Chinese supplements all last week. Every newspaper has a story about China almost every day: its policies, its business, its technology, its currency, its pollution, its policies across the whole range, and not least its prospects for the Olympic Games in 2008. Demonizing China has also become a popular way of distracting attention from short comings elsewhere, particularly in the United States.

Another foreign complaint about China is the volume of pollutants China emits into the atmosphere, in particular carbon dioxide as the major greenhouse gas. As a country particularly vulnerable to climate change (a point reiterated by the Chinese National Academy of Sciences), the Chinese government, although not formally bound by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, has made strenuous efforts to reduce its emissions, largely through increased industrial efficiency. The result was an absolute as well as per capita reduction in the last few years. But they are now rising again, and may eventually equal if not exceed those of the principal villain in this respect, the United States…

No-one is more conscious of this intimidating complex of problems than the Chinese themselves. Over the last 15 years, as a member of the independent China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, I have been the witness of the growing concern of the Chinese leadership, and the efforts which have been made not only to take limited action, but also – perhaps more important – to think differently about the environment. Here is the greatest contrast between the positions of the Chinese and US Administrations.

Thinking differently is well illustrated by the search for a better methodology for measuring economic progress than that represented by the classic – and highly misleading – Gross Domestic Product / Gross National Product mechanism. Successive Chinese governments have spoken of the need for a “socialist market economy” in which the framework is set by the public interest, with the free market functioning within it…

There are many reasons for hope. As a relatively late comer to the industrial world, China has the opportunity to leapfrog over the mistakes of others. It is also recovering its self-confidence after its century of troubles, and the balance of power in the world is changing as a result. The most recent dramatic example was the destruction of the old Chinese satellite. Certainly the days of the single super-power dominating the world are already numbered in both and political and economic terms. It has been calculated by Goldman Sachs that the proportion of the world economy represented by China and India in 1825 was around 40 percent. By 2025 that proportion may be restored.

Within China the environmental cost may be high, even unworkable. But the government seems well aware of the risks and hazards, and knows better than its critics that it has to do a lot more to look after the only China, indeed the only Earth, there is. They may turn out to be pioneers in doing so. As in technology, the rest of the world may soon be learning as much from the Chinese as the Chinese learn from the rest of the world.

The pictures above, it is well to remember, come from a Chinese source.

There is so much to explore on Tickell’s site. Another that was commended by Tickell in New Scientist in March 2007 is The Meridian Project. Here is a YouTube from the project’s founder, David Wasdell.

And while you are exploring, visit Oxford University’s the James Martin 21st Century School. More on that at another time.

It is likely that the 21st century will be an unusually challenging one in the history of mankind. The goal of the School is to develop strategies for responding to the most serious problems, some of which even have the potential to threaten the future of humanity itself. At the same time, we also seek to harness the most promising opportunities facing the world in the new century.

The James Martin 21st Century School, founded in June 2005 at the University of Oxford, is a unique collaborative research effort. As a world–class university with leading scholars and practitioners across a very wide range of disciplines, the University aims to be at the forefront of the work to find these solutions.

The focus of the School is on stimulating Oxford’s research, by giving the University’s scholars the resources and space to think imaginatively about the problems and the opportunities that the future will bring.

The work must meet the best Oxford scholarly standards, must be original and additional to work done elsewhere, and is expected to have a global impact.

Our government really is playing catch-up, and the sad thing is they probably wouldn’t even be doing that had this not been an election year. Meanwhile, the Tims and Mirandas (and Andrews and so on) would appear to be the ones who are living in the past.

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Posted by on May 31, 2007 in Aussie interest, climate change, Current affairs, Education


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