Event summary by Shobhan Dhir
Covid-19 has sparked the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, and has dramatically altered our way of life for the foreseeable future. Given the pressure governments are under to keep people safe and recover the economy, what will be the implications of this crisis on climate policy going forward? How will future climate negotiations be impacted? And what are the most effective climate policies which are viable in this new political climate, and could any actually facilitate economic recovery?
Professor Jim Skea is the Co-chair of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), leading their work on climate change mitigation. The IPCC is the world's highest authority on climate change science - advising governments on all scientific information related to climate change, its impacts, and its mitigation so they can develop effective climate policy. Jim Skea is also Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy, and he was a founding member of the UK's Committee on Climate Change.
Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change, holding a joint chair at Manchester and Uppsala University. He was also the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He has contributed to the development of Paris-compliant carbon budgets for Sweden, and his analysis contributed to the framing of the UK’s Climate Change Act and the development of national carbon budgets.
Jim opened by saying how most of us are interested in how Covid will affect the climate agenda, but that policymakers are interested in the reverse – how will climate action support a response to Covid-19, especially the economic recovery as we come out of lockdown? He explains that policymakers are looking for three key things from actions in a recovery:
Jim then explained that there are a host of climate actions which fit these criteria, such as retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient, tree planting and restoration, and rearranging urban landscapes to encourage more active travel, such as cycling. However, he noted that many of the worst hit sectors are the most carbon-intensive, such as airlines and car manufacturers, and that these industries will also be queuing at the doors of government to make their case for support. Therefore, cases for a green recovery need to be made very effectively. He identified five key priorities:
Kevin’s presentation focused on how Covid-19 demonstrates the inequalities which exist in our society, and the ways the system ought to change in the aftermath, where recovery from Covid-19 should be seen as an opportunity for change. He drew on the ideas of Robert Tressel, understanding key workers as the ‘Ragged Philanthropists’ of the modern day. Originally these ‘ragged philanthropists’ referred to those whose toil, struggles, and often mortal sacrifices working in the factories, built the modern world. Now, Kevin argued that the term could be used to speak about today’s Covid-19 key workers who give up their time, health and often their life, to save the high emitters of today.
One of the most stark facts from Kevin’s presentation was that 50% of all CO2 emissions are caused by the richest 10% of the world’s population. If regulations forced the top 10% of global emitters to reduce their carbon footprint to that of the average EU citizen (hardly too onerous a demand) - and the other 90% of the population made no change, we would reduce global emissions by a third. The pledges submitted under the Paris agreement are projected to result in almost no emissions reduction by 2030, demonstrating how resistant our societies are to changing the lifestyle of the high emitters and how committed to maintaining the status quo. Kevin said this needs to change: labour and resources spent furnishing the lifestyle of the high emitters must be used elsewhere, and these high consumers must change their lifestyles. Kevin concluded by saying we need new narratives on:
The feasibility and risk of carbon capture and storage (CCS) being used by policymakers as an excuse to avoid early action was addressed, with Jim explaining we need to throw everything at the problem. He said he doesn’t see how we can get to Net Zero without removing something from the atmosphere, as some sources of emissions are very difficult to eliminate. Kevin, however, warned of the significantly higher lifecycle emissions from CCS at power stations, with these being many times higher than that of renewables or nuclear, demonstrating that this technology is still far too high in emissions to be compliant with the Paris Agreement. However, for cement, CCS could be very effective. He said direct capture is preferable, but that CCS is a long way off. He also said we should address mitigation policies on the assumption that CCS won’t work, due the high uncertainty involved with the technology at large scale, and the number of feedbacks in the climate system. He also identified the fact that every pound spent on CCS is an opportunity cost elsewhere.
On the topic of stimulus policies, both agreed regulations are very effective and should be pushed. Jim provided the example policy of ‘no gas going into homes after 2023/24’, a tool that can really shift the system to electrify. He also added that with oil prices so low, it is a great time to add a carbon price without consumer resistance. Kevin had a much greater preference for regulation rather than prices, because prices don’t give as definite an outcome. He spoke of setting maximum CO2 emissions limits for fossil fuel companies and car manufacturers, which are reduced each year, letting the companies identify the best way to achieve this. Both agreed that all policies need to be screened for social equity.
On the question of what people can do whilst waiting for leaders to act, Jim said flying less and eating less meat are the two biggest things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Kevin said we should not wait for leadership, but must see ourselves as part of the process of leadership. We should all take an active role discussing with friends, families, and colleagues; and engaging at the local and national level or on social media, adding our ideas and thoughts to the debate. He added that the leadership of the last 30 years has collectively failed, as we have not succeeded in mitigating climate change, and are not on track, so we need input and leadership from young people on how to make change.
On how to impact high consumers without affecting ‘Tressel’s workers’, Kevin said frequent flier levies with geometric pricing would work, producing a situation where ticket prices rapidly increase with the number of tickets purchased. Also, standards such as limitations on the size of homes could work. Jim said we need to be careful about unintended consequences, for example people with multiple passports taking advantage of flying levies. Finally both emphasised the critical importance of taking a risk-based approach in assessing climate change solutions and policies, rather than a cost-benefit analysis, which fails for large scale issues with complex variables. Jim said the IPCC have been firm that cost-benefit analyses does not help with climate change policy.
To hear a more in depth exploration of the impacts of Covid-19 on Climate Policy and for many more fascinating discussions and questions, head to our YouTube channel for the event video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGxOxiCFJ3A&t=4926s
Event summary by Bianca Pasca
When it comes to issues of climate justice, the need for educating people about the problem means we often hear activists calling us to ‘listen to the science’. But facts and numbers may be hard to swallow if they don’t manage to speak to us on an emotional level—to make us understand the context and the urgency of the matter. We need to feel that we are characters in this story, who have a voice, and can shape the ending.
The Storytelling and Climate Activism event brings together two people experienced in crafting compelling narratives that speak truthfully and emotionally about the issues of climate change.
Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist, with a history of public activism dating back to the publication of his first book, The End of Nature, in 1989. He is a co-founder of 350.org, the first global grassroots climate-change movement. As the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, he has written nearly 20 books and won numerous prizes for his environmental work, including the 2014 Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes referred to as the ‘alternative Nobel’.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is an author, journalist, essayist and critic. She has written two short-story collections and has a novel forthcoming in the near future. She has worked for the ‘Climate Changed’ column about the American South for the Guardian in 2018/19. She teaches literature and environmental writing, also at Middlebury College, and serves there as the director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference, as well. Her work has been recognised with awards like the Phil Reed Environmental Writing Award in 2020.
Opening the discussion, Megan quoted a Latin phrase she feels to be very important in the current context of the double crises of the climate crisis and systemic racism: Esse quam videri (“To be, rather than to seem”). She believes storytelling must be done from an incredibly sincere place, working on a very human level. Complexity and multiple perspectives have to be honoured in any story covering climate change. But narratives also have to be accessible, making the conversation easy to join.
Bill said he believes deep stories can be told from the numbers and science— that is the idea behind the 350.org project. The number refers to a number of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere (although we have now reached 415 parts per million) and speaks to the urgency of the matter, conveying feelings and telling the story of climate damage.
In his opening comments, he emphasised the importance of providing a platform for the voices not yet listened to by the mainstream, through projects like the 'Passing the Mic' section of the New Yorker, which Bill has been involved in writing. Bill spoke about how the climate movement has grown since he first published his first book, The End of Nature in 1989, a time when a lot of the articles about climate change were written by him and a small group of others.
Some people say that climate change is too complex a concept to be portrayed in a story. What do you think about this?
Conceptions of good and bad are based on very different world-views and values. Many people would say that ‘the villain’ is a lack of global governance, whereas others see the problem as capitalism and its focus on growth, leading to injustices. Yet another view might see radical environmentalism as the problem. So, what role do you think storytelling can play in bringing people with such different perspectives together to fight for climate justice?
How can we tell stories that are inclusive without also pandering to the climate denial movement? In other words, how can we navigate the duality of the fact that the voices of people who are excluded from our stories can also be the voices that deny the existence of a climate crisis?
For the full seminar, head to our YouTube channel where this and every other talk from Trinity term's seminar series can be viewed: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOoksFYBCHqZWwVBU9qewZg
By Laura Watson
As Europe begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and potentially lean towards a green recovery, the immediate and longer term impacts of a warming world must be considered. While we learned in a recent blog post about the interaction between climate change and disease, climate change also poses a range of other health threats for a large part of the global population. Most of the information presented below comes from a recent review of climate change and mental health.
Physical implications of warming temperatures
Warmer temperatures can have many physiological impacts. It is thought that the optimum temperature for humans is around 22oC, while exposure to higher temperatures can directly impact biochemical levels in the body. For example, differing levels of heat change the amounts of key neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine found in the body. High temperatures can also disrupt human temperature regulation mechanisms.
Mental implications of warming temperatures
Beyond the physical impacts, warming temperatures can also affect mental health at differing rates and times, causing a variety of impacts. Heat stress, for instance, is typically brought about by heat waves, and is associated with anxiety and mood disorders.
In warmer temperatures, people experience higher levels of discomfort, which leads to an increase in aggressiveness and hostile behaviour. Empirical evidence shows that hotter cities experience higher levels of violence than cooler cities, a phenomenon which is likely compounded further by the urban heat island effect.
However, a caveat must be issued along with these findings, because heat stress and the implications of higher temperatures can be influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political, and behavioural factors. Another factor which adds to the complexity of investigating the relationship of temperature and mental health is the wide variation in levels of exposure to high temperatures between groups across the world, making it more difficult to assess the relationship between the two.
Expansion of areas and people experiencing high temperatures
The decade between 2010-19 experienced exceptionally high temperatures, and the month of May, 2020 was one of the warmest and sunniest on record. As of June 2019, Europe had experienced 5 500-year summers over the course of 15 years (meaning record breaking temperatures were experienced during those years). For a continent not expecting to experience such high temperatures, the implications were devastating. The 2003 heat wave was the most deadly, with 70,000 deaths attributed to the extremely high summer temperatures. Since then, medical services have become more prepared, but high temperatures continue to be dangerous, especially in areas less prepared for them.
This is compounded by the urban heat island effect, wherein urban areas are much warmer than their rural surroundings. This is caused by the energy produced by so many people concentrated in a relatively small area, as well as the way urban infrastructure tends to trap heat. People in cities frequently experience higher temperatures than forecasts predict, and night-time temperatures in cities often don’t fall as much as they would be expected to. The urban heat island effect intensifies the impact of increasing heat waves on cities with climate change.
Tropical economies (before COVID-19) were growing 20% faster than the rest of the world. This means that more people will be living in areas experiencing high temperatures, at the same time as the temperatures in these regions are rising. Rural to urban migration means that there will be an increased number of people exposed to high temperatures and heat stress.
Overall, it seems that climate change has impacts beyond the atmospheric and oceanic systems, and can affect mental and physical health in ways we are only just starting to discover.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.