Jennifer O’Mahony interviews Sir Crispin Tickell

Jennifer O’Mahony interviews Sir Crispin Tickell on the night of the 2008 Kennedy Lecture

Sir Crispin Tickell (STC) interviewed by Jennifer O’Mahony (JO)

JO: Why do you think that the British government and governments around the world are so bad at realising the scale of climate change and doing something about it?

STC: In the last few years a great transition has taken place, and once you start to get these transitions they can become very quick, we’ve seen in the last 18 months, or maybe 2 years, that a great transition has taken place on the climate change issue. Now, other issues don’t come across but perhaps they will in the future. Once the scientific community begins to take a certain position, gradually it will permeate debate and then finally it ends up on the desks of politicians, and they have to make some very difficult decisions. So you see it’s not just miserable politicians who can’t do what they need to, the fact is they are all genuine points of difficulty. The problem is with current thinking, and when I deliver the lecture this evening I hope to address the background thinking involved.

JO: So you don’t think people like George Bush are actively impeding efforts to make a difference when it comes to climate change?

STC: I don’t think he understands what’s going on. You have to allow him honourable motives, however half-witted he may appear.

JO: In your speech summary you claim that we need to ‘abandon consumerism’. This is quite a big claim to make in a society that is now run by that ideology.

STC: Well it rather depends on what you mean by ‘consumerism’. When you place human consumption and human production ahead of everything such as is happening with the ‘credit crunch’ where you assume that society will crash if you stop consuming, then you need to think that we need a different kind of society. For that reason there is the issue of economists talking about the importance of growth continuing, but what they mean is putting production before welfare, whereas the first thing I would do is say that you’re going to have it the other way round, and have human welfare before just producing things. At the moment our society is geared towards just producing things rather than human welfare, and that is one of the problems that has arisen. It is also the reason why there is such a widening gap between rich and poor in our society.

JO: Do you think that’s the fault of globalisation?

STC: It’s not the fault, globalisation is one of the symptoms of what’s going on at the moment, plus globalisation is a product of technology, of being able to communicate in a way which wasn’t possible for a previous generation. It also means that when something happens in one part of the world it can affect other parts rather more quickly than would otherwise be the case, and people feel very uneasy about that, but it isn’t linked directly to consumerism.

JO: Thinking more about solutions, what about concepts like Biosynthesis, where bacteria can be trained to “mop up” carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere. Is this the kind of solution we should be looking at?

STC: Well, that’s one of the many solutions we are looking at, and are being canvassed at the moment, mopping up carbon dioxide, that’s one of the things, also dropping iron filings in the ocean, one of a whole lot of options for drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. I think nearly all of them are very untested and at the very beginning. Indeed, I am one of the judges of the Richard Branson Prize, did you know he has created a prize of $25 million for someone who can find a commercially viable way of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? They’d had almost 4000 entries around a year ago, there is an enormous amount of possibility there. Of course the easiest way of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to put less into it, as you know it does eventually dissolve, even if it does take a long time to do so. But you need something to control and reduce the amount in the atmosphere.

JO: For our readership on a more practical level, people hear phrases like ‘carbon footprint’ but they don’t always know what they mean, what simple solutions can the average student integrate into their daily life?

STC: A mixture of top down solutions and bottom down solutions. Top down solutions are governments using what I call “the fiscal instruments” to tax some things and reward others, and they set an example. Bottom up solutions mean that you don’t waste, that your house is properly insulated etcetera etcetera, but the most important one is what I was talking about a moment ago, where you start thinking in different terms. You don’t regard production and consumption as the top priorities in human society, you realise that human welfare and employment and longer term balance in any society. The Chinese have a word for it. It is no something that we have in our society, which is based on rather crude notions of growth, of economic growth.

JO: Talking about China, the issue of overpopulation is particularly contentious because people don’t want to be told how many children to have, but do you feel that the Chinese policy of one child per family is something that we will need to start pushing in our own society or is that going too far?

STC: Every society has its own way of managing its social problems, the Chinese had a huge social problem in the multiplication of their numbers, in the time of Mao Tse-Tung there were around 300-400 million people, there are now 1.3 billion and rising, so they realised there was going to be a tremendous problem in relation to resources, and then as you know they have hideous problems with pollution, so they implemented the one child one family policy which is appropriate for Chinese society but is not the kind of thing that could happen here because our society works rather differently. But if you say “should we reduce our numbers?” I would say well, yes we should, and one of the things I will say in the lecture is that we should aim for a much smaller population.

When measuring fertility, I think the base figure is 2, so if you are 2.1 you are keeping the levels of the population where they now are, so if you take some parts of Africa where they are at 5.7, you can see they are going very hard in the wrong direction, and there is a high infant mortality rate and so on. In this country we are at 1.7, but our population is increasing as a result of immigration, so in our case I think people have got the message. If you go to some parts of the world in Africa where population is still increasing drastically, it has to be explained, and I think it is being explained, population levels are coming down. When I went to Mexico the first time I think it was about 5, now it’s down to about 2.3.

Different parts of the world it has come down quite drastically. Of course it goes hand in hand with the emancipation of women. Where women have control over their own bodies, they want to be people rather than baby making machines, and then everything changes. You’ve got four factors effectively, one is the role of women, where women have the same status as men population rates nearly always fall, and secondly you’ve got care in old age, if you’ve got no one surviving into old age then this isn’t necessary, and then you’ve got the preference for boys, which changes things although that will correct itself, in China soon women are going to be so highly prized because there is less of them. So there are a whole lot of factors of this sort which affect population increase.

When I go to speak this evening I shall say that it is extremely hard to see straight lines going in any direction. If you jump forward a hundred years and look back, there will probably be a much higher rate of fertility, whereas in the interim we have to cope with running a society where relatively older people survive for much longer. Having multiplied at an incredible rate since the industrial revolution we are now facing the consequences, and I think population issues are extremely important, but that hasn’t made its way back to the top of the political agenda.

People are worried about it. The Pope, the Pope doesn’t like it, he wants people to have babies all the time. Catholic priests are more moderate in their enthusiasm. Population was a big issue about 30 years ago, now it’s not, but I suspect it will come back because it has to be discussed as one of the big environmental problems of our time, it’s one animal species out of control, and the awful thing is that if we don’t control it then Mother Nature will do it for us.

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