In 40yrs whole world will be forced to wage wars for food - climate change expert

Climate change - an issue that came up long ago and yet today even its existence is a widely-debated topic. The international community is preoccupied with other problems: war in Syria, terrorism, the crisis in Ukraine... But could it be so that we facing a far larger crisis looming on the horizon? Is the climate really changing because of us, and what is it going bring upon all humankind? Can the catastrophe be stopped or is there a new dark age coming? We ask these questions to the former secretary-general of the Club of Rome and advocate for sustainable development, Dr. Martin Less, on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Martin Lees, former Secretary-General of Club of Rome, advocate for sustainable development, thank you for joining us in this program. So, I’m just going to start right ahead: in the newly released national security strategy, the U.S. ranks climate change as one of the biggest strategic  threats  to the U.S. security, but America is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. So, how does that correlate with each other – it’s creating threats for itself?

Martin Lees: I think, the position in the U.S. is very difficult on climate change for reasons which many of your viewers will fully understand – in the Congress, there’s great difficulty in accepting, first of all, that climate change exists, and secondly, that humans are causing it. So, the U.S. is schizophrenic on this issue, but the Administration under president Obama has taken quite strong action to tackle the emissions problem, both with the existing power plants and new power plants, and, it has taken a big initiative internationally in agreeing with Mr. Xi Jinping, the President of China, on steps and targets to reduce emissions. We should also remember that in the U.S., what the government says and does is only one part of the truth; what is being done by businesses and cities is very-very important. So, the U.S. is reducing its emissions, but from a high level of about 16 tons per person – in China and in Europe it’s more like 7 tons of emissions per year per person – so U.S. has a long way to go, but we have seen a lot of movement, and now a large majority of the U.S. public, around 80% in recent poll has said that they agree that climate is a critical issue for the future of the U.S. So, for all these reasons, it is now reflected in the national security strategy, and that’s a big step forward.

SS: Continuing with what you were saying, even with the recent declared reduction of emission, the U.S. accounts for 50% of emissions, in China -  24% of emissions – they will still be leaders in the field, so there’s no way to make their efforts effective, is there? 

ML: Well, I think it’s a very difficult balancing act, because climate is a truly global problem, and it requires all the major polluters, all the major countries to work together. There’s no way we can solve this problem just by separate, individual efforts. There needs to be international collaboration, and here you hit the problem that of the “historic emissions” – that means to say, emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it’s the rich countries who have created most of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere, but the Chinese are now the largest polluter in aggregate, even though on a per capita basis they are nothing like as high as the U.S. So, in the political negotiations, it is extremely difficult, because you have the fundamental question of what is called “climate justice”, and unless the problem is solved in a way which all parties consider to be fair, we’re not going to solve the problem.

SS: But the proclaimed U.S.-China efforts are not legally binding, they are simply a promise – so, once President Obama leaves office, is there any guarantee those promises will be kept?

ML: I don’t think there can be any guarantee; in a democracy, the decisions of one government does not necessarily bind a future government, and of course, all the negotiators from other countries, including China, are well aware of it. But, there is movement, nevertheless, and President Obama has been taking action through what is called “administrative action” – because he cannot, of course, get any legislation through Congress. Everybody is aware that the U.S. may choose, with a Republican Administration, not to pursue the policies which President Obama has initiated. But, there’s a kind of subterranean movement coming now in public opinion, and in the Senate. For example, a few weeks ago, the Senate approved statement in which they agreed that climate change is, in fact, happening, although they could not go so far as to agree that humans have anything much to do with it. So, there’s a long way to go, but I am reasonably optimistic that there has been a change in the U.S., there was a huge demonstration, if you remember, in Manhattan at the time of the summit last October, and I think that public opinion is beginning to focus on this, not because they hear about it from the government, but because they see impacts of climate change all around them; and the U.S. is now suffering from floods and droughts and extreme weather events – so the public is beginning to accept the fact, even if the leaders have not gone so far.

SS: You bring up a good point, because I want to talk to you a little bit about how climate change affects geopolitical processes in the world. In 2011, Syria was experiencing its worst drought in modern history, and while many analysts say it would remain immune to “Arab Spring”, what we are seeing right now is a severe civil war in this country. So, was the environmental factor overlooked here? Did climate change lead to instability in Syria?

ML: The difficulty we have is that it’s very hard to make a clear causal linkage between climate change and, for example, a war in Syria. There’s no doubt whatever that climate change has been a major contributing factor, but there are, of course, many-many other issues related to the activities of the government and many other problems; but the environmental, climate issue is fundamental. You may or may not know that the production of grain in Syria peaked already in 2001 and that roughly 75% of all the farmers in Syria lost their crops and 1.5 million people moved into the cities. The cities, of course, already having many refugees from other countries – so, the stability of the country and the capacity of the country to govern itself became very shaky once you had 1,5 million people flooding into the cities in the desperate hope of finding some work. So there is no doubt that the impacts of the drought, which are aggravated definitely by climate change, had a major impact in creating that conditions for this war. And this problem we have seen also in Darfur, in Sudan and in other parts of the world, so it’s not difficult to understand that when people cannot survive on their ancestral homes in the countryside, they flood into cities and that puts an immense pressure on government services and government management, and many poor countries just can’t handle it.

SS: Can you try to make a projection: in what regions could we see climate change contribute to conflict or unrest, in the nearest future?

ML: Well, it will be easier to tell you in what regions we would not expect to see that. If climate change continues as currently the case, that is to say, if we stay on the same what is called “business as usual” trajectory of growth and emissions, temperatures are likely  to rise by the end of this century at least for 5 or 6 degrees on average. That’s catastrophic possibility, and much of this will hit us long before the end of the century. So, if we see emissions going up and temperatures rising at that rate, then you have to put 2 factors together: one of them is demographic growth and the other is climate, and it is the intersection between these two issues which makes the problem so terrible. If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, which is a whole lot of countries, their population now is around 800 million people. By 2050, if things continue, it is expected to rise to 1.6 billion. That’s double, another 800 million people. At the same time, the impacts of climate change are likely to reduce food production by anywhere around 30-40%. If you put those two trends together, you can understand that you are going to see migration, you are going to see more poverty, and all sorts of terrible problems, and part of the conclusion is bound to be conflict. So, unless we act rapidly and strongly to control the rise of temperature as we move towards 9 billion people in the world, we are going to see conflict between states and also, of course, within states, as they compete more and more for water and productive land. So, I am afraid that unless the climate issue is properly managed, we are heading into a period of great unrest in world affairs.

SS: Alright, but can I get some more precise calculations on your part – I am sure you have those in your head – an example of how climate can change or influence society and politics in a particular region. For instance, in Asia-Pacific, or, I don’t know, North Africa…

ML: I think, yes, I have a lot in my head, I have to try and find you an answer to that question. I think we have seen what was called the “Arab Spring”, which has run into some difficulties. That was triggered in part by a rise in food prices; as you would remember, in Egypt and Tunisia, sudden rapid rise of food prices created social instability and movements of people in the cities against the government. There is no doubt, therefore, that when people start to run out of water and food, then they become politically very-very aggressive. I think the projections for the Middle East and North Africa are very worrying, because if climate continues as it is, it will provoke further social unrest. You cannot, as I said, conclude that climate is the cause of unrest, but you can definitely conclude that the pressures of climate change on food, on water, on productive soils, can aggravate and, what the Americans call it, became a multiplier of conflict, making initial problems infinitely worse. You will see similar problems emerging in other regions of the world, not only in the Middle East and Africa – you will also see problems emerging in Asia, as you’ve indicated, and if you look at India, which people don’t spend much time looking at, unfortunately, you will see that the population is likely to rise by around 400 million people by 2050, at a time, when the water table is dropping by about one meter per year, and the impacts of climate change are going to be severe. So, you will see, definitely, impacts of climate on political stability, leading, in some cases, to what has been called “failed states”, where governments are not capable of managing their affairs properly.

SS: So, Dr. Lees, no matter what we do, there is no way to stop clean water from running out. There are tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the resources of the Nile, between Israel and Palestine, even between separate U.S. states over water. So, here’s a million dollar question – what happens if fresh water runs out?

ML: If we do not master  the climate issue, then we are going to run into much more severe problems of water shortage, and something like 50% of the world will be living in acute areas of shortage within, probably, 20 to 30 years – if we do not resolve the climate problem, because rising temperatures have enormous impacts on water resources. That is one of the most significant linkages. In Colorado, the Colorado River is almost drying up, it has been feeding – watering, I should say – roughly around 40 million people, and it has lost something like 60 cubic kilometers of water, and is now in real difficulties. So, there are even within the rich countries enormous pressures and completion for water resources, and we have to become a lot more clever. We have to look at the causes of the problem, and the causes of the problem in part are rising temperatures. We can’t escape that fact. If we do not face up to the emissions problem in order to control the rise of temperature, then there’s very little we can do to manage the water problem in such difficult and dangerous situation.

SS: Emissions stem from energy consumption and the world is consuming more and more energy as the economy grows. So, you can’t just stop economic growth and global development, can you? I mean, not with countries, like, in Africa or Asia, still poor and underfed…

ML: I know we have very little time. You’ve asked one of the crucial questions. Of course, you cannot stop growth and you shouldn’t stop growth, because there are hundreds of millions of people who haven’t even started benefiting from human progress yet, in many parts of the world. So, it would be arrogant and unfair and unjust to say “we should stop growth, because we have an emissions problem”. However, people have been thinking about this equation for the very long time, and there are one or two simple points which can be made about it. The first it, a present trajectory of economic growth is really very-very unsatisfactory, not just because of emissions; it is not providing employment to people, it is highly unstable, it is not eradicating poverty across the world, and in addition, it is destroying ecosystems, overusing resources and creating emissions. So, climate is a symptom of how we choose to grow our economies. The converse of that is to, say, if we found a different type of growth, a different quality of growth, we would be able to improve human well-being without destroying the environment on which we actually depend. So, the real choice is not “do we grow” or “do we preserve the environment” – that’s nonsense, they are two sides of the same coin, and there are example all over the world, positive examples, where countries and businesses and cities are struggling to reconcile the need for continuing progress or growth, while at the same time being environmentally and climate-wise responsible.

SS: It took multiple oil crises and a Chernobyl for people to start worrying about renewable clean energy. Does it take a catastrophe to make everyone wake up when it comes to climate change? What kind of catastrophe will that be? What has to happen for people to just wake up and start doing what you said they should be doing?

ML: We are now seeing extreme weather events all over the world. Not just in developing countries, but also in developed countries. The impacts of these extreme weather events and the rising concern of the public is very likely to change policy. The crucial question is – will it change it quickly enough for us to avoid the climate system going out of control. That is the real danger, but I would say, one or two more really major impacts will probably swing public opinion irreversibly in favor of action and that will mean we can use our brains and our capacities to start to solve the problem.

SS: You keep up bringing America and its’ vested interest that can’t be sort of pushed away. If you look at the debate on climate policies in the U.S., as soon as business opportunity opens up for extracting shale oil, for instance, with great environmental risks and greenhouse emissions – it is ceased,, no matter how many Al Gore presentations were shown. So, how do you fight against money?

ML: That, of course, is a very major question, especially when you know that Koch brothers and their friends are planning to commit $900 billion to the upcoming presidential elections in the U.S. So, your question - “how do you fight against money?” – is extremely important. There’s a lot of work being done on the relations between corporate and financial interests in the Congress, where Congressmen are required to raise money to be re-elected and therefore, they are prey to special interests. There’s no way around that simple fact and that isn’t just a U.S. problem. We see this problem everywhere. However, politicians are aware of the need to get re-elected, and if the public swings, that does begin to change the attitudes of politicians. So, I think, there’s movement on this issue, but there’s no slick answer to that problem. Tom Steyer, a hedge fund man with billions, he is trying to use money to promote action on climate change as a counter to those who are trying to use money to prevent action on climate change. So, the struggle is getting very intense, and it is a genuine power struggle between important economic interests, far beyond the question of academic discussion of the role of emissions and nature of the problem. So, the next few years are going to be very crucial in determining whether the public interest is served.

SS: You know, some argue there is no climate change. The New York Times recently quoted scientists as saying “the rise in Earth’s temperature has actually slowed”, even as greenhouse emissions have risen at a record pace. Do you ever think you may be wrong about climate change?

ML: Well, I would think I might be wrong if I didn’t know the facts. When I know that 97% of all competent scientists in the field of climate change are perfectly clear on what is happening - and I don’t worry too much about whether I am alone in thinking what I am saying – there are always uncertainties in science, that’s normal. But in any other field of human experience, whether you are running a city or a corporation, you’re used to the idea that you have to take decisions under uncertainty, and you have to avoid devastating risks. So, nobody is ever going to have a 100% certainty on anything, and we certainly cannot wait for that. That was the view of Reagan that we needed more research, that’s a good delaying tactic, but beyond that point, now we have to act quickly and we know enough to do so. As regards of whether the Earth is warming, recent studies have demonstrated that most heat is absorbed by the oceans and there’s absolutely no doubt that the whole planet has been warming even if the atmosphere for certain reasons has not been warming as fast in recent years as it was before, but the fundamental physics and science is crystal clear.

SS: You said the time to act is now, and it could be too late if we stall – but look at the electric car peaking up or renewable energy technology growing; there’s salt water filtration… now, they are working on a drought-resistant GMO crops, etc. So, what I am saying is humanity seems to always come up with something. What makes you think this crisis won’t be overcome?

ML: We cannot just sit there and hope, as technological optimists, that we will find a slick solution. We have, unfortunately, to face some hard realities. One of them is, we have to restructure our energy systems to move them away from fossil fuels. Another one is, we have to change our patterns of consumption, because the whole world cannot consume at the same levels as we are now, and therefore, that is another very major values-related question, which we cannot avoid. Above all, we have to cut emissions relatively quickly, and there are many calculations saying how much we have to cut and when we have to cut; but the bottom line is simple – if we do not start making major cuts in emissions within the next 5 to 10 years, then we will not be able to prevent the climate warming by much more than 2 degrees.

SS: Now, from what I understand, you believe countries will form a united front – or should form a united front – to combat climate change. But water and food shortages are likely to set states against each other? Why do you think anyone will be willing to take joint action against threats, and not just keep fending for themselves?

ML: That’s the very big question, of course – can we, as a species, can the world community of nations reach agreement? I am not an optimist, as I’ve worked for 45 years in the international system, I know how very difficult it is to reach agreement, and the climate problem raises all manner of complexities, which is very hard to negotiate. But, oddly enough, we have in past managed to reach agreement on difficult problems and to take concerted international action. So, I don’t think it’s impossible. In short, I think the climate problem is solvable; we have the technologies, we certainly have the financial resources, and the organizational skills to solve it. The problem is, can we organize ourselves to take action in the time available – and I can say, I am not either optimistic or pessimistic, I am simply hopeful, than in the Paris Conference, the conference of the parties on climate change, this December in Paris, they will be able to reach an agreement as the whole world community. It will not be satisfactory, it will not be enough, but it will lay the foundations for much more strong future action, and we can only hope that governments can get together this December, and reach agreement on a serious path forward. If they don’t, then we can worry for the future of our children and our grandchildren, because the problems are going to become acute.

SS: Thank you very much for this interesting insight. We were talking to Dr. Martin Lees, advocate for sustainable development, former Secretary-General of the Club of Rome, talking about the political consequences of climate change and if there is still time for humanity to take action. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.