Simon Maxwell

The optimists and pessimists are far apart on climate change. How can we disrupt the psychological status quo?

Sam Bickersteth and I had an article in Open Democracy on 11 October, reproduced below. Among other things, it asked what would happen if leaders like Barack Obama, Manmohan Singh and Angela Merkel really believed, viscerally, that climate change was something they had to fix as a top priority – and explored how they might be converted. How, we asked, might we disrupt the psychological status quo?

The importance of the question was reinforced for me when I attended the first day of the always excellent Chatham House climate change conference on 15 October. My notes on that are also reproduced below. The theme is that the pessimists and optimists are far apart. Personally, I thought the pessimists had a pretty good case.

So, what can be done? Of course, some will say that the political conditions make it impossible for politicians to raise their game. Climate change appears to be a toxic topic in the US, for example, certainly in election year. India is hobbled in negotiation by its attachment to casting blame on developed countries for their ‘historic responsibility’. But isn’t leadership about changing the public mood rather than just accepting it? Making the weather, rather than just responding to it.

Two things then come into play. The first is that leaders really have to believe that climate change trumps other issues. The second is that they have to deploy high-level political skills to make the case. Usually, in the think-tank world at least, we focus on the second question, how to frame the debate and craft the message. There is a literature on that. I like Chip and Dan Heath’s ‘Made to Stick’, and Drew Weston’s ‘The Political Brain’. George Lakoff’s ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ is also a good read. Committed leadership can make a difference, even in hostile circumstances. I often cite President Museveni, battling HIV/AIDSHuman Immuno-Deficiency Virus/Aquired Immuneo-Deficiency Syndrome in Uganda, who instructed every minister that every time they made a speech, on whatever subject, they had to start by saying ‘wear a condom’. Imagine if President Obama and the rest were so concerned about climate change, that they talked about it all the time.

But what about the first question? What does it take really to convince world leaders from different cultures, with different training, and with different personalities?

My first thought was St Paul on the Road to Damascus: travelling from Jerusalem, where he had been persecuting Christians, to Damascus, for more of the same, but stopped in his tracks by a vision. I suppose that we can’t expect personalised miracles for every world leader. I am interested to know, though, how conversion works. Does there need to be a susceptibility? And are there some tricks of the trade? V.S. Naipul’s The Mystic Masseur certainly had a few, mostly involving the family letting off fireworks in the back bedroom, to impress clients with the power of his treatment. Would that work?

A second thought was that the message needs to be tailored to the personality type. A Myers-Briggs analysis would be useful. Some people will only be impressed by hard facts and equations; others will need empathetic stories. I wonder whether we can guess at the Myers-Briggs profile of different leaders? I’ve never tried to do this, but I do remember being in a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister. There were half a dozen of us in his room in Moncloa, the government compound, to talk about the food crisis. Five of us had arguments, backed up by statistics. The sixth had a photograph of a starving child. Game over.

I remember Matthew Taylor, who ran the Policy Unit in No 10, saying that a key lesson was that you had to win the pubic argument about what the problem was before you could win the argument about the solution. Tony Blair took all the G8Group of Eight leaders down to Exeter, to the Hadley Centre, to try and achieve that objective. We should ask him whether he felt he succeeded.

Meanwhile, there are other books that might help. I’ve acquired, but haven’t yet read, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. I’m told I need to read Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’. What else?

Or perhaps we should just rely on social movements to move the debate? The World Resources Institute is doing interesting work on that.


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From Open Democracy: Latest climate signs should jolt leaders into global action

The evidence is hardening that climate change presents a clear and present danger, rather than one which is uncertain and distant. At the same time, the UN climate talks roam around the world, marking time to match electoral cycles, hoping that a quasi-legal agreement will come into force in 2020. We are forcefully reminded of Giddens’ paradox: that people will not act until they come face to face with the consequences of climate change – by which time it will be too late.

Disaster is certainly close. Four recent pieces of evidence give pause for thought.

First, advances in the science of attribution suggest it is now more likely that extreme weather events are the results of long term climate change rather than just being random examples of shocks consistent with historic trends. The UK Met Office reports, for example, that November 2011 was the second warmest since records began in 1659, and was sixty times more likely to have occurred even than in the 1960s. Not all extreme weather events are climate-related, however. The 2011 floods in Thailand were just weather.

Second, longer term transformation appears to be imminent. Professor Peter Wadhams observed in September not only that Arctic summer sea ice had shrunk to its lowest level ever, but that the Arctic would be ice-free in summer by as early as 2015-16. Prof Wadhams said that the implications would be ‘terrible’, because the melting of undersea permafrost would release huge quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Research at the University of Reading has linked the wet UK summer of 2012 to warming of the Atlantic, partly cyclical and unrelated to climate change, but partly linked to long term increases in global concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Third, the global interconnections are increasingly evident. The US drought of 2012 is directly implicated in a food price spike affecting millions. Prices are not yet as high as in the major food crisis of 2008, but the FAO food price index rose 1.4% in September alone. According to the World Bank, maize prices more than doubled in some markets in Mozambique; sorghum prices tripled in Sudan and South Sudan. As the new President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, has observed,  ‘we cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food’.

Fourth, the economic costs are rising. The new Climate Vulnerability Monitor argues that climate change, and the associated costs of reliance on fossil fuels, already cost the world economy $US1.2 trillion a year, equivalent to 1.6% of global GDP. The losses are proportionately higher in least developed countries – already amounting to 7% of GDPGross Domestic Product in 2010. Higher temperatures will have a devastating impact on labour productivity in hot countries. Some five million lives a year are already lost to climate and carbon impacts.

This is not what we expected. Short-term shocks and long-term trends, hitting sooner than expected, with global consequences and immediate costs. The case for action on climate change was often based on the idea of the precautionary principle – that there would be impacts and costs, not easily estimated and not for a while, but worth investing now to avoid, just to be safe.  The premature impact of climate change demands a change in the logic of intervention. It makes no sense to invoke the precautionary principle when the costs of climate change are not far distant, but felt today.

You would think that leaders would find this argument self-evident, and that fixing the climate would be seen world-wide as a matter of screaming urgency, far outweighing other global emergencies, natural or economic. Certainly, that is true of leaders of the most vulnerable countries, like the Maldives, Bangladesh and the many other members of the Climate Vulnerability Forum. It is also true of countries that have experienced severe natural disasters: Pakistan, for example, after the floods of 2010, which cost 8% of GDP; or El Salvador, badly affected by a rising number of tropical storms from the Pacific. But does even another onslaught on Louisiana not change the debate in the United States? Not in election year, apparently. In Europe, enthusiasm for action on climate is patchy: strong in Denmark, for example, but less so in some other countries. It is hard to make the case to finance ministers facing fiscal melt-down.

There are only two ways out of the impasse. The first is to disrupt the psychological status quo: bring leaders and their negotiators face to face with the financial and human reality of changing climate, thus injecting a sense of crisis and stronger leadership into the UN process. The second is to by-pass the talks altogether and achieve sufficient progress on the ground such that disaster can be averted.

What, then, might turn Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, Manmohan Singh from India, and the new Chinese leadership into passionate advocates? What would persuade them to storm the UN climate talks in Qatar in November and refuse to leave until a deal had been agreed? Theory suggests that some combination of rational and emotional drivers will be needed.

Rational drivers should be straightforward. The science is banked, and will become more visible when the fifth report of the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change is published, in 2014. The economic benefits of action should also be obvious, even for the few countries immune to current climate shocks. Greater energy efficiency is a win-win, for example. If in doubt, countries should look to the ‘co-benefits’ of climate action: cleaner air, or less congestion in cities. It is no surprise that mayors often lead the call for climate action. Toronto, for example closed its coal-fired power stations – not because it was worried about the climate, but to combat smog. In New Delhi, the conversion of buses to run on natural gas reduced pollution and contributed to human health. Some 100,000 vehicles in India’s capital city now run on gas.

But leaders will ask whether tackling climate change is really worth the hassle, including dealing with the vehement opposition of lobbies that would lose? More NGOs waving more placards will help to balance the influence of the vested interests. Stopping climate change is certainly a candidate for the kind of mass movement which characterised support for Band Aid and Make Poverty History for a previous generation of activists. In 2005, at the time of the Gleneagles Summit, Downing Street used to carry out what was known as ’reverse lobbying’: encouraging NGOs to demonstrate, so as to make it easier politically to implement change.

However, the psychological answer is that whether change happens will depend how much leaders really care about climate change. Is the urgency of tackling climate change felt viscerally? Perhaps the next G20 should take place on a melting icefloe in the Arctic, or on a burning plain in Idaho. Perhaps President Putin, who leads the G20 next year should hold his Summit on the thawing tundra in Siberia. Or perhaps leaders should be taken, one by one, with no advisers, to spend a day comforting a mother who has lost her child to flood or famine. The political has to be made personal. Imagine the magic Barack Obama’s rhetoric might weave if climate change became his personal crusade. There are precedents. For example, according to Professor James Putzel, President Museveni led a political campaign against HIV/AIDs in Uganda, ordering ministers and senior officials to talk about how to stop the spread of the infection ‘at every meeting, without exception’.

If that fails, then Plan B is to make so much progress away from the talks that the legal agreement, if and when it comes, amounts to no more than a ratification of the new status quo. The driver will be financial – competitive advantage in a global economy re-shaped by green technology. How extraordinary, for example, that China already exports to the EUEuropean Union € 21bn worth of solar panels every year – and how telling that the solar industry in Europe has lobbied successfully for an anti-dumping probe. Telling also that the US Export-Import Bank has provided $US 2bn in export credit guarantees to South Africa, to help ensure that Africa’s surge in renewable investment makes use of US technology.

Change would be faster if the carbon price were higher and more predictable. Technologies that make no sense when the carbon price languishes below €10 will come into their own when the price reaches €50 or €100. Even so, there will be trillions of dollars at stake in the new economy, and millions of jobs. Progressive investors, companies and countries know this. Any country committed to growth must surely have an industrial policy which encourages investment in the emerging sectors and technologies. China is an exemplar, as are Korea and Denmark. In the developing world, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Ethiopia are among those following suit, with climate-friendly policies to deliver jobs, poverty reduction and human welfare..

We describe such policies as leading to ‘climate compatible development’: a change trajectory which leads to lower carbon emissions and also to better protection against the inevitable consequences of climate change, while at the same time contributing to development goals.

There is no time to waste. Many scientists have given up on the target of two degrees. Last year, according to theInternational Energy Agency, the world dumped another 32 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, from burning fossil fuels alone. This was an increase of 3% on the previous year, when what was needed was a fall. Our hearts and our heads tell us this has to stop.



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Notes from the Chatham house Conference on Climate Change

Optimists and pessimists seemed very far apart at the annual Chatham House conference on climate change. One the one hand, professional optimists like Cristiana Figueres, Connie Hedegaard and the UK’s energy and climate minister, Ed Davey, pointed to progress in the global climate negotiations and to the rapid growth of green investments on the ground. On the other hand, scientists and independent policy analysts sounded loud alarms on the science and bemoaned the slow, dripping waste of political capital. To my mind, the pessimists won the day. Along the way, there were some especially interesting snippets about coal and gas, about technology and about outsourcing carbon emissions to China.


Even the optimists agreed that emissions were rising and that the evidence of short-term impacts was accumulating. However, they argued that

  • The mood was shifting, even in the US (Connie Hedegaard);
  • The economic case was becoming clear, and that action on climate change would be beneficial (CH); and
  • The talks were progressing (‘more progress since Copenhagen than in the ten previous years’: Cristiana Figueres);
  • Change would be delivered by a combination of top down and bottom up initiatives (i.e. talks plus new technologies)

From the top down perspective, Cristiana Figueres reviewed three tracks post-Durban:

  1. On the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the elements of an outline agreement were in place, for either 5 years (to 2018) or 8 years (to carry over into the post-Durban settlement).
  2. On Long Term Cooperative Action, the main focus was on developing a negotiating framework, clarifying views and finance. She noted that the Board of the Green Climate Fund would be meeting in Korea and deciding on the location.
  3. On the Durban Platform, there were ‘incipient’ negotiations, focused on how to increase the ambition of existing pledges, bring new countries in, and incorporate new initiatives (for example cooperation on renewable technologies).

From the bottom-up perspective, a number of speakers cited evidence of investments on the ground and of positive policy processes:

  • In Denmark last year, green exports grew by 28% and now account for 10% of total exports;
  • 17 countries now have climate legislation;
  • There were now 33 national and 18 sub-national carbon emissions trading schemes, covering 20% of world emissions – and useful links like that between the EUEuropean Union and Australian ETS.


The pessimists summarised the evidence on emissions and impacts. Thomas Stocker’s powerpoint will be a valuable resource. Connie Hedegaard made the point that we have had 330 consecutive months of temperatures higher than the twentieth century average. SREX was cited on the impact of extreme events.

Dieter Helm was especially outspoken, drawing on his new book, the Carbon Crunch. The atmosphere already contains 400 parts of CO2 per mission, and we are adding 3ppm p.a.. Two degrees is way beyond anything we can achieve. Coal is the big driver, with a ‘dash for coal’ in Europe, squeezing out gas, and big expansion also in India and China. At present rates of growth, the Indian and Chinese economies will be twice their present size by 2020.

Worse, he said, policy is all wrong. Kyoto suits Europe, because it is based on a production target not a consumption target, and allows EUEuropean Union to continue consuming while out-sourcing emissions. Between 1990 and 2005, UK emissions went down 15% but consumption (of carbon?) went up 19%. The EUEuropean Union 20/20/20 target is economically illiterate and has led us to pursue inefficient current technologies, like offshore wind/ Current North Sea wind farms (1.7 Gw) are equivalent to only one medium-sized gas plant.

From others, there was pessimism about the quality of any deal for 2015, about geopolitical tensions, shale gas, carbon pricing, border taxes, scope for new generation renewable.

Some issues

There was discussion about a familiar list of issues, including: the need for emerging powers to take on responsibilities; carbon pricing; alternatives to GDPGross Domestic Product accounting; climate change and conflict; CCS;  biofuels. A couple of snippets:

  • Gas generally seen as a valuable short-term fix, substituting for coal, and buying some time. Shale gas defended. A good thing that gas prices are falling.
  • Energy efficiency the ‘hidden fuel’;
  • Debate about potential of next generation renewable, incl infrared solar, geothermal, gravity, battery technology.


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