I HAD last met Dr Johan Rockstrom over a cup of coffee at COP15 – the UN's Climate Change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009. I blogged about his work on planetary boundaries and the piece is available here http://blogs.straitstimes.com/2009/12/17/6-8-billion-x-unsustainable-consumption.
We all know where COP15 went, which was pretty much nowhere in terms of the greater goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There was only a general statement of intent, and some progress on the margins on technical issues and mechanisms.
With the lukewarm result from the freezing Danish winter, the media began losing interest. Critics and climate change skeptics found a second wind, and sniped at the credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its head Dr Rajendra Pachauri.
Eventually, some of what the IPCC's scientific papers had shown up was found to be inaccurate – but erring on the side of conservatism. Many indicators of global warming have now exceeded the IPCC's predictions. And as for Dr Pachauri, who was accused of profiteering, he turned over his personal accounts and it seemed clear he had not. Journalist George Monbiot in August this year wrote incisively on this maligning of a scrupulously honest man here http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/aug/26/rajendra-pachauri-financial-relationships
I jumped at the chance of catching up with Dr Rockstrom in Bangkok last week. He was visiting for a Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) board meeting. He also runs the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Dr Rockstrom is one of the world’s most respected scientific voices on climate change, and more specifically water and sustainability issues.
I joined Pravit Rajapanphruk, journalist with The Nation, and a good friend, in the conversation. Dr Rockstrom expresses himself very clearly and lucidly, and we had a one hour conversation packed with so much that it would take pages to write up. But I thought I would summarise a few points he made here. They are relevant now, when the high level political segment of the climate change talks in Cancun is starting.
The 'transformative change' needed remained elusive, he said.
'What the world needs now is a bold, experimental, daring step - to simply try out something that has never been done before, and that is a global carbon tax.
'It will be a crazy step, a daring step, but something the world simply needs to experiment with. If you get a global carbon tax of say US$40 (S$52) per ton of CO2 (carbon dioxide) which is more than twice as high as the emissions trading scheme in the EU which is 70 euros (S$122), and you set that up as a global mechanism... the money does not disappear, you can turn it around and use it for development. That might be what we might need to turn things around in the short term.
'Today we are just going round and round and round, we are having intellectually the right discussion, but in practise we are not daring to hit the road with this.'
He told us he sensed a shift in business and industry, especially in Asia, where big industrial sectors had already set climate change in their agendas and were working out how to position for it in the market. Yet at the policy maker level, trench warfare continued.
'When you go into government offices and boardrooms of big industry especially in Asia, at the strategic level... climate has become core business, and therefore not such a buzz, it doesn't get flashy headlines. But big banks, the big car industries, energy utilities, the IT industry, are… not discussing whether or not there is anthropogenic climate change, they are discussing how to position themselves in the market and make climate change their business.
'There's this bizarre mismatch between the stalemate in the negotiations and the trench war that still goes on, and the realities at the strategic decision making level of societies.
'I sense business leaders of the world today would welcome quite forceful decisions on climate... because they would be willing to adapt on the market place to even a global carbon tax. A global carbon tax which is perceived in the policy domain as Utopia, is not any more utopia at all among business leaders.
'Positions at Cancun were more deeply entrenched than ever, he agreed. The US if anything has gone back many, many years in its ability to be constructive in climate negotiations, and the G77 is deeper entrenched than at COP15.
'We cannot expect anything of significance in Cancun. In a situation where the science shows we need a legally binding agreement within 1-2 years in order to be able to stay below 2 degrees (temperature rise).'
We asked him about nuclear power, an option that is being increasingly discussed and is back on the table of many countries – including, in this region, Thailand.
It was a difficult issue, he acknowledged.
'The growing scientific evidence that we may be reaching disastrous tipping points, that we may be destabilising the ice sheet to the point where it becomes self-melting irrespective of what we do, means (nuclear power) has increasingly become centre stage in scientific mainstream discourse,' he said.
'You could essentially say we’ve come to the point where thee scientific evidence indicates such big risks for humanity as a whole, that we need to act so urgently on this global crisis, that one has to turn every stone available - and nuclear power is one such stone.
'We emit 9 billion tons of carbon each year. The biggest risk we face today as humanity is that those 9 billion tons which is a huge amount of carbon will be proven to be very, very small compared to the enormous feedbacks we could trigger – if for example the carbon sinks in ocean and land stop absorbing emissions and rather than become a sink become a source.
'We have the first observations just two years back signs of methane starting to pulse out of the (melting) permafrost in Siberia. And we have the first sign that ph levels in the oceans are going down so fast as a result of carbon uptake that we may be saturating (them).
'So you could say from that perspective, nuclear power becomes part of a portfolio to deal with transition, in a crisis mode. But you can have different opinions on nuclear power – you can consider it a safe clean energy source that can be pursued, or just another fossil fuel resource (uranium will be coming to an end); and you can never allow all the nations in the world to benefit from nuclear power because it is too large a risk.'