The UN Assistant Secretary-General on Climate Change took a break from negotiations to answer questions on the Reddit forum on climate change and the UN Climate Change Conference.
You can read the full AMA, but we have also put together a brief recap for you here:
Q: What do these negotiations actually look like? Like you all sit down, realize the problem at hand, what”s stopping people from signing major agreements?
JP: It is actually pretty crazy. Imagine 195 countries represented. Think of the views of Samoa, Russia, USA or the Central African Republic. They all come to these negotiations from a different perspective, with different social and economic backgrounds. And the fact that climate change affects everybody, but that not all countries are equally responsible for the emissions – neither historically (and don”t forget that emissions are cumulative) nor for the future. So countries come with their positions. They present them in meetings (the official meetings are interpreted into the 6 official UN languages), and then they discuss… and discuss… and discuss, until they agree. Usually the agreements come on the last day – actually last night, usually early mornings. Climate Change delegates are notorious for negotiating until they just run out of energy.
Do you believe that the effects of intensive animal agriculture on climate change need to be addressed?
JP: Yes. The impacts of intensive agriculture are significant, and there are alternatives. Including improved production practices as well as different consumption patterns (read less meat consumption).
What are some of the differences you”re seeing between this and Copenhagen? Kyoto?
JP: Kyoto was quite different than Paris. In Kyoto only the developed countries had quantifiable emission reduction targets. In Paris, we already have 185 countries who have submitted their national climate action plans to cover both mitigation and adaptation. Also, in Paris, the national plans submitted by countries are “bottom up” (nationally determined). Also, the attitude of the private sector has changed tremendously over the last 20 years, and it now looks for a strong agreement. Also, the science is much more certain than it was back then. Finally, the impacts are now visible and measureable. So we are in a a very different, and much more favourable situation for an agreement.
Hi there! Currently doing my undergrad in environmental science. My question is more on your backstory on how you got to the position you did? Thanks in advance!
JP: So I studied nuclear engineering, and wanted to build nuclear plants on every corner of the globe. Then I changed my mind. And spent the last 35 years of my carrier working on energy and environment issues, and in the last 20 years increasingly on climate change. I worked in different UN organizations, but in-between also worked for a number of civil society organizations – just to keep refreshed. All of this led me to work on sustainable development, which is where climate change really belongs. 35 years – working on the same issue but from different perspectives. So I got lots of different experience based on this. So, here I am now. It has been just great!
Q: Bernie Sanders has claimed on multiple occasions that climate change is an extreme threat to global security. How true is that? Climate change (and its results: food scarcity, energy insecurity, spread of tropical disease) are definitely exacerbating factors (the Pentagon issued a report in 2014 affirming this) but can we really say that climate change is the greatest threat to global security?
JP: Climate change is a threat multiplier, and can exacerbate existing conflicts and threats. The Pentagon, amongst others have clearly recognized that climate change is a serious security threat. If we do not address climate change and let temperatures rise to 4-5 degrees centigrade above the historical average, it can become the greatest threat to global security.
Q: How do we counteract the fact that in democratic societies, during times of economic hardship, people, when electing their government, are going to be more likely to choose politicians who are more focused on rapid economic growth than environmental protection?
JP: Of course we want to elect politicians who will bring us economic growth, but we need a different kind of economic growth – one that does not harm the environment, and also helps to achieve social objectives. This is the essence of sustainable development, where you don”t have to sacrifice economic growth for environmental protection. It is possible. We have seen many countries who have substantially increased their GNP, while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: How will climate change affect South-east Asian countries, like the Philippines?
JP: There will be many different impacts, increasingly visible over time. But perhaps the most visible ones relate to increased magnitude of extreme weather events. And we have certainly seen substantial typhoons in the Philippines in the recent past. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas is a serious concern, but also impacts on the monsoon cycle – so important for food security in the region.
Q: Hello! If you were to pick one private sector initiative/product/service that”s the most innovative in reducing greenhouse gas emission what would it be? And why?
JP: I am not ducking the answer, but there is no simple, one answer. There is a tendency to look for the “silver bullet”, but in fact we need to talk about the “silver buckshot”. There are many innovative solutions out there in different countries, by different companies, communities, civil society organizations.
Q: Without intervention, how long does the Earth have before catastrophic events happen?
JP: We need to start now, because the longer we wait the more difficult and more expensive the response will be. Global emissions need to peak in about 5 years. This is challenging but doable. Otherwise increasingly serious impacts will be seen.
Q: How do you respond to the people who claim that climate change does not exist?
JP: I would remind them that climate change is affecting already people everywhere in the world, including those that don”t believe in it. Average, measured global temperature rise is already 1 degree celsius. In high latitudes it is already 2 degrees. These are not projections, but actual measurements. People who live in those most affected areas are seeing and feeling the impacts. Whether you call it “climate change” or something else, we are already responding to it, and actually paying for it.
What can a normal person do to combat climate change in their everyday lives?
JP: The most important action we can all take is to make sure we vote for those politicians who want to do something about climate change. But we must also walk the talk, and act. That means switching lights off when not in use not stepping on that gas pedal all the way when on the highway not overcooling our house, and so on… If you are interested, check out the the website www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/takeaction
Q: You said you changed your mind on nuclear power. What are your thoughts now?
JP: I still have lots of issues about nuclear energy, and in most countries renewable energy is much less expensive anyway, so why bother? But at the same time, there are places where the need for centralized electricity is needed in large quantities, and if the alternative is coal, then nuclear – especially some of the newer, safer technologies can work. In the end, the decisions about such complex technologies have to be taken at the local level.
Q: Has there been any effort to get religious leaders to adopt or at least vocally support your efforts?
JP: Religious leaders have come forward on this. We had Pope Francis who published his encyclical. Very strong statement on climate change and integrated development. The Muslim leaders also made a strong declaration a few months ago. The World Council of Churches has also been vocal on this issue.
Q: How many nations are pushing for a flat out “carbon tax” instead of “carbon emissions markets”? There”s been problems with the EU carbon market and it”s been condemned as “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” A carbon tax would also be (least to me) easier to explain to people and to implement. And couldn”t funds raised from a carbon tax/market be used to partially fund the $100 billion/yr to undeveloped nations for climate adaptation?
JP: What is key is to have a price on carbon. There are different ways to do this, one is carbon tax, while an other is emissions trading. Some countries prefer to use one or the other tool, and some even make use of both. In some places, sub-national entities (e.g., California in the US) run their own systems. So, it is up to different countries and jurisdictions to decide what works best.
Q: Given that the relative contribution of individuals are really small to the total cumulative carbon numbers from human factors, do you think it”s still worthwhile for the average consumer to pursue greener lives? If so, how come?
JP: We are all contributing to emissions, and if we all do what we need to do, our share, then we can achieve our objectives. We have to do our part at home, but also as business leaders, as NGO leaders, local government leaders, etc. Lots of small steps together go a long way.
Q: We read about these conferences happening and everybody talks about taking serious action to combat climate change, and such. But the things that are being discussed, are they actually being implemented? Or are serious measures being implemented but not followed? How can one reach out to the masses?
JP: Many actions are being implemented, others not. That is why it is so important to have good monitoring and review systems to see transparently what is happening. What is also important is that countries are proposing their nationally determined climate plans – i.e. they are proposing what they can actually do. Reaching out to the masses is challenging, but that is part of the political process.
Q: Can the world have effective change without monetizing the issue? It seems that the citizens would again be funneling cash to select groups, yet again.
JP: I think it would be difficult to solve the climate change issue in today”s world without monetizing. And we have started that already, because carbon now has a price.
Q: What”s Ban Ki-Moon like in real life?
JP: Hard to say what Ban Ki-moon would be in real life because working as Secretary-General you don”t really have “real life”. It is a really hard job.
Q: How is the emotional view on the conference? Do you like the people you are talking to? How are the relationships between the persons negotiating?
JP: I have lots of friends and generally people like each other. It”s like a big family. But as in families, people have different views, and they negotiate hard.
Q: How difficult is it to negotiate with nations that disagree with the idea that climate change caused my humans is having a major impact? And does having such a large and powerful organization such as the EU add legitimacy to the notion that it does?
JP: There is no such nation! No nation disputes the fact that human-induced climate change is happening, and that we need to act. On the first day of the conference, we heard 150 Heads of State and Government say very clearly that climate change was a major issue, and that we needed a strong agreement.
Q: What is the most solid proof that climate change is man made that you can point to? Thanks!
JP: We know that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has gone over 400 parts per million. A most dramatic rise of 100 over pre-industrial levels. When we compare this with measurements of historical concentration, we see that it correlates with anthropogenic (human induced) fossil fuel combustion. And we are seeing the impacts in different parts of the world. Reduction of glacier coverage, extreme weather events, etc.
Q: Do you think the major governments are doing enough to encourage renewable energies and deplete carbon emissions? What renewable energies should countries be investing in the most? Thanks
JP: I think they are doing a lot for renewables, but overall they all need to do much more. What is key is to remove fossil fuel subsidies (both production and consumption subsidies).
Q: Since getting agreement on large scale meaningful action seems highly unlikely, what smaller steps are within reach and how will they lead to greater progress?
JP: I actually think we will get a meaningful agreement at this conference. The presence of 150 Heads of State and Government made that very clear on the first day. At the same time, we have been engaged in many activities under the so-called Action Agenda, which shows that already a lot is happening in the world – both on adaptation and mitigation. These are small, and some really big steps, which altogether are showing that the world is already moving in the right direction.
Q: Do you think the biggest impacts of climate change on global politics will be mostly positive or negative? For example will foster more international collaboration similar to COP 21 or increase conflicts over resources like water and oil?
JP: The impacts will clearly be positive if we engage in serious international cooperation to address this global issue. In some ways we saw this happening on the first day of the Conference here in Paris, with 150 Heads of State and Government all addressing this issue together. But clearly, it will be very negative on global politics if we do not address climate change, and the impacts of climate change will be increasingly felt. These impacts will multiply existing threats, and will increase conflicts over resources. We have a choice to make, and in my view, we really have to go for the former, and not the latter.
Q: One of the limitations of past climate change negotiations and conventions is the lack of measures to ensure enforceability and holding nations truly accountable for their obligations, in what ways, aside from a widely ratified treaty, can the UN ensure that state enforce the obligations they have committed to?
JP: The most important part of such a treaty is to build trust among the parties. Such trust can be reinforced with transparent reporting and monitoring mechanisms. Only the countries (parties) themselves can monitor each other through the mechanisms they agree to.
Q: Do you think that we will beat climate change without a total loss of our way of life?
JP: We can all live well in this world. But we will need to change the way we do everything to beat climate change in the long term. Our life styles, our industry,. our agriculture are all built on cheap fossil fuels, whose environmental and social impacts we did not include.