Beyond the impasse

Research news
26 March 2014
Eminent UK ecologist and climate change expert Professor Lord Krebs visits Deakin.

The challenge of reconciling science with politics was one of the key issues raised during the recent visit to Deakin of one of the world’s most eminent ecologists, and climate change expert, Professor Lord Krebs FRS.

Professor Lord Krebs chairs the UK House of Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology, sits on the UK Climate Change Committee and chairs its Adaptation Sub-Committee. He is also Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, and was formerly Head of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and inaugural Head of the UK’s Food Standard Agency. 

Lord Krebs was brought to Australia by Professor Andy T.D. Bennett, from Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology, in partnership with the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research.

“I arranged for John to spend several hours talking to our undergraduate and PhD students and postdocs at the Waurn Ponds campus,” said Professor Bennett. “He was delighted to do this, and provided us with a lively, amusing and wonderfully informative day.” 

Professor Lord Krebs also gave a plenary lecture at the Victorian Adaptation Forum, and a public lecture in conversation with the ABC’s Robyn Williams, at Deakin Edge.

Regarding the conflict between science and politics, Professor Krebs said that often there is no simple answer to complex problems.

“It can be perfectly valid to base policy on a whole raft of factors, if politicians are concerned about economic factors or the way their constituents - or the wider press - will react, but it is very important that politicians are transparent about it,” he said.

So how can scientists affect change? Professor Krebs said that if an issue concerns people’s health, such as tobacco use, it is not so hard for governments to take an intrusive stance. Climate change, however, is a very different ball game.

“Where the benefit will be to our children and grandchildren, it is more complicated, and the response required is not a simple action, like stopping smoking. It is multi-factorial, requiring reducing greenhouse gas emissions, achieving global agreement and developing alternative technologies.

“I think that climate change is driven by ideology. The argument that climate change is a figment of the imagination and ‘the weather has always changed’ is not good enough. I don’t think it’s a valid reason not to act. The weight of the science is too strong.”

The book “Merchants of Doubt,” by Naomi Baskis, clearly outlines the tobacco industry tactic of “conflating uncertainty with doubt,” Professor Krebs explained.

“While there is doubt, there is no need to take any action. This tactic was successful for decades for the tobacco industry.

“For various reasons, exactly the same tactic is being used with climate change. The difference is that we know from the isotopic signature - from burning hundreds of millions of years of carbon that has been stored underground, that the rate of change is ten times that of the last ice age. It is not just the result of natural variation, when the animals coped with the change.

“As recently pointed out in “The Economist,” the change in temperature has not been a predictable increase. But, in the past three decades, each decade has been hotter than the previous one and each one has been the hottest since records began.”

Professor Krebs said that adaptation is an essential part of the climate change response.

“With the rate of carbon that is being pumped out, however good we are at mitigating, we’re committed to a substantial degree of climate change. As argued by (UK Professor) Bob Watson, “we should aim for a change of two degrees, but prepare for four.”

So why is the world moving so slowly?

In their public discussion, Professor Krebs and Robyn Williams agreed that, while change may not be happening fast enough, there is a great deal going on, with all but five of 66 countries passing around 500 pieces of relevant legislation by 2013, and only Japan and Australia “going the other way.”

“A lot of countries are getting involved in unilateral agreements to reduce greenhouse gases and these activities increase the chances of a global agreement, with the next global meeting scheduled for Paris in 2015,” he said.

The final “crucial element of the story” concerns consumption, with the world’s population currently growing by about 80 million a year.

“As pointed out in “Freefall,” by (economist) Joe Stiglitz, if everyone consumed what the average US or Australian citizen does, it would have the same carbon footprint as the equivalent of a world population of 77 billion,” said Professor Krebs.

“If we could all reduce our carbon footprint to two tonnes of carbon per person per year, we could bring levels down to below 1990 levels. In Australia, the carbon footprint is 20 tonnes per person per year. (The footprint) would need to go down more than 90 per cent to achieve this goal.”

So what is the best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere? Professor Krebs said that the latest thinking concerns carbon capture and re-use, which involves treating the waste as a resource - by turning it into useful chemicals.

This is where places like Deakin come in, with scientists making tremendous advances in new technologies.

Also, scientists could learn something from the “twitchers” - with the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds having more members than both political parties put together. The society is “brilliant at engaging people and using crowd sourcing to get the public to help scientists.”

Deakin’s Professor Bennett particularly liked this idea, with Deakin now being home to the largest number of ornithologists in the southern hemisphere.

“Australia only produces 1.3 per cent of global gas emissions, but Australia and the UK are lucky and very rich. It is a moral responsibility for us to take action. We, of all people, can afford it. From an economic perspective, for the reasons we’ve discussed, and from a political perspective, ‘walking the walk’ gives you more power when you ‘talk the talk’.”

The conversation between Professor Lord Krebs and Robyn Williams was broadcast Monday 31 March on Radio National’s “Big Ideas” program.

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Professor Lord Krebs spent several hours with Deakin University students at Waurn Ponds. Professor Lord Krebs spent several hours with Deakin University students at Waurn Ponds.

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