A couple of weeks ago I was very lucky to be in the audience for a fabulous panel session at the Royal Geographical society discussing climate change – the politics, the science and the humanitarian effects.

climate change the politics

The Panel – Lucy Siegle, Amanda Mukwashi, Christiana Figueres and Joanna D Haigh

The panel was hosted by the Lucy Siegle, enthusiastic eco-warrior and author, and there was an impressive all-woman line up.  The panellists were:

  • – Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Christiana is also the woman behind the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. 
  • – Amanda Mukwashi, the Chief executive of the charity Christian Aid.
  • – Joanna D. Haigh, professor of Atmospheric Physics and Co-director of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and Environment. 
  • The fourth member of the panel, and the one most likely to bring the politics part of the title, was Caroline Lucas MP – former head of the Green party and currently the only Green party MP.  Unfortunately this long planned panel coincided with a crucial Brexit vote and so Caroline was unable to attend. 
climate change the politics

The discussion was lively and inspiring with each panellist bringing their own angles to the complex topic.  I’m not going to give a blow by blow account in this article, but just draw out some key points that struck a chord with me.

Climate Change From the Scientist’s viewpoint…..

Joanna Haigh, an extremely learned scientist, described how she had initially studied climate change from the air – looking at data to see the effects on our atmosphere.  It was when she explored at ground level, particularly the effects on people, that she became much more personally and emotionally touched by it. 

Joanna’s view that we need to present climate action expressing the knock on benefits – she said ‘it’s not all hair shirts’ – was one I go along with:

  • We need to improve our air quality through actions such as cleaner fuel.  China has acted on this and seen resulting improvements to health and quality of life.
  • We need to move to a more plant based and organic diet – leading to benefits in our general health with lower cholesterol and less obesity.
  • We need to explore alternatives to driving our cars, such as cycling or walking.  This also has huge benefits to health and fitness as well as to mental health.
  • We need to better insulate our homes – this also helps us save money on energy bills

Climate Change from the UN Secretary’s viewpoint

Christiana Figueres stated plainly that climate change is no longer about the numbers it’s about asking ourselves as adults ‘What is your moral compass pointing you to do to save the planet?’  

She doesn’t believe there can be climate change deniers any longer – if people are denying the obvious it is because they have their own motivation for doing so – perhaps power, money or even fear.  The fact of climate change is not up for debate.  Amusingly she also expressed the view that on any subject there is always about 10% of people that you can’t ‘do anything with – you just have to bless them and carry them’.

With her experience of negotiating climate change policies and issues, Christiana recommended approaching the subject from the viewpoint of whoever she is talking to – ‘getting out of your shoes and into their shoes’.  What arguments can you bring so that they can see how it affects them – if you are talking to investors approach it from a financial angle – then once you have them on board you can take them on a journey and talk about the science, effects on family, moral issues, gender issues etc.

Christiana Figueres described a meeting she recently had with Greta Thurnberg, the 16 year old climate activist inspiring children and young people to strike from school to draw attention to the climate emergency.  Christiana tried to talk about the positive work happening to combat climate change but was told ‘I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic’.    The panel discussed whether panic is the right approach to take, finally agreeing that it is useful as a wake up call.  However after the initial response there needs to be a way of channeling the energy induced by the panic into action plans and solutions.  We need to ensure that the young people see success in their actions and we need to thank them.  If they see no benefits they will lose heart and give up.

Generally Christiana Figueres is positive and feels that we are ‘moving in the right direction, but at the wrong pace’.

Climate Change from the Humanitarian point of view

Amanda Mukwashi tended to focus on the people – ‘I always go back to the people, that’s who I am’.  She has spoken with so many people directly affected by climate change – ‘we don’t need to tell these people that the climate is changing, they are living it and it is making their lives worse’.  For example in Ethiopia where the temperature is getting hotter, there is now less water and the people are needing to be continuously resilient, planting new crops and adapting to the changing conditions.  She feels that there is only so much more resilience they can give.  She is outraged at this injustice – these are people who are innocent in that their contribution to the climate crisis has been virtually nil.  She said ‘We are still discussing whether it is real, they are living it’.

climate change the politics organic cotton blue mandala
photo: Cotonea

Amanda, a woman of strong faith, had spoken with representatives from many world religions at a meeting at the Vatican. She asked them what they teach about climate change – given that churches run over 50% of all the schools in the world.  As religions own a large proportion of the world’s wealth, why are they not divesting it and using it to support climate action?  She strongly feels that all countries need to collaborate – we are all living on the same planet and it is only as strong as its weakest point.

Climate Change – Key takeaways from the panel

  • – There is no political will currently to tackle the issue head on.  In the USA the new Green Deal achieved no votes.  The Senator Ana Cortez who is pushing for change is completely out of step with the other politicians.  In the UK Michael Gove has been asked to declare a climate emergency and has ignored this.  Local councils are gradually getting behind the need for change – we need to vote Green councillors in to ensure councils push this forward.  The panel’s view was that governments are meant to protect their people – if they are not then we need to vote them out!
  • – Climate change is a gender issue.  In many affected areas, such as Africa, it is the women who are dealing with the issues of less water, hotter temperatures, crop failures and food insecurity.  Women tend to be less educated and can be less aware of what is happening and actions they can take.  Climate change can speed up greater gender equality by opening conversations with our patriarchal institutions.
  • – In 2018 the United Nations scientists warned that we only have 12 years to avert a climate catastrophe (see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report).  Scientific research tells us that if we are going to avoid global temperatures rising above 1.5% then we need to halve our emissions by 2045 and end them by the next century.  To start reversing the effects we need to reduce our emissions by 45%.  Christiana Figueres demonstrated the challenge using a paper napkin!
  • – What role should industry play in climate change?  Christiana Figueres’ view was they need to be involved as it is they who must be putting solutions on the table to solve the issue, not to protect their 20th century interests.
  • – Ending on a positive note, there is much positive action – China’s work to improve air quality, India’s plans to covert their two wheeler transport to electric power, the growth of the movement Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes.  These are all inspiring change and we need to embrace it. 

I left the event even more of an eco-warrior than I had entered it.  Hearing these inspiring women express the fear and describe the inertia they experience from political institutions and industries has inspired me to be more vocal and take more action.  This is a boat that needs to be rocked.

My companions were equally fired up for change.  One at just 18 years old is not hampered by adult inertia and talks of life changing action ‘What’s the point, if there’s no planet for us to live on?’

Article by Jo Salter, founder of Where Does It Come From?, speaker, writer and consultant