Saleemul Huq – “Doing something is doing something”

This is the first in a series of “5 questions” blogs in which I explore the same five key questions with a range of thought leaders working on climate change. In the interviews, we take a look at recent significant developments in the climate change arena, focus on what global leaders should be doing, consider what each of us could do to make a difference, and highlight any hopeful signs in the response to this global challenge. The interview ends with a snapshot assessment – the climate change barometer – of where we are in addressing, or not, this potentially devastating global threat.

My first interview for this series was with Dr Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development. I caught up with him in July in Bled, Slovenia at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II fourth lead authors meeting, during which we and our fellow lead authors met to finalise the WGII report for the IPCC 5th Assessment.


Penny Urquhart: Saleem, what recent studies or developments on climate change do you think are most significant?

Saleemul Huq: I think that the latest report from the World Bank called ‘Turn down the heat’, which looked at the current business-as-usual trajectory that leads us to a 4 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, is a very, very powerful report. It shows how significant impacts will occur all over the world, but identifies a few areas that are going to be particularly vulnerable, like the continent of Africa, South Asia, and a few others. And then they make the point that this is all still avoidable. It’s where we’re headed, but we don’t have to end up there. It’s been developed by very credible scientists at Climate Analytics, and coming with the imprimatur of the World Bank, I hope it will be very influential. The President of the World Bank has now made climate change a big issue; I think that’s very significant. The Bank is not a science institution, it’s a development institution, but they’re recognizing the science and that this is a development issue and we need to change our way of doing things.

What do you think global leaders should be most worried about?

I’ll give you a little background and then I’ll answer your question. One of the problems is that global leaders have seen this as a problem of the present, which means as a zero sum game, where a good result is defeating another set of countries and getting what you want from them. That’s a very bad paradigm for what global leaders have to do on climate change. They are not negotiating against each other; they are negotiating collectively on behalf of the planet. If they’re answerable to anybody, it’s to their children and grandchildren. And it’s this generation of leaders that are going to either leave behind a very bad planet or a good planet for their children. So to answer your question, it is for them to realise that it’s a collective responsibility, it’s not any one country’s responsibility. So there’s no rivalry between countries, everybody has responsibility. In Copenhagen they did not realise that; hopefully by 2015 in Paris, they will. Then they should come together to take actions that are commensurate with the size of the problem. That’s the mindset that has to change, and it hasn’t yet changed.

And what do you think are the three things that global leaders should agree to implement without delay to address the crisis?

Well, right now, they must take action at home. This I think is universally recognized, so the good thing is national actions are starting, they now need to be ramped up. And that will require collective action. Nobody’s going to be very ambitious on their own; they’ll be very ambitious if everybody else is going to do it. That’s where the international negotiations are important and we have a timeline of another two years to get to Paris in 2015, where hopefully that will drive their collective level of ambition commensurate with the problem. If they want to bring us down to 2 degrees warming they’re going to have to do a lot more, and that will require collective agreement for national actions – so that would be my second main thing for leaders to do. The third thing is to ensure that the general public and all the other various stakeholders who have a role to play here are better informed about this. It’s a problem that affects every single human being on the planet, and very large numbers of those humans, if not all 7 billion of them, have a role to play in the solution – they need to know about it and be enabled to play that role.

What are the 3 most effective things people could do in their own lives?

So firstly, as this is a global problem affecting every human being on the planet, every one of us is part of the problem, by virtue of our emissions linked to the food we eat, the house we live in, the transport we use. The level of our emissions varies enormously. A poor person in a developing country has a very low level of emissions, while a rich person in either a rich country or a developing country has a very high emissions level. So those of us whose emissions are, let’s say, higher than the global average, need to take responsibility for our pollution. We’re all polluters; some of us are bigger polluters than others. There are several things we can do. One is reduce our emissions to the extent we can, by turning off light bulbs, using more efficient energy and so on. We cannot reduce it to zero, so we should try to do something about our residual pollution.

Market-based mechanisms such as buying offsets are one way to do it. I personally feel that expressing solidarity with the victims of climate change through helping them to adapt is a better way than just buying carbon offsets and allaying one’s guilt. So I prefer a more proactive approach, you express solidarity with the victims of climate change, you understand that you have caused them harm, you want to do something, not send money, but it’s about learning about them, connecting with them, and then figuring out what’s an appropriate level of action for you to take to help the victims of your pollution. Because you realise that it’s a morally right thing to do, and you want to do what you can.

And then the third level of action involves reaching out to your own politicians and telling them that you want them to do the right thing. If you’re living in America, tell Obama that he must do the right thing. Tell everybody that you work with that they must do the right thing. So you must become a preacher, you must become an advocate on behalf of doing the right thing. Once you realise what your moral responsibility is, you need to do something.

And just as a supplementary question, what do you think is preventing us from taking these steps?

Well, often when I talk to students I contrast what I call two paradigms, two descriptions of the problem. Both of them are correct, but the one you choose leads you to very different ways of thinking and acting. The prevailing framing is that climate change is a huge global problem which is due to the emissions of large amounts, gigatonnes of greenhouse gases, with the United States the biggest polluter and China the second biggest polluter. The US and China aren’t doing anything, so what can I do? I’m a small country, or I’m an individual, so my doing anything will mean nothing. And therefore it’s a counsel of despair. It’s the correct analysis, but it leads you to not doing anything.

The second framing is the one I’ve mentioned, which is that all 7 billion of us living on this planet are polluters. Those of us who have a carbon footprint that is higher than the global average are part of the problem. We must therefore take responsibility and make ourselves part of the solution. So then you figure out what you need to do and you do that.

Global warming is a very interesting global problem unlike many others in that it is very, very quantitative in terms of greenhouse gases, so every molecule, every gram, every kilogram, every ton of greenhouse gas adds to the problem. So even if you are emitting one gram, you are adding to the problem, even if you reduce that one gram, you have solved that part of the problem. It’s exactly scalable by numbers. And so doing something is doing something. Every little bit counts. Saying I am not a big emitter, my emissions don’t count, is incorrect; my emissions do count. There is a victim at the other end of my emissions, it is real, I am causing somebody harm, I must recognize that and I must make amends. And so you end up in two very different places, in terms of the solution to the problem based on what you think the problem is, how you frame the problem.

Thank you, I love the way you put that. Yes, doing something IS doing something, exactly, yes.

And I find with young people that goes down very well, you know, it energises them, we can make a difference. Otherwise this top-down framing de-energises. Even for a developed country like the UK, this is very common; I often hear ‘you know in the UK our emissions are 2% of the global emissions, what difference will it make if we reduce that?’ But if you re-phrase it, you will make a difference, you can make a difference, and you have an obligation to make a difference. You can’t just sit and blame it on someone else.

And then the final question: are there any glimmers of hope?

I’m an eternal optimist, so I see several glimmers. In the global arena, I see a glimmer of hope in China; I think China is setting itself up to lead us out of this problem. They are really taking some very interesting efforts at home. There’s a slight glimmer of hope in the US political system with Obama, evidently John Kerry is very keen to do something about climate change, because Hillary Clinton wasn’t.

The other glimmer of hope I see, and the one I am investing my time and effort in now, is young people everywhere. It is just too difficult to teach old dogs new tricks, you know, it’s very difficult to make adults change. So I have set up a centre in the university and am trying to attract young people, students from all over the world, get them galvanized and proactive, and hopefully they can influence their leaders. The young are not yet cynical, they are willing to engage and you can still appeal to their sense of injustice, ‘this is wrong, we should do something’. Old people will say ‘oh well, there are lots of things wrong, what can I do about it’, they will agree with you, but they won’t do anything.

Lastly, Saleem, where would you say we are in terms of this trajectory towards catastrophic climate change, how would you rate the global response on the climate change barometer? Because I think there is strong agreement that a 4 degrees Celsius increase in temperature over pre-industrial levels would certainly constitute a catastrophic situation for the world.

I think we are now at 4, moving rapidly towards 5. But we still could change this, if we urgently engage in a positive race to a fossil fuel-free era.

Barometer 4

Graphic by Trish Urquhart





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