Rolph Payet – we are on a path now that is practically irreversible in the next 100 years

This is the second in a series of “5 questions” blogs in which I explore the same five key questions with climate change thought leaders. In the interviews, we take a look at recent significant developments in the climate change arena, focus on what global leaders as well as ordinary people should, or could, be doing, and highlight any hopeful signs. The interview ends with a snapshot assessment – the climate change barometer – of where we are in addressing, or not, this potentially devastating global threat.

Here is my interview with Professor Rolph Payet, international policy expert and researcher on environment, climate change and island issues. He is currently Minister of Environment and Energy in Seychelles, and was the first President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Seychelles. We met at his office in Victoria, on Mahé Island, on 6th September 2013. I was fortunate enough to be in Seychelles as part of a team running a workshop mapping higher education capabilities for an enhanced response to climate change in the southern African region.

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

For me the most significant recent development is carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, which last month peaked at 400 parts per million (ppm), and that is bringing us closer to a degree increase in temperature. According to the last IPCC findings, that is really going to put a lot of pressure on the planet, in terms of extreme weather events, extended periods of drought, impacts on ocean circulation, impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity, and most importantly on human systems. So this is the driving force, and this recent thing is really alarming. And nobody is really doing anything about it, there was only a flicker on the internet – nobody blinked. This shows you that even the continuing increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not sending any messages to world leaders.

As you know, since Copenhagen, small island states have been campaigning on a maximum temperature increase of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. So there’s no point now in campaigning on something which is already past. Have we been effective in our campaigning? Yes and no, the world carries on moving, with little concern. There is of course a lot of development in renewable energy and in attempting to reduce emissions, but we are way too late. We should have started 20 years ago. This is the lethargy that the current planet has.

It’s only when people start to be directly affected themselves, for example with mega typhoons or hurricanes or extreme floods which we’ve seen this year all over the place, from the Philippines to the US, that people start realising that our world is not the same as it was before. It’s actually moving towards a tipping point, according to many scientists, which could cause some drastic changes, or even reversals, in the way the world climate behaves. This will of course affect billions of people around the planet, who depend on the environment for their livelihoods – extensive droughts in Africa, impacts on the Indian monsoon, coastal erosion which affects our tourism here.

What should global leaders be most worried about?

Well, they should be most worried about the costs of climate change, which are going to be very high, if they don’t do anything now. This for me is the first thing. In Seychelles in January this year, in two days we had 66% of the monthly long-term average rain. This flooded the whole east coast, the immediate cost was 104 million Seychelles rupees, but the cost of relocating and adaptation was three times more. Because there is the initial cost of the damage and loss, and then there is the cost of what we are going to do now to minimise that risk, how we are going to build better than before. Our whole sewerage system went bust because of all the water and we have to build a new sewerage system now. This is the kind of thing the world leaders should be worried about.

Then, the current economic crisis does not help. You cannot try to solve an economic crisis by committing the same mistakes. All the money that you’re saving now, you will be forking out in the near future. All the debt that many countries have now, they will get more indebted as we move along in the climate change world.

Globally, we should be concerned about food security. We had a taste of this four years ago when rice prices went up. Everything was affected by this; countries that were producing rice hoarded it because they had to feed themselves, and the rest of the world suffered as a result. And there were a lot of prospectors in the market as well, who bought cheap and wanted to sell expensive. So for me food prices are there with everything else. We should not forget that the planet gives us signals, and today we are much more – I would not say advanced, but we can be more intelligent than the Mayans, because we have all this knowledge and cooperation, we have satellites in space. Although the Mayans had technologies that we are still wondering about, I think we have a better opportunity to save our civilisations compared to the Mayans, who didn’t have a chance.

And the other key issue for me is disease. It’s a time bomb, a lot of people don’t think about it until it happens, but we are creating the right environment for pandemics. When it becomes drier, or when the world becomes warmer – even now there is evidence of increased risk of malaria resurgence in southern Europe, and in Canada, because of expanded ranges for disease-carrying vectors like Anopheles mosquitoes. A lot of countries are not prepared, don’t have robust health systems, so for me health is a critical issue. Once we start creating the natural environment for these kinds of vectors to multiply themselves, we may not be able to manage this from a global perspective.

Sea level rise, yes, it going to happen. But even for me, coming from a small island state, small islands will be uninhabitable before they are run over by the sea. Take the Maldives, many of the islands use ground water for survival; you will get saltwater intrusion in there, rendering the island uninhabitable before it actually sinks beneath the sea. So we would have to start moving long before you wake up one morning and have the waves lapping against your house. Because there are a lot of other things that people depend on, on the islands, apart from just the physical presence. Food and water are the two basic conditions for survival. Once these two become difficult, then you have the disintegration of societies and civilisations. Now in Seychelles, we have been here for 200 years, but in the Pacific, some communities have been there for 3,000 years, and that’s a shame. We will be losing languages, how will you preserve the languages, the culture, and traditions? We cannot put islanders in skyscrapers because they won’t have culture, languages and traditions there.

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

I think the first thing is they need to look at practical clean measure to reduce their emissions, and create a timeframe. Today, the biggest problem is we’ve been telling them to set targets, and nobody wants to set targets, even moderate targets. The thing is, the longer you wait, the harder the target becomes. Look at health: if my target now is to keep my weight to 50 kilogrammes, I can cut down by one potato a day; but if I wait until I am 60 years old with heart disease, the doctor will tell me to cut by 16 potatoes – so the longer you delay, the harder the target becomes. And that is why I say we should have begun 10 years ago. At least it’s started now. But now as you see the Kyoto Protocol is in limbo, and we are not heading for its second commitments, and we are still pointing fingers, “China and India you are polluting more than me now”, or China is saying “look you are the historical polluters of the planet” … Come on guys, set some targets, money and economies are involved, and there are also opportunities.

This has been shown by a number of studies, new jobs can be created in renewable energy and the shift towards a low carbon economy, let’s push that shift. Let’s get the US Senate, which keeps blocking progress, on board. Oil is always going to be a product that we are going to use, we cannot say turn off the pipes, and this sometimes I think is what creates the big panic in the big oil companies, “oh we are going to lose money”, it’s not true, they are probably going to make more money in a clean world. Oil is used in everything, everywhere, but it’s the total dependence, and the burning of the oil, that is creating a problem for our planet. So I don’t think that oil will become a redundant substance, in fact now maybe it can be used for much more sophisticated products which we need.

Yes, I think a number of people have made the point that oil is far too valuable a commodity for us to be burning it, we need it for more sophisticated plastics.

Exactly. Graphene for example is the new material that could allow us to have better construction materials, at the end of the day it is carbon and it comes from plants and animals, we can use it. Burning is the most inefficient way of using this very important resource. So I don’t think the oil companies will go bust if we address climate change, I think they need to correct that kind of thinking.

The third thing is for us to start looking seriously at adaptation. We need to set aside serious money for adaptation and we need to also ensure that what we build now is designed for adaptation, because no amount of targets or reducing emissions will reverse the path that we are on. I think we are on a path that is practically irreversible in the next 100 years. So we will have to prepare for the worst impacts.

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

The first thing is they should be conscious that the world’s resources are limited. I think they should be aware that all the materials we use around us have come through very intensive extraction of resources, which is creating pollution and risk. I think consumerism should be re-looked, because this is where the biggest problem is. Such as our mobiles that we keep changing every 5 seconds, a lot of people don’t realise they contain a lot of rare metals that are very expensive to extract; or we choose to travel using our traditional methods rather than walking, or using mass transportation.

But take Seychelles, as a small island state, we need planes because there is no other way we can develop. Suddenly today you have the European Union taxing long haul destinations, which is really ridiculous, why are you not taxing short haul destinations? People in Europe can take a train, which is a lot more efficient than a plane. So improve the train networks in those countries that have the ability to do so, and already have the rails, rather than having all these flights with people only paying one pound or two pound fares going all over the place. That has actually created a big change in travel; it has shifted people from more efficient modes of travel like trains in Europe to more inefficient modes of travelling. And then the authorities turn around and tax those that actually depend on planes. We cannot have a train here to Seychelles, so we have no other option but to depend on planes, which have helped us to develop and keep our economy running. But this should not be taxed in a way that it affects us as well.

So these are the distortions, and the consumers have to send the right message. Another example is consuming more at home. I know Kenya may have an issue with this, because it is a big flower industry. I grow more of my vegetables at home. Importing vegetables is good for global trade, but again it has consequences for the planet. Okay, let us buy what we need, but let us grow some as well. I know people living in flats cannot grow much, but they can still grow something. We can also cut back on water. A lot of people think water just comes from rainfall, but it costs money also, you have to pump it, store it, there’s an energy contribution. So people can start themselves by being aware that they are being pushed to buy more things, when they may already have enough at home.

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

Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. In Seychelles we are adamant to make our voice heard, and we will continue to push for countries to take climate change seriously. Both at the global level, the heads of state, and also at the community level, the youth level. We have a lot of environmental education here, we share it with people, and we sensitise the youth as well because they are the future generations that are going to face the mess we have created. So the youth have to step up and say look, please, this is our future you are messing up, you have to do something about it.

Lastly, there is strong agreement that a 4 degrees Celsius increase in temperature over pre-industrial levels would constitute a catastrophic situation for the world. 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?

I would say 4. Well, between 3 and 4. I will never get to 5, I will never say it’s too late.

Barometer 3 to 4

Graphic by Trish Urquhart


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