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Sir Crispin Tickell: Business-as-Usual on Climate Change is Not an Option
Global climate change poses a greater threat to society than terrorism, but "a concerted, often dishonest campaign by vested interests" in the United States is preventing a swift and effective global response to the problem, Sir Crispin Tickell said at AAAS.
Tickell, delivering the 2006 Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture at AAAS, said that some credible programs to address warming already are being implemented in China and India, but he called on Western nations to move assertively to the forefront in addressing the global challenge.
That Earth's most pressing problems are of our own making, he told a full house at the AAAS Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on 18 September. Population increase, degradation of land and resources and the destruction of biodiversity are transforming the Earth's environment in unsustainable ways, leading global researchers to conclude, "the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's system is not an option," he said.
"The idea may be hard to accept, but in its long history the Earth has not been in this situation before," he said.
However, he added, humans already know how to prevent and repair these environmental threats, "if we have the will to do it." He said that basic conservation, pollution reduction and social changes such as improving women's education would take care of most environmental worries without complicated technological fixes.
Tickell is the director of the Policy Foresight Programme, James Martin Institute at Oxford University and chancellor of the University of Kent at Canterbury, England. His talk reflected his wide experience as an ambassador, United Nations representative, scientific advisor to the British government and environmental researcher. His 1977 book Climate Change and World Affairs was one of the first to bring the problem of human-induced climate change to wider public attention.
"That climate change is an extremely serious problem is well-known in the scientific community and among many world leaders," said Al Teich, director of science and policy at AAAS. "Sir Crispin's outstanding talk helped focus attention on the political factors that stand in the way of our taking effective action to address it."
Although humans have always had an impact on the planet, the impact has rapidly increased and grown to a global scale since the start of the Industrial Revolution, Tickell told the AAAS audience. "A periodic visitor from outer space would find more change in the last 200 years than in the preceding 2,000, and more change in the last 20 years than in the preceding 200," he said.
He noted that humans are just beginning to realize how these rapid changes affect the planet as a single, interconnected system, a phenomenon that researchers have dubbed Earth System Science or Gaia Theory. "At present, we are pressing Gaia hard without fully understanding the consequences."
Global and national policies to deal with climate change are starting to appear, particularly in places like India and China, according to Tickell, "but without a lead from the industrial countries, who carry primary responsibility for what has happened, it is rather hard to persuade the rest of the world to make the fundamental changes in their development policies which are now essential."
Tickell did not single out any specific group in the United States that is holding back climate change policy. Other commentators have suggested that the current federal administration and some U.S. business interests have downplayed the issue's importance.
Tickell said there are ready answers to most of our environmental problems, if governments and markets worldwide can "recognize that the last 200 years or so have been a bonanza of inventiveness, exploitation of resources and ever-rising consumption which may not continue."
"At present we seem to want to attach monetary value to almost everything," he noted, but "somehow we have to bring in the factor of environmental costs."
"In both the short and even more the long term, any economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment," he added.
Threats such as the world's burgeoning population challenge world leaders to see political and cultural issues in environmental terms, said Tickell, noting for instance that population tends to level off in places where governments have made a priority of wider contraceptive use, better education and "above all, focus on the role and status of women."
Humans are the only species capable of undoing environmental degradation, but in the end, the world will go on with or without us, Tickell concluded.
"Life itself, from the bottom of the seas to the top of the atmosphere, is so robust that the human experience could become no more than a short and somewhat peculiar episode in the history of life on Earth," he said.
The Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture is held each September at AAAS, during the orientation program for the incoming class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. The lectureship, endowed by the international law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, honors Barnard's 50 years of service as an attorney deeply concerned with the interaction of science, law and the environment.
For more than 30 years, the Fellowships have brought scientists and engineers into public service in many federal agencies and in Congress. The fellowships are designed to nurture links between federal decision-makers and scientific professionals to support public policy that benefits the well-being of the nation and the world.
"Sir Crispin's outline for assessing and addressing climate change highlights the need for interdisciplinary approaches from a broad range of physical, biological, health, and social sciences and engineering fields, coupled with public and political will," said Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. "He sends a clear message that science and policy must intersect to alleviate this critical challenge of the 21st century."
For a full text of Sir Crispin Tickell's address at AAAS, click here.
To learn more about his work, click here.
2 October 2006