'Political pressure is where people can really make a difference'

Professor Chris Rapley CBE interview with Nick Breeze
Professor Chris Rapley discusses the Climate Change Act 10 years on - and warns we are not acting on a 'scale or pace' to stay beneath the crucial 2ºC of warming. In this interview with NICK BREEZE, he balances the inadequacies of climate policy with the growing willingness of many people to take action

So, what I see is a willingness on the part of people to bond together and act. If only they understood what it is that they can do. So, the strength is that there is a willingness out there. The weakness is, that it is very difficult to offer people agency in a way that it is effective.

It is now 10 years since the Climate Change Act (CCA) was first brought into law. Professor Chris Rapley CBE talks here about the merits of this piece of legislation that served to hold governing ministers to account.

A decade on it is time to ask where it has put the UK in the context of the Paris Agreement and is it still fit for purpose.

Rapley speaks candidly about our preparedness for an ever-rising tide of climate impacts that are already having a disastrous effect on nearly all regions of the world.

Nick Breeze (NB): Can you summarise why the Climate Change Act (CCA) was significant when it was brought into law a decade ago?

Professor Chris Rapley CBE (CR): Ok, CCA was a really innovative piece of legislation and the fundamental core of it was that it makes the secretary of state, whoever they are in the future, in a statutory way, responsible for ensuring that the UK reduces its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. And indeed, following a trajectory that is dictated by an independent body. 

NB: Would you say that this has been effective in the 10 years it has been enforced? 

CR: Well, up until now, yes. The UK’s carbon emissions are today 40 percent lower then they were in 1990. Partly, there are a whole load of factors that contributed to that.

But at the same time, the economy has grown by 60 percent, so one of the big results is that the myth that you can not decarbonise without damaging the economy has been blown out of the water. It’s clear: you can. 

NB: Where does this place Britain in the context of climate action compared with other countries? 

CR: From the government and the statutory point of view it places the UK well in the lead. It is a very innovative piece of legislation which many other nations are considering following.

Spain among others has been looking at it because it is seen as overcoming the four or five yearly electoral cycle. It commits the nation to a long-term set of action. So, this has been highly beneficial. 

NB: And do you think it stood the test of time? 

CR: Yes, I think it has. The Climate Change Committee which was established as the independent body to lay out the trajectory that the country needs to follow, and the Adaptation Sub-Committee which has been looking at the nation’s preparedness for climate change which is inevitably happening around us, now.

These are both very prestigious bodies. They are regarded - even at a time where experts are suspect - they are regarded as being rigorous and having done a very effective job. 

So, it’s established a process which I think is largely admired. What it reveals though, is that there are many areas where government action or national action is still, lagging.

So, what I see is a willingness on the part of people to bond together and act. If only they understood what it is that they can do. So, the strength is that there is a willingness out there. The weakness is, that it is very difficult to offer people agency in a way that it is effective.

But nevertheless, we have an independent and rigorous means of exposing that and once you expose the problem, then, of course, you can begin to address it. 

NB:  Do you think 10 years on, there are areas now where you think well, that could be tightened up or this could be improved upon. I mean, are there elements of the CCA that could be changed?  

CR: I think in terms of the act itself and the processes, the structures that had been set up to support it, I think they’ve stood the test of the time.

What we see now is the actual action on the ground is not keeping up in many areas. So for example, there are some very good examples of flood protection plans, like the London flood plan.

We know that there are many other areas around the country, which are very poorly prepared for sea level rise, flooding, or the intense rainfall flooding, that we are already experiencing. So there is plenty to do. 

NB: And, do you think when you highlight risks outside of London, in other parts of Britain, do you think these are being acted on right now? 

CR: It’s very patchy. There are some good examples and there are some areas where there is really insufficient knowledge and action. The present administration has definitely not helped.

For example, there had been a long process by which zero carbon home legislation was being prepared. The new administration abandoned that, and when they did so, they also removed the ability of local councils to impose conditions for the development on developers.

These conditions would make sure that the future developments are future and climate-proofed. 

So, a huge opportunity was lost to ensure that the local appropriate action was being taken. And if you talk to local councils now, or boroughs, the austerity and cutbacks have so reduced their staffing, that often you will find that there is nobody responsible for climate change at all.

So, if one has a new report that provides some useful advice there is literally nobody to send it to because there is nobody in the borough administration who is assigned that task. 

NB: Ok, I was curious whether [ministers] might be making a lot of noise but not actually taking a lot of action.

CR: Well we don’t know. Ah, well the cynic in me says, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’, but we have to be...there are good signs because the markets are beginning to have an effect, in two ways. 

Firstly, the green technology, the experience curves, the cost of the solar PV and wind have so plummeted, so much faster than was expected, that they are cost competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world, but also in the UK.

So we see the kind of baseload delivery of green energy increasing: I mean, we have been through periods were coal contributed nothing to the UK electricity supply for a couple of days on end. 

But in addition, large investment companies, say pension funds and so on, are increasingly nervous of potential carbon bubbles, and stranded assets.

So you can see, the huge supertanker is a probably a very good metaphor, you can see the nose ineluctably begin to move towards the green and clean future, almost regardless of what the government may do. 

NB: Are there signs you can see that change is happening at the speed we need to see it, to avert the worst of climate impacts?

CR: Well yes we do things are happening but absolutely not at the scale, or pace that is necessary if we are serious about keeping the overall warming to about 2 degrees Centigrade, or less. 

We are currently on a track to 3-3.5ºC maybe even 4ºC at the end of the century. And we may have gone over a threshold where we have committed the Earth to rising sea levels of many metres over hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

So, certainly, the actions that we all collectively take over the next decade or two will determine the trajectory of the planet for thousands of years.

I absolutely do not see the scale and pace that is necessary to achieve our aspirations, which is two degrees of warming maximum and a planet that stabilizes in the next century or so. 

NB: You had a lot of experience, obviously with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and so on, when we talk about many meters of sea level rise, this is a game-changer for the civilisation, isn’t it?

CR: Yes. British Antarctic Survey and of course all of the polar scientists have many contributions to understanding how the planet works. Antarctica is a big and important piece of the planetary machinery.

It is the air-conditioning system, or the water conditioning system, and at present, it is not the major contributor to the sea level rise that we are measuring now.

That is coming from the thermal expansion of the ocean as it warms and from Greenland and the glaciers on mountains around the world. 

But the paper came out last week that shows that the contribution of Antarctica to rising sea levels rise tripled in the last five years. So, it is beginning to accelerate.

Some years ago, I likened the Antarctic to a slumbering giant, and said, there were signs that it was awakening, and more recently I said, I think it is beginning to stretch its limbs and we should be very nervous about what is happening down there. 

NB:  When you consider a climate timeline of action versus impacts what concerns you the most? 

CR: Well, let’s talk about impacts, what we have seen is that climate change is happening now. This is not some abstract thing that is going to happen, to other people, somewhere else in the future. It is happening right now. 

There is a wonderful book that just came out called The Water Will Come by the journalist called Jeff Goodell which I recommend. And he has done a wonderful job, really investigating Florida and Venice and all of the obvious places that sea-level rises is going to impact. 

And there are people in Miami who are making decisions now, about whether to sell some of their condominiums now, before the prices collapse, or perhaps keep it, and sell it, or rent it to low-income people and finally let it go at the zero value. 

So people are seeing that the climate change is happening around them and they are reacting to it. One of the more controversial aspects of the climate change is that there is evidence that it is driving migration already, and it is migration probably more than anything else, that will be so disruptive in the future. 

Climate refugees from areas that are too hot, where crops fail, from areas that are flooded either through the sea-level flooding or whatever.

Or through the areas that no longer have a water supply because the winter system of snowfall that sits on the top of the mountains and then delivers water in the summer, from the Himalayas or Alps or wherever it is, no longer functions. 

So, very large numbers of people will move. We have seen the destabilising effect that has on Europe. Of course, the migrants we are seeing in Europe are not solely driven, or even largely driven by climate change, although there is a climate change component.

But that threat multiplier is a really serious consequence of climate change, and we are beginning to see it happening and it is only going to get worse, and that could cause very, very unpleasant social consequences. 

NB: In the struggle to communicate the challenges of climate change, what gives you the most strength? 

CR: Well the fact that a large percentage, although not all of the people, are genuinely what you might call communalistic, that is they believe that there is such a thing as society - despite that what we are told - and they are outraged by injustice.

And they are concerned about future of their children and their children’s children and, indeed, other’s people’s children’s children. 

So, what I see is a willingness on the part of people to bond together and act. If only they understood what it is that they can do. So, the strength is that there is a willingness out there. The weakness is, that it is very difficult to offer people agency in a way that it is effective. 

What I say to people is: personal, professional and political. You can organise your own life so that it is a low carbon, you can work within, amongst your colleagues, so assuming you have a job, and often do much more that way.

But the political pressure is where people can really make a difference, keeping that pressure on elected representatives to recognise that this is an issue that needs an action. 

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate change interviewer and can be followed on Twitter here: @NickGBreeze - He also blogs at Envisionation.co.uk.

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