Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

February 4, 2014


Host: Ted Simons

Sustainability: Climate Diplomat John Ashton


  • Climate Diplomat John Ashton will be taking part in an Arizona State University panel discussion on the future of global climate policy and other issues. Ashton, a former climate policy advisor to two former British Prime Ministers, will appear on Arizona Horizon to talk about global climate policy.
Guests:
  • John Ashton - Climate Diplomat
Category: Sustainability   |   Keywords: sustainability, ASU, global, climate, change, policy, future,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: ASU's Global Institute of Technology will be hosting a panel discussion tomorrow on the future of global climate change policy. The event starts at 4 p.m. inside Wrigley hall on ASU's Tempe campus. Among the featured speakers, John Ashton who served as the former climate policy advisor for two British Prime Ministers. It's good to have you here.

John Ashton: It's a great pleasure to be with you this evening.

Ted Simons: The, this event is titled Rescuing Climate Policy. Why does global climate policy need rescuing?

John Ashton: Because it's not working. Is the short answer to that. And, and so, that raises a really interesting question. Throughout our lifetimes we have hit a lot of problems in Britain and America and all the economies. We hit problems and we're creative at finding ways of solving our problems. We have big, big, financial crisis in 2008, and America is really picking itself up from that crisis. But climate change is a problem where we have not so far been able to do that. We have a lot of ideas about how to do it, but we have not been able to put it all together, and break through and, and there are lots of conversations going on around the world about why that should be the case. And I think that ASU is convening under micro, some extremely interesting conversations, and that's why I'm here, and I think that part of that is the idea that you really have to get people out of their stove pipes. We live in a stove pipe way, people are experts on different things, but, this is about the whole of society, the whole of the economy, and how do we build a sense of the future into which we can fit a solution to climate change, and that's why it's exciting to, to be taking part in the event tomorrow at ASU.

Ted Simons: Is a major problem, you said, the problem of climate change, is it a major concern that, that, that some very vocal folks don't think that climate change is a problem?

John Ashton: I think it's a concern that there is some powerful forces at the moment operating to try and keep us on a kind of business as usual track. And one of the, the strategies you have seen has been a very serious attempt to undermine what the scientific community, or to, to undermine the credibility of what the scientific community has been, has been saying. As you go around the world and look at what is happening, you find that all kinds of different societies are experiencing more and more climactic stresses, which look very similar to the kind of stresses that the scientists have been saying we're going to be experiencing, and I think at the level of personal and public experience, that argument has, actually, is over. And I think that people, people realize around the world something funny is going on. They don't know what it is. They don't know what to do about it. But, I just think that, that the real problem is what do we do about it and what do we do with that? And that's not a science question. It’s not even an environment question. It seems it is an economy and politics question. How do we find a way of dealing with this, which is attractive in terms of the jobs and the growth and the competitiveness at a time when there is an enormous amount of anxiety about jobs and growth and competitiveness?

Ted Simons: It sounds like you change from an existing carbon intensive model to, to, at best, a carbon-neutral model. Does government do this? Does capital do this? Does Government and capital do this? Who does this?

John Ashton: I think you put your finger on it, it has to be together. This is not a minor adjustment to the structure of the economy. If you think about it, what was the Industrial Revolution about, that was, that was, that created a very fairly defined foundation for economic growth, which was a high carbon foundation. If you want to go to a low carbon emission, government, public, and private capital can't do it by itself, government and private capital are not very good, certainly, in Britain. Coming to, to a common understanding of how to deal with any particular problems, so that's one of the barriers, and then you have a lot of other voices. You have the faith groups, and you have the NGOs and the professions, and everybody has a stake in this, and we have to find a way of building a conversation where we all feel our voices are being heard and moving forward.

Is it a conversation that, I don't know for lack of a better phrase, is forced until someone, somewhere, perhaps, right now, perhaps, in the future, still, develops an advanced energy system that makes all of this conversation moot?

John Ashton: It's tempting to see it in that way. But actually, I don't think that that's really the heart of the matter. We have the advanced energy systems now, and we know, we know what to do in terms of the technology and engineering. And actually, one of the, one of the interesting things that has changed despite the overall lack of progress, one of the things that has changed in the last few years, is that you could see very significant examples in some of the major economies. All the low carbon economy working in practice. We have had, in Britain, a pretty stagnant economy since 2008, since Lehman Brothers and all of that. Just starting to pick up again now. Meanwhile, the low carbon economy has been growing at 4 percent. Quite spectacular. China is investing in enormous amounts in a reconfigured energy system. Everybody says it's about coal in China, and yes, there is a lot of coal, but if you look at what's happening in solar and wind, they are putting in the equivalent of 50 large power stations worth of solar, for example and Germany has days where it is getting more than 50 percent of its electricity from, from solar and wind. So, you can, actually, see on the ground some powerful examples of the transition happening and, and contributing to hope about, about jobs and growth, rather than anxiety about jobs and growth.

Ted Simons: Is it -- are we seeing a grassroots kind of a thing right now? And if we are, what gets that grassroots level above board in a big, swaying trees, if you will.

John Ashton: You don't have a critical mass. You don't have enough to criminal drive us across the threshold, but, I mean, I mentioned Germany just now, Germany is an interesting case because the, among the least popular institutions in Germany, at the moment, are the, the big utility companies. People feel that they are remote, that they are exploiting the consumer and they are charging too much for electricity. And, and one of the attractions of this transition has been, has been that you have got communities coming together, and you say grass roots, this is real grass roots stuff, and building their own local electricity systems based on renewable energy, nearly half of all of the new renewable energy in Germany in the last few years has come from those local grassroots initiatives, and that's partly because people want to do something about climate change, but it's more because people want to liberate themselves from the sinister clutches of the remote utilities who they don't like.

Ted Simons: What about the sinister clutches of Government? You mentioned China, and I think they are like a number two as far as oil and coal in the country, as far as, you know, emissions. I think Russia, isn't Russia number one these days? How do you convince Russia and China, Government run here, that this is the way to go?

John Ashton: There is an enormous difference between those two because Russia is, is a producer of, of oil and coal and natural gas. And wants to sell as much of it as possible to, to people who will buy it from them. Whereas China, China does have a lot of domestic coal but essentially it's a consumer economy. China is very worried about the way in which the rising demand from the Chinese economy tends to push off the price of oil, for example. And also, to create pressure that is mean the price of oil is unpredictable. You might get more dramatic spikes in the price in the future. So, there is a lot of concern in China. How do we get off this hook? It's about getting off the hook of fossil fuels, and that's a much more conducive, if you are looking for where are you going to see the most rapid progress, I would not, at the moment, look in the direction of Russia. But I am looking in the direction of China. And what I'm seeing is really interesting.

Ted Simons: Can you look in a direction of the United States, considering, and I am going back to this, we'll get, get email, we'll get telephone calls, climate change doesn't exist. It's nature’s way, it falls within the variability, the temperature changes recently. This whole business of the CO-2 levels before the two celsius increase and before the industrial age. Who cares if it's two celsius, nature has gone six this way and four. We hear those arguments a lot. And those arguments hold a lot of sway in at least one major chamber of Congress here. How do you convince folks it's wrong?

John Ashton: Well, I am, I am aware of the intensity of the emotions that go around, and I have to say, America is very much a part of my life, my mother had a second family in Pennsylvania, in all my previous activities before I became involved with climate change. America has been an important part of that. I don't know whether I should say this on your show, but, you know, America is part of me, I love America. But, the America that I came to love as a child was an America that had the best science in the world, that respected and listened to what was coming out of the science, and had an optimism about its ability to build a better future for Americans, by taking the messages coming out of science and turning them into technology and into a sense that we can take control of our destiny. I think one of the things, as a friend of America that makes me sad and anxious now, is that that does not seem to be the case anymore. The debate about climate change is not really, it seems to me, a debate about climate change. It has become a symbol in a deeper debate about where America is going and what it means to be American, and what's the relationship, the correct relationship between the government and the market, for example, in America. And it's very hard in that situation to mobilize the forces that you need to mobilize in order to be, if you like, a leader in the global effort rather than a follower in the global effort. The right place for America, it seems to me, in any great process of transformation, is to be a leader and to be seen as a leader, and it pains me to, as I travel around the world, to China, around Europe, to Africa and to Asia, at the moment, America is seen as a follower in this debate because it's got tied up in this knot. I would say one more thing, if I may, about Arizona because it's, it's really exciting for me to be here. It seems to me this is a state where you have a very direct experience of climactic stress. You have a drought going on at the moment and a prospect of hotter and dryer conditions. But, you also spend in Arizona, $12 billion a year importing oil and gas and coal. And if America is going to make this transition, it seems to me Arizona is going to be a winner from it. You have a tremendous resource of low carbon energy, not leased in solar. And so, I think that, that, you know, Arizona is -- so, ASU is in a very interesting position. It has very good leadership. The Global Institute of Sustainability and the people there are breaking down those barriers between stove pipes and convening these conversations. I am going to keep coming back here if I can because I would love to see how that goes.

Ted Simons: It's good to have you here and thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

John Ashton: Ted, thank you very much.

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