Paul Brown is the author of 9 factual books, primarily on environmental topics. He worked for The Guardian newspaper for 24 years, the last 16 as their environment correspondent. During his tenure The Guardian won Environment Newspaper of the Year 4 times. He has met with numerous eminent politicians and scientists, attended climate change conferences and travelled to some of the world’s most remote places, including Antarctica. Although he left The Guardian in 2005 he still writes a weekly column in between travelling the world educating other journalists for The Guardian Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme whilst continuing his campaign to raise awareness of global warming. Global Warning, The Last Chance for Change was published in 2006 and was a best seller in the United States. He is currently writing his first novel, a political thriller revolving around the nuclear industry.
Yes, in the narrowest sense they are protecting their interests but in the broadest sense they are actually killing people off.
It’s morally hard to grasp that.
For me, more than the warlike tendencies of the Bush administration, was the morally reprehensible defence of the coal, oil and motor industries against overwhelming scientific evidence that they are destroying the planet.
Do you think the Americans are going to come back into negotiations now that Barack Obama is on the scene?
Oh yes, there’s a huge change in the attitude of the American Administration and all the scientists who were marginalized by Bush have been totally rehabilitated and put in key positions in government.
I was shocked to read that in California by 2020 there could be water deficit for eleven million people. Surely people must be ignorant of these facts?
In California there is now an awareness that there never was before. I think it is partly down to Schwarzenegger. He did genuinely say he got his re-election as Governor because of his green policies which is an extraordinary thing for a republican to say! And I think the attitude in America is changing.
Do you think Arnold Schwarzenegger has been more successful because he’s not a life long politician and is never going to have to live off the back of a political career? So it doesn’t matter to him who he offends?
Well I think its partly character isn’t it? He’s essentially European so in a way he’s sort of an independent person. He genuinely looks at the situation from the environmental point of view and looks at the evidence and can’t ignore it. The snow situation in the Sierra Mountains is terrible and when the glaciers disappear, as they will inevitably will, California is going to be a dustbowl. Okay some politicians have ignored the problem but he hasn’t.
But warming is a global problem rather than an individual event so whatever he does will be counteracted by countries elsewhere that do nothing.
One of the things that came across in Copenhagen last week and as Lord Nicholas Stern said was that this economic downturn was a huge economic opportunity to change into a low carbon economy and if places like California manage to thrive as low carbon economies, as indeed they appear to be doing and adopting green cars and all that sort of thing, then everyone else will want to do it. Because you’re creating a huge series of industries that are growing and the only industries that are growing in this recession are environmental industries. Wind, wave and tidal powers are all growing at a huge rate whereas the traditional industries are struggling. So it’s a potential for growth that people can see by example. So although in California people are still going to suffer they will also be pioneers and will be able to export green technologies to other people.
Until you actually read some of the hard facts you don’t really realise the situation. Finding out about the time delay – the thirty year gap before the full effect of the CO2 emissions and the sea level rise over the next hundred years – that these are going to happen anyway was shocking; I wasn’t aware of them at all.
In fact since I wrote Global Warning the sea level has risen dramatically. And much faster than scientists anticipated.
Some islands, like the Maldives, are going to flood anyway by the end of the century whatever they do, aren’t they?
Yes, and very possibly before. I think that was one of the things that frightened me most was the inevitability of the sea level rise.
Yes, we’re talking about huge civilizations flooding and where will all the dispossessed go? That is a really huge question. Perhaps in America they can all move inland but where will people who don’t have the same religious backgrounds and beliefs go? It’s just going to be awful.
Yes, people keep talking about China and India being the powerhouses of the world but if you take the effects of the glaciers melting in the Himalayas, the water supply running out and the flooding of the Deltas because of the sea level rise you’re talking millions and millions of people who have nowhere to go because the country is already so overwhelmed with population.
It is almost inevitable that millions of people are going to die.
Yes. One of the scientists at Copenhagen, was saying he thought that unless we made drastic cuts in CO2 now we are looking at a population crash from six billion to one billion.
Yes. Five out every six people could perish by the end of this century. That’s extraordinary.
It is. You didn't dwell on it that much in the book - perhaps because you didn’t want to scare us - about the Gulf Stream and what effect it will have on us in the UK.
If the Gulf Stream stops now, today, it would be about 5 degrees colder on average. That may not seem much but it would mean the winters would last from about the beginning of November to the end of March or even later and the sea around the coast might freeze. The summers would be shorter we would be a bit like Iceland. The amount of crops that could be grown and ripen might be limited - it could become difficult. It would be an unpleasant place to live as opposed to a very pleasant to live. However, the chances of that happening are not very great – the Gulf Stream just turning off over night – it might slow down a lot- but by then the world might have warmed up a bit and it might counterbalance out.
I’d been wondering before I knew about your novel how, if you wrote the global warming scenario into fiction, how many more people could you reach. There’s a certain type of person who only reads factual books.
One of the things that would very much come into this book is that its always been the nuclear industries view that if you have nuclear power stations that you can also have renewable industry too - which is exactly what the government is saying now. But of course this isn’t true because if you have big nuclear power stations you need a completely different form of national grid than if you have small renewable industries - which is actually what we need. So you either have to have 2 grids or you say we’ll invest all this money in nuclear power and say we don’t need any of this renewable stuff. So it is about whether you do something credible about climate change or whether you build nuclear power stations and so in a sense it is about climate change because in a sense the two things are inextricably linked.... And the motives of the people in the Dept of Energy or as was… these are the people who have been making the wrong decisions and have been for the last 30 years and these are the people you have to make central to your novel because they must have motives. People like Mandelson and Gordon Brown just haven’t got it. They haven’t understood it. What’s extraordinary is that Gordon Brown has been wonderful on poverty in Africa; he really obviously cares about it. But he’s completely wasting his time unless he does something about climate change at the same time because the children in Africa are going to be wiped out by climate change as quickly they are going to be wiped out by poverty and the two things are hand in hand and if you haven’t got that - it’s a tragedy.
Yes, I’ve read that there are actually more economic refugees than there are from war. It’s logic really.
Yes it getting worse all the time and every year it is going to get worse.
I was also surprised to learn in your book how much China has done about climate change because the input I’ve had from the media is China is terrible and far worse than the United States when actually it seems to me they have done quite a lot of good things whereas America are producing 25% of the entire CO2 emissions. Of course China will go on making lots of emissions and increasing that because of their population but they do seem to be much more aware of it.
The Chinese scientists are very good and they have warned their government in no uncertain terms about the problem of the melting glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau which is going to make their rivers dry up. They’ve also warned them about sea level rise. And the Chinese Gov is aware that they will lose control if millions of people become environmental refugees and so they are much more concerned about climate change now than they were 5 years ago because they realise it’s going to directly affect them. But the other thing is they get the blame for all the CO2 emissions they make by making all the stuff they sell to us; I mean about one third of their pollution is pollution we’ve exported to them. So they get the blame for that…. I was over in Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government talk to Chinese journalists at how they should be writing more about climate change and I discovered every street lamp between Beijing and the Great Wall of China is solar powered.
And we don't have any!
And that seems like a comparatively easy thing we could do.
Yes, and as far as I was concerned they were streets ahead of us in renewable energies. Okay, they’ve got much more to do and their air pollution is shocking but they are turning out more wind turbines and more solar power than we are by a long chalk.
I just don’t think people in this country are really aware of what’s going to happen.
No, not at all.
I know at school they do teach quite a lot as I was talking to my seventeen year old son last night about this and he had obviously been taught about Kyoto. He also knew about the thirty year build up of CO2 but I don’t think people of my age would know that. Maybe there has to be a bigger education programme for the masses.
Well it’s very hard isn’t it? In one sense it’s been out there for sometime and if people wanted to know they could have found out. I think there’s an element in all of us of that “I’d rather not know about that because I might have to do something about it.”
Yes – ignorance is bliss. At the end of the book when you talk about wind power and hydro electric dams I remembered that when I was girl and lived in Weston super Mare there was talk for years about building a barrage across from Weston to Wales *and what effect it would have on Weston - and that’s thirty years ago and nothing’s ever happened. And yet it’s the second highest tide in the world - just waiting for technology to use it.
Yes. One of the frightening things is that certainly politicians and people like Tony Blair have been on about climate change for years. Tony Blair was on about it from the moment he became Prime Minster. I mean, he was on about it from the beginning and was there for 10 years yet absolutely nothing happened. It’s completely unforgivable really.
In the book you say we really have a maximum of fifteen years before there’s a tipping point.
Well the scientists in Copenhagen were actually saying 2015.
Right. (Momentary silence.)
They’re saying we’ve got to start reducing CO2 emissions by 2015 at the absolute latest by 3% a year from then more or less for ever and a day. We’ve got to something about it.
That’s almost insurmountable from a politician’s point of view.
From a politician’s point of view, from a scientific point of view, from a technical point of view and every other point of view it is quite possible to do that - if we had the political will.
That seems to be the key point. In your book, basically, you say if we stop burning fossil fuels we stop our carbon emissions. Although we will still have other problems to contain like the methane coming from the permafrost.
Yes. There were people at the Copenhagen conference who were saying it’s already too late because these things are unstoppable but I feel that’s the wrong attitude because the science is uncertain - in the sense that you actually can’t tell precisely how the earth is going to react to things. But what we do know is that we’ve underestimated how quickly things will happen which is the frightening bit. Because it would be much nicer if it was reacting much more slowly. But you can’t say we give up. No.
Yes – that’s just like wiping out the future of mankind isn’t it?
Well for those of us with children its liking wiping out the future of our children.
If everybody had a carbon allocation do you think that would be the way to go? Obviously flying is a real major problem. The emissions from planes are a serious issue; we need to cut down on them. There are people taking three or four holidays abroad a year.
Yes. I went to Copenhagen last week to the climate conference and it was important for me as I was actually giving a lecture. It was important for me to get up to date with the science as I’m teaching journalists about climate change but it is worrying that the only way of getting there practically is to fly. But I am in favour of a personal carbon limit. The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce of which I am a council member has done an experiment with personal carbon and they think it will work.
Also, if you had a really large carbon footprint you could justify that by insulating your loft a bit more or buy a gas condensing boiler - and then you'd able to afford a holiday abroad.
Yes, and if it made people think twice then it would work just like the water meters have worked in the UK.
Yes, and the moment people start to think about it you are winning aren't you?
*(Please read link - I found a quote from Alistair Darling saying tidal power was still "in it's infancy" - The Weston barrage (or various forms of it) has been discussed for years - "The 10-mile (16km) barrage has been mooted in different forms since it was first proposed in 1849, according to Roger Falconer, professor of hydro-environmental engineering at Cardiff University" (BBC) )