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Climate Scientist: World’s Richest Must Radically Change Lifestyles to Prevent Global Catastrophe

StoryDecember 11, 2018
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The 24th United Nations climate summit comes amid growing warnings about the catastrophic danger climate change poses to the world. In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate climate change or face global catastrophe—with severe droughts, floods, sea level rise and extreme heat set to cause mass displacement and poverty. But on Saturday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait blocked language “welcoming” the landmark IPCC climate report. New studies show global carbon emissions may have risen as much 3.7 percent in 2018, marking the second annual increase in a row. A recent report likened the rising emissions to a “speeding freight train.” We speak with Kevin Anderson, professor in climate change leadership at Uppsala University’s Centre for Environment and Development Studies, and 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg about the drastic action needed to fight climate change and the impact of President Trump on climate change activism.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit right here in Katowice, Poland. And we’re continuing our conversation with Greta, who has been on a school strike calling for climate action. She sits outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. In September, before the election, she sat for three weeks straight on weekdays. A number of kids also then started to join her.

We’re also joined by the renowned climate scientist Kevin Anderson, professor in climate change leadership at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Uppsala University, also chair of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain. Kevin recently tweeted, “On climate change @GretaThunberg demonstrates more clarity & leadership in one speech than a quarter of a century of the combined contributions of so called world leaders. Wilful ignorance & lies have overseen a 65% rise in CO2 since 1990. Time to hand over the baton,” he writes.

Well, it’s great to have you both with us. Greta, explain again how you made it to Poland, how you got here from Sweden.

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah, me and my dad drove here in an electrical car.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you use an electric car all over Sweden, or do you use other forms of transportation?

GRETA THUNBERG: Sometimes that and sometimes train, bus, subway.

AMY GOODMAN: I also understand you do a lot of bike riding.


AMY GOODMAN: So, Kevin, how did you get here from Britain?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Oh, I came from Sweden, as well, actually. So, I didn’t come by electric car. I came by train and then got the ferry from south of Stockholm to Gdansk and then the train down to Katowice.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s a political decision that you’ve made, as well.

KEVIN ANDERSON: It is. But I don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t take planes?

KEVIN ANDERSON: No, but I don’t think about it particularly anymore. I don’t look at the flights and say, “Well, what are the flights like?” I just look at: How do I get there—


KEVIN ANDERSON: —without flying?

AMY GOODMAN: Why without flying?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, it’s probably—emblematically, it’s the most important activity that we pursue. The emissions are important. They’re 2 to 3 percent of world emissions, about the same as U.K., Germany or California, so a significant amount of emissions. But, actually, when we fly, we are locking in an industry that is very high-carbon, that there are no technical alternatives in the near to medium term to overcome that, so we remain high-carbon. And also, those of us who fly, generally, we also live very wealthy lives. We often use taxis. We live in big homes. We have quite large cars. We drive a lot. We consume a lot of goods. So, almost it’s emblematic. It captures the worst excesses in terms of our climate change impacts and also, indeed, border sustainability. And so, I think it’s important for people who work on climate change, who think it’s a really major issue, that we demonstrate that we believe in our own research by making some significant changes to how we operate our own lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Greta’s father Svante is named after a climate scientist. Can you talk about his significance?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, his significance was major, as were a number of people in the 1800s. So, when people talk about climate change as a new phenomenon, I mean, it’s not. It’s the laws of physics. There’s no such thing as climate science. There is science we use to understand the climate. And that science, we’ve been using for several centuries now. And during the 1800s, there was Fourier; there was John Tyndall, the namesake of the center I’m involved with; and there was Arrhenius in Sweden. And these people were putting together a fairly clear vision of what was causing climate—well, not climate change, what was—understanding global warming and the greenhouse effect and how that might play out in the future. So, we had a good understanding even in the 1800s. So it’s not a new phenomenon, as the skeptics often try to suggest.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you teach in Sweden, as well as in Britain.

KEVIN ANDERSON: I do, but in English in Sweden, I hasten to add. I don’t teach in Swedish.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what did you think when you heard about this kid, this 15-year-old girl, this young woman, named Greta Thunberg, who sat down in front of the Swedish parliament? When did you first hear this?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, it was, I think, after you had first started doing it, so it was quite some time ago now. And as soon as I heard about it, I just think it’s good that something is—well, firstly, bringing climate change to the fore, to the public debate, is important. It’s not in the public debate. This COP has been very poorly represented in the media, that I’m aware of, in other parts of Europe. So, bringing climate change to the fore is a really important issue anyway. The second thing is, to bring it to the fore with a degree of clarity and honesty is also really important. And Greta has done that in spades. You know, she’s been a real ambassador for understanding climate change, without all of the fluff and nonsense that we put on it.

AMY GOODMAN: When you sat down, Greta, in September in front of the parliament, was there discussion in the media—I mean, Sweden considered a very green country—about climate change?

GRETA THUNBERG: Yes, well, it’s understood as. I mean, all of Swedes say, “Oh, we are the best in the world. We have technology, and we have low emissions,” and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you weren’t satisfied, though?



GRETA THUNBERG: Because we aren’t.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way? What are the effects that you feel climate change has in other parts of the world? And what has it meant for you to be here meeting other people and young people from—oh, from especially the developing world and from island nations that might be submerged?

GRETA THUNBERG: I mean, Swedes are living like if we had 4.2 planet Earths. And, I mean, that means that we steal very much resources from future generations and poorer parts of the world. And, I mean, it’s us, the people in the rich countries, and the rich countries that have created these problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, can you talk about the difference between the Trump administration being here—their one side event yesterday was introducing representatives of the fossil fuel industry; they call it realistic and rational, because they care about jobs, they say—and the previous administration, under President Obama?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, firstly, I mean, I think you have to question whether they care about jobs or whether they care about profits. Certainly there’s something that they care about.

But whether—a lot of people I know, people who are concerned about climate change, think of Trump, and they use Trump, to some extent, as an excuse for the inaction of the rest of us. And if you look at what Obama had planned, yeah, Obama’s climate plans, OK, were slightly more progressive, or less unprogressive, if such a thing can exist, compared with Trump, but nevertheless Obama was not moving the U.S. towards anything approaching the Paris Agreement. His plans were much more in line with a 3 to 4 degrees centigrade of warming. And people were just saying, “Oh, isn’t he doing well?”

So, Trump comes along and basically just stands up in the usual Trumpian way and justsays, “I’m not going to be involved in climate change. It’s just a—it’s a hoax by the Chinese.” And that suddenly brings climate change to the fore. People are starting to talk about it again. So, you know, Macron talks about what the French are going to do. The Chinese say they’ll step up to the plate to compensate for what America is doing. Other American mayors come to the fore. So, in some respects, Trump has reignited a stagnant debate on climate change. So, whilst I have no time for Trump’s views on climate change, or, indeed, on many other issues, I think he has been, to some extent, a catalyst.

And when you align that with Greta’s contribution and, increasingly, voices who have—who feel that they’ve been marginalized over the last 20 years on climate change, they are coming to the fore. I think there is a sense of a new dialogue emerging, not just from climate change, but from the sort of dissatisfaction with how the establishment has dealt with issues over the last 20 or 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, going back to Copenhagen, going back 10 years ago, you had President Obama flying in and, many felt, weakening the accord.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yes, yeah. I mean, the U.S.—well, I mean, it’s easy at the moment, when people pick on Russia, the U.S. and Qatar and so forth, saying that they’re weakening the—haven’t accepted the IPCC 1.5 degrees C report. And, I mean, it’s true that they haven’t done that. But again, that is something that the rest of us have hidden behind. The other nations are saying, “Isn’t that appalling?”

You know, the U.K. said, “Of course we should accept the 1.5 degrees C report,” whilst it’s just celebrated a new BP oil platform going offshore that’s going to produce 120,000 barrels of oil every day. That’s 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year—every day, rather, and, over the life of the platform, another quarter of a billion tons of CO2. That’s the U.K. government saying, “We must sign the 1.5 degrees C—we must welcome the 1.5 degrees C report from the IPCC,” whilst it’s celebrating new oil platforms, it’s trying to develop new gas, and it’s expanding its airports.

So, we mustn’t hide behind Trump or Obama’s inadequacy. The rest of us, the rest of the progressive world, are still fighting, as Greta points out, even in Sweden, probably which in many respects is a very progressive country—if you come from the U.K., it feels like that—but even in Sweden they’re choosing to do nothing significant on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me turn to that side conference, the side program that was held yesterday by the U.S. Shortly before he was interrupted by protesters at a forum on the sidelines of the COP on Monday—COP, it’s called, for “conference of parties,” this U.N. climate summit—President Trump’s adviser on energy, climate, Wells Griffith, praised what he called a U.S. energy “renaissance.”

WELLS GRIFFITH: Some of the most important factors leading to this renaissance were the dramatic breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which has led to increasingly efficient production of natural gas and crude oil. As a result, the United States is now the number one combined oil and gas producer in the world. Technological advances are also driving the growth and reducing cost of renewables, as well. And the same technology revolution is also making U.S. fuels cleaner by nearly all measures.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have the climate adviser to President Trump. Your response, Kevin Anderson?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Just look at the numbers. This year, carbon dioxide emissions have gone up by 2.7 percent. That came out during the COP, the latest set of data. And when you unpick that, OK, it is easy to blame China and India, the poorer countries trying to industrialize. Their emissions are certainly rising. You look at the U.S., the U.S. emissions have also gone up. And that’s because they’ve been burning far more oil in their cars, which are even larger than they were last year. So, even in the U.S., he can talk about renewables, but really the focus by him, by the adviser, and by the Trump administration is just consuming—producing and consuming ever more fossil fuels. There is no responsibility there for the issues of climate change. It is a complete denial of climate change, which, in a sense, is a denial of physics. It’s a denial of science. So, it’s not to be surprised—we should not be surprised by what he is saying, but we must not use that as an excuse, again, just to beat him and the Trump administration for, when we are making no changes ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: He said we have to be realistic, not alarmist.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, yeah, I agree: We have to be realistic. We have to be realistic. Is it reasonable to live with 3, 4 or 5 degrees centigrade of warming? And I think all analysis—probably even his own if he bothered to undertake any—would say that is not realistic. So, I mean, we’re between a rock and a hard place. We have to make dramatic reductions in our carbon dioxide emissions now to ensure a stable climate for our future and Greta’s futures and Greta’s children’s futures, or we have to just let things carry on with this realistic view about oil and gas today, knowing that we are leaving this legacy for future generations and for all other species which will be completely chaotic.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about who is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. An Oxfam study found only 10 percent of the world’s population produces approximately half of all global emissions.


AMY GOODMAN: Take it from there.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, firstly, although Oxfam used that data, that originally came from some work by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, and Piketty is well known for his work as an economist. And that demonstrates that rather than necessarily always focusing on countries, we need to focus on the people who are actually emitting. So the idea that 10 percent of the global population are responsible for 50 percent of global emissions, or 20 percent of the global population are responsible for 70 percent of all global emissions, tells us that we need to be tailoring our policies towards that small group, rather than trying to squeeze the emissions out of the majority of the world’s population, who are hardly emitting anything at all.

So, one of the ways to explain this that I often use, which will hopefully be helpful, is that if that 10 percent of high emitters reduce their carbon footprint, their individual carbon footprint, to the level of the average European citizen, that would be equivalent of a one-third cut in global emissions, even if the other 90 percent did nothing. I mean, a one-third cut in global emissions just from the 10 percent reducing to the level of the average European citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask Greta about this in one minute, but if you can lay out for us who consumes what in the United States, in the Western countries, in places like Sweden, how much energy they consume versus someone in the developing world?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, if you look at it in relation to their emissions, if you looked at, say, Rwandans, they might be consuming or might be emitting something like 0.1 to 0.5 of a ton.

AMY GOODMAN: People in Rwanda.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yeah, people in Rwanda, yeah. If you look at the typical American, they’re going to be consuming or emitting something like 30 to 35 tons, 30 to 35 tons for the average American, compared with 0.1-ish for the average Rwandan. So you’re seeing a massive difference between those two.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are people doing, like in the United States, in Europe, and how does people in the United States compare?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, very approximately, America is twice—the U.S. is twice the emissions of the average European. But no—


KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, because they have bigger houses, bigger cars. They travel further. They still have a very high-carbon energy system for electricity generation.

AMY GOODMAN: You can’t find an incandescent light bulb in Europe, that’s being sold?

KEVIN ANDERSON: No. They’ve been outlawed now or banned, yes, yeah. So, I mean, Europe has made some significant attempts to improve efficiency, but those attempts in efficiency have never compensated for the increase in growth, hence the European Union’s overall emissions have remained roughly static, if you take an account of the goods that we import and export.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Greta, as we end this show, what message to the world would you like to share? And what are your plans for the future? What grade are you in now in Sweden?

GRETA THUNBERG: In ninth grade.

AMY GOODMAN: In ninth grade.


AMY GOODMAN: You can look directly into the camera as you speak.

GRETA THUNBERG: My message for the world is that we have now a short period of time where we can act. And if we don’t take the chance, we might—we’re screwed. And so we have to take the chance to act now, because it might be too late, and we don’t want to be screwed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Greta Thunberg. And if you’re looking her up, that’s T-H-U-N-B-E-R-G. Greta is 15 years old, a climate activist from Sweden, got here by electric car. She’s just been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential teens in the world. We’ve also been joined by Kevin Anderson, a leading climate scientist, professor in climate change leadership in both Uppsala, Sweden, as well as in Manchester, Britain.

And we’re going to end today’s show with some breaking news. It’s absolutely critical, as we bring you this information, to know that we just interviewed a guest, a guest who is—we’re going to turn right now to that information, as we talked about Time magazine. Time magazine has announced it’s honoring journalists as its 2018 Person of the Year. The magazine has published its cover for the year, honoring The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Consulate; and Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, founder of independent news site Rappler—she was just recently charged in the Philippines; Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are currently imprisoned in Burma for investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims; and, finally, the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, where earlier this year a gunman opened fire, killing four journalists and one other employee. Time is calling the recipients of this year’s tribute “The Guardians and the War on Truth.”

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