Why Climate Change Is Not Just an Environmental Issue

There Is No Planet B
About 5,000 protesters participate in a March For Science in Austin, Texas, on April 20, 2017. Photo credit: Wil C. Fry / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Reading Time: 21 minutes

Some have decried the Green New Deal because it touches on numerous areas outside of climate change, including universal health care, a universal basic income, job guarantees and worker rights. The assumption has been that climate change exists in some kind of a vacuum.

Mike Berners-Lee, an English researcher, writer on greenhouse gases, professor at Lancaster University, and our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, argues that the critics have it all wrong — because everything is connected.

We cannot even begin to address climate change without also looking at food, biodiversity, income inequality, population, plastics, and more.

Berners-Lee says that the challenges facing humanity today are inescapably global and interconnected. It no longer works, he tells Jeff Schechtman, to tackle environmental issues one at a time or to keep science, economics, sociology, politics, and psychology separate from one another. All parts of our complex global system must be addressed simultaneously if we are to have any positive impact.

Despite all our individual and collective efforts with alternative energy and conservation, we have not made even the slightest improvement in the global “carbon curve,” Berners-Lee says. Moreover, in a kind of environmental Catch-22, it turns out that greater energy efficiency can sometimes increase carbon output.

Nevertheless, Berners-Lee is slightly optimistic that we can solve some of these problems and improve our global quality of life.

After all, he reminds us, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos notwithstanding, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to find another planet to move to anytime soon. As Berners-Lee says, “there is no planet B.”

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

In the current debate about climate change, it seems that everything is dire. And with good reason. Even with all of the efforts of conservation, alternative energy, and a strong public awareness, very little has changed with respect to our carbon output. While politicians in the US fall all over themselves to suggest extreme solutions, our US-centric view forgets the global nature of the problem and that the US is only 15 to 20% of that problem. Add to this the larger global subsets of issues like food, population, biodiversity, plastic, and it’s hard to imagine how we get out alive from the 21st Century.

  Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos notwithstanding, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to find another planet to move to any time soon. Or as my guest Mike Berners-Lee says, There is no Planet B. So what hope is there? Berners-Lee thinks there really are things that we can do to make a difference, and yes, there is hope. Mike Berners-Lee is an English researcher and writer on greenhouse gases. He’s a professor and fellow at the Institute of Social Futures at Lancaster University, and the director and principal consultant to Small World Consulting, based at the University of Lancaster. It is my pleasure to welcome Mike Berners-Lee here to Radio WhoWhatWhy to talk about There is No Planet B. Mike, thanks so much for joining us.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

You’re welcome, thank you. Pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about is, even though it seems so overwhelming, that it’s really is incumbent on us to look not just at any one of these many problems but to really have a much more broad and holistic view of all of the problems that we face today. Talk about that first.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Well, yes, that’s right. One of the things about the situation we’re in is that we’re now facing a whole rack of interconnected global systemic challenges. So it’s not just climate change, at the same times we deal with climate change, we’ve got to manage our biodiversity, we’ve got to manage our population growth, we’ve got to feed everybody, we’ve got to do all of this without having an antibiotics crisis. We’ve even got to look at the other pollutants that we’re putting out around the world. And a whole rack of environmental and social challenges.
  And it no longer works to try and look at any one of those at the same time, any one of those on their own. Because you end up doing things that are incoherent with dealing with some of the other elements of the challenge. So like it or not, or however hard the exercise is, we need to have an absolutely holistic, multi-disciplinary view of the whole thing in order to stand a hope of steering a sensible pathway through it. So that kind of big-picture, multi-disciplinary thinking is something that I think all of us need to get better at.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course, the flip side of that, though, is that in looking at all of the problems we face, that whole litany that we’ve touched on and more, it seems so overwhelming it creates a kind of, arguably creates a kind of paralysis.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Well, you’re absolutely right that we don’t want to be paralyzed. If we want to actually solve the problem, the first thing we have to do is be brave enough to stare it in the face. So I absolutely don’t believe in diluting our analysis of what’s going on in order to make it feel more palatable. I think we have to bite the bullet and look at it all. And actually, when we do that, we find that it’s absolutely true that we need to see some big system change. But there’s also some really good news in there. So the system change that we need to see doesn’t involve any of us living worse than we live at the moment. In fact, we can use it as an opportunity to live better.
  And it turns out that, from a technical point-of-view, we’re totally capable of making the transition. There’s nothing inherently … There’s no technological leap that is required in order for us to live really nicely on our planet A. But the challenge is that we need to find a way of making it happen.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things you point out that’s a sub-set of this is that we can’t look at this as a linear story. That we have to look at it in a very different way.
Mike Berners-Lee: Yeah, so it was interesting trying to write a book about it, because of course a book you read one page after another and it has to be in some way linear. But actually, when I talk about it, sometimes I show a slide that has the whole book on one slide. Just every page at once in miniature, just to kind of illustrate ideally what you’d do is you’d sort of absorb the whole thing in a simultaneous way because we need to hold it in our head in a simultaneous way. What’s going on in our food and land system is going on simultaneously with what’s going on around climate change and that’s going on simultaneously with what’s going on socially and the way we run our economics and the way we deal with truth and the way humans need to learn to think. All these things are absolutely together.
Jeff Schechtman: And in fact, you talk about, you mentioned truth, that truth and trust are important parts of beginning to address any of this.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that’s happening is that the complexity of the issues is getting ever-greater. And for us to be able to steer a sensible pathway through it, we’re going to need the cleanest view of the truth as far as it can ever be discerned, that we can possibly get. And the trouble is that actually it’s becoming ever-easier for people who want to to hide or confuse the truth because of its complexity. So we need to get, all of us, need to get much smarter at finding well-founded ways of working out who to trust and what to trust. And finding ways of insisting on it. So that when a politician tells us something that either isn’t true or is some kind of misrepresentation, or is some sort of attempt to have us believe something which isn’t quite right, then we need to find ways of really resisting that so that that politician finds that people object to it and they get sidelined, they get called out for it, and they get to look stupid and they get to have fewer people voting for them. And that’s part of it, it’s down to all of us and the sophistication with which we ask ourselves, “Is this person really being truthful?” And the extent to which we care about it and the extent to which we object if we’re not getting the standard that we require.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you point out is that with all that we have done so far, with all that we’ve become aware of and alternative energy and efforts that have been made, particularly with respect to dealing with climate change, that we really haven’t made a dent in the problem. Is it that we’re approaching it the wrong way?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Yeah. It’s that we’re approaching it the wrong way. So there’s a hard reality to look at here. But it tells us a lot about what will and won’t solve the problem. So if you look at the climate, if you look at the carbon emissions curve, it’s carrying on rising year by year exactly as we might’ve predicted it would’ve done if humans had never noticed that climate change was an issue. So in other words, if you look at the sum total of all the talk and debate and policy making and targets and actions on every scale, from the individual to the company to the state, if you add all of that up, the sum total of it is absolutely no change whatsoever. Which is kind of startling. And if you ask yourself, “Well, why is that?” It’s because there are all kinds of rebound effects and adjustment mechanisms in the global system.
  Which means that if one part of the world constricts its carbon, unless we’re very careful about it, the carbon will just migrate to somewhere else. So the US or UK might, for example, do less manufacturing. But it gets its manufacturing done elsewhere, the emissions just move. And even if one person doesn’t buy so much gas for their car, one way or another that gas gets sold to somebody else or something at the moment. So that tells us that what we need, and we absolutely have to have, is an intervention at the global level somehow that constrains the use of fossil fuel. Or ideally actually constrains the extraction of fossil fuel. So that takes us into realizing that we need to have some coordinated global action on this.
  And once you realize that, then that takes you into what would it take for the world to be able to reach the kind of agreement in which every country could agree to leave the fossil fuel in the ground? Or to apply a price to that fossil fuel that made it prohibitively expensive to take too much of it out of the ground? And that takes you into a whole new way of thinking about what all of us could do to help try to create those conditions.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that does, though, arguably, and this is what people are afraid of, is that it creates winners and losers on a global scale and affects quality of life and growth overall. Talk about that.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Yeah, well we already have enormous winners and losers in the world today. And I think one of the issues is that there is so much inequality in the world within countries and between countries. And if we are looking at … If we’re saying that we need to have a global agreement that just that everybody, every country certainly is capable of signing up to, then somehow we need to sort that out so that it works for the winners and losers. And actually, the transition away from fossil fuel to renewable energy, actually it happens to work out pretty well for most of the countries that have most of the fossil fuel, because mostly the countries with the most fossil fuel also have a great deal of sunlight, so they’re able to make the transition.
  But you’re right. That transition does change the mix of winners and losers. And somehow we need to find an arrangement that works out how to share around the limited amount of fossil fuel that we can still burn in the future. And what to do about the countries that end up … That are currently quite resource-rich but will end up without resources. So Australia and the United States are fine, because although they’ve got fossil fuels, they’ve got plenty of sunlight as well. Things are trickier, for example, in the UK because we’ve got lots of people and not so much sunlight. But we can find a way through it. But if you look at Bangladesh, there are plenty of people but not much sunlight and somehow we’ve got to find a way that might work for them, as well.
Jeff Schechtman: And in trying to find that way, how important is it, then, to incorporate all of these other areas that we’ve talked about? And is there a single area that sits atop all the others?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

I’m not sure there’s a single thing. To give one example of how it’s so interconnected. So if we were to say all right, we’ll leave the fossil fuel in the ground, and then we were just to let market forces do its own thing for providing the alternative fuel supplies, one of the things that would happen is an awful lot of land which is currently used for creating human food would get diverted into biofuel. And if you look at the trade-off between biofuel and food, a piece of land that could grow enough food to feed me for a day could grow enough biofuel to drive my very small economical car for about one mile. So it’s an incredibly steep trade-off. So if were to deal with climate change ignoring the food situation, then we would end up with putting enormous pressure on the food and land system, with either people starving or trashing our biodiversity or something like that.
  So that’s why we need to think of it all together. If you were to ask me what are the kind of key things that we need to do in terms of the practical actions at the global level, in terms of the fossil fuel, we need an agreement that leads to the fuel being left in the ground. I can’t see a way other than having a price on carbon. Either a tax, also a cap in trade. And the nice thing about that tax, before everybody throws their hands up in horror at the word tax, is that that will actually liberate an investment fund that will be so supportive of so many jobs and so many industries and can be used to fund all kinds of stuff. So it’s not a net reduction in money for people, it’s just a way of taxing things that are really bad for the planet to allow the support for things that are really good for the planet.
  And then in terms of link to climate change in terms of our food system, if we want to deal with biodiversity and feed everybody well and deal with climate change, there is a simple, hard scientifically very clear guideline that we need to follow, which is to reduce, doesn’t have to be zero, but we need to reduce the amounts of meat and dairy that we’re consuming by a lot.
Jeff Schechtman: How important is efficiency in the system in looking at all of this?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

That’s such a good question. Because so few people understand this properly. So it’s pretty natural to assume that if you have an efficiency saving, then you’re going to end up consuming less. And actually, and this does make sense when you really think about it and reflect on it, the default thing that happens when you introduce an efficiency saving is actually the consumption goes up. What happens is, a resource becomes more valuable, not less. And we end up having more by even a bit more than the efficiency improvement.
  So there was a guy in the UK who worked for the coal board in the 19th century who worked this out. He had this sort of startling realization that if our steam engines became more efficient, we would actually end up wanting more coal, not less. And the same happens with almost everything. The more efficient we are with our energy use, what happens is that our productivity goes flying up as a result. But in the end, we end up consuming even a bit more energy than we used in the first place. And that applies to our lighting, our information storage, our IT, our transport, it applies to absolutely everything. And it’s the reason why our carbon emissions are still going up, even though we’re becoming more efficient at almost everything you can think of.
Jeff Schechtman: And how do we find our way out of that trap, then? What breaks that cycle?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

The only way to break that cycle is you have to find a way of bagging the savings. So the default thing is the savings don’t get bagged and the resource consumption ends up going up. But if we find a way of changing that dynamic, we can make sure all the savings are bagged. So for example, if you look at fossil fuel, if we introduce a global constraint on the extraction of fossil fuel, possibly through a price that makes it … that’s adjustable in order to limit the total amount that comes out of the ground, then suddenly the role of efficiency changes completely. Suddenly we can become as efficient as we like with our energy supply and we can become … In every way we like. And we know that it won’t affect the total resource consumption. All it will affect is the amount that we can do. So efficiency will just become something that’s an uncomplicated good thing to have with no bad side effect. But we have to introduce that resource use constraint.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit further about that in terms of the importance, then, and this goes back to the global aspect of it, the importance of everybody signing onto that idea, otherwise the efficiency does get used to create greater output somewhere else.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Yeah, okay. You can call it the rebound effect, or the balloon squeezing effect, if you like. The balloon squeezing analogy in that if you squeeze a balloon, what happens is you contract one part and the rest of the balloon just pops out and expands. And that’s what happens in the global system unless you do something at the global system level to stop that happening. You need to find a way of squeezing every part of the balloon at the same time. So examples that we’ve had are, for example, in the developed world, we often tended to do a little bit less manufacturing, but in doing so, we’ve always been doing, sometimes, is importing our manufactured goods from elsewhere. Or another way that that rebound has been working is simply in growth rates.
  So the UK and the US economies haven’t been growing quite so fast, and in some ways that’s led to some curtailing in growth of emissions in those countries. But the growth has just been taking place in other parts of the world. So one issue is, for example, that in India and China, emissions are going through the roof, and we need to find a way of … So we need to find a way of holding it down the whole world over. Because if there’s one part of the world that isn’t constrained, then everybody who wants a job that’s got a carbon footprint will just go to that part of the world to have it done.
Jeff Schechtman: Where does technology enter into this equation? Particularly when we start talking about things like AI and transportation, which you touched on before, how does that fit into this big picture?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Well technology is interesting. Because on the one hand technology is an essential part of the route through the situation that we’re in. But on the other hand, we need to start seeing it in a slightly different way from the way we’ve traditionally viewed it. So technology is great. I would be dead several times over if it wasn’t for some of the technologies we’ve invented. And it brings us all sorts of things in our lives. But it has also taken us into a situation in which we are capable of having such a big environmental impact. It’s not just the fossil fuels, but also the plastics and chemicals we’ve invented. All the different ways in which we’ve learned how to tamper with our planet through accident and design.
  And going forwards … And technology has brought us … brings us all these efficiency improvements and all these innovations. But we need to, going forwards, we need to just be more discerning about how and when we adopt a technology. So if a technology … We need to get better at asking ourselves the question, “Is this technology going to help us deliver a lower impact world? Is it going to help us live on planet A better? And if so, how can we adopt it in such a way that it will give us the benefits but not take us into an even higher impact kind of way of living?” Because at the moment we’re in a situation where if a technology does deliver an efficiency improvement, it’s very hard, in a free market economy, it’s very hard for anyone to resist adopting that technology even if it were to result in degradation of the Earth’s natural resources or even some worsening of the human experience. So we need to just get smarter at finding ways of saying we’ll have that technology because it makes life better and it makes the world better, but this technology, although it offers an efficiency improvement, you know what, it’s not making life better so just like chemical weapons and a few other technologies that we’ve deliberately resisted, we need to get smarter at choosing when to resist and which ones to adopt.
Jeff Schechtman: There has always been this assumption that somehow technology was its own life force, that it had a power of its own to break through regardless of the degree to which we might try to hold it back.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

And I think there is one school of thought that says maybe we’re just stuck on a kind of trajectory that we can’t get off of technology advances and we have more and more of it and once we’ve got a technology, we find it very hard not to adopt that technology. So we’re just kind of advancing along whether we like it or not. And even if the results of that is it destroys our planet or destroys our quality of life. And I think that it’s true to say that in some ways the way we run the world at the moment, we are a victim of technologies. Once they exist, we have to adopt them, like it or not. I’m very grateful for some of that. I’d be dead several times over if it wasn’t for some of the technologies we’ve invented. And there are certainly some that deliver quality in our lives. But I think going forwards, we’re going to need to get a lot more discerning about which ones we adopt and which ones we actually choose to leave on the shelf because we said okay, we can have this technology, it gives us an efficiency improvement, but it’s not good for human well-being, or it’s not good for the planet, and therefore we’re going to leave it on the shelf.
  And I think one of the dangers of an unconstrained free market, totally free market, is that it’s unable to resist an efficiency improvement even if the results of that efficiency improvement is to lead to some sort of degradation in human well-being or in the health of the planet. So we need to get more discerning.
Jeff Schechtman: Which brings us to the whole idea of economics. That when we look at this on a global picture, we’re looking at a lot of different economies that approach free market or non-free market in very different ways. Talk about the way in which that plays into what we’ve been discussing?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Yeah, sure. I mean, here we are in this era called the Anthropocene in which suddenly, in which humans are the most influential thing on the planet. And yet all the ways in which we do life, including our economics, have been honed over millennia in an entirely different context in which the world was a big, robust place. And as we got more powerful, we could expand in to new bits of it, and so on. And suddenly, in the Anthropocene, it’s unsurprising … And there’s totally a different context that we’re now in. It’s unsurprising that some of the ways in which we do life, including our economics, turn out to be a bit unfit for purpose and need a bit of re-working.
  And one of the things about the free market is that … a totally unconstrained free market, is that it doesn’t have the capability to deal with a global challenge. It doesn’t have the capability to deal with a situation where the individualistic needs of small parts of the market don’t fit with the overall global systemic need that we need to respond to. So we’re going to need … there are clearly some areas in however you’re feeling about this, it’s pretty easy to prove that at least in some places, it is going to be essential to put some interventions into the market.
  So one example is, we need a global constraint on the fossil fuels. And actually, there are other examples as well around resource uses. There are links to the fossil fuel, there are some things about land and food, and so on. And we could talk about a good handful of clear constraints that need to be introduced. So markets absolutely, yes, but totally free ones, they can’t help us deal with the Anthropocene.
Jeff Schechtman: Where is there reason for optimism in all of this?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Well, the reason for optimism is that we need to see … We know we need to see big, global, systemic change. And when you look at how systems often work, human systems or any kind of system, really, very often they operate in a kind of self-correcting way. Which means that when small things get introduced to change them, they just kind of adapt and respond to that change and they absorb it, and they find a way of going back to normal. And at the moment, we’ve been seeing that, for example, on the carbon curve. So we all know individuals who try to cut their carbon footprint, but overall the global curve just finds a way of staying on its normal trajectory.
  When systems do change, what happens is you build up the conditions for that change to become right. And then suddenly, the conditions are right, and you see perhaps a few cracks in the system, the old way of working, and very rapidly they grow, and then suddenly the whole system flips. So we could look around now and say, “Well, are we seeing the first signs of those cracks?” And maybe we are. So I see some things now that I look at and I think, “I don’t know.” But they give me more cause for hope. And I could reel off three or four examples, if you like.
Jeff Schechtman: Please.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Okay, so in the United States, I don’t know if the Green New Deal is the perfect solution or not, but I think the traction, the serious traction that that is getting, and the articulation of the argument for it, and the linking of climate change with socioeconomic stuff, has the potential for getting some real, real traction. I certainly don’t want to be party political about this. But there is clear evidence that serious environmental considerations stand a chance of getting serious traction.
  And here in the UK, we’ve got some quite thoughtful examples recently of groups of people, in the nicest possible way, just really insisting that we take this planet seriously. So there’s an organization called Extinction Rebellion that’s been having people sitting down on bridges across London, being very polite to the police and all the passersby and all the people who are inconvenienced, but just saying look, I’m really sorry, but we have to do this because we need to look after our planet.
  And then another example would be there’s Greta Thunberg, the 16-year- old Swedish school girl who stopped going to school and started going on strike and has inspired thousands of other school kids to go on strike in a similar way. And she has been doing some TED Talks and talking at the World Economic Forum and so on and just been so clear about the situation we’re in. And so challenging that my generation needs to raise its game in order to look after her generation. And I think the traction that those kinds of things are getting are very encouraging signs.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, the balances between the traction that those things are getting and the urgency of the problems.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Yeah, and the two things are coming together. And I think we should be getting flutters of adrenaline now at some of the things we’re hearing and feeling, actually. When the latest report comes out telling us about exactly how fast our insect populations are falling apart, I think we should feel a degree of fear. Because that kind of thing is very hard to put right. If we suddenly notice that it’s going wrong and we want to change that, actually it takes a long time to turn that trend around. It could be devastatingly too late, possible.
  And I don’t know what the … I haven’t followed the weather in the US quite as carefully, but here in the UK, for example, we’ve had a really warm February. And some days have been actually so warm that it feels eerie. It’s just wrong in my part of the world to be walking around in shorts and T-shirts in February. That doesn’t happen. And when we do experience weather like that, I think we absolutely need to take note that that’s in line with what the scientists are also saying, which is that climate change is really gathering apace, and the symptoms of it look more serious at an earlier stage. 1.5 degrees really does look more risky than we used to think that 2 degrees looked.
  So yes, you’re absolutely right, there’s kind of a race going on between the science of what’s happening in the world and the human response to it. Who’s going to get there first? Are we going to wake up first? Or is the system going to collapse first? So it’s absolutely, the race is on.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, Mike, if we address climate change, if we look to address the problems inherent in that, without dealing with all of the other global issues that we’ve been talking about, what does that look like?
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Well, that’d be foolish for us. I mentioned this Anthropocene, and climate change is one big symptom of it. But we’d be so unimaginative if we imagined … If we do think that we could just deal with that and then carry on regardless over all the other issues. And some of them actually are just as scary as climate change, just a bit less publicized. So that would be a very big mistake. But you know what? If we’re going to make all the change that it takes to deal with climate change, we kind of may as well deal with everything else while we’re at it. Because it’s actually not so much more bother. If you look at the things around the food and land system that deal with climate change, actually they’re very, very similar. They’re the same things that will help us preserve our biodiversity and help us fend off our antibiotics crisis and feed a growing global population. So from every perspective, it’s the same sorts of actions that will help us. And in terms of the thoughtfulness with which we need to go about our daily lives and the way that we need to tune into what our impacts are on the planet and on all the other people around the planet, wherever they live in the world, it’s that same thoughtfulness that will help us deal with all the other environmental situations that are rising upwards.
Jeff Schechtman: Mike Berners-Lee, his book is There is No Planet B, a Handbook for the Make-or-Break Years. Mike, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Mike

Berners-Lee:

Pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio

WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


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