Tony Juniper at UCL: The public reaction to the environmental crisis
10 November 2009
Tony Juniper, UCL alumnus and Green Party parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, discussed the remedies for public apathy towards the environmental crisis at UCL on 5 November.
Following an introduction by Professor Mark Maslin, Director of the UCL Environment Institute, Mr Juniper (MSc UCL Nature Conservation 1988) provided some breaking news. He noted that the current MP for Cambridge, Liberal Democrat David Howarth, would be standing down at the general election next year. This may be significant in terms of improving his chances of becoming the first Green Party MP at Westminster.
Mr Juniper focused on global warming and the challenges faced by governments from all over the world in the run-up to the COP15 United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, 7-18 December 2009. Using a number of graphs and graphics, he illustrated how the world's climate had changed over time and was predicted to change in the next 100 years.
Data from ice-core sampling of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, from before 400,000 years ago to the present day, show that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have varied between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm) by volume (i.e. 0.018 - 0.028% of air) every 100,000 years. However, since the dawn of the industrial revolution in Europe 200 years ago, the amount of CO2 in the air we breathe has risen by a third, to about 380 ppm.
Mr Juniper noted that the physics linking increasing CO2 levels and warming of the Earth's atmosphere was incontestable. Factoring in the effect of other greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, the level of global warming gases in the atmosphere now stands at 430 ppm CO2 equivalents - which is where it was about 14 million years ago, when the Antarctic was ice-free and sea levels were 25-40 metres higher than today's.
There is a political consensus that the average global temperature should not rise by more than another 2 degrees Celsius over the next 40 years. Concerted action is now essential, necessitating international agreement to peak and decline emissions of greenhouse gases by 2015, in order to avoid the triggering of catastrophic climate change in the second half of the 21st century. Evidence of climate 'tipping points' already exists: the melting of permafrost in northern Canada and Siberia; floating ice; prolonged droughts over South America; and die-back in the Amazon rain forest.
Mr Juniper's lecture was relentlessly sobering, as it underlined the huge difficulties entailed in responding to the scale of the challenge. The world faces a massive loss of biodiversity through mass extinction of species, and, as described by the UK government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir John Beddington, there is the prospect of the 'Perfect Storm' of climate change-related disasters by 2030 due to growing populations, falling energy sources and food shortages.
Already, about one-third of the world's agricultural land has to some extent been degraded since the middle of the 20th century. Mr Juniper illustrated the 'embedded water' costs of high-value food products produced in developing countries, including coffee: each kilogramme of which requires two tonnes of water to produce.
Global security is also threatened by climate change and water poverty: Mr Juniper noted a prediction made by Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank in 1995 that the wars of the next century will be about water.
The western world has benefited enormously from fossil fuel use and industrialisation. The challenge now is to get people in the developing world out of poverty while trying to reach global emission reduction targets. Unless global warming and the degradation of the biosphere (sea, land and air) are reversed, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, including reducing the number of people living in poverty, by half by 2015, will not be reached. What steps, Mr Juniper asked, could individuals in developed economies take to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels? Should they, for example, not fly abroad for their holidays?
Mr Juniper's powerful presentation concluded with a question-and-answer session with the audience, during which one person emerged who was not convinced that humankind's activities were responsible for global warming. Another member of the audience suggested that it was very important to have someone like Mr Juniper take a seat in the House of Commons, but that he needed to leaven his message to the electorate with a vision of hope for our children and grandchildren.
Tony Juniper is an environmental campaigner, sustainability adviser and Green Party parliamentary candidate for Cambridge. He served as Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International from 2000-2008. He is a Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales' Rainforest Project and a Senior Associate with the Cambridge University Programme for Industry.
By Ian Scott, Facilitator - Grand Challenges
UCL's research strategy commits the university to applying its expertise and interdisciplinary collaboration to the resolution of the world's major problems - what we call the Grand Challenges, such as global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing.