Sustainability and climate change pt. I
Metta talks to Professor Tim Benton, Director of the Energy, Environment and Resources programme (and Emerging Risks Research Director) at Chatham House.
Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, was founded in 1919 by British diplomat Lionel Curtis following the situation that gave rise to the First World War.
Created as a safe space for governments to come together and have confidential conversations about issues affecting them (which is where the Rule comes from), the House’s mission is to help governments and societies create a more sustainably secure, just and prosperous world. Over its first century, it’s been involved in some of the most important moments in history. As it enters its second century, Chatham House has placed sustainability at the core of what it does.
Professor Tim Benton is the Director of the House’s Energy, Environment and Resources programme and is also the Emerging Risks Research Director. He’s also, as it happens, my dad. We recently sat down to have a wide-ranging discussion about the work he and the team do, the climate challenges we all face, systems thinking, techno-optimism, sustainability and food policy, venture capitalism’s faults and a few things in-between.
The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity, but is still on the lengthy side! If you missed the chat, you can find it on Spotify. You can also find it on Apple, Amazon and Google (+ all other good podcasting platforms while you’re at it). If you enjoyed the podcast, feel free to give us a follow or leave us a rating!
Tim started his career as an academic ecologist, working on various issues to do with the evolution and ecology of wildlife. He then started trying to understand population dynamics, particularly with an interest in biodiversity and species loss, and did a lot of work on understanding the causes which drive populations up or down. Inspired by working in the lab and using model species, but wanting to do some ‘real world’ work, Tim then moved into working around the sustainability of agriculture and food systems.
From there, Tim became increasingly interested in policy, working for a number of years as a cross-government advisor on the challenges around food, before going briefly back into academia, as Dean for Strategic Research at the University of Leeds. In 2019, he joined Chatham House on a permanent basis “when the policy side of my interest really began to take off”.
Attempting to summarise his career, Tim said:
“…It’s all about understanding, under what circumstances, environmental degradation will impact on populations [human or otherwise], economic growth of societies and the environment in which we sit, because there are obviously feedback loops between all of those.”
As a young academic, his most widely cited papers were effectively reviews of the literature and putting pieces together in new ways and new framings. In academia, those sorts of approaches are often difficult to get recognition of, because they don’t form part of the real incentive structure for academics.
“So what actually I’ve done over the course of my career is increasingly write reports, opinion pieces, synthesis pieces. Being at Chatham House allows me to do that, really, until the cows come home!
“My [written] academic outputs, which I still do, are largely as part of collaborative groups, so I’m not carrying the can and writing the papers all by myself. The joy of being at Chatham House is that it is possible to take a really key question of our time, and think about it creatively in new ways and pose new ways of thinking about it or new solutions to dealing with the problems of it.”
Global Food Security
We discussed his route from academia into more policy-facing roles. Tim’s first step on that journey was being appointed as the UK’s Global Food Security Champion in 2011.
“In 2007–8 and 2010-11, we had a global food price spike, partly caused by climate change impacts and the driving up of food prices around the world led to a kind of re-engagement politically of the importance of securing food supplies to feed people, after decades of kind of just assuming we’d solve that problem in the past. The UK Government and research environment put together an institution called the Global Food Security programme to examine this.”
The Champion’s role was to get both the issues of food more broadly discussed across government departments and the devolved administrations and look for where there were particular challenges for which the stakeholders should be investing in finding solutions.
“…One of the really interesting things about that was, of course, that different policy areas have very, very different views on where the challenges associated with food are. They typically don’t see the system in which they are embedded look at things through particular silos. For example, you have a whole lot of policy incoherence in the way that the Department of Health deals with food issues versus the way DEFRA deals with food issues and the way that UKTI deals with food issues and so on. Part of the challenge of my last decade has been to try and develop a kind of systemic understanding of where all the parts fit together, and how we can transform things to produce better outcomes. Not just economical outcomes — the traditional lens by which government see food systems — but also from a people perspective and nutrition. And from a planetary perspective, particularly around soils, biodiversity, and primarily climate change.”
Politics, climate and policy
In the recent podcast with Dom Hallas from COADEC, Dom and I discussed the intricacies of getting different sets of stakeholders talking (and understanding) the same lanugage. I asked Tim if there was a similar struggle with getting interdepartmental (and cross-party) understanding of both complex food systems and the wider climate causes/ impacts — and if anything had improved during the last decade.
“Well, it’s slightly better. I think the fundamental issue is not so much talking the same language, it’s more developing a common conceptual understanding of how each respective bit of the system fitted with other bits of the system.
“Part of my background from a mathematical ecology perspective is being a systems modeller and systems thinker. The kind of drive to take a systemic view has been going for a decade or so. It’s now really gaining traction: that people are recognising that supply chains and nutrition and environment and farming, and biodiversity loss and climate change. They’re all part of the same system. And they’re all interconnected with each other.
“The political economy challenge was developing enough of a systems understanding so that a civil servant in the Department of Health could understand the parts played by a civil servant in DEFRA and getting everyone to understand we’re not in silos, but we are all working at different facets of the same system.
“Policy is typically designed in silos to do a single thing. A civil servant recently told me that, by their criteria, they design a policy to do a single thing. They ignore any of the negative unintended co-benefits or whatever, as long as the object of the policy is fulfilled. So I think the real incoming change is to say, actually, if we’re developing nutrition policy, or if we’re developing farming technology, what are the consequences for climate, biodiversity, pollution, human health, as well as economics, and then doing a whole system appraisal of whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Rather than just looking through the narrow lens of ‘Yes, it will drive up economic growth in the sector, irrespective of the economic growth in other sectors’.”
National vs. international approaches to climate change
We also discussed what it’s been like creating cohesive understanding and policy within UK Government (and the devolved administrations) but how that works on the international stage, given climate change and sustainability are global challenges.
“Over the last 10 years, we have seen a move away from the relatively settled post-Second World War development of international cooperation and rules-based organisations — the Bretton Woods institutions like the UN or WTO – towards much more competitive international dynamics. You only have to glance at the climate change negotiations to recognise that there are very polarised views. Almost all countries have signed up to be signatories of the Paris Agreement, but the speed with which different countries are trying to implement those kind of decarbonisation strategyies typically depend on whether they see there are short term or long term opportunities, as well as the inevitable short term costs of having to change the way we do things.
“Of course, ideology plays into that too. If you have a government that which is a deeply committed libertarian, for example, then the idea of saying, “well, actually, we need to change lifestyles, we need to change the way we want to do things” becomes ideologically difficult.
“There is a lot of debate and a lot of political manoeuvring about what is the future of international cooperation. How can small number of countries lead global coalitions, what’s going to happen to the power dynamics between us and China? Where do low income developing nations fit in to their role in terms of helping to mitigate and adapt to climate change, given they have less ability to invest economically in it, and they might need to exploit their natural resources in ways that are unsustainable in the long term, to get them up to a level playing field where we’ve been exploiting our natural resources for hundreds and hundreds of years and created part of the problem in the first place? So there isn’t really international cooperation. There’s lots of international talk, there’s recognition that we need to do collectively better otherwise, we drive over this planetary cliff together. But there isn’t really consensus on how to do it at the speed that we really need to do it.”
I noted an article I’d read on The Guardian that said if the UK was to spend the same amount it’s spent on its COVID response, we would be able to achieve all of the country’s climate goals by the deadline.
“This is part of the issue in the sense that climate change and environmental degradation and biodiversity loss are kind of seen as we know we’re driving things in the wrong direction. But in the future, when the risks get really big, we will have invested enough in research and technology development that we will have solved the problem. So rather than pay costly means to change lifestyles now, we’ll just carry on as we are, and hope that the technologies get developed in the future that the problem goes away.
“On one level, techno[logy] optimism is fine. But on another level, it is deeply risky, because that technology might not come to pass or might not be scalable in the way that we imagined it to be. As has been seen this month with the Pacific Northwest, the realities of climate change are not for the future. They’re with us today. They’re just slightly more patchy today than they will be in future. But you can imagine over the next decade or two very large climate change impacts and that will really reshape economies or really upset people. And those might provide a spur for governments to do things faster, more urgently and be willing to put in short term costs receive long term benefits.”
We then discussed the impacts of climate change and its relation to extreme events like the COVID-19 pandemic. On a side note, if you hadn’t read Tim’s BBC article from January 2020 exploring this it’s well worth your time.
“We have recognised for the last 10-15 years or so that environmental degradation and climate change rewire ecosystems, they mix pathogens with new hosts in new ways. And they’re likely to lead to increased emergence of pests and diseases. So COVID-19 in some way, shape, or form is an example of the sorts of shocks that will come at us with increasing frequency into the future.
“It might be heat and floods and storms, or it might be locusts in Africa, or it might be new diseases. But these things are going to become really importantly economically determining. I think one of the interesting things from COVID-19 is that we probably all recognise this, but the short-term incentives to build back as quickly as possible, rather than to use this as an opportunity to transform the system to build back more sustainably, are not being grasped.
“At some stage, we’re going to have to build back greener because we face potentially existential and systemic risks into the future. If those shocks come frequently enough, we will have to rebuild our economies to do things in different ways to mitigate the risks as well as to adapt to the risks. I think there will be a tipping point in the way that we think about lifestyle change, we think about the way we run our economies, we think about the way that we incentivise economic growth.
“We will be forced to do things in a different way, because it’s perfectly possible for us to live quite happily, and perhaps even more happily, in a transformed low carbon economy. An economy where we’re eating the right sorts of food produced in a sustainable way etc.
“It’s just the current system is quite resilient to the sorts of change required. The environment is changing faster than our ability to govern the environmental change, just like digital technologies are developing faster than our ability to govern and the changing in the technologies, these things just take time. And it’s resilient, the system is resilient to change. But eventually we will either deliberatively change it or be forced to change it, I think.
Changing the systems
Digging into the systems thinking and trying to help create cohesive (understanding and) policy both nationally and further afield, we then discussed how the various parts of the system work in tackling such a massive challenge like climate change — and whether you can break the system down into more approachable parts or if it’ll take another shock like the pandemic for force change.
“It is almost a kind of tenet of systems theory that you can’t optimise the system by looking at each connection in the system in turn. And incremental change is unlikely to lead to systemic change that is planned and has the outcomes that you want it to. So I think there is an element that we need to unshackle the shackles that create the current resistance in some way, making it easier to disrupt the system in a new direction. But, in the meantime, there is lots of scope for that unshackling either to come from disruptive technological innovation, or wider geopolitical/ climate impacts, that will actually cause the system to evolve, or to get shocked and to allow it to evolve in the new direction.
“As an example, here’s a thought experiment we often toy with. At the moment, we measure a country’s success in terms of its economic growth rate, measured by GDP, gross domestic product. GDP is effectively a measure of consumption to a first approximation. If GDP is positive, that implies that year on year consumption rate increases — it’s an exponential growth process. But we live on a finite planet. So if we use GDP as a measure of performance, and we incentivise everybody to drive economic growth, then you have exponential economic growth on a finite planet. Which is inevitably a Malthusian conundrum. At some stage, we will run up to the limits of what is not possible anymore and technology will potentially slightly decouple the consumption from its impacts on the environment. But we won’t do it explicitly.
“Imagine if we, instead of measuring our success by consumption rate growth, measured our collective success by happiness or some kind of wellbeing indicators: health, harmony, peace, stability, people’s attitudes etc. There’s lots of data that says above a certain level of income, happiness doesn’t increase and wellbeing doesn’t increase. You would have very different policy incentives, it would be about building communities, recognising the value of friends and family and space and all the rest of that. You can imagine a very different sort of incentive structure that would drive innovation in the right sorts of direction, rather than in the innovations that promote consumption growth above all else.
“It’s possible to imagine some high level policy changes or shocks to the system, or citizens really saying “we’ve had enough of this, climate anxiety is too much, let’s change our lifestyle”, driving the politics in a new way. But I think it’s not going to be a simple and straightforward incremental journey, it will inevitably come with systemic shifts and tipping points in attitudes or tipping points in the way that things things work.
“And if we don’t do very much we will be, I think, subject to more volatile environments in the years ahead.”
Competition or collaboration?
Following on from the national vs. international climate policy discussion, we touched on routes to change — whether that’s top-down, driven by policy/ governments or bottom-up, by political pressure from voters.
“I think part of the reason for it being difficult for the systemic change is that each country is deeply embedded in a global network, which is in itself, very competitive. You only have to look at post-Brexit discussions on trade relationships to realise that other countries can undercut our prices significantly, either by exerting costs onto the environment that our farmers can’t do, or by growing things in low welfare conditions that our farmers can’t do. Then happens if we open our borders to trade in those goods — our UK farmers potentially go extinct? You have this very difficult situation that, while you might be kind of optimistic about local change, local trends can only go so far without the change in trade. And change in trade requires the partners with who we trade to agree on a common view of the world, and to make more profit out of trading with us under a tighter kind of standards or regulatory regime than they would by selling to another country. Not all countries have the same set of values and are worried about the same things that we are. So there will always be other markets that they can go to.
“It’s a prisoner’s dilemma at the moment where everybody’s automatically caught in the default race to the bottom, unless we collectively agree to race to the top. At the moment, and certainly over the last 10 years, the ability for us to collectively agree or even the major powers to collectively agree and enforce that agreement on a global world has become less and less. Whether it’s Trump, or Trump and China, or Brazil or any other countries that are increasingly populist and inward-looking. The kind of collective environment is perhaps making the risks of climate change and environmental degradation worse in the long term.
“It’s a cheery subject! But we’ll get there. We started off this conversation by talking about the emergence of food systems thinking 10 years ago, and back then none of these conversations would have happened. But they’re now happening all the time. There’s now a UN Food Systems Summit happening for the first time. These things are certainly changing the speed with which climate ambition is being approached; it’s much is greater than it was five years ago. It’s still not fast enough, but everybody’s kind of leaping onto a bandwagon. We will be forced into better urgency, by the way that risks mount: COVID-19, floods, heat domes or whatever it might be, we’ll be forced into that conversation if we aren’t moving fast enough. I’m actually short-term pessimistic because there’s a lot of hype about “aren’t we wonderful? We’re doing it” while we’re not actually doing it. But in the long-term, I’m optimistic that rationality will break out and we’ll find a way because there has to be.”
In pt. II, we’ll look at Chatham House and the work it does, investing in sustainability and more.