Interview

Asher Minns: ‘There’s far too much concern about climate scepticism’

If I’m being honest, the only reason I knew where the Environmental Sciences building is, is because I’ve cut through there before to go to Chancellor’s Drive. Even then, I wasn’t sure I had the right place. Now I’m sitting on the leather sofas, facing the Climate Research Unit, a building I’ve walked past a lot in the last couple of years, but not considered much (even though it might be the most interesting one on campus). In front of me is Asher Minns, the Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The Tyndall Centre was founded in 2000 and, headquartered at UEA, has bases around the country, and in their own words, “conduct cutting edge, interdisciplinary research, and provide a conduit between scientists and policymakers”. Minns’ role is to coordinate, support researchers, and help connect with, “policymakers [and] the public, engaging with the people who need to know about climate change”.

Minns begins by telling me the current research being worked on at the UEA base: a lot of  international development research, with a focus on how those in the Global South are being affected, “how that relates to poverty and wellbeing”, things that Minns always thinks as related to climate change. They’re doing, “specific work for the UK government looking at the impacts of climate change on some quite specific countries relevant to the United Nations negotiations”, “work around sea level rise and coastal erosion”, and “a lot of work on […] mitigation, which is reducing carbon dioxide emissions from how we use and make energy”.

We don’t always hear about the Global South and climate change, there’s little coverage in the UK media. Minns comments, “Everything pretty much has to be with a UK angle to it […] that’s the case anyway, not just with climate change […] certainly stories about the South and what’s going on in the South, which is often where more of the impacts of climate change are already […] having more impact and cause more impact because of the lack of ability to respond and be resilient to climate change. Ultimately, they’re all stories of people. And so it could be less about climate change itself, but more about stories of people and what they’re facing and what they’re doing. In the literature, it’s called ‘psychological distance’. The idea that climate change is sometime in the future happening to people far, far away. But what we’re seeing, even in the UK, there’s a load of flooding happening right now, successive storms, and so on, is that psychological distance is actually narrowing slightly because it’s actually being felt here in the here and now, this isn’t some far and away into the future kind of thing”.

I ask what the other effects of climate change that happen nowadays are, things people might not notice, Minns qualifies his response by saying, “depends where you are in the world”, but goes on to say, “coastal erosion is important locally to where we are, but most megacities, most people live on the coast because that’s where civilisation grew up […] so that is particularly relevant, and it’s particularly relevant to countries that don’t necessarily have all the places with sea defences, but that even includes here […] some areas are already being sacrificed because they’re not worth defending”.

Minns points out we’re actually past some of the projections of what climate change would be like in the year 2020, especially with wildfires, such as those in Australia, Portugal, and California, “all those sort of direct and indirect impacts that seem to be […] this is more than expected”.

But what’s the next step? What needs to be done? “Responding to climate change requires an absolute transformation of society, that’s an infrastructure change, because we’re locking in to the way we do things, the way we travel, the way energy is delivered to our plugs and our fuel tanks, so there’s big infrastructure change need, that’s everywhere, not just in the UK, that’s major change, how we make power, how we use power, how we go about our lives”. Minns says that a lot of the current change is ‘bottom-up’ from people in society, such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) drawing attention to the climate emergency.

So what can the average person do? “You can just buy tariffs that are green […] but that’s the easy one, because all that is is changing your energy provider, so your entire house is powered by green electricity, and at the same time, you’re making more of a demand for green energy”. Minns carries on, “I see this myself anyway amongst the younger generation, is the relationship with cars. With my generation, everybody had to have a car […] I’m aware of some people who choose not to have a car […] having electric cars isn’t that cheap, so obviously I’m not expecting students to do that. But you really have to think about it, is this journey necessary? Is there a different way of making this journey?” But we can also help influence policy through things such as endeavouring to make councils care and take effect, making it known you’re concerned about the environment.

A lot of people suggest stopping buying from major companies and high street clothes shops or technologies, but Minns doesn’t think that solves the issue: “I don’t think that’s likely to happen. I think we’re […] in a globalized world for right or for wrong. And, you know, all the big shops that sell cheap clothes made in faraway places. My personal take would be to make those conditions better for the people who are making the clothes, getting reward for making those clothes. I can’t imagine that globalisation will grind to a halt. I know some people will have much more ethical purchasing decisions than other people. But I think it’s also transforming those industries to be better at what they do. And again, that comes a bit from sort of this consumer power. People’s purchasing choices, it’s better or in some ways easier to influence the free market than to think it’s going to end, for right or for wrong, I don’t think it’s going to end.”

But with climate change, choices like electric cars and bespoke, local clothes are expensive, so it’s difficult for the working classes to make those choices. There’s also an issue where pro-climate changes, such as opening wind turbines for energy, can negatively affect the people who work in coal power plants. Minns says, “it can be a bit elitist, this whole thing about climate change, transforming of society is it kind of tends to be people like me who’ve got a bit of disposable income and can actually, if I chose to buy an electric car, I could, or chose to move house into a super energy efficient home […] The transition is about not just speaking to the elites, it’s about engaging with everybody and not causing breakdowns in people’s livelihoods. So, an example would [be] with farmers: If there was suddenly going to be less demand for beef. What happens to farming, what happens to rural communities? This needs replacing and swapping out, not just ‘let’s not do that anymore’. It’s ‘what’s better?’ ‘What can what can be done?’ […] Well, you can’t just stop stuff […] And then I think most of those replacements will actually just better transform society anyway, so they have to be advantageous for everybody.”

Minns urges us to talk more about the climate though. “There is a lot of discourse and interest in climate change. Possibly quite a lot of that conversation isn’t hugely useful. It’s still at the awareness raising [stage], people don’t know how to respond to climate change, they’re just worried about climate change, certainly the majority of people think it’s human-caused now.” He said a worry of his is ‘climate silence’; that people don’t talk about climate change enough, possibly because it’s such a massive topic, but he states, “one of the things I always talk about to people is to talk about climate change.” 

But what about UEA? What can the university do in order to solve the issue of climate change? One of Minns’ major concerns with academia is the culture of flying. He explains that flying is pretty much the most CO2 intensive activity an individual can participate in, made even worse by the multiplier of the flights being higher in the atmosphere. “All these international conferences, flying a very long way to give a 40-minute speech somewhere you haven’t been before […] how important is that journey? Was it really essential you went on that journey? If it’s fieldwork somewhere far away, then clearly you have to go do your fieldwork, but it’s the 40-minute talk.” Minns goes on to say it’s made worse by the public view of it, “research shows that if those of us who are talking about climate change and the environment and we’re flying all over the shop, we’re losing the trust of our audience, and there’s research that shows exactly that, that people want to see that the people talking to them, in terms of the public, are actually walking the walk, instead of ‘thou shalt’.

Increasingly, we hear of Donald Trump and the US as being separate to the rest of the world on climate, so I ask how the President is effecting his role as a communicator. Minns jokes, “It just means you get quite a lot of questions about Donald Trump”, but goes on to explain, “The US has never paid attention to climate change, US emissions are actually going down, but it’s not got much to do with the federal government, more to do with state governments […] But, you know, the only time that the U.S. government paid attention to climate change was for a little bit under Barack Obama, for all the rest of the time, it wasn’t turning up in the negotiations, and not cooperating. There’s nothing new with Trump not joining and dropping out. The landscape doesn’t change. I think it reflects more […] on America’s place in the world or retreating from the world than it does on international climate change.”

There’s a bit of fear there, “on this scale of international negotiations, really, if a big country like the US isn’t involved and that doesn’t signal very good things to lots of other countries that look to the US for what to do, […] I think it could have done the opposite, it would actually probably strengthen the position of most other countries and most other people.”

With Trump, there’s been a lot more conversation about climate scepticism, which intensified last year here at UEA, when Philosophy lecturer and XR member, Rupert Read, refused to appear on BBC Radio over their decision to have a climate change denier on with a pro-climate speaker in order to offer what the BBC refer to as ‘balance’. The BBC has now changed their policy to no longer require climate deniers for balance. Minns tells me, “There’s far too much concern about climate scepticism, there used to be more scepticism, organised scepticism around climate change, it has been quite influential. But I think there’s too much obsession with those outlier views [rather] than the views of the majority. You know most people are in the middle, they’re not out at the extremes. And so it’s the people in the middle that we’re interested in, the majority.”

When the ‘Climategate’ scandal happened at UEA, there was a lot of uproar, but looking back, Minns says there were some benefits when it comes to the leaks, “it actually enhanced and improved the way that climate change engages with the outside world or climate change academia, just by being more transparent. It wasn’t meant to be hidden away […] because of all those reviews, it really showed the science to be bullet-proof, so that was good, not at the time that it was going on, but in the lovely hindsight of history. I mean this even includes the review that was done by the sceptic funders […] even their own review couldn’t find anything, they had to conclude ‘it’s actually good shit’”. Minns puts simply, “science is all about scepticism, don’t believe anything until you’ve seen the data. And so people testing our mettle on that, that just makes for better, more strengthened research.”

Another major concern with the climate is adaptation. Minns talks about how there’s too much focus now on mitigation, reducing the pollution, but the other side to climate research is adaptation, “which is being resilient to what’s already happening […] I actually worry that a bit too much attention is paid to mitigation because mitigation has to be the whole planet over […] maybe mitigation will become less important because it becomes apparent that it’s not really going to happen in any sort of reasonable timeframe that’s very useful. I do worry that so much attention is paid to mitigation that that’s actually causing maladaptation, that we’re not preparing ourselves as we should be for the things that we know here and the things that we that we know are coming as well […] The Paris Agreement was about limiting the global warming to [between] 1.5 to 2 degrees, we’re already at one degree, so the chances of reducing global warming globally […] through mitigation to one half to a degree is to me pretty unlikely. 3.5 degrees of warming is locked into the system if countries deliver on everything they said they’d do”, but even then, according to Minns, “that’s huge, that’s a massive transformation in itself just to deliver on the pledges”.

One area of concern is connecting with businesses. A lot of the work the Tyndall Centre does is with policymakers, “but there isn’t actually much being done to work with businesses, and so businesses are doing things themselves, maybe they’re working with consultancies, but they’re not working with thought leaders, so much bigger and better engagement, I’m bound to say that I’m a communications person, but genuinely the need is there and we’re not fulfilling the need. There is however, plenty of climate change research and climate change research organisations, so while there’ll always be that research, what’s more important is engaging the world with what we know”. 

This engagement is vital, Minns says, and he even suggests having whole communications arms in research organisation, because engaging with the world is so important, “the public opinion polls tell us that people are thinking about climate change and they’re worried […] I don’t think it’s about climate change, actually. I think in some ways that worries me a bit as well. We get hung up on ‘this is all about climate change’, but it isn’t. It’s about the world we live in. And that’s air quality, what’s living in the seas, the way we feed ourselves, are we able to feed ourselves? Pollution? Is there going to be anything left alive in terms of biodiversity? A climate emergency is a biodiversity emergency as well. So in those terms, I’d like to think that climate change is sort of umbrella term for lots of lots of stuff, and I think it’s about a better planet in terms of a healthier planet and healthier people on that planet, as is sustainability in its broader sense, not just to do with the weather systems that are changing, it’s beyond that.”


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25/02/2020

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Matt Branston

Matt Branston

Comment Editor - 2019/20

Co-Deputy Editor - 2020/21