In 2006, supported by a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and leave from the University of Cumbria, she cycled 4500 miles from El Paso to Anchorage, following the spine of the Rockies and exploring North American attitudes to and beliefs about climate change along the way. The trip took three months and is now the basis of the Carbon Cycle, a slide show that uses the story of the bike ride to deliver a hard-hitting message about climate change and the urgent need to respond to it, in an engaging and ultimately up-beat way.
Greenbang caught up with her to find out why she thinks the climate change debate is going the wrong way.
Greenbang: What do you think is wrong with the debate on climate change?
Dr Kate: It hasn’t really got to grips with the fundamental problem, which is that Western, industrialised lifestyles are literally unsustainable. Climate change is just one symptom of this. WWF famously calculated that if everyone on earth were to enjoy the lifestyle of an average Western European, we would need three planet earths.
Not even the most optimistic believers in technology think that we can technofix this problem so that 6 billion people (let alone the projected 9 billion) can enjoy a western lifestyle without ecological meltdown. It follows that we urgently need to rethink what we currently mean by a ‘high standard of living’ and move away from materialistic versions of this to an understanding of quality of life that could be enjoyed by everyone, without causing environmental mayhem. This is about values, not just about technology.
Do you believe in climate change? If so – why?
Yes, most definitely. I believe in it because there is a truly astonishing – not to mention alarming – level of consensus across the international scientific community that climate change is happening, that it has a human cause and that it is very bad news, both for people and for millions of other species.
While climate change is on some people’s minds, others consider self-sufficiency and alternative energies to oil to be as important – do you agree?
I think they are related. According to the ‘peak oil’ analysis, as the main oil reserves are used up, oil becomes harder to extract and increasingly expensive. It therefore makes a lot of sense to preempt the impact of this by developing ways of meeting our needs and organising communities that are much, much less oil dependent. This is the starting point for many of the ‘transition towns’ or ‘transition initiatives’. At the same time, as we use the remaining oil, we contribute to climate change which, if unchecked, could threaten human societies across the world, and millions of other species as well. In both cases we are talking about greatly reducing our use of fossil fuels.
How do you think the problem of climate change needs to be tackled?
At all levels, individual, government, schools, businesses, universities, community groups……. consistently, thoroughly and urgently. Most analysts are saying that we need to see in the region of an 80% reduction in climate change related emissions across the industrialised world, in the next ten or at most fifteen years.
Where do you think businesses can do most good? And do you expect people to forget about improving their quality of life?
Businesses can often move faster than governments to make changes. They can take a leadership role in this area, cutting their own emissions and taking advantage of a rapidly growing market for low carbon products, ranging from light-bulbs to loft insulation, from cars to locally grown food. In terms of quality of life, I certainly don’t expect people to forget about it. On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that, after a point, quality of life levels out even if people and societies get richer, and that we could actually have a higher quality of life with a much lower environmental impact if our understanding of quality of life was less materialistic. So it’s about rethinking what we really mean by quality of life – and having more of it, not less.
Are your thoughts opposed to current levels of consumption? What about economics?
Current levels of consumption in industrialised societies are too high – as the three planet earth analysis clearly shows. This presents a major problem for current economic thinking, which is premised on growth, and which requires us all to keep consuming more, not less. Clearly we can’t grow infinitely, and consume infinitely, on a finite planet. So developing sustainable economic systems is a key part of the challenge that faces us. At the end of the day, the economy is absolutely dependent on the environment, not the other way around. Without a healthy environment, including a functioning climate, in the end there will be no economy….
Anything else you’d like to add?
Climate change and other major enviornmental issues need to be tackled urgently. But this is not all doom and gloom and nor is it about hair shirts and going back to the caves. Climate change presents us with a much needed opportunity to question what is really important to us and what we really mean by quality of life. Moving away from excessive consumerism means we can celebrate a low carbon lifestyle, enjoying higher quality of life for a much lower environmental impact.