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Dr Kate Rawles: Why the climate change debate has gone wrong

picture-of-kate.jpgMeet Dr Kate Rawles, a lecturer at the  faculty of science and natural resources University of Cumbria.

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.


  • Simon Perry
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Dr Kate Rawles is absolutely correct in what she lays out here. But there are some very valid comments here. @JT – what I think you’re saying is that we need a pragmatic plan forward. The zillion pound question is “How do we get from here to where we need to be?”. Business can indeed move faster than government if it wants to. Only with their active and real involvement can we formulate and push a plan for organised change.

    Dr Rawles is spot on with one observation. This is NOT about the technology. This is much larger than technology and one that must be addressed very differently than any other problem we’ve faced.

  • Oliver Branch
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I agree to some extent with what Fallschirmjager says regarding the natural balancers of warfare and perhaps some others such as disease, flooding and so on should also be included (and they soon will be). However, to say that it is not up to governments or society(ies) to control population is rather missing the point. I am certainly not saying that population is the only problem we have; it is not. However the fact remains that we are adding roughly 70 million people a year (after deaths) to the globe. These people consume resources and add CO2 to the atmosphere and generally put increasing pressure on a system which is already taking a beating. Put India and China´s industrial revolution into this calculation and we have huge problems. A point of interest is that if everybody on the planet were to enjoy an American lifestyle we would need 3 Planets to produce all the resources needed. And up until this point only the USA and a handful of European countries have something approaching this level of wealth. Now other huge populous nations want it too.

  • Robert Frost
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Right on , Dr. Rawles !

  • Fallschirmjager
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Overpopulation is a major factor. But how to resolve it may not be up to some government/society to determine. There is always a balance hidden, overlooked or taboo to mention. In this case the balance is built into Human Nature. In the past whenever a population reached a point where natural resources were needed and/or productive land for food needed expansion the ‘balancing’ component of warfare raised it’s head. In virtually all ancient conflicts one of the aforementioned components was the real driving force. If the ‘balance’ of warfare doesn’t happen in our instance then who will be the governing body to determine which country, class of people, or other population group to ‘thin’ either by reduction of births over time or by (lets call it what it is) genocide? Who would determine which class of people would be ‘culled’ such as the third world countries because of their birth rates, or some other determining factor? Alternately instead of ‘culling’ the human herd here; wouldn’t a better direction to take would be to exploit the resources within our own solar system to provide raw materials or possible off planet mining of asteroids and the like. Granted we are in the infancy stage of such an endeavor, however perhaps we need to cease looking for short term stop gap measure and really put the brain trust of the world’s greatest minds to looking to a farther horizon in which to travel. And in doing so we may find better methods to deal with the current problem as we travel toward that horizon.

  • Oliver Branch
    Posted April 20, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    I totally agree with Don Dougall. The population question is one that seems to be off limits to discuss. Humans as a species seem to take it for granted that we can have as many children as we like with no control or even debate as to how many people is enough for this planet or for a given area. For instance what if it were decided, by eminent scientist and economists, that X million people was the maximum amount of people the UK could hold regarding resources and lets face it, SPACE. What then? There is also the rather delicate socio-economic question of who is doing all the procreating. In several of the most developed and educated countries in the world, the locals arent producing because a) they would rather further their career and b) the rich western lifestyle doesn´t make one particularly fertile.
    Perhaps in the future we may all have to apply for a special licence to have children, and be awarded that right based on suitability, motivation etc. Sound distasteful ? Well the world will probably be a quite different place in fifty years, and we will all end up having to make sacrifices to keep this planet liveable. Some of these distasteful questions will have to be faced. Those sacrifices may even include some of those things that we consider fundamental to being humans, namely total freedom to do what we want and the freedom to procreate like rabbits!
    So please, can we at least put the population question on the climate change debate table alongside carbon footprints etc

  • Don Dougall
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    In the discussions of global warming that I have seen there is to me, a glaring ommision. Every one wrings their hands about population growth and increased consumption. No one seems to think that decreasing population increase will play a role in dealing with global warming. Why?. Why is every one scared to even talk about this major component of global warming, let alone do something about it?. It is so obvious that the smaller the population the smaller the consumption and the smaller the output of greenhouse gasses and other stuff.

  • Geoff Trowbridge
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Well, there are models, and an increasing number of them in the industrialized world: Ecovillages, co-housing units, new urbanist design, the local food movement, Greenways for pedestrians and bicyclists, to mention just a few.

  • Greenbang
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Greenbang is with you on this one JT

  • JT
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 11:36 am

    I don’t disagree with anything said here – but when we talk about reducing consumerism, we HAVE to think about how this can be done in practical terms. How are we going to tackle this? How are we going to tackle the increasing consumption of developing countries as well – are you going to tell people in China not to aspire to have more clothes and shoes, whilst we have so much more than them already?

Comments are closed.

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