C2GTalk: An interview with Saleemul Huq

How can the most vulnerable have a say in governing climate-altering approaches?

18 March 2021

This interview was recorded on 1 March 2021, and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

Governance is the key element in any climate-altering approaches being proposed, particularly from the point of view of climate vulnerable nations, said Professor Saleemul Huq in an interview with C2GTalk. His greatest concern is that decisions that have repercussions for the most vulnerable will be taken without them having a chance to take part in the discussion, so it is extremely important that climate vulnerable nations have a say when decisions are taken regarding climate-altering approaches, including carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification.

Professor Saleemul Huq is the Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum Expert Advisory Group. Prof. Huq is an expert on the links between climate change and sustainable development, particularly from the perspective of developing countries. He leads the annual Gobeshona Global Conference, which brings together scholars, policymakers, researchers and practitioners from around the world to discuss climate change. Professor Huq was the lead author of the chapter on adaptation and sustainable development in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and was the lead author of the chapter on adaptation and mitigation in the Fourth Assessment Report. His current focus is on supporting the engagement of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Click on the play icons below to watch the quoted parts of the interview

How would you characterise the state of debate and action today to address climate change within broader efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

From where I am sitting here in Dhaka, Bangladesh, climate change is perhaps the most important of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, in terms of SDG 13 on climate change. But then, Bangladesh is also a poor country, so all the other SDGs are also highly relevant. But I think, even at the global level, climate change is by far the most important overarching part of the Sustainable Development Goals. I do not see any of them being achieved without tackling climate change as the sine qua non.

Do you see the discussions about tackling climate change and how they relate to achieving the other Sustainable Development Goals being held in a sufficiently joined up way, in a holistic manner?

Not yet, but we are beginning to get there. In my view, the conversation and the paradigm needs to be shifted from climate change being one of 17 SDGs to being really an overarching framing of all the other 16—and that, to a large extent, is beginning to be understood. I would certainly say in my country, Bangladesh, it is understood climate change is really an overarching issue that everything is now subsumed within because we are such a vulnerable country.

But I think globally, if you listen to Greta Thunberg—and I listen to her very carefully—I do believe that she has it right. We are in a global emergency. It is a crisis—and this is the overarching framing. Everything else is subsidiary to tackling climate change.

The 26th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP26) is happening this year. Some are describing it as a make-or-break meeting for increasing climate action, while some are questioning what exactly it is going to achieve. What would you expect to see come out of this year, and how important do you see COP 26?

I have had the, I do not know if it is good fortune or misfortune, to have attended every single one of the last 25 COPs. I think I am one of just a handful of people that have been able to do that, so I know what COPs can and cannot do.

In the context of what COPs can do, I think COP26 is an extremely important COP where countries do come together, make decisions, and decide what to do. The last time we had such an important COP was in 2015 when we met in Paris, and the Paris Agreement came out of that. Not every COP is extremely important; they vary in importance. COP26 is definitely an important COP.

Having said that, the climate change problem, in my view, has escaped the COPs. It is the reality of the atmosphere and the weather systems around the world. And that is not something the COPs have been able to manage to prevent or tackle effectively. It is reality on the ground. All I have to do is look out my window here in Dhaka, and people are being affected by climate change. It does not matter what the COP does, says or agrees at all. Reality on the ground is overtaking the discussions at the global level. So the reality of climate change and what we are going to do to deal with the reality is by far the more important issue. Presidents, Prime Ministers and leaders are the ones who have to take those decisions—not environment ministers anymore. The environment ministers are the ones who go to the COP and talk about it as an environmental issue. It has completely superseded being dealt with as purely environmental.

So, in a way you think that the situation has gone beyond the ability of COP, as currently set up, to tackle it. What might you replace COP with or how would you reform COP to be able to address that?

It is not a matter of replacing COP; it is a matter of implementing whatever we decide. So we have the Paris Agreement and we have agreed what needs to be done: we need the temperature to be brought down to 1.5°C. We are just not doing it.

So the COP is just a place where we take stock and say, well, we have not done this now. Should we do a little bit more or not do a little bit more? Give up? These are just talk shops. The reality is what people do on the ground, in their own countries. That is really where the action is and where we need to be focussing our discussions. That involves everybody: civil society, private sector, companies—every single company on the planet now has to figure out what it is going to do to tackle climate change, and if it does not figure that out, it is going to be wiped out by climate change.

What do you see right now that is happening on that regard? What are the key trends that we can point to right now in terms of actual action on the ground?

Well, we are not doing enough—that is the starting point. We recognise that, but the opportunities and glimmers of hope that I would point to going forward are: first, the change in government in the United States. We had four years of Trump taking the whole world backwards; that was a huge anchor with weighing us down from moving forward. That has been removed. The US is back in the Paris Agreement. We have very good promises from incoming President Biden, his climate envoy, and others in the administration talking about becoming leaders again on tackling climate change. We hope so. We look forward to that happening. We have not seen it happen yet, but we hope it will happen and we take them at their word.

Second, the other big push in my view is what young people are telling us. I mentioned Greta Thunberg, and I do this quite seriously. This one girl just decided she wanted to do something about it, and she took every Friday off school and sat outside the Swedish Parliament with a homemade placard. That has galvanised young people all over the world, including here in my country, Bangladesh. Young people are now up in arms. They are telling their leaders, parents and grandparents that they have simply not done a good enough job and they have to change. That push, in my view, is what will make a big difference, rather than the talk at the COPs.

The COPs have become sort of routine places that government officials negotiate in extremely arcane language about things that nobody really understands.

If I could turn to a couple of the challenges that we focus on here in C2G: In addition to the essential work of cutting emissions, the IPCC also says that large-scale carbon dioxide removal—i.e. the removal of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere—is needed to achieve net zero and limit warming to 1.5°C. How might the world go about governing carbon dioxide removal approaches, especially in light of their potential trade-offs and synergies with various Sustainable Development Goals?

This is something that I have, I would say, relatively recently started taking an interest in. I do not claim to be an expert at all, but I am a learner and I hope to learn quickly. As you mentioned we have an annual conference we call Gobeshona, which is the Bangla word for research. For the last couple of years we have invited eminent international speakers to come and tell us about solar radiation management and other forms of geoengineering that are being discussed in order for us to learn about it, to know what it is that is being discussed. Are there different things under those broad headings? What is the difference between the different approaches?

And particularly from the perspective of the vulnerable countries, particularly the Least Developed Countries, which are a formal Caucus group in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, whom I advise what should be our stance on any given one of these potential solutions that are being touted as solutions. Every solution always also has some negative impacts associated with it, and we need to know about those before we grant them the privilege of being called genuine solutions.

From our point of view, the key element in anything that is being proposed is its governance—who is making the decisions? One of the biggest advantages of the COP is that every single country, including the smallest and most vulnerable, has a seat at the table. There are almost 200 countries and every single country has a seat at the table; that makes it a democratic institution. Not every country has the same level of say in deciding everything, but they have a seat at the table and they have a voice. What we are very afraid of is decisions being taken where we are not invited, we are not at the table, and those decisions may have negative repercussions for us. If we are not at the table, we are not going to be able to either understand or influence. So having a say in decision making is an extremely important part for us.

With specific reference to carbon dioxide removal, what level of awareness do you see in Least Developed Countries about that aspect of climate change action that is needed? Do you see both challenges but also opportunities in moving to carbon dioxide removal for the regions you work with?

The most simple and easily understood form of carbon dioxide removal is planting trees—and we do a lot of that. So that is a no brainer; it is accepted and it is something that happens everywhere. It is very, very popular with many, many different groups and people—civil society, in particular, farmers, etc. So tree planting as a carbon dioxide removing mechanism is by far our most preferred option. We do realise that that may not be enough, so we may need to look at other more technologically advanced means of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, if necessary by technology, and we believe that there are some technologies being developed.

To my knowledge, none of them are in the developing world; they are all in the developed world. So we are observers of the promotion or development of those technologies. As I said, we like to learn, and we keep our eyes and ears open.

I have been listening to Mr. Bill Gates a lot recently. He has been touting his book. He gets publicity at a level that are orders of magnitude of the vulnerable people. Every major global broadcaster is interested in interviewing him and hearing his views—but not me nor the vulnerable people on the planet who are being affected by impacts of climate change. So there is a hugely un-level playing field in terms of whose voice counts at the global level, which we are aware of, and we are very afraid of. Not that I disagree with him, but I do feel that he gets a disproportionate platform to wield his views, which I may not agree with.

If the media and others did listen to your advice and did give valuable people a bigger voice in this, what kind of perspectives would you see being brought to bear on the question of carbon dioxide removal? Are there any particular areas that you think are not being pushed in the right direction?

Again, I have, I would say, a relatively less informed view. I do not know all the nuances. I do not track this on a very close basis. But from what I do know, I have an impression that some of the more technologically advanced options that are being discussed are primarily the domain of billionaires, like Bill Gates. These are billionaires who have billions of money to put into something, and they have decided on their own as individuals that this is a good thing.

They are doing it with the best of intentions; I have no doubt about that. But a good thing for them is not necessarily a good thing for the rest of the world, right? So I am afraid of Bill Gates making a decision that is going to have repercussions on me and my people here in Bangladesh, which he may not even know of. He may know and care about it, or he may not know, and he may not even care about it. So I have grave reservations of letting him make these decisions on his own.  When I say “him”, I am just singling out one individual, but there are a bunch of them.

So that, to me, is the most frightening aspect of decisions being made on behalf of the planet by individuals who feel they know what the planet needs but do not necessarily know what the poorest people on the planet actually need. They may be doing more harm than good.

I am now going to introduce a set of approaches that may cause even more concern. There are ideas of reflecting more sunlight into space in order to reduce the risks of overshooting temperature goals. These might include brightening marine clouds or even spraying aerosols into the stratosphere to act as some sort of reflective shield. You have raised a lot of the issues that would affect this in terms of governance. How would the world, in a more fair or just or equitable dispensation, consider the risks posed by these approaches against the expected risks of climate change?

Well, I would give you a generic answer for any technologically based solution for anything. It needs to be piloted at a pilot scale in order for its efficacy to be tested and its downside risks to be tested at the same time.

It is like the vaccine that we are now seeing produced for COVID-19. Producing the vaccine is a hugely technological advance by our scientists—a great thing. But we have to be careful. Are they going to work? Are they going to have side effects? Are they good for the new variants? So there is a whole bunch of second order issues that are extremely important before we declare one of them as the magical solution and everybody gets a jab with it. So to me, the same caution applies to any kind of new technology, including solar radiation management through different techniques. Pilot on a small scale that does not cause a lot of damage, but we can then test.

And then the decision to go forward should be done in a manner that takes everybody’s views into account. We do not have a global government. The nearest thing we have is the United Nations. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a treaty that all the countries have agreed to. To me, that is the forum in which the next phase of anything, a deployment of anything, needs to be discussed and agreed. That cannot be arbitrarily decided by a handful of individuals who have a lot of money.

There is a lot to unpack in what you just said. Perhaps, I would take the first question around piloting. There is one school of thought which would suggest that even discussing, let alone researching or testing (and I am not sure what the line is between some of these things), could cause a moral hazard and lead people to take certain policy decisions that they might not have if this was not seen as a potential option. Do you see that kind of risk? Or do you think that there is a greater risk in not learning about such approaches?

I am open minded; that is why I said, when I heard about these things I did not automatically say they are bad. I said I want to know more about them before I say they are bad. I might say they are bad, but before learning what they are and learning about the nuances, I do not want to say they are bad.

So what I would say in terms of testing is that there is now the technological capacity to test anything on models without doing anything in the real world. So model-based testing, I would say, is definitely an option that we need to look at. And if the models then tell us that something may have a beneficial effect, one moves to the next phase in terms of a very limited, confined test of seeing whether it works in reality, but on a very small scale. Once we have checked that out, then we know whether it works or not, and what the downsides of it might be—and only then do we need to think about scaling it up.

To me, the Research & Development part, the research in the terms of modelling something—that is a no brainer, it should definitely happen. This is where you know the human mind can come up with ideas that we will test. Anything that is very promising that is worth looking at in terms of examining it further—again with very strong oversight—that can also possibly go forward.

Then after that, we are in the realm of decision making, that will have both pros and cons attached to them. And there is almost nothing that can be proposed to solve one problem that does not create a second order problem of its own. To me, the desire to find a single bullet solution is one of those extremely dangerous desires because single bullet solutions are actually scattergun solutions. They hit a lot of other people that are unintended targets of the single bullet. The person thinks he is firing one bullet to kill one problem, but the bullet scatters and hits other people who he did not intend to hit—and that is what we need to be careful about.

You talked a bit about various fora which have universal or broader legitimacy (you mentioned the UNFCCC). For discussions about solar radiation modification (SRM), do you think that we have the institutions that will allow this fair, equitable discussion? Or do you think they need to be reformed, or have some new places where is this discussion can be held?

The closest thing we have to a global government is the United Nations. The United Nations has all the countries of the world in it. Within the United Nations there are many different fora; it could be under the Secretary General, he could decide to do this. But if the technologies being advanced are explicitly being advanced to deal with the problem of climate change, then the UNFCCC is the place where that ought to be discussed. I do not see why it needs a separate fora to deal with it. If it is to do with food, then you could certainly look at the Food and Agriculture Organization as another place to talk about it. But if it is explicitly being advanced to tackle climate change, then I think the UNFCCC is the place to bring it up and have discussions around it.

The Framework Convention now is well over 25 years old. We have had many controversial topics brought up that countries have felt strongly for or against. I will give you one example that I work on: the whole issue of loss and damage from climate change. It is a highly controversial topic. Many rich countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, do not like talking about it because they feel it is to do with liability and compensation. So we have arguments and we do not agree on everything, but it is the place to discuss these things. We have to come to an agreement on what we want to do going forward.

And so, for a small group of countries or individuals to bypass that decision-making system, in my view, would be highly controversial and absolutely unacceptable.

To be able to discuss any part of decision making, you need to know about something that is happening and have a certain level of knowledge. You certainly expressed an openness to learning more about some of these new solar radiation modification approaches. Do you see that interest and openness shared amongst people you work with in the Least Developed Countries or in your region? Or do you think there is still a bit of reluctance to even start talking and learning about these ideas?

Well, there is, I would say suspicion.

I am doing this in Bangladesh, with my Center here, but also across the least developed countries through a network of universities that my Center runs called the Least Developed Countries Universities Consortium on Climate Change. We, at the moment, are about 15 universities in 15 LDCs. We are planning to expand to the whole network of 48 Least Developed Countries. This is an official group of the Least Developed Countries group, which is currently chaired by Bhutan.

We have been charged by our chair to learn about this topic and advise the Least Developed Countries group about what we feel the attitude should be. So we are very much in a learning mode—all my colleagues across the LDCs are very interested in learning more, and we have been having conversations with C2G on how we might increase our knowledge. And then based on what we understand, we would then be in a better position to advise our respective governments when the question of government involvement or government advice or government views come to the fore.

But I would say the level of awareness is very low, to the extent that anybody has heard about these things, they will be suspicious of them. And our role is to be a knowledge-based broker to enhance informed judgments. They may end up being negative, but they would be hopefully informed and have a basis for being negative, rather than just pure suspicion.

As you begin this process of learning and sharing knowledge, do you see any evidence that perhaps powerful governments, vested interests, and civil society organisations in the Global North are already beginning to frame this conversation almost before the Global South is ready to enter it? Do you see evidence that some organisations may be purporting to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, while the vulnerable are still waiting to learn more? Where we are in the dynamics of framing this because once the conversation is framed, it can be hard to un-frame it—and now is the moment when this is being framed.

Sure. So I am aware of the controversy in the North. It is not in the South; it is in the North. As I said, sitting in the South and working with the Least Developed Countries constituency, in particular, we are still in an open-minded learning mode. And we are willing to listen to you, we are willing to listen to proponents of the technology, and we are willing to listen to opponents of the technology. In fact, in the Gobeshona Conference that I ran last month, we gave a session to the opponents, as well. So we are open minded. We are listening to everybody.

But as I said, we want to learn—genuine enhancement of knowledge. And if we feel uncomfortable about something, then we will be very specific about what we are uncomfortable about and why we are uncomfortable about it, rather than just paint everybody with a bad brush that we disagree with everything.

I have been reading a book called “Ministry of the Future” by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. He posits a scenario where India deploys stratospheric aerosol injection. It was just interesting how he came to the decision to make that sort of thought experiment. Do see any specific political, economic, philosophical and cultural perspectives that your home region, South Asia, might bring to discussions around what for some is a very fundamental question? Can the world pull levers to change the one atmosphere we all share? Do you see any particular traditions or perspectives being brought to bear on this from your region?

The one thing that comes to my mind is not necessarily from my region specifically, but it is relevant for a number of regions and large countries: the practice of seeding clouds. This is a much more localised phenomenon of enhancing rainfall in one place by human intervention in order for, let us say, a drought-stricken area to get some rain—so done again with the best of intentions but with the consequence that somewhere else which was going to get that rain is deprived of that rain. And we do that; that happens. It is a technology that is utilised and deployed in a number of places.

Again, every solution to one problem creates a problem number two. And often problem number two is a different group of people than the problem number one is solving the problem for. So it is very important to understand who is in group one and who is in group two. What we are very afraid of is being in group two, who are the unintended dis-beneficiaries of interventions made for some and not for all. It is very, very difficult to make interventions that are uniformly equal for all. There is almost always a focus on some and not all—and who that some is is what really counts. That is a universal phenomenon: anything that is done is always focusing on some people and very seldom on all people.

In that vein, do you see decisions about SRM approaches being made within the field of science, as it were, informing policy? Or do you think it is more fundamentally within the field of power relations—potentially other considerations, including religious and so forth? What do you see driving these discussions?

I think, quite rightly, that the decisions to deploy should be in the political governance space. And since these are global issues, they should be in the global political governance which, as I said, we do not have a single global government, but we have the United Nations so that is where that decision is made.

But then there is also a moral element to it and the moral leaders of the different religions have a say, should weigh it, should be knowledgeable. But I see the role of science as the ones that present these options to the rest of us. It is very similar to the way the IPCC operates. It is a panel of all governments whose scientists are tasked with assessing and presenting the science to policymakers. Then policymakers make the decisions. I have been in the IPCC for quite a number of years, and our prescription was always to give policy-relevant—but not policy prescriptive—information.

We, the scientists, tell policymakers what the science says, but we do not tell them what they have to do. We say, if you do x, this is likely to happen and if you do y something else is likely to happen. But whether you choose x or y is up to you. You are the policymakers, you decide. And I would say that is actually a good forum for the proponents of SRM or other kinds of technologies. The IPCC assesses the scientific knowledge. They need to produce the scientific knowledge published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and have those scientific information assessed by the IPCC. Then the IPCC can give recommendations or give its views or its assessment to the politicians who can then make decisions based on that very credible science. The IPCC is really the height of credibility in terms of science.

I wonder if I could wrap up perhaps turning to an idea you introduced at the beginning of planetary emergency. We have just had a conversation including consideration of an approach which would spray aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. It says something about the state of emergency that reasonable minds can consider this, whatever they come to in the end, in terms of conclusions. How do you balance the sense of extraordinary gravity that we would even be considering such interventions, while at the same time maintaining hope? And within that framing of planetary emergency, how can it tackle both the gravity but also maintain enough hope to actually take actions that can address this crisis?

I agree and fully believe that we are in a planetary emergency and things are getting worse, not better unfortunately. That is the reality.

On the other hand, I do not give up on hope. I do have hope, and I mentioned a few things earlier that gives me hope: the US coming back in the picture on the UN Framework Convention and the Paris Agreement to bring temperature rise down to 1.5°C—we are now moving in that direction. We have not reached it yet, but we are moving in the right direction. China, Europe, America—everybody is going on the race to net zero. To me, all of these are good signs. They are not happening fast enough. They need to be much faster.

What I am a little bit wary of is the, if you like, new version of deniers becoming doomsayers saying it is too late and we need a silver bullet. We did not do it the way we should have done it and it is too late and we need something that is going to do magic out of thin air. I am extremely suspicious of that reasoning. I think the conventional ways of doing things, even though we have not done enough of them, are the way to do things. And involving everybody on the planet, to do what they have to do, rather than thinking of one magician with the billions of dollars in his bank account deciding on our behalf that he has a magic bullet and he is going to deploy his magic bullet. That, to me, is the wrong way to think about solving this problem.

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