This interview with Lord Martin Rees took place in May 2015 at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge and the transcript to this interview segment is included below the video. 

Interview transcript

Nick Breeze: Can you expand on the idea that limits to ecology are not accounted for in current economic modelling?

Martin Rees: It is of course very important that when we design how we run the economy that we think far ahead, not only in our investments but in the natural resources we use. For instance, if we cut down lots of forests then we are leaving less for future generations. It should be that these items are included as negative quantities in national accounts.

My friend and colleague Sir Partha Dasgupta has indeed written a great deal about this. He is a leading development economist. He has, I believe, persuaded the government of India to start putting in their national accounts a negative contribution to the GNP if they have reduced natural resources. That therefore allows people to realise that these resources are not inexhaustible and are a capital stock that we need to preserve.

That’s very important I think, in all policy decisions to realise that natural resources are not inexhaustible and some can be lost or depleted by policy decisions and some can be lost and depleted by policy decisions and to make sure they are fully taken account of.

Nick Breeze: Can you explain the importance of ecology in supporting life systems?

Martin Rees: Biodiversity is a feature of our planet and if it’s lost then it harms human beings because [for example] we depend on fish and if fish stocks dwindle to extinction we are damaged. There maybe some plants in the rainforest that could be of use to us in developing drugs.

But, there is something more than that. For most people the variety of life on Earth has value in its own right, quite apart from what it means to us humans. So if the actions of humans on the environment cause massive extinctions, that is something that is not only harmful to us, but that we might feel is an ethical wrong. In fact the great ecologist E. O. Wilson said that ‘If by despoiling the environment we lead to mass extinctions, it is the sin that future generations will least forgive us for.” I think this is a very deep sentiment.

Nick Breeze: Pressures from climate impacts may tempt wealthier nations consider only their own interests. Is this acceptable or even wise?

Martin Rees: We’ve got to bear in mind that one feature of CO2 emissions and the impacts which they cause is not limited to the country that emits them; it’s spread globally and indeed the emissions that come mainly from the developed world, Europe and North America, are going to have their negative consequences, not so much here where can cope with them better, as in places like Africa, where their will be droughts and excessive heat etc. so it is very important to ensure that we think globally and not too parochially.

And of course one of the other consequences is going to be that some parts of the world are going to become less habitat than before. Some will be less fruitful because the monsoons are going to move, and regions of droughts and rainfall are going to change. Weather patterns will change drastically as CO2 concentrations change the overall temperature. So there is a great interest in seeing that these problems are tackled globally and that we are mindful that the downsides will be felt elsewhere.

Of course if there are massive migrations of people then we must deal with them humanely but it is obviously far better if we can avoid the need for them by providing energy in the parts of the world that as yet lack it and also do all we can to prevent the kind of climate change that will create the extra pressure for mass migrations.

Nick Breeze: How do you envision the crucial decades ahead if we, the public, play a key role in taking the necessary action?

Martin Rees: Looking at things in a long-term perspective, it is clear that technology is advancing and this is hugely beneficial in many respects. The world, as compared to twenty years ago has been transformed by information technology. It’s wonderful that 600 million people in Africa, at least, have mobile phones and that many have the internet.

It’s less wonderful that there are fewer toilets in the world than mobile phones, so there is a long way to go but technology, if its widely spread, can be hugely beneficial. But, of course, this does put pressure on the environment and also pressure on energy supplies and we need to ensure that the way in which we get our energy in the world is of a sustainable nature. That therefore means moving away from fossil fuels, which are going to have this cumulative effect on the atmosphere and a gradual warming effect on the world, superimposed on all the shorter term fluctuations in climate.

So it is crucially important that we get the long-term planning right and also that we ensure that that politicians make decisions that don’t overlook the long-term consequences of their actions. I think for many of us, we can be technical optimists but we can’t be political optimists bearing in mind that politicians often don’t even react to the most obvious moral imperatives, like dealing with the worlds bottom billion and dealing with migrating people in desperate states, etcetera.

We need to ensure that politicians are sensitised to care about people in disadvantaged parts of the world. This can be enhanced I think if the churches raise their voices and imply that it’s the obligation of the developed world to help with this agenda. Only if the public in the developed world is behind this, will the politicians be encouraged to go ahead, otherwise they will succumb to short-term and parochial pressures.

End of part 1

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