Kirti Manian [00:52]: Hi Niall, welcome to the show. I am going to start by asking you this. Tell us how you got started on your environmental journey, perhaps talking to us about some defining moments.
Niall O’Connor [01:02]: Okay. Well, it’s a pleasure to be here. Well, it’s been a long journey, so, given the age I am at the moment. But I started in conservation many years ago. I started off being a forester and back in Ireland. And I had the opportunity at one stage to travel to Kenya to look at forestry in the highlands of Kenya as a student. And I began to see that forestry wasn’t like the traditional commercial forestry that we had back home in Ireland in that there was a lot of variations to how we could actually work with forestry. And I could see the people living with agricultural land and forest land together. So, I started learning more about agro-forestry.
And when I got keen into the idea of how you integrate different sectors in society with agriculture, forestry together and to see how they could benefit each other. So, I began to explore that a bit more, and I ended up doing studies in agro-forestry and then led research institute in West Africa, the National Agricultural Research Institute in Gambia.
But even there as you started to implement projects, you can begin to see the impacts of climate change, you could see that sea level rise was causing salt intrusion into a lot of the rice fields. You begin to see the impact that this is having on peoples’ livelihoods. And that kind of, we were very excited about the fact that there are ways that we can mitigate about that, and we can learn more to adapt to, I suppose to these conditions.
And I kept on exploring that, and I ended up going into conservation work to look at how we could go beyond just livelihoods, to look at how we can conserve the landscapes that they have and the species that we have within them so that they could become more resilient in the long-term. And it will be used quite starting as we were similar. 2:40
When I was working in Madagascar, we could see that species that we were working with one degree increase in temperature had a massive impact on these species and impacts on their ranges, impacts on their survivability, on their reproduction. And all of this is going to impact on the value that we have from the environment, the value that people have from the resources that we get from the environment. So, I kept on exploring more and more into how we could find solutions.
I suppose that’s what led to finally, and through many years into WWF into now the Stockholm Environment Institute where we have a chance to really explore these issues and defined through kind of evidence-based science solutions that we can offer to policy makers and to communities to adapt, to work with the environment until I suppose support & protect themselves. So, it’s been a long but a very, very interesting journey so far.
Kirti Manian [03:28]: Thank you for that. And now can you tell us more about SEI Asia, what is the nature of your organization and what kind of impacts do you have?
Niall O’Connor [03:37]: Okay. SEI is a global research to policy think tank. Fortunately, we are rated one of the best in the world at this for the last number of years, which is a nice accolade, but then challenging work all the same.
So, what we try and do within the Stockholm Environment Institute is to see how using evidence-based science we can bridge kind of the science, policy and now best practice approach to try and make sure that we are creating a more sustainable, more prosperous future for all. So, we would try and make sure that we work with a number of stakeholders to make sure that they are part of the process. So, we are very much a solutions-oriented and co-production approach to developing this science, to developing the links to policy.
So, our main kind of focus areas is that we want to have an impact on us, an institute around reduced climate risk, how do we bring about that, how do we bring about sustainable resource use and improved resilient ecosystems so that people have access to a new solving the future 4:35, and how do we improve human health and well-being, and also mental health in all of that.
So, to do that we approach it in three different ways. One is trying to change the agenda - what are people talking about and how can we influence them to set the right agendas at national level, at regional level, so that we are talking about the right things, and therefore, trying to make an impact when it comes to the environment. How do we help build capacity, our stakeholders that we work with, of communities, of private sector, government representatives or the key decision makers, those people who have the, I suppose through the work that they do, the ability to influence. So, we want to work with these decision makers to increase their understandings around climate issues, environmental issues, and how they can use that in their work to make decisions.
And then the final area that is really improving those decision makers’ outcomes. So, working with policy decision makers to give them the evidence they need to make the next steps. So, the office here in Asia, we established here in Asia, about I think 15-20 years ago, with on and off, it’s been a slow growth in the region. But at the moment we have got a team of over forty researchers working here on a whole host of different areas.
We want to work, I suppose, many institutions tend to have centralized offices, but we wanted to have offices in the region that really gain a better understanding of the local context, works with local communities. And we are not just flying and flying out with solutions, but we are actually working with the communities on the ground, with the decision makers, with the private sector, with academia in the region to try and collectively bring about change to that.
So, we are very much focused around all of the SDGs as well. So, we cover, I think most SDGs are embedded in our program in one way or another. Well, we also have what we call Global Initiatives, which are big programs that we tend to work on, not just in one region but across the region to try and find solutions at some key areas that we as an Institute see. And for example, like we are looking at targeting carbon lock in, what’s driving us to keep on financing in the fossil fuels helped me change our process because we know we need to move away from fossil fuels, we need to look at more renewable energy. So, what are the different solutions different parts of the world can give to that, how do we integrate that into decision making moving forward.
We are looking at city health and well-being given the, I suppose the rapid growth of urban areas and the migration of people into urban areas. There are physiological health issues there, there are health issues around air pollution, around, you know just the stress of living in a city, so, around heat islands and so forth. How do we look at these as broader issues to support and sustainable transitions in the cities, how do we get better green space, how do we get better clean air, how do we work with communities to have more nature in cities. And you know in the likes of Bangkok here for example where we have a lot of flooding, how can nature-based solutions support long-term city sustainability.
So, well, there are a number of different programs we have there, and one of the key ones that I’d like to highlight is also, I work on gender equality, social equity and poverty reduction, or GSAP as we call it. I think it’s critical that we, you know work across all of our research areas integrating gender where we can and making sure that we are listening to the impacts that various factors in society have as a result of environmental degradation, and making sure that we are listening to those who are most vulnerable and most marginalized, and integrating this into decision making . It’s important that we have a more inclusive approach to trying to find solutions, and I think that ahs been lacking in many ways in the past.
So, kind of a brief overview of the Asia centre. These are some of the key areas we want to work on. We are beginning to assess new areas of research and water resource management that could resolve the Mekong. I think so in the next program we can talk about that. We are looking at areas around climate change adaptation mitigation, but also looking at the impacts of climate such as disasters. And we have a large problem looking at disaster reduction approaches linking again with communities through to governments to find out what are the best ways to build better, what are the most important ways to mitigate some of these environmental disasters which, sadly in the Asia region are increasing exponentially. And we need to look at how climate is going to impact on people and communities.
So, that’s kind of a brief overview of the work in SEI, Asia. But there is a lot that we are doing, and there are a lot of new areas that we want to try and explore including access to climate finance, more into biodiversity and ecosystems there which is how do we sustain them, ecological economics, how do we look at the value of what we do in terms of environmental and development research to the economy and how do we show that there are better ways of moving forward. So, overall, quite interesting and quite an active centre that we have here at the moment.
Kirti Manian [09:23]: All of it sounds quite amazing and very, very important I think in terms of setting agenda, in terms of talking to decision makers, policy makers especially. In that context then, what kind of challenges do you face when dealing with the politics of it or when dealing with local communities for example? And over the last four years, has the nature of these challenges changed?
Niall O’Connor [09:45]: I think we have had many, many challenges unfortunately, and not just working with policy makers or communities, I think if we are just looking at the whole scale of the region itself, and the impact that, I suppose a growing economy and growing wealth within the region is rapidly increasing consumption, and production and consumption is not sustainable here. So, we are seeing massive unsustainable use of natural resources throughout the region, and this is a considerable challenge for everybody. So, these are key areas that we need to think about.
We gave also got a very diverse political region as well, and there are maybe some challenges in that. There are some that are very supportive of environment and pushing the environment, there are some that have different approaches. But at the moment it’s not all working together to try and solve problems, so, and thinking within boundaries or within borders I should say. So, that’s, you will solve your problems in this country, but you may have a negative impact on another country and you are not working as collectively as you could. But I think there are in-roads in that now and people are beginning to see the need to try and work together, and that’s also interesting.
One key area though I think, we talk about communities and civil society in many countries, they are getting less and less space to speak over there, maybe not being as open, and in some societies to integrate communities and their decisions and their needs, I think we have to really work with that to make sure that whatever research we are doing is inclusive and we are looking at the gender issues, we are looking at the LGBT communities, we are looking at the digital franchise disability. They should all be in parity of the process to solve, you know the issues that they face, we are trying to resolve from one perspective only. So, we need to make sure that this inclusiveness is encouraged through our research, but also through the connections we have with policy decision makers that we encourage them to also open and to listen to more people.
But I think also what we have seen here and sadly around the world is regardless of maybe the COVID issue and the climate change issues now, people don’t always listen to the science. And we need to make sure that we continue to support peoples’ understanding of science and to make science accessible to people. And we don’t want to write in such language that people don’t understand the impact and therefore, can easily afford to neglect it. We want to make sure that it’s, the science is solutions oriented written in the language that the policy decision makers, the communities can fully understand so that they actually embrace it and take it on board. So, trying to make sure that we continue to shift an understanding around the impacts of science and what science can offer to decision makers and to solutions around the approaches, is going to be critical.
And I think that’s going to be also important when you are working with the private sector because it’s a production haven here in south east Asia. There are so many people involved in production and we need to work with them to look at sustainable approaches to that, and we need to make sure that they take on board the science as well.
So, for example we are working with Global Initiative and the responsible business forum to integrate that science to business leaders who are already looking at the sustainability issue and looking at how they work and support the SDGs. And we want to make sure that we continue to grow. So, if we can get the business community behind this transition to sustainability, they will indeed help bring about sustainability. And I think that’s there on the board. And obviously COVID has thrown a spanner into works and in the region here because I suppose a lot of the resources now are being pushed in to protect the countries with, from outbreaks of COVID and to support people. But that ahs had a big impact on, maybe the focus on for example plastic waste.
You know a lot of positive work over the last two or three years to trying to tackle such issues of plastic waste, I mean now kind of gone to the waste side as another crisis has to be dealt with. And we have got to make sure that we can get people back on track and that one challenge doesn’t offset with their ongoing challenges which is going to cause more problem for us in the long-term, and that itself is climate change.
So, we have got to try and figure out ways to work with these communities, to work with governments defined better approaches looking forward and to build back better as the expression goes to that, the lessons learnt from COVID area, the responses are taken into what is going to be a big ratio around climate and climate response. So, a number of challenges, but optimistic at the same time that people are beginning to see the need for better knowledge around these issues and better integration of that knowledge into decision making. And we want to try and continue doing that as we move forward.
Kirti Manian [14:10]: I like this point that you have made about one challenge trying and not offsetting the other ones. I think that’s very, very important. So, thank you for that. I want to talk about SEI’s program in that sense, it’s called the Sustainable Mekong Regional Network. Can you tell us more about that please?
Niall O’Connor [14:25]: Okay, yes. SUMERNET, as it’s known, it’s a program that we have been running now since 2005, and thanks to the support of Swedish funding through SIDA. It’s, as you say, regional research network, and the idea is to bring about sustainable development in the Mekong region through strengthening knowledge-based policy processes as a burden, so, again, research to policy.
At the moment, we have diverse memberships. I think we have over 300 members in the network, and they come from research side, from policy, government side, from private sector, civil society, all trying to work together and supporting research, research that can look at a variety of different environmental issues over the last 15 years.
At the moment on the current phase of SUMERNET, we are focusing on three kind of key researches as looking at water insecurity in the Mekong. I think water is going to be an issue in the future. And with the current kind of change in rainfall patterns, the current climate change in temperature, with current utilization of water resources, you know rivers are being heavily impacted, and therefore access to which has been heavily impacted.
So, this SUMERNET research is going to look around water access, water rights and allocations, particularly in times of scarcity so that we make sure that everybody has access to water in a fair and effective way, particularly the more marginalized and vulnerable communities as well.
We want to also look at governance and management of flood disasters because its’ increasing in the region and it has huge impacts in many, many ways, so, how do we actually support that. And then look at this transboundary interaction again with water because most rivers in this region are not just within one country, they cover, two, three or, Mekong, so, six countries. So, how do we bring about coordinated approaches to solving the water issues, how do we work to make sure that maybe the solutions that we have in one country are not issues in another country, or the fact that we might build a dam in one country, could have a major issue downstream in another country.
So, we will try and continue those three researches to make sure that we can produce the knowledge that is necessary. And using that knowledge we can maybe try and change the attitudes of the key decision makers towards the impacts that they maybe making, and then hopefully through that, we can alter their practices in the long-term. And that’s kind of the focus of the program, how do we change knowledge attitudes and practice of the key partners, the key stakeholders in the program.
So, this program I think it has been going on for 15+ years. We look forward to continuing to work on that for a number of years to come, but by producing this knowledge and producing this science, can we make those decision makers make the right decision moving forward. That’s always a challenge, but then I think we’ll have to just say that Dr. Chayanis who is our lead in this program, Program Director for this, she is from Thailand, but she has been working all across the Mekong river commission and all of the other parameters in the region. And, you know, they are coming together through a number of different networks, ours included on the SUMERNET but also other groups that we working together. And they are beginning to see that this coordination and collaboration of work is really what is needed to make this positive change. So, they are doing some fantastic work out there.
Kirti Manian [17:34]: That sounds really, really good. I remember one of our podcast guests earlier, Arati Kumar Rao, she talked about water knowing no boundaries right.
Niall O’Connor [17:40]: Yes.
Kirti Manian [17:40]: And this inherent desire of governments to say this is my water, it is my country, but it doesn’t really quite work like that. And then there are people who get the most affected are the ones who are vulnerable to the situation really. So, it sounds like there is amazing work being done. Can you now talk about SEI’s work in connecting gender and climate change citing examples please? We’d also love to hear more about the online course you just started on gender and environment which sounds like a brilliant initiative.
Niall O’Connor [18:07]: Okay, thanks for that. Yes, now, we are quite excited by that as well. But the work that we are doing on gender, it is one of our core programs as I mentioned earlier. And we try to make sure that all of our projects are viewed through the lens of gender and social equity so that we are being as inclusive as we can be and making sure that the solutions are equitable for everybody.
But as far as if you are looking at environmental change and distresses, even though they are being felt by everybody, it doesn’t affect everybody equally. So, we know that whether it’s because of your gender, your race, where you are living, your ethnicity and so forth, all of this may be seen as sometimes a privilege that you may have but that some don’t have. And we want to make sure that we think that through on all of our programs. And we want to make sure that by working towards transformative and socially inclusive sustainable development that this leaves nobody behind.
So, our research really looks at this intersectional lens to make sure that we are hearing the perspectives of many, many people in this. We are making sure it’s participatory and how we setup our methodologies for research so that hopefully the outcomes are more towards social and environmental justice for everybody. And this program now is with the gender team, covers various different areas of research. It links into the work we are doing in disaster risk reduction, links into our work on climate change, migration, agriculture and even into environmental defenders, human rights issues so that the needs of the gender, the needs of the marginalized, the needs of, you know all the groups in society are being integrated into research.
So, at the moment that’s, I would say a key approach to us. And we don’t want to see kind of teams working in silos without integrating all of these aspects. They need to think through this from an example. So, this global program that we have on gender equality, social equity and poverty reduction, the GSAP program, it tries to understand the interconnections between gender, equity, poverty from the sustainability lens and to make sure that this transformed sustainable development is inclusive. And I suppose we look at it as just a transition approach in the future as well. But you mentioned the mook that we have there.
Kirti Manian [20:11]: Yeah.
Niall O’Connor [20:12]: One of the ideas behind that MOOC and these massive online courses, we have a large program called strategic collaboration fund through which we helped a number of institutions trying to develop regional dialogues on key environmental issues. And when we were working with these, apparently our initial idea was to try and support them on ensuring gender equity in the forums in the discussion. So, we thought what's a better way than developing a kind of progressive course online that we can add the content to. As we learn more, we can utilize, I suppose, the learning and the research that SEI has done over the years and continues to do with our partners to integrate it into this learning.
But everybody that we support has grantees onto this program. They would have to do this training program as a way this online course and show that they have some understanding of gender issues, and that they can integrate it into the program, into the agenda for developing through these regional dialogues.
So, we developed that course and the idea is to, once they do that course, we would then follow through with support for them to try and build capacity on gender related issues and make sure it’s being embedded, not just in the one of kind of forum that they are developing, but how can this work within their own businesses and how can the organization take this on board.
So, we would try and support, beyond just them doing this course to look beyond mentoring for those grantees and people who are working with us. And then, the idea was well, also, why are not all participants reaching these regional forums, why don’t they get access to this. So, just trying to figure out ways that we can share knowledge more rapidly and make sure that it’s accessible not just to the key stakeholders in our work, because you know, we can only talk to so many people at a given time. But if people have access to this, we can share this message to so many more people. So, we are hoping and anticipating that many, many people will get online and read this course.
We also have a second course working with our partners through our Wallenberg Institute on human rights and the environment. So, again make sure people understand their rights, understand how they could be integrated into their needs, their desires for the future and make sure that they have appropriate comebacks as a way from the governments or from their communities.
So, they are quite interesting programs, so, I would encourage anybody to just check online on the SEI website and you can see them there and then take them on please, comment back to us so that we can continue to improve them.
Kirti Manian [22:34]: That sounds amazing Niall, it really does. I want to move on now to making connections between climate change and pandemic. Should we be even making these connections, or is there evidence in that sense to say that there is a connection between what’s happening with the climate and pandemic coming through?
Niall O’Connor [22:52]: So, one has to be careful to pinpoint one specific issue that’s causing the problem. So, in many ways, maybe the pandemic is not directly related to climate change, but it’s directly related to unsustainable environmental resource use as well.
So, I would say while climate change is having impacts and we are seeing changing climate patterns and we are seeing different precipitation issues, that’s not necessarily directly related to this particular pandemic. But if you look at this constant use of natural resources and deforestation that we are pushing into new areas for agricultural land or for, with the infrastructures. This maybe leading towards it, and so environmental degradation maybe more so than just purely climate change. But climate change would be pushing us to look at, you know new lands for agriculture, pushing us to unsustainable resource use.
I think also we have to look at the illegal wildlife trade issues, well like we are consuming everything that moves is an issue. And we are making it more and more difficult for species to survive and they are going, moving I suppose out of their natural habitat because they are on the pressure from partly climate and partly resource use consumption. And they are moving out into other areas where EU then may see interaction with other species which can transfer these viruses and cause such pandemics.
So, I think there is a kind of links there, but whether I would say it’s specifically because, no, I think it’s a combination of issues. We certainly need to look at these impacts and make sure we understand how, you know for example the challenges that climate change could exacerbate some of these problems. So, if you are looking at the health impacts of these people with COVID, you know certainly there is around air pollution which is a climate issue around fossil fuels. That’s making it more severe for people who are affected by, at least now the COVID-19. And so, there are further issues that climate change or what has brought about climate change is having on people who maybe suffering from COVID-19 are other issues.
So, I think not direct, but certainly it’s part of the bigger problem. And we need to look at some of these socioeconomic problems that we have, the health factors because if we look at the risks for people with COVID-19, it increases their vulnerability as we see the impacts of climate change happen. So, I would, yeah, probably leave it at that, that it has impacts. It’s not a direct result, but all over combined in terms of degradation of the environment, in terms of climate change and the pressures it might be adding to resource use, overall has an impact on maybe how this or other pandemics may happen in the future.
Kirti Manian [25:28]: Thank you for that. I want to talk about climate science now. And we know we are in the middle of a climate emergency, and I read this thing which said that, in one of your articles in fact, talking about annual flood levels in Bangkok by 2050 will cover the whole city region, and this is projected to be worse than the 2011 floods. And that killed over 650 people, impacted over 13 million people and caused extensive damage to local and international trade for years. So, how can the city cope with annual floods like this, and should cities and then government be reacting with even more urgency with coming up with a climate action plan?
Niall O’Connor [26:04]: Yeah, short answer is yes, they should be looking at this with more urgency. And some cities as you have probably heard, are looking, Manila I think it is or Jakarta are also maybe at relocating in time. But I think it’s very clear that sea level rise is going to cause major problems for cities in this whole region, not globally, but very much around the Asian region.
And we are looking at, I think I have seen for example 600-700 million people been affected by this in due course because cities will be inundated. And we all know what happened in Bangkok in 2011. And yes, you are right to say that the potential flood levels are going to be as severe if not worse than then every year with sea level rise at its current trajectory and that is set to increase.
So, I think cities and governments, they need to really start looking at how they develop these climate change adaptation plans and what they can do at city level to make sure that they are also, as you mentioned earlier, being inclusive in taking into account all the people that are living in the city and the impacts it can have.
There are some no regret options that they could quickly start looking at which is nature-based solutions, there is a lot of work to be done around that and to see how by reintegrating nature into maybe these low land riverine areas that we can maybe protect, flooding areas, we can redivert rivers in the natural courses and stop blocking their flow, we can start building on riverine areas causing nature impacts there.
But these kind of nature-based solutions, they, again, they don’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. They base their benefit for nature that help peoples’ health and well-being as well as protect the system. So, it’s important that we look at some of these areas, and constantly going back to concrete to build infrastructure that only causes more of the problem. It doesn’t solve the problem, it doesn’t absorb CO2, it just adds to the problem that we have. So, we need to look at nature in many ways for doing that.
Well, we also need to look at enforcing the laws that are already in place. And there are a lot of programs and policies on those practices that are signed up too by cities, but now always necessarily delivered on. We see a lot of impacts, environmental impact assessments that are being done for major infrastructure in cities and not necessarily listening to what the science is saying. Or indeed, you know in many cases there has been corruption and people have gone ahead and built in places where they probably shouldn’t have. That’s causing more problems for the future as well, and we have got to make sure that people begin to understand that if we have policies and procedures in place, we should follow them.
We should also start thinking five, ten, twenty years down the line because if we are going into large infrastructural projects today, are they going to be able to cope with the changing climate and the patterns that it will bring in twenty years’ time. If not, you are wasting money and you are going to cause enough problems. So, it’s important that they look long-term for that.
And I think that in all the work that we are doing in cities at the moment, it’s really vital that we look at the informal settlements that are in many of these cities around Asia and make sure that people who are often the most affected by the sea level rise and the impact of flooding in cities, are the ones to have less ability to cope with it and the least ability to rebound from it and they are very non-resilient in many ways. We need to make sure that people take priority to build their resilience in the big picture issue here.
But I think it’s clear business as usual is not appropriate. I think if you see the impact that we had in Bangkok, not just to the city itself which was horrendous, but to the global production chain for so many different industries. You know so many of these global industries were out for six months before the flooding subsided and they would have to get back in and rebuild the industry. If we are not looking at it beyond just a city boundary to the impact that it has at the global level, there will be a lot more problems happening as well. So, again we need to see how the responses that they may make for one city here, how they can have an impact beyond the boundaries of that city. And I think that’s going to be an important factor in such decision making moving forward.
Yeah, so, it’s urgent. I’d say we need to really think through how we can redevelop I suppose cities. Maybe we can look at decentralization you know, and some countries’ governments have decentralized to different locations to take the pressure off the cities and move to other regional cities. And could we look at ways of rezoning some industrial land away from the riverine flood plains and that the land goes back to nature-based solutions to protect the rest of the city. So, I think a lot needs to be done and done quickly, and to protect from particularly this case of flooding as you say in sea level rise.
Kirti Manian [30:31]: How seriously do you think cities and governments are looking at the concept of climate refugees? You mentioned long-term solutions and thinking ahead. You also talked about the marginalized being the most affected. Now, if you connect the both, we already know that these are the people who are going to be impacted the most. So, do you think this concept of being a climate refugee, that is something that is going to be even more real in the next ten years? And then do you think governments are thinking that far ahead or is it something that’s just on paper?
Niall O’Connor [30:59]: In terms of governments thinking ten years ahead, I think yes, they are beginning to look at this and to see the potential impacts and trying start to mitigate that. And I think we just have to continue to support them. And for me that tells me that we all should be very careful with climate refugees to be able to specify whether you are a refugee because the climate can be difficult at times and we have to be cautious of that. But there is certainly a lot of migration as a result of the impacts of climate in many areas. And we have seen the impacts of that, how it can have an impact on the areas from where people migrate to the areas where they migrate to.
So, this is going to become a bigger issue moving forward. And I think there is a lot of work that we are looking at now on the whole area around migration, what is causing it and how we can deal with I suppose mass movement of people in the future. And there are estimates of hundreds of millions, maybe people moving in the future as a result of climate impacts, not just here in Asia but across the globe as well.
I think governments have to start taking this very seriously and start planning for that. And at the same time, we see that there are many countries that need to absorb, they need people to come because of the, I suppose declining population growth rates and the impacts that it can have. You see all across south east Asia, that’s what’s called kind of ageing society where the, as people are having fewer children and people are living longer due to great healthcare, you have lot of older people, but not many younger people coming into the workforce. How do you sustain that; migration maybe a welcome response to some of that. So, we don’t know we have to look at it negatively, we can look at it positively to try and support some of these ageing societies and keep the workforces going.
But you know we want to move from the home because of the climate degradation. So, we also need to see how we can mitigate that against that in the first place. So, these areas are becoming centre of many governments thinking right now. We have got to continue to encourage that through better research and better recommendations for the governments to how they could deal with this.
Kirti Manian [32:59]: What role does COP need to play, or do you think it’s role has been diminished in the current years?
Niall O’Connor [33:05]: Some people say it may have been diminished. I think since 2015 I think there was a view that they managed to achieve what they set out to do and get these Paris agreement negotiations done. But we are not done and we are no way near to that, and we ne3ed to keep going forward.
Kirti Manian [33:20]: Yeah.
Niall O’Connor [33:21]: So, I think there needs to be a reinvigorated approach towards this and make sure that, given that we know the information now, whether it’s from the IPCC report or many, many other reports, biodiversity and so, the climates impacting were not going to reach the Paris agreement at 1.5 or even 2 degrees at the current rate. So, we now know we have to double down on this and start to really push harder on it.
And maybe some countries felt that they could look at the way maybe America was treating the Paris agreement, if they are dealing with it like that, we don’t have to do that. But I think now people are beginning to see that’s not the right approach. And clearly climate is an issue, clearly the Cop has a potential to bring the people together, key stakeholders together to get them on one platform and get them to discuss the critical issues and to stop delaying at this, because we know we don’t have that much time left to really manage the climate to protect from unnecessary damage that it can cause.
So, I think we might be seeing, you know, hopefully now with changes I hope in the political setup in the U.S, maybe with Biden comes back on board, he can reinvigorate kind of these discussions. So, I think he also wants to work at this multilateral approach and make sure that people are coming together to find solutions, not going into kind of national lockdown mentality where you only take care of yourself and don’t worry about anybody else.
So, I think what we are beginning to see is optimism about the role opening to begin that what Cop can do. But we certainly really need to drive this. I was reading some reports yesterday from the U.K and I think they are on the huge pressure to get down to zero emissions by 2030, and the Cop can put them on the pressure. So, these types of meetings and having the leaders come together can put the pressure onto make the right choices, now that people are beginning to really see the impact of climate change on the ground.
Kirti Manian [35:07]: What is your opinion on informed climate activism? For instance, in Thailand are climate rights popular, do they hold value or do you think it’s just not it?
Niall O’Connor [35:17]: I think they do hold value. I think people here, well, let’s say deeply are aware of the climate issues. So, maybe these climate activists are helping people becoming aware of the issue. And you see it on the media, and even on ads, on televisions here that people are, don’t litter, don’t dirty the environment. We need to look at numerous aspects of climate and we need to, you know watch our natural resources.
So, I think people are beginning to really understand. But I think that maybe over the last nine months, a lot of that has shifted because the new COVID has taken a lot of the, I suppose the message is changing and that the immediate needs are changing. But I think we are seeing string push, I think both, by a number of Thai NGOs towards the environment. You have got strong green peace here, you got the WWFs and then you got a lot of Thai environment institutes as well which are pushing climate. And within a lot of the universities there is a strong push to support the climate issue or the environment issue in general.
So, I think it’s important that we have that and just clearly, it’s helping the next generation. We have some young activists here probably taking, walking in the same foot as directors sometimes and they are leading the way to say that you know, we need to stand up to this, we need to look at what the issues are, we need to address this with the key decision makers and we need to make government aware. And that’s important. And I think it’s really good to see that happening, and we just need to maybe encourage more of it. But we need to make sure that they have the right information and that they are focusing on the right, I suppose outcome so that they can bring about positive change. But we can do more I’m sure, we could encourage more of this.
But in a country that’s also maybe here in Thailand going to don political issues, a lot of the youth are more engaged in the political and economic issues that the climate right now because of current conditions. But you know one hopes that that will pass and they can get back to caring for the environment and keep pushing for change in that way as well.
Kirti Manian [37:08]: And does the media show a balanced perspective or is it very disaster focused in that sense?
Niall O’Connor [37:15]: I don’t know if I have the right knowledge to answer that because I am not a great Thai speaker, because, so I don’t have the details. But I know there is a lot on the media that talks about climate. And there has been a lot of, I suppose coverage of the climate activists as well and the coverage of Greta and what she has been doing, Greta Thunberg, around the work as well. But I think there is a lot of, well, there are home grown issues that could go onto the media here which is quite serious. And that’s always around there and are always, but predominantly around flooding and the impacts of flooding and what’s causing it, is it related to lot of the dam construction on the Mekong river.
So, there is a lot of information about that on the media as well to try and encourage people to understand more, is it climate change, is it just dam infrastructure development I suppose in these problems. We know what caused the floods here in 2011, well not necessarily linked to climate change and you know increased rainfall. It was also linked to decision makers not opening appropriate flood gates, flood plains at the right time to protect their constituents. So, making sure that we understand the real implications of these environmental disasters first, and making sure that the right information is being shared.
I think there is a lot more happening now. You know many of the universities are having regular seminars, we are doing seminars as to try and encourage more learning around the environment so that the media does portray the right angle, and not just as you say the sensationalism around it. And so, I would say that it is happening, but we would like to see a lot more of it happen because I think we have to continue to get the right information to the communities and to the decision makers and to business so that they are making the right choices, they are making informed choices.
Kirti Manian [38:52]: Thank you so much for that. And now to my last question, what do you think we need to do to kind of save the planet and what would your call of action be to our listeners?
Niall O’Connor [39:01]: I am hoping your listeners already listened to this science. But I would say to anybody else who is not-- listen to the science okay, the science knows what it’s talking about. There is a lot of good knowledge out there that if you put into practice today, we can solve a lot of the issues that are there, not all but a lot, and we need to reflect upon that. This whole idea of renewable energy, and it’s clear that we need to make the shift away from fossil fuels whether it’s coal or oil, we need to leave it in the ground as much as possible.
And difficult for some economies because they get lot of their income from this. But you know the reality is it’s having too big of an impact and we need to change that. And there are ways of doing it. It is possible to have full energy from renewable resources and we need to work towards that. We get a lot of issues here as well as our people are investing in infrastructure here, whether it’s already plans for more dams or power plants from fossil fuels.
We need to encourage people to move away from that because there is this issue around standard assets. They invest in it today but in five years’ time we know that renewable energy will be a lot cheaper. So, their investments are in the sense standard that they kind of be paid properly, but those debts will be left with governments and tax payers to pay off. So, if we can encourage people to look 10-20 years down the line into the future and see the potential for renewable energy to make sure that they make the right investments today in renewable energy, not in fossil fuel, it will be a great start.
We’ll also want to make sure that in trying to save the planet, we need to have a just and inclusive transition to all these new approaches. We need to make sure that we integrate gender in decision making and make sure that people understand that all of us are coming together with our insights whether it’s as gender or LGBTQ we need to make sure that we have an inclusive approach to designing a future for everybody. And otherwise we have more marginalized communities, this will be causing more problems in the future. Make sure that we are thinking beyond borders and make sure that we are working with solutions that we know and will adapt to current climate or can mitigate current climate issues in our country, but they don’t have negative impacts on other countries.
An example here will be as far away as we are from Senegal in West Africa, it purchases much of its rice from Thailand or from India. But when climate impacts happen there and rainfall patterns change and rice production isn’t as high as normal, policies made in the country are to stop exporting rice. So, it means that they have rice in Thailand or India, but now Senegal can’t import any rice. So, it has less rice leading to what happened is the 400% increase cost in rice. It led to rioting on the streets in Senegal because they couldn’t get access to food security.
So, we made a decision to solve an issue in one country, but it caused another issue in another country. How do we look at these transboundary issues and really reflect that collectively we are coming together to make decisions that benefit everybody, not just ourselves. That’s always going to be challenging, but I think we need to look at this trans-boundary approach.
I think we need to look at, pushing a lot for green financing, particularly now when we are going into all these stimulus packages that we want to reduce the economy. But if we are putting all of it into fossil fuel or heavy infrastructure, we are only going to exacerbate the problem that we are trying to get away from. And when I see in a report where only 4% of the stimulus packages that are being released in the last six to eight months or so, I am going to help reduce emissions. 4% are going to increase emissions and 92% are there but just going to build business as usual. And we have got a huge opportunity to invest all of these resources into green renewable energy, into green jobs, into protecting the environment and reducing the threat to climate change, increasing resilience for communities.
And yet we are not taking it. We are going back to business as usual. So, we really need to get people to stop and think about how do we move forward, how do we create, you know, a more sustainable future, a more prosperous future as well for all. And we can do that by putting the right plans in place.
And I think for me then also a lot of it is based around personal responsibility. We have got to make choices. We have got to make sure that we also don’t just keep consuming at the rate that we are at the moment. You know I saw a report the other day with global population increasing as it is to a max 110 million by 2050, to have the same consumption patterns as the U.S which most people seem to aspire to for some reason, I don’t know why. But we would need three planet’s resources to cater for that. And now it’s just not possible. We are going to have to rethink and our consumption patterns, we are going to have to rethink how we bring about more circular economies to ensure that production of these commodities used is recycled material and encourages that circularity in production.
We have got to put pressure on our governments to make sure that they make those decisions, they make kind of informed choices about long-term investment in environment, in circular economies, in renewable energies, in this just transition. And that’s how you know, whether through our ability diverted to put pressure on decision makers or to learn and inform through science. And it’s our responsibility for our future. And I always do it because I look at the world, at the pleasure of being able to move across Africa and across Asia to the most amazing landscapes and wildlife. It’s just been an awesome career so far. But I wonder whether my kids will get to explore that fully or even you know if their kids, will they get to explore that.
If we are not doing something now to change our current trajectory, we are not going to give our kids, our grandkids an opportunity to see the things that we saw or to live a lifestyle that we lived. We are going to make it more and more difficult. And that’s our responsibility. And I think if you want to save the planet, stand up to these responsibilities and behold yourself accountable, all governments accountable and try and force them to make the right changes for a sustainable future for all.
Kirti Manian [44:51]: Thank you so much Niall. Your answers will make our listeners think a whole lot about what they are doing in their life and making the right choices then. It’s been a pleasure having you on our podcast. Thank you so very much.
Niall O’Connor [45:02]: Thank you very much indeed for having us, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
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