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Human solutions to human problems

Updated Wednesday 15th September 2010

Richard Powell from the RSPB argues that climate change is a human problem that affects humans, not planets. What changes can we make now to our behaviour and governance to lessen any future impacts?

Taking a longer view of climate change

Richard Powell is Director of Eastern England for the RSPB. He sees climate change as a human problem that will affect us, whereas the planet will likely survive. Richard sees long-term planning as key to addressing the problems of climate change, ensuring that we see a vision of how we would like our future to be, and generating ways to get there.


Copyright open university


We feel really passionate about climate change and the impact of climate change on not only the human race but the plant itself.  Part of me often thinks that climate change is a human problem; it’s not a planet problem.  The planet will probably do something about it and will survive.  Actually climate change is about affecting people, and it’s about long term planning, and part of my passion for creating landscapes takes you down the road of thinking long term.

So I got involved in quite a lot of climate change debates and sustainability debates because I kept walking out for 50 years and then walking back to say well look what sort of landscape, what sort of people, what sort of towns, what sort of plan do you want, and if you want somewhere that is habitable and good for people well then you’re going to have to act now.  And so I’ve been involved in lots of different things.

So a lot of the regional spatial planning, planning for transportation, planning for houses, I’ve always been there championing better low carbon economies, better efficient housing, looking at ways that will sustain the planet in a much wholesome way if you like than just pure economics.  And so I was involved in, I got heavily involved in joining all those agendas up.  And so working for the Development Agency and some of the councils and governments that you do you constantly question whether the planning is for now and short term, when actually it should be for long term.

And lots of people will say to you we have to deal with the issues of the people now, which is true.  You know, we have big areas of deprivation, we have big problems with water and cropping and soil structures, etc, yes, you do have to deal with now, but now is so short term, and sometimes now just leads to bigger problems in the medium term.  So my challenge constantly is to widen those boundaries to start to get people to look at where the effects will take you and then replan backwards so that we start moving on a journey towards sustainability rather than just annihilation really.

I suppose there’s two key areas that you constantly challenge.  One is behaviour change, and behaviour change is really difficult.  People are comfortable in a Western society; they’re comfortable with what they’ve got.  Humans always do everything to excess.  So if you ever try and do anything it’s always, look at Tesco’s, look at, you know, do we need 40 different types of pasta on the shelf, you know, and choice is a great thing but how much choice do you actually need.  And so very interested in looking at behavioural change and what makes habit forming and how do you break habits.  And so a lot of the real interest for me at the moment is how do we get people to alter what they do; to get out of their car, to think about long term issues like flooding, sea level rise, changing the landscape to absorb the water, how do people adapt to that, how do people understand that they’re going to have to do things in a different way because of climate change, and in this part of the world sea level rise is enormous.

You know, it’s going to have a massive impact on our coastline, but also inland, because if the sea level rises the water’s not going to get out, and a long flat country, or parts of the country like Eastern England fresh water going out is going to have a problem, and it’s going to burst its banks and flood inland as well.  So sea level rise and climate change affects inland as much as it does the coast.  So we have to think differently.  We have to farm differently, we have to build differently, we have to operate differently, we have to travel differently, you know, so that behavioural change I think is the biggest obstacle we’ve got.

The second is governance, and governance is so short term.  We’ve just changed the administration from one set of politicians to another set of politicians, and the new set of politicians want to throw everything out that the old set of politicians did, and if you notice today in 2010 climate change and sustainability seems to have gone off the radar.  It seems to have completely gone off the agenda, but that’s so short term.  You know, you’ve got to start thinking bigger and longer, and so it’s how you influence the governance structures.

Because they’re so interwoven insomuch as if you want to have economic growth it can’t be at the expense of social environmental issues, they’re all joined together, and so at the moment it’s really driving about saving ourselves from the debt that the country’s got.  You know, and part of me thinks well you have a mortgage for 25 years, why can’t a country have a debt for 25 years.  Do we really have to destroy everything, throw everything away for a short term gain, you know, and so they’re the two things that really I suppose keep me awake at night is how do we change people’s behaviour and how do we get a governance that really understands climate change and its impact, because if we accept a four degree change in climate that is catastrophic.

Acting today to save tomorrow

Climate changes 'lags', according to Richard—the things we do now to mitigate it will not see effects for another 25 or 50 years—so the west must act today rather than delay efforts.


Copyright open university


I think our priority has got to be to understand as much as we possibly can how climate change is going to impact.  As we’ve talked about, I’m going long term again I’m afraid, but climate change is a lag.  You know, what we do now won’t really have an effect for 25 years’ time, maybe 50 years’ time, so we do have to make some decisions on some real issues now, and I think the problem you have sometimes, I mean I know individuals have this problem, if I turn my lights off, if I save water, how do I affect the big picture.  And if we accept that the West is already past its peak in so far as emissions go, and if we accept that India and China are not going to peak their emissions until at least 2020, 2025, well there’s no room left for the West.  The West has got to act now.

I go through sort of waves of pessimism and optimism I suppose.  I’m naturally optimistic, I’m definitely a glass half full, it doesn’t stop me challenging and campaigning for this behavioural change all the time.  We had a conference only last week on the big society.  What does that mean?  How does sound sustainable?  So I think I’m optimistic so much as if you don’t continue to challenge, if you don’t continually question the decisions that are being made and you readily accept them that’s catastrophic.

So I suppose I’m optimistic in that I’m driven to constantly try and move this agenda forward.  I’m absolutely passionate about this agenda and I bring it up at every case even though I’m often told I’m a weird and whacky environmentalist.  You know, I run a big business, the RSPB is a big business, and you have to engage with business and decision makers.  So I’m optimistic in that I keep pushing that agenda.  I’m pessimistic in so much that at times you feel we’re too accepting as a country, you know, as a Western democracy.  We are accepting at the moment the two degrees can’t be hit and I think science will tell you two degrees change already can’t be hit, which means we are going to four degrees.

Now how can you just sit back and let that happen and the change of government, I’ve just seen an economic development plan for Norfolk, all of it is completely unsustainable.  Yes, we do need to do something but we need to create jobs, we need to build houses, people will still want to drive their cars.  But in that plan there is nothing that actually drives towards a low carbon economy.  It’s all about business as usual.  And so if I do get pessimistic it’s usually when I deal with some of the business agendas.  But I am eternally optimistic and I think we will come through this, we will make a difference, and I’m not going to be here when some of the big climate change happens, but my sons are, and I have to fight for them.

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