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A new generation of climate change policy makers

Updated Saturday, 1st May 2010

In this extended discussion, Alex McGoodwin, Frederike Asael, Aaron Tait and Sayd Randle discuss the work they are doing as part of an MPhil course in Environment, Society and Development at Cambridge University

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Alex McGoodwin
Okay.  My name’s Alex McGoodwin and I’m from the US, California, and I’m doing the ESD MPhil this year, it’s called Environment Society and Development, and I’m most interested in or at least doing my dissertation on agricultural development and food security issues, mostly in Africa and Ethiopia in particular.  

Frederike Asael

I’m Frederike, I’m from Switzerland and I’m doing the same MPhil as everyone else here, and I’m also working on Ethiopia but on gender issues and stuff like that.

Aaron Tait

Okay.  My name is Aaron Tait.  I was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia, and I’m here for a year in Cambridge to do the same course as the rest of the group, and I’m doing research into adaptation to climate change in semi-arid Kenya.

Sayd Randle

My name is Sayd Randle and I’m from Washington DC and I’m on the same course as everyone here, and I’m really interested in water and I’m doing my dissertation on this technology that turns sewage into drinking water, so I get to make lots of poop jokes.  It’s fun. 

Interviewer

That’s a nice occupational - is that an occupational hazard or perk?

Sayd Randle

Yeah.  Take your pick.

Interviewer

So this is a pretty diverse crowd here and it sounds like you come from a lot of different places and have a lot of different issues, I’m sure that’s representative of everybody in this particular MPhil.  Could you guys maybe say a little bit about how you first got interested in the issues that you’re working on now.

Alex McGoodwin

Sure.  Well I did my undergrad at UCLA and didn’t quite know what I wanted to study at first and got talked into taking a geography class and kind of fell in love with it and I did geography and environmental studies.  So I started taking a lot of kind of environmentally related classes and climate change came up a lot and I got, I guess, interested in food securing in agriculture while I was taking those classes, and it’s kind of how I got there.  Yeah. 

Frederike Asael

I think I got into environmental issues by just growing up in Switzerland where the awareness is quite high and my family was kind of into it and there was some more radicals and some less radical about it and, yeah.  So that made me kind of want to study geography and around ten years ago I first went to Ethiopia, invited by an Ethiopian friend and then start from there, and kind of stuck to this country and got more and more involved in an NGO there and so on.

Interviewer

What kind of NGO were you in?

Frederike Asael

It’s a corporation between the Ethiopian friend and our family and our friends in Germany and Switzerland, and it’s focused on a particular area in the north of Ethiopia engaging in health, education and environmental issues.

Interviewer
That’s great.  Aaron?

Aaron Tait

I was initially very interested in poverty alleviation and development, and I quite foolishly said a number of years ago that I was concerned about people and there were other people who were working on trees and pandas and polar bears, and then a few things kind of sparked a change in me.  The first was I grew up diving in Australia and I worked in the military as a diver as well, and the reefs that I saw as a child growing up were absolutely incredible and the reefs that I was diving in ten years later, just before I was leaving the Australian military, were bleached and bland and it was a real tragedy for me, so that was one of the first issues that sparked something in my head.  And the second was I spent a New Year’s Eve in Kenya in a shack and there were a few people there who were just sharing a bottle of wine that I’d stolen off the Qantas flight and - a very small bottle of wine.  And so there’s a girl from Taiwan, a guy from Switzerland, someone from the US, a Kenyan and myself and we all started to tell our stories of how climate was changing and we realised that we all had really shocking stories and it was quite amazing for us to see that everyone had a climate story and how it was affecting the globe in different ways.  So that again sparked something in my mind and then I spent the next two years working in rural Africa with farmers and on market finance projects, and I really started to see the impact that rainfall variability was having on these people, and I witnessed it first hand as I was planting and trying to get a farm going for an orphanage.  And the tragedy of the rain not falling and the crops failing was tough for me, but I was able to fly away and be in England after a bad rainy season, whereas these people were stuck there.  So that’s why I really married the poverty alleviation and the climate issue. 

Interviewer

Okay, cool.

Sayd Randle

Not such a dramatic story I guess.  But I guess like Frederike, I kind of grew up in a family that was very kneejerk environmentalist kind of standard liberal politics and some of like I always said that trees were more important than people.  But I studied English as an undergraduate actually and I loved it, I really do love literature, but at a certain point it became kind of frustrating and hollow at a certain level because they are texts.  Sorry.  And so after a while I did an independent study project my senior year and it was basically in media analysis of like all the way that like pollution was represented in the Los Angeles media, because I came to this bizarre polluted city, and after a while I started to get to the fact like oh this isn’t just discursive, it’s not just like a story being told in one medium, like really things are the way they are because of like very specific policies and very specific …..  Like yeah, basically.  And so like I became very interested in like the wider problematique of how development is happening this way and how, I don’t know, different like angles are like pushed on it and like it gets represented in these ways that are sometimes real and are sometimes not real and are often like going into various interesting, very conflicting interests that aren’t what you seem to think they are.  So I like it as a collection of stories while the fact that it is more than just a surface story.  

Interviewer

Yes.  It’s fascinating you guys come from such different backgrounds and have such different experiences and yet from the way that you describe your experiences it seems like they’re all very much connected in terms of working with communities, working with local environments, looking in poverty, gender, access to resources, environmental degradation, all of these things are kind of coming together.  What I’d like to ask is how would you like to take the training that you’re receiving here and put that to use on what you’re working on, say over the next year after you finish up, and what would you like to do with the training that you’re giving at this point in your careers?  And I throw this open to anybody, no need to jump around the table.  

Sayd Randle

Aaron knows.

Interviewer

Aaron knows.  Okay.

Aaron Tait

I’m starting up an organisation in 2010 and our goal is to go into vulnerable communities to identify young leaders and then to enable those leaders to reach their potential.  So we’ll be getting into universities in their own country, while they’re at university we’ll be doing sort of public speaking training, confidence building, networking in their community, they’ll be taking us to their villages and their communities and then we’ll work as a group to start helping them solve the problems of their communities.  When they finish university we’ll then be backing them as they go out and start those initiatives.  So that’s an organisation we’re starting at the moment and that will be operational early 2011. 

Interviewer

What’s that called?

Aaron Tait

It’s called Spark International and we’re looking to be working in Papua New Guinea and South Africa by early next year. 

Alex McGoodwin

I’m going to be working for a company in the energy sector I guess you could say, and I’m going to be working in social responsibility, so I guess primarily kind of, you know, helping the company work in socially responsible ways.  But it’s also connected to working in environmentally responsible ways, because that’s obviously very connected to the social side of it.  And I guess my overall aim is to, or something I’ve been always interested in, is how companies and large corporations in particular can work in more environmentally friendly ways.  So, you know, I guess my long term goal is to help the company do that a little bit more.

Interviewer

Which company is that?

Alex McGoodwin

It’s called Occidental Petroleum Corporation, it’s kind of like a medium size oil and gas company in the US.

Interviewer

And they’re based out of?

Alex McGoodwin

They’re based, well their headquarters are in Los Angeles, but they’ve got a lot of international assets, so they work in, you know, South America, North Africa, the Middle East, so yeah. 

Interviewer

If we could just jump to maybe current events for a moment since the topic is on the table, what’s your perspective on what’s happening in the Gulf right now?

Alex McGoodwin

You know, I actually wasn’t keeping up on it very much, but I read something in the newspaper this morning and I’m really disturbed by the whole thing.  I mean clearly it’s terrible what’s happening, but I think the thing that disturbed me the most was the fact that it seems like things should be happening that aren’t and it’s just taking a really long time.  Like I didn’t realise that, you know, the leak hasn’t even been stopped yet, it’s still pouring out and I read something that said BP, they tried something and that didn’t work and they said oh we’re going to try again tomorrow and I was thinking well where’s the urgency?  You know, like it seems like that should be a really big concern.  And then I was also reading that they’re using something to like kind of break up the oil spill but it’s a lot more toxic than other alternatives, yet they’re still using this and the EPA has told them not to.  So I find the whole thing extremely disturbing.  Yeah.

Interviewer

You look like you’re about to…

Frederike Asael

Yeah.  Well I started to watch a documentary about it and usually I’m like very interested in it, but I could not finish it, it’s just so upsetting.

Sayd Randle

Upsetting.  Oh I thought you would say boring.

Frederike Asael

No.  It’s just horrible.

Alex McGoodwin

Yeah.  It’s really upsetting.  I mean BP is obviously doing things that or it should be doing things that they’re not, but even the US government I was reading something and like they’re waiting for permission from, you know, some agency and they haven’t gotten permission yet and so they didn’t build these like barriers or something like that, so now the oil has actually reached the coastline, whereas...  I just can’t understand that, like, you know, why is there this hesitation to do that kind of stuff, which I think is one of the things with climate change, a lot of us feel like it’s happening and then people are like now admitting that it is happening and they say that things need to change or they want to do things that will create some sort of change, but then you look at what’s actually happening and sometimes it gets frustrating, because it’s like okay but yeah what is actually happening?  I know some changes are being made, but it sometimes it feels like it’s happening very slowly for me at least.

Sayd Randle

Does the company who you’re going to work for do offshore exploration?

Alex McGoodwin

I think they do a little bit, I’m not actually totally sure, but I think there’s not a lot actually.  This is a bad topic for me. 

Sayd Randle

No.  But I’m just curious, because it’s hard to like walk the line like also between like you see something being so problematic and then you’re here and like feeling but I want to work with this organisation and make it better and where do you draw the line?  Also like I want to go to a conference and learn about climate change and help contribute, but then I’m going to call the cart in the air...

Alex McGoodwin

Right.  Yeah.  No.  It’s true.  I mean even now I have some reservations about what I’m going to be doing next year, so, you know, I’m kind of trying to look at it in a positive light, like okay maybe I can make some positive changes while I’m there, but at the same time it’s, you know.

Interviewer

It’ll be very interesting to come back to you in the coming year.

Alex McGoodwin

Yeah.  Absolutely. 

Interviewer

And Sayd what would you like to do with your training once you get…

Sayd Randle

I hope that eventually I’m going to be just writing about these issues, be it in an academic research kind of way or journalistically.  But what I want to do in the immediate term future is actually work for a politician whose politics I like to some degree on environmental issues or work in an environment or an organisation doing advocacy to politicians, because effectively I think that we’ve gotten great training here, but it’s often very removed from the nuts and bolts of what’s happening in the policymaking world and so I want to be able to connect those two and like reflect not only like the bigger theoretical framework you’re getting to talk about it here with the way the wheeling and dealing works in the backrooms of the senate and kind of be able to meld those two together.

Interviewer

Would you guys agree with that that sometimes the training is a little removed from the nuts and bolts?

Aaron Tait

Absolutely.

Frederike Asael

Yeah.

Alex McGoodwin

Yeah. 

Alex McGoodwin

I mean we’ve all had moments this year where we’ve kind of, you know, thought wow this is really theoretical, which is important, definitely very important, I mean it’ll help us later on.  But yeah, it does feel somewhat removed sometimes.

Sayd Randle

But I enjoyed it so much that I would like to continue, so I applied for a PhD, but less theoretical hopefully.  I’m kind of looking for the intersection of photography and geography since I have a background in photography as well as in geography, and I love both things so much that I kind of like to bring them together and I’m going to hopefully be able to look at NGO representations of women and poverty in Ethiopia, like how are these issues displayed, which arguably shape the image of the south in the north very much.

Interviewer

And by the south you mean the global south?

Sayd Randle

Yeah.  Like Ethiopia is still seen as just very poor and disaster prone and it’s just very one-sided and not very nuanced, so I actually want to analyse that and hopefully produce or come up with other ways to display certain things in photography.

Interviewer

Looking ahead what do you see, both individually and as a group, as the story of the next ten years?

Alex McGoodwin

In regards to climate change or just in general?

Interviewer

With respect to environmental issues, climate change can be a part of that, but it doesn’t have to be.  Can you start, Sayd?

Sayd Randle

Yeah, sure.  Like I think water is going to become increasingly prominent, that’s like almost a cliché now to say that, but the situation in the Middle East and the western United States and so many places where like it even exacerbates the India Pakistan conflict and the fact that with climate change it’s only going to get more problematic, you know, like river flow’s going to be less, snow packs are going to be less, there’s going to be less of the resource to go around and it’ll be interesting, because there are a lot of places that could be using a lot less than they are and there are a lot of people that just don’t have access to what they need.  But the kind of technology I’m looking at with my own work is just this other interesting angle, because there are going to be ways to get more water to particular places, but the specific communities that are going to have access to that technology are the ones with the money to build the technology are going to be able to get the capital to flow towards them, towards like really well managed proposals to governments and so it’s going to be I don’t know possibly like making the world even more stratified through the resource scarcity and it’s kind of frightening because water is just essential in a way that even oil isn’t, so I think that’s going to be a progressively more important story.

Aaron Tait

If you break it, for me climate change in particular, if you break it into two things, adaptation on one hand and mitigation on the other, and you can have an I have a dream approach to that or I have a nightmare.  And I think on adaptation I see it as I have a dream and I think a lot of people have a dream that people in these vulnerable communities, so the places that will be the hardest hit by environmental change, are incredibly resilient and can show some real leadership in those areas and improve their livelihoods during this difficult time, which is going to get more difficult I believe.  On the mitigation side, I’m a little more of the I have a nightmare feeling, which is, can the world leaders, the big players, China, America, the EU, India, can they get their act together and reduce the consumption of their societies and that I’m more worried about.

Sayd Randle

I have a question for you about the adaptation thing, because I know that you’ve said the stuff that’s been called adaptation now, whereas before just called like community-based development and they’re kind of repackaging it, like what makes into like a hopeful dream narrative for you when it’s a lot of the same stuff being called something different?  Like why is it going to be more effective and work better this time?

Aaron Tait

Yes.  So I think definitely that people are trying to mainstream adaptation within development and I think that the adaptation has been painted as a crisis at the moment, which can be a bad thing and a good thing, but what it can do is it can catalyse a lot of people to say it’s difficult for us at the moment and we need to improve the situation, but it could get more difficult.  So I think that could spark people into getting more action done in a quicker period, so that’s why I’m optimistic.  But I also think that, or I hope that people can look at it and say it’s so diverse, there’s so many different issues that are going to come out, so dry land Kent is going to be very different to New Orleans and the impacts will be very diverse, so how can each community tailor things to their own setting?  So that’s why I’m optimistic that more contextualised, more community based development can take place rather than a broad brushstroke which has been the traditional approach. 

Sayd Randle

That’s hopeful.

Interviewer

Does that answer satisfy you?

Sayd Randle

It’s a nice vision, I’m not sure if I quite believe in it to the same degree, but I hope you’re right.

Aaron Tait

So maybe you’ve got a nightmare.

Sayd Randle

There’s lots of nightmares. 

Interviewer

Well the story of water I think we have to agree right now is the story of scarcity and deprivation as opposed to surplus and plenitude. 

Sayd Randle

I hope. 

Interviewer

We hope not, but it is, it can be a trying issue.  Frede, what do you see is the major story of the next decade?

Frederike Asael

Well I have one major hope with regard to climate change, which is very simple, I hope we run out of oil as soon as possible.  Because we’ve been talking about this for so long basically and there’s only change like to a certain degree and I think much more change could’ve been done already, so if only we run out of it we have to change and we have to, yeah.

Interviewer

So you believe that necessity is the mother of invention.

Frederike Asael

Well I guess actually or I am pretty convinced that there is quite some innovation and stuff out there, which has just not, you know, which hasn’t been that emphasised by the big business, because there are still other options.  So I really hope that, like that we’ll run out of it and then we’ll get there sooner.

Interviewer

Let me throw this question back out to everybody, what do you see are the differences between say a technological approach to adaptation and mitigation as opposed to a behavioural and lifestyle approach to adaptation and mitigation?  Do you see a conflict there or do you see those two approaches working together to combat the issues that you’ve been discussing?

Aaron Tait

I think behaviour is a huge part of it.  I love the movie WALL-E where the humans have just become these big fat blobs that have all the technology which entertains and feeds them and gives them everything they could possibly want, but they’ve ruined their world, so I think we can’t be in a position where people can keep consuming the way they are and hope that there will be a technological fix that will get them out of trouble every time.

Alex McGoodwin

Yeah.  I think technology’s useful, but I mean you can’t depend on that to fix everything, I think that’s been kind of the problem, like people know that they maybe should, you know, change their, modify their behaviour a little bit, but we all kind of think oh, you know, it’ll be easier just to wait for a technological fix and then it kind of keeps people I think from changing their behaviour.  So I don’t know I mean I think it’ll definitely play a role, but I think the behavioural modifications will be more important.

Frederike Asael

And they take longer I think, so technological things are partly already there, partly they’ll be able to make, we can invent them, but it takes ages to change people’s behaviour.

Alex McGoodwin

That’s true. And I think technological fixes have not had, you know, like a great history.  I mean obviously they’ve, you know, done some great things for us, but like for me one of the things I’m looking at is agricultural development and you read some of the stuff about the technology that they’ve employed to increase agriculture and a lot of the things that I read say that like especially in the long term it’s actually not doing a whole lot for us, in fact in the long term a lot of people I think think that it’s actually going to hurt us.  So, you know, I’m reading a lot right now about smallholder farmers and obviously like these big mechanised farms are producing more like on an overall basis just because they’re bigger and they’re mechanised farms, but the smallholders are actually like producing better quality products and actually probably more compared to these large mechanised farms.  So I mean technology for me has not actually,hasn’t done a ton.

Interviewer

Sayd Randle, jump in, I know you want to.

Sayd Randle

Well I feel weird because I never take this angle, but I think that I want to draw a distinction between like big sexy technology, like nuclear and like new build and stuff and then like smaller dispersed stuff, which links up to behaviour more.  Like more energy efficient everything and, I don’t know, like different forms of farming that might not be higher tech, but are more efficient or use the behaviour better.

Frederike Asael

That’s true.  I guess it depends on how you define technology or technological fixes. 

Sayd Randle

Yeah, because I think that there’s so many ways like I don’t know, in the United States for instance like the infrastructure in so many cities is so dispersed that you couldn’t walk places, like you need to rely on some kind of transit and so maybe it’s going to be like a new form of bus systems that are relatively efficient that serve people well, I mean maybe more efficient cars, but you have to take the way your life is organised into account in some ways, but on the other hand there’s so many existing technologies that aren’t in wide use because they haven’t been made like super cost effective yet that could just completely change the equation.  So, all of the above, basically. 

Interviewer

And you were going to say what you see as the story of the next decade.

Alex McGoodwin

Yeah.  I guess for me like because I’m looking at land, so I think land is going to become a big issues, and it’s kind of related to consumption and water are very related.  But yeah, I mean it’s kind of the same thing as water right?  I mean we’ve got growing population and, you know, land is not increasing, so.  And with climate change, like I’ve been reading a lot about you’ve got more marginal land and so now there’s like more pressure on the arable land that we do have and that’s kind of creating these other environmental pressures and that kind of stuff.  So I think land is, in connection with water consumption and all these other things, is going to be a really, really big issue. 

Interviewer

So you guys I’ll ask this twice, first individually and then collectively, are you optimists or pessimists about what you see happening over the next ten years?  We can start with our original order again.

Alex McGoodwin

I don’t know I’m kind of an optimist by nature, so I think I’m pretty hopeful that things are going to change and get better, but at the same time I have to say, you know, one of the things about some of the studies that we’ve done this year makes me feel a little more pessimistic about it.  Like we were talking about, you know, behavioural change I think that’s going to be really really important and I mean I hope that it will change, but I see it happening very, very slowly.  So I don’t know, I’m a little bit on both sides I guess.  Yeah.

Frederike Asael

Yeah.  So the thing I learnt during this year was sort of the more you dig into something the more pessimistic you become.  And that I remember one point everyone was kind of freaking out.

Alex McGoodwin

A little depressed.

Frederike Asael

And like what the hell.  So – hmmm…. I’d love to be an optimist, I’m sort of slightly pessimistic, but I would love to be swapping sides again, so I hope you’re right. 

Alex McGoodwin

Me too.

Aaron Tait

I think as a group at Cambridge University sitting in a seminar room we can chat about these things and we have a certain perspective and we’ll probably still argue with each other all day about it, but I work in a pub in Cambridge so you get the average Joe coming in and you have about 60 seconds while you’re pouring a beer to chat about these things, so it’s an interesting perspective on what the average Joe thinks about this and there’s a lot of different views and they’re swayed a lot by media and all these kind of things.  So I see some people who are really interested in it and I see some people who have no interest at all in it.  So I’m not sure where I sit right now, but I think that in the next 10 years we can’t point fingers and we can’t criticise, we’ve got to do something about it, so as educated young people it’s on our shoulders now to move forward.  In 10 years, 20 years we’ll be the people the heads of corporations or in politics, so it’s up to us, so hopefully people won’t be pointing fingers at us saying what are they doing about it?  They can be pointing fingers and saying wow, this is a powerful generation that can really do a lot.  So I think gone are the days where it’s us against the system, we’re I think very close to being in the system soon and that’s where you can make the most change.

Sayd Randle

Yeah.  I’m pretty pessimistic, and I guess kind of it stems at least partially from everything we’ve learned this year being depressing and also it’s being always more complicated than you think it’ll be, and it makes me kind of realise that I am, you know, as Aaron says, like an educated young person who should be going out and taking on the world but at the same time I have increasingly little faith that I know how to make what I think should happen happen and if what I think should happen is actually the best thing to happen.

Alex McGoodwin

That’s true.

Sayd Randle

And so that’s slightly depressing, which my solution is I’ll write about it instead, but yeah, I hope there are a lot of people a lot smarter, more powerful than me that are going to make good things happen that are actually good.  That’s pretty defeatist I realised, and hopefully, but then again I don’t know, like you can always hold on to something, but I mean in 1981 did anybody think that the Berlin Wall was going to fall?  Change happens and like surprising things that are invisible until it actually does happen.  So I hold out the possibility of being hopeful in the future.

Interviewer

Well I’d like to leave it on that note, but I have to observe before we finish up that, having tallied the votes of optimism and pessimism surrounding the table, it sounds like we’ve ended up from this particular group of MPhil students with a resounding maybe. 

Alex McGoodwin

Yeah!

Interviewer

Does that sound about good?

Alex McGoodwin

Yes.  That’s a very academic stance.

Aaron Tait

We’ve been well trained in Cambridge to not give an answer, so.

Sayd Randle

That’s a very academic answer, you know, like maybe, little yes, little no, it could go both ways.

Frederike Asael

Hmm, it’s true.

Interviewer

But what’s the answer to any question that you’re asked at law school?  Do you know the answer to that?

Aaron Tait

No.

Alex McGoodwin

What the precedence is?

Interviewer

It depends.  Guys thank you so much, this has been an absolute pleasure.

30’32”

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