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A whole systems approach

Updated Friday, 18th June 2010

From COP15, Rudra Kapila, a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh, talks about how her childhood love of tigers led her to work on environmental change issues. She believes an interdisciplinary approach is key, but that more disasters are probably needed before politicians really focus on the necessary changes.

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Interviewer: So first of all you’re working on environmental change issues, was there a moment that you became interested in this, that you can date your interest back to, where you thought, right that’s what I want to be researching, that’s what I want to be looking at?

Rudra Kapila: Actually I can. I hope this doesn’t sound too corny, but I used to go on family holidays to India, every summer, and it was roughly around the age of – when I was 11, 12 – just about the time of the Gulf War. I was living in the Middle East and I would travel to India, and my family are from, originally from the mountain areas. And, within a spate of a decade, I witnessed, myself, a tremendous amount of degradation of the natural habitat in the Himalayas.

Also it was a time where – I love tigers, I love 'The Jungle Book', and so, just in my school, I started a petition to send to the Indian Government to save the Bengal Tiger. And, yeah, and when I left the British International School, in Saudi Arabia, I’m not trying to big myself up at all, but, like, they basically created this the Wilton Environmental Award. I’ve never won anything, ever, in my life, but this was the first thing that I’d ever won, was this environmental award because I had taken the initiative, myself, and gone around and got hundreds and hundreds of signatures to save the Bengal Tiger.

I mean I didn’t have, I don’t think the tigers have been saved but, you know, that optimism and that kind of spirit and determination I had, at the age of being 11 or 12, and I was, like, this is what I’m going to do! And it hasn’t wavered.

Interviewer: And what are you working on at the moment? Where has that passion taken you?

Rudra: Well it’s taken me into a very interesting sector. So I actually did do my first degree was in environmental sciences, environmental geosciences, and I went on to do a masters in environmental chemistry and toxicology, so very much science focused – looking at degradation of the environment, more on the chemical side, really, and the changes and fluxes in that. But I worked in energy policy, for three years, just as a researcher and that really, what sparked my interest in that was the interface between policy and, you know, science, basically looking at the applied science research side. And that’s led me into carbon capture and storage, bizarrely. But kind of taking from my physical sciences background but looking at more of the applied nature of this technology, and I’m focusing more on developing countries, so I’m looking at carbon capture and storage in India, that’s what my PhD is based on. And, I mean, there are so many elements or aspects of environmental change, which we don’t realise.

Like as a scientist I never thought that I’d actually have to look at, you know, issues relating to political economy, international relations, law. I mean, now half my PhD is in law. So this year I started taking climate change law classes and international environmental law classes. And it’s a very different way of thinking but, I mean, the problem is there. It’s what, it’s termed whole systems research approach, or is the whole systems approach, and that’s where I am now. And actually it suits my character, kind of being like, knowing a little bit about everything, rather than being a very kind of specialist person.

Interviewer: So it does have to be interdisciplinary at this stage?

Rudra: Absolutely, I’m whole heartedly for interdisciplinary research. It definitely suits my character, as an individual, but also I think the issue of climate change or environmental change, anything dealing with waste or just degradation of the habitat and the natural environment, right down to, you know, greenhouse gas emissions – this is a whole systems approach that would be needed. It’s an interdisciplinary problem, we can’t just rely on the expertise of scientists. We need political scientists, lawyers, economists everybody working on this together.

Interviewer: And thinking out over the next sort of two, five, ten years, where do you see yourself going?

Rudra: Oh good God! Well I’m in the third year of my PhD and so, and I have an immediate deadline of basically I’ve got one whole year left, to submit my thesis. I actually see myself staying in the energy field. I really do like the energy sector, and it’s only now people are becoming more aware of this connection between energy and climate change, and I like that, that kind of interface and play that’s happening there. I would probably see myself maybe still working in carbon capture and storage, because I actually do feel that this is where it’s going to happen.

I just, I don’t know, maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I don’t know how we’re going to achieve behavioural change for a lot of people on this planet. Just weaning the population off fossil fuels is insurmountable task that I just don’t know. And I look at developing countries in particular I envision that I will still be focusing on developing countries, just from my heritage being, you know, part Indian and speaking the languages, and having this general interest in that region. And also it’s a very complex and far more challenging problem.

Interviewer: You like a challenge?

Rudra: I am definitely the one who says, oh yeah, bring it on. So that’s, I’m all about the challenge.

Interviewer: So?

Rudra: In ten years’ time, I’m still debating whether I’ll stay in academia or whether I could go, I mean, I have plenty of options, industry, government, but energy and climate change is definitely something I’ll be working in. One aspect that I find quite interesting is the whole energy security issue, so, and developing countries, so I can’t really say where I’ll be, in what position, at what level, but…

Interviewer: But you know which industry?

Rudra: I know which sector I’m going to be in, and it’s definitely going to be in this one.

Interviewer: And generally over the next ten years when you look out at where we might be, collectively, optimistic or not so much?

Rudra: Oh dear! Well, I’m afraid to say. I actually think that there will be a Mexican protocol, Mexico City protocol or the Mexico treaty. So that’s kind of halfway, but this is, I actually see it happening, all coming together in Mexico. There’s certain elements of this process that I’m observing in Copenhagen, of the UNFCCC Secretariat, which is, it started quite small and now it’s grown to an unmanageable number. I mean, as you know about the restrictions on the delegates and so forth, you know, we’ve reached capacity. There’s roughly 30,000 people here trying to get in, and it’s slowing down the process, it’s making it inefficient, such large delegations from a hundred-odd countries. The process, in itself, I think will kind of just collapse on itself and there’ll be this kind of regeneration.

I don’t think we should lose faith in this process. I think it’s evolving and it’s suddenly gone towards the inefficient direction, but I think, from this, we will learn and something better will come out of it. Climate change is too serious of a problem for us to just let it happen. Maybe we need a couple more disasters. I mean this is really bad to say but…

Interviewer: We need that shift in perception of the issue and that sadly…

Rudra: Not only that, but sadly, I think it’ll take a couple of disasters to encourage politicians to have that bravery and take on that leadership that they’re currently hesitating to do. And, as a scientist, I’d also – my one last statement, I’d have to say about the whole UEA hacking into emails. I feel that our own, like our own group, stakeholders, our integrity has been, you know…

Interviewer: Questioned?

Rudra: Questioned, but we’re fighting back. And scientists need support, because, yeah, the scientific community really needs to, kind of, just stand behind one another; it should be a kind of "all for one and one for all" mission. And, yeah, I think there’s a lot of incidents that have happened in the lead up to Copenhagen, but I do believe in the principles of this process and I think Mexico – Mexico protocol, I’ll put my money on it.

Interviewer: Cool, thank you very much.

Rudra: You’re most welcome.

 

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