A woman and a man, smiling, standing in front of a stylized painting of a carp

Dr Oran Young

Dr Oran Young of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management visited the Pentland Centre on 5th June 2019, as part of a wider visit to Lancaster University, and spoke to Pentland Centre Champion Sharlene Gandhi about climate change, the Arctic and China.

Dr Oran Young has devoted his long and diverse academic career to the study of sustainable governance and the impact of climate change on the Arctic environment. Professor Emeritus at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Dr Young has focused on climate governance and the role of social institutions both in the US and in China, in relation to one another and as national economies in their own right. His research sits at the delicate intersections between sustainability and politics, international relations, trade relations and human impact. Having started his academic career at Harvard University, continuing on to complete a Masters and a doctorate at Yale University, Dr Young is now an author or co-author of twenty prominent books in the field - including Governing Complex Systems: Social Capital for the Anthropocene and International Cooperation: Building Regimes for Natural Sources and the Environment - and a leader at the decentralised University of the Arctic. In 2018, he was awarded the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) Medal for outstanding contributions towards the advancement of the environmental and Arctic governance field.

The Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business had the great honour of hosting Dr Young for a special seminar on Wednesday 5th June 2019, in which he outlined his experiences in the Arctic, as a means of showing how different parties involved in climate governance need to find common ground in order to make progress. Analysts, he says, look at the issue from the top-down, whereas practitioners are involved with the detail of the problem - the question then is how they meet in the middle to inspire mutually beneficial change. A major thread running through the seminar was that of influencing, perhaps new to the world of climate scientists, but not so new in the realm of politics and international relations. The Arctic itself is representative of the political tensions and struggles that manifest themselves in the form of inertia when it comes to tackling climate change; Dr Young advocates for keeping the Arctic as a depoliticised “Zone of Peace”, backed by an “Arctic Treaty” and even having an “Arctic President”.

Sharlene Gandhi, a Pentland Centre Alumni Champion, had the opportunity to catch up with Dr Young that evening to speak about some of the most pressing issues affecting the natural world, and by extension the human world, today.

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SG: What, in your opinion, is the single largest human impact on the climate today?

OY: It varies by country, but large numbers of people living affluent, materialistic lifestyles would be one way to put it.

 

SG: And how does that impact manifest itself in the context of the Arctic, it being as remote and away from tangible human impact as it is?

OY: The Arctic [itself] is not responsible for many of the greenhouse gas, but lots of consequences of climate change impact the Arctic. So the Arctic is on the receiving end, rather than the causing end. But of course, there is then major feedback [from the Arctic] which then has global implications, such as coastal erosion, the melting of permafrost, and the loss of sea ice. The latter is very important from a human point of view, as when the behaviour of sea ice becomes less predictable, it can cause more problems, [such as] dramatic temperature increases - we’ve now seen temperatures above freezing at high altitudes.

There are also other impacts which may not seem huge; for example, a lot of people in the Arctic use ice cellars to store meat. So when the ground begins to melt, they lose their refrigerator. Many small communities in the Arctic are located right on the shoreline - which makes sense as they need to be hunting marine mammals - but with coastal erosion, a consequence of a loss of sea ice, which in turn controls the waves, a lot of these small communities are having to relocate.

 

SG: That in itself is something that is quite intangible for those of us who are sat in quite geographically blessed places…

OY: Yes, these are communities that are very long-standing. And all these things play out in terms of disturbances for individuals - the knock-on social and community consequences of this physical change are enormous. For example, there are extremely high rates of suicide, which no doubt cannot be entirely attributed to climate change, but is still indicative of a very disruptive, unpredictable, who-knows-what-is-happening force. Life is extremely unsettling.

 

SG: In light of such dire consequences on humankind, what do you think is holding countries back from being able to collaborate to make these large-scale decisions?

OY: If I knew the answer to that, I’d let you know! I think it’s a couple of things: firstly, there are a large number of players in developed countries whose self interests would be negatively affected by the changes we need to make - an example being the oil companies making profit on fossil fuels. The other point is social inertia. People are locked in to daily lives, and many of them are stretched fairly thin day-to-day. Having to then think seriously about significant changes is tough.

 

SG: You touched on the link between power and fossil fuels. So, as we very slowly move away from our reliance on oil and other fossil fuels, what does that mean for the Middle East and its current political standpoint? What is the impact on international relations, global politics and climate governance?

OY: First of all, we’re not moving away all that rapidly, so this is not something that is going to happen in the short term, or quickly. There will not be a tipping point, but it will rather be a gradual change, which will allow for alternative industries. It means different things for different countries; it’s one thing for Saudi, and another for Iran. For the latter, for example, the move away from fossil fuels is not as much a problem as is the sanctions imposed on purchasing Iranian Oil. And I think the Saudis are already conscious that there may be a need for shifting their economic structure, and are already beginning to engage in development of new ventures. They’re also obviously one of the largest consumers in the world of air conditioners!

 

SG: Will sources of power and political influence shift?

OY: Sure, in so far as they are holding the keys to what is today an essential, critical resource. All other things being held equal, who knows what will happen along the way. Going back to the previous point, will the Middle East, with their enormous wealth, come up with another way to exercise influence? That, of course, will have impacts on the internal political and social makeups of those countries - that influence is currently something that certainly underpins their political and social structure. I think those dynamics will be quite different.

 

SG: It’s difficult to speak about new sources of power on a global scale without speaking about China. But you’ve now got a fresh batch of national economies that have begun to undercut China’s low-cost manufacturing model, such as Ethiopia and Bangladesh. What does this mean for China’s future?

OY: One of my greatest concerns is that as China becomes increasingly affluent, it will follow the highly materialistic, high-consumption Western lifestyle. But China has four or five times as many people as the US, for example. So if you’re talking about hundreds of millions of people wanting to lead affluent, Western lifestyles, that is a scary proposition. When you go into cities in China, on virtually every street corner, there is a shopping mall. You go into all the shopping malls and they all have the high-end Western shops - you wonder if they are selling anything, but they’re making huge business.

  

SG: Sustainability and slowing economic growth isn’t necessarily on their agenda at the moment then…

OY: To give them credit, they are concerned about environmental issues. The government is doing significant things, such as the ‘greening’ of Chinese industry. China is, by some measure, the major producer of electric vehicles, various components of wind and solar power, and environmentally-friendly air-conditioners. The question is, can these ‘greening’ combine with increasing affluence?

I am more and more coming to the sense that it’s going to take real sea change in terms of how we live and work, to deal with the challenges that we are facing. We might discover that the alternate life is really not that bad, and that it provides a sense of wellbeing. But one, we’re in a lot of locked-in systems, and two, people find it really hard to wrap their minds in terms of what an alterative would be like. It will take much more than becoming more efficient and continue living our current lives in an environmentally-friendly way.

What does it take to make that kind of change? Could there be some kind of climate shock? We do know that in political contexts, the absolute far-fetched thoughts can happen when there is a dramatic crisis - things that otherwise would have seemed ridiculous.

 

SG: What does China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative mean when we speak about the tension that China is currently facing, between choosing economic growth and recognising their role in climate change?

OY: The international environmental community believes the Belt-and-Road Initiative is the single greatest environmental catastrophe ever to occur. And they certainly have a case.

One of the big concepts (behind the Initiative) is that of ecological civilisation, a visionary target. But what does that mean in practice? It is something that President Xi (of China) discusses quite a lot, and associates with the Belt-and-Road Initiative. I don’t want to dismiss it completely.

Given both technology and China’s political system - which is more able to make major policy changes without getting caught up in Brexit-like problems - if they reach the conclusion that large-scale change is needed, they are more able to make those things happen than we in the Western world are.

Chinese leadership understand the environmental issues. People have made calculations such as years of potential life lost as a result of things like air pollution, which is quite significant in China. With a rapidly rising middle class, there are more people who have reached the stage where they recognise the health consequences of this. There has been a huge increase in numbers of children with asthma, for example. But on the other hand, there are hundreds of millions of people living in poverty. So that is the tension between the continuing pressure for economic development come hell or high water, and paying attention to these other issues.

If you look at what is going to happen in China in the next ten to fifteen years, that tension is going to be key. And those outcomes will have consequences for the rest of us - we’ll all be impacted by how they choose to start this (Belt-and-Road Initiative) out.

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The Pentland Centre would like to thank Dr Oran Young for taking the time to come to Lancaster University, give a fantastic seminar and meet with colleagues in the research centre and faculty, as well as speaking to us about some of the most pressing issues impacting the Arctic today.

[Image at top of the page L-R: Pentland Centre Director, Gail Whiteman and Dr Oran Young]