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Exclusively online: Series "12 Questions to ..."

GAIA 3/2018: 12 Questions to Jakob von Uexkull

Jakob von Uexkull, founder of the Right Livelihood Award and the World Future Council (WFC).

Born 1944 in Uppsala, Sweden. MA in politics, philosophy and economics from Christ Church, Oxford. Founder of the Right Livelihood Award (1980), often referred to as the Alternative Nobel Prize. Cofounder (1984) of The Other Economic Summit. 1987 to 1989 member of the European Parliament. 1998 to 2000 UNESCO Commission on Human Duties and Responsibilities. Founder of the World Future Council (WFC).

1. From your point of view, what are today's most pressing environmental problems?

In my opinion, climate breakdown is the most pressing environmental problem which is related to all the other major challenges, for example, biodiversity loss, oceans acidification, water and food security, and peace.

2. When looking at potential improvements in our environment, what gives you hope?

The problems are still growing faster than the solutions so the hope can only be that we implement what we know much faster from now on. The Paris Agreement is not binding and reaching its goals assumes unproven technologies. Nothing agreed – or even officially discussed – so far comes close to eliminating the likelihood of catastrophic climate breakdown. This would require, for example, globally binding carbon prices, rising quickly.

3. Is there a particular environmental policy reform you admire the most?

Feed-in tariffs to speed up the spread of renewable energies have worked quickly and effectively whenever they have not been reduced too quickly.

4. Which trend in environmental policy and politics do you consider an aberration?

In my eyes it's a failure to fully internalise costs. Fully internalising production costs would bankrupt most producers, unless accompanied by, for example, a shift to "green" taxes to create a new level playing field. It will be complex, as many costs are in the supply chains. But, above all, it will be politically very unpopular, as consumers will have to pay many costs hitherto externalised (at the expense of the environment and future generations).

5. Why environmental research?

In-depth research must inform advocacy as well as policymaking. Legislators need to take decisions that are based on facts. Environmental research is therefore the basis for future-just policymaking that protects the rights of future generations and life on planet Earth.

6. What are your experiences of the transfer of scientific insights into practice?

The scientific community speaks a different language and works at a different speed than policy or business stakeholders. One example is the IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on ClimateChange), which is fundamental to sound climate policy making. However, it only relies on peer-reviewed science, which does not reflect the actual reality of, for example, fast declining costs of renewable energy or the overestimated potential of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The latter is in reality far from being a market-ready or cost-effective solution.

7. Besides the one you're working in, what field of research in environmental sciences do you consider most exciting?

All practical policy research, focusing on the "how" to actually do what is necessary, is exciting. A key issue is generating sufficient finance for the massive and urgent energy, transport, construction, and so forth, transition, which the private and state sectors cannot provide in time – so how can we bring in Central Banks to create new funding, as they did to save the financial system? Such research is of course not strictly environmental science, but another example of the need for interconnected solutions.

8. Can you name any person or event that has had particular influence on your commitment to environmental issues?

I was inspired by Hermann Scheer, the visionary German politician who developed the feed-in tariff legislation and proposed the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). I was also influenced by Bill McKibben, leader of the anti-carbon campaign group 350.org. Another person who inspired me is the former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who initiated the successful climate divestment campaign which made even fossil companies call for carbon pricing!

9. What knowledge about the environment would you like to pass on to young people?

The environment is a very complex system. We tend to separate and reduce things to make it easier for us to understand. However, nature is interconnected and intertwined. Our actions must therefore be holistic. Furthermore, collaboration and communicationis crucial – we cannot protect our environment within silos.

10. As a scientist who is concerned with sustainability problems, what contradictions are you faced within everyday life?

I am a political, not a natural scientist. But I am aware that the Western way of life is not globally possible and therefore not sustainable.

11. What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading the book "Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival" by Peter D. Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth. This book summarises the extent and immediacy of the climate emergency, including crimes of denial, breaches of trust, media collusion, corporate and bank crimes. It also highlights solutions including tax reforms, legal challenges, innovation (unfortunately putting too much faith in nuclear), market leadership, and civil resistance strategies.

12. Apart from the ones we've raised here, what is the most important question?

Can we build "ecocracies", that are democracies respecting ecological limits in time, or will natural laws enforce eco-dictatorships?

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