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Why We Must Debate Our Climate Future

It’s Climate Week Paris, the first big event of the 2015 to draw the eyes of the world’s environmentalists to France, but back in the UK, I am putting the finishing touches to a landmark climate change event in Newcastle called ‘Ice & Climate’.
I am a passionate communicator of climate change and I recognise the need to get more people involved in climate activism, sustainable business and all-round greenness. However, to do this people must be aware of the issue, engaged by its importance and recognize how their efforts can fit into the global drive for strong climate action.
This ‘Ice & Climate’ event aims to do all of those things and to help people realize that climate change is not a distant scientific concept it is a very real problem which is already affecting our everyday lives, health, finances and security.
Last year I, and a great team of students, transformed the medieval heart of Durham city into an outdoor cinema for the day to showcase the awe-inspiring documentary “Chasing Ice” to bring the hauntingly beautiful time-lapse photography of James Balog to the North East of England. This was followed by an evening debate in the city hall where people could grill our panel of experts on the science of climate change and debate pragmatic ways to tackle it.
A year on, the need for a good old debate is more pressing than ever– which is why I have brought the event back and made it even bigger.
On May 23 we’re taking over the , Newcastle UK, to once again showcase bold and provocative climate films but also we are bringing together front-line climate researchers from countless scientific institutes to conduct interactive climate experiments, share stories of conducting climate fieldwork in extreme places and to inspire the next generation of climate leaders.
The main highlight of the event for me however, is the evening debate. In the past year, we have seen both good and bad milestones for climate change that are yearning to be discussed. The need to get debating is striking, the announcement of new oil fields in the South of England in April was still met with widespread glee while at the same time the Divestment movement is surging and we lack a national strategy for a clean energy transition. While we put off figuring our long-term climate plans  CO2 levels are continuing to rise past 400ppm.
“Ice & Climate” wants to actively engage people in tackling climate change which is why we are hosting a debate to discuss our climate future rather than dictating the cliché climate action points (like switching off our lights) all night.
The main talking points for our panel of scientists, economists and politicians will be expectations for the UN Paris meeting, Conservative UK Government Policy and the surge of both The Guardians ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign and the 350.org Divestment movement targeting universities.
I checked in with some of our panellists and university experts ahead of the debate to gather their opinions on the latter of these points.
The once untouchable fossil fuel institutes which have underpinned economic development are now starting to crumble as a result of divestment at the same time the climate change movement is gaining traction.
As the playing field is levelling these two ideologies we must urgently debate the future of energy and how to achieve a transition to renewables.
Alice Lépissier from the Centre for Global Development argued the financial sense of ditching fossil fuel investments which now appear to be on a one way ticket into the red.
“Investors, especially those with long-term investment horizons such as pension funds, are increasingly worried about the risk of a carbon bubble. As governments are committing to strong action on reducing CO2 emissions, investors are worried about unburnable carbon: assets which would just be too expensive to get out of the ground if the world introduced stringent climate policies. These carbon reserves may be underground, but they are above ground in market terms as oil and gas majors are valued against them. So some investors are worried about holding these potentially ‘stranded assets.’ Divestment in this context makes good business sense in order to reduce exposure to assets which could essentially be worthless.”
Professor Jon Gluyas, director of Durham Energy Institute, however warned about the inadvertent consequences of a misguided divestment movement.
“The movement led by 350.org to have organisations divest their fossil fuel stocks so as to ultimately reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses is to be applauded.  It is time to act. Indeed it may already be too late since the at 400ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide we are already above the 350ppm CO2 that has been equated with a 2 degree global temperature rise.  However, the target for the wrath of 350.org, OECD companies are not the problem.  They hold only a small fraction of global fossil fuel reserves.  Governments and those national and private companies, likely oblivious and possibly hostile to protest hold the key to curbing emissions.  To target OECD companies might feel good but is intellectually laze and ultimately fails to target the problem.”
Instead he suggests that governments must be the focus of such heavy lobbying who have the power to change the status quo to instead favour sustainability, carbon capture and storage and renewable energy.
Jonathan Elmer of the Green Party, North East, however stands behind the rising divestment movement and reminds us of the urgency of action.  He believes the strong continued financial pressure from divestment will drive rapid changes in energy industry which will in turn drive down emissions.
“It’s now known that in order to avoid temperature rises in excess of 2 degrees, we have to leave 80% of known fossil fuels in the  ground.  Transnational oil companies are already discussing projected market demand justifying continued use of oil well beyond this limit, so use of fossil fuels cannot be regulated by markets alone.  The Divestment campaign provides a vehicle through which people, communities and nations can exercise their democratic influence to moderate the unfettered excess of global oil markets.”
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