“The embarrassing truth is that the gap between what scientists recommend and what is done is wider than ever”

An interview with Svein Tveitdal, Director of Klima 2020



Anne-Sophie Garrigou

This interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou will be featured in The Beam #10 — Local Heroes of Climate ActionSubscribe now to save your copy of the brand new issue!


Svein Tveitdal grew up in the countryside where “we got our first car when I was 13,” he explains. Before that? People were using bikes and horses. At a time where all that the earth supplied was taken for granted and viewed as everlasting, the adolescent Tveitdal was spending most of his time in nature, which gave him “a good idea of what it gave to us.”

As an adult, Tveitdal found the Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development that was released in 1987 to be an eye-opener on what was at stake. “I realised that everything we use, eat, wear and live in comes from nature, so if we don’t take care of it and lose it, we are all lost.”

Reading the report kicked off the start of his professional career working full time on environmental issues, first in the private sector, then at the United Nations Environment Programme and today at his own climate consultancy, Klima 2020. “Unfortunately, we have not succeeded; since then the threats from climate change have brought us to the brink of near catastrophe and nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.”

In your experience, what is still missing in order to bridge the gap between climate science, policymakers and the general public?

A lot. The gap is still widening. Global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2018. And humans are driving one million species to extinction, many within decades, according to the latest report from the UN Nature Panel (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). There is a solid consensus about the situation amongst scientists (97%), and their warnings are getting more and more serious. But up to half of the general public, according to recent polls, still believes there is a disagreement amongst scientists. This has been fuelled by climate deniers, many of them supported by the fossil industry, whose most efficient strategy has been to invest in doubt — a doubt that makes it easy for the general public to close the curtain and pretend there is no problem.

“The threats from climate change have brought us to the brink of near catastrophe and nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.” — Svein Tveitdal

Most politicians are aware of the problems, although not their full magnitude, and they believe in and support the Paris Agreement and its goals. On the other hand, they are under pressure from the fossil industry, which pushes politicians to subsidise fossil fuel. And many are also tempted by seeking re-election through providing cheap fossil fuel to their voters. According to a new report from the IMF, governments spent a staggering US$5.2 trillion — or 6.5% of the global GDP — on fossil fuel subsidies in 2017. This is five times more than subsidies going to the renewable sector. If politicians had swapped this around, and it is solely in their hands, we might have seen a drop of nearly 30% in global emissions. Even if the green market is growing, the pace is far from enough. I see no other way to bridge the gap than a grassroots uproar to demand that politicians act according to recommendations from scientists. They, on their side, could expedite this process by communicating their message in a clearer way.

What has changed the most, in the debate around climate change, since you started to work around that topic?

The rising awareness among major stakeholder groups. When I started in the ’80s it was mainly a group of scientists, most of them very careful not to provoke, that raised their voices to state that we had a problem. The Brundtland Report, followed by the establishment of the IPCC and the UNFCCC, brought a solid science platform and a framework for global action through the United Nations. A few mainstream politicians started to argue for action. Angela Merkel, as Minister of Environment and host of the first UNFCCC COP in Berlin in 1995, was already arguing for action to limit global warming to 2°C. But it would take 20 years before this was finally agreed upon, probably too late to achieve as a goal in Paris in 2015. Today we see clear physical evidence that the climate is changing in a dangerous direction. In Norway, we have more than one hundred NGOs, business associations, religious organisations, political youth organisations and labour unions that list fighting climate change as a top priority. This gives us hope.

“The climate deniers live for the fight, even if they always lose a scientific discussion. So my recommendation is not to fight them, but rather to ignore them.”

I watched a video where you were interviewed along with climate denier Marc Morano, a former U.S. Republican congressional staffer and the founder of a non-profit organisation that promotes climate denial. I couldn’t even watch the entire video as it was so infuriating to listen to him. What do you think is the best answer to climate deniers? And how do we fight them?

I remember, it was with TRT World TV. They did not tell me I was meeting a climate denier. I was on vacation in Italy and it was a direct interview made in a studio there. As a rule, I do not engage with climate deniers. My general position is to ignore them and not help to give them a microphone as I did with Marc Morano. Climate deniers are not listening to solid scientific arguments, but always find an obscure reference to support their denial. A good example was a debate when I worked with UN Environment in Nairobi. Among several highly recognised climate scientists, a climate denier was brought in from Washington. The debate was supposed to discuss solutions to the climate crisis. The denier made his points and for the rest of the debate, the other scientists tried to explain how wrong the denier was. The debate was useless, and the denier achieved his goal.

People without knowledge of climate science might have a problem judging who is right and who is wrong, i.e., in the discussion between me and Morano, even if I have 97% of science on my side. This gives climate deniers quite a strong negative impact. Media should be aware of this. The deniers live for the fight even if they always lose a scientific discussion. So my recommendation is not to fight them, but rather to ignore them.

“The damage of the planet will continue until politicians will need to act on climate to be re-elected.”

It feels like one of the problems with the climate crisis is that the politicians, who should take decisions based on science, have short-term views. They have been elected for 4 to 5 years and one of their goals is to get re-elected. How do we change this so that we really act on climate?

“A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. A politician looks for the success of his party; a statesman for that of his country. The statesman wishes to steer, while the politician is satisfied to drift.” This quote from James Freeman Clarke (theologian, 1810–88) is probably even more relevant today.

The International Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on the current state of knowledge about climate change. This was followed up by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the Rio summit in 1992 and entered into force in 1994. Since 1995, thousands of politicians have participated in the annual Conferences of the Parties (COP). There is no excuse whatsoever for them not having taken advice from science. The embarrassing truth is that the gap between what scientists recommend and what is done is wider than ever. At one of the last meetings with UN Environment in Nairobi, before he stepped down as Secretary-General, Kofi Annan regretted that the UN had not been able to produce a climate policy UN’s own experts recommended. Politicians have not changed so they will probably not act before the consequences of climate change become evident in their next election period. Until then the climate crisis will become more and more severe and more difficult and expensive to solve. So the hope lies in the grassroots and young people that unfortunately still are not allowed to vote. The damage of the planet will continue until politicians will need to act on climate to be re-elected.

What makes you hopeful today when it comes to that topic?

Definitely the school children’s climate movement. It is so important that they stand up against forces that try to ridicule and patronise them and keep their motivation. They are future voters and can still save the world from the worst climate scenarios. By use of social media and continuation of the strikes, they might force the older generation to confront the climate crisis and initiate a green political revolution. The politicians of the last 30 years deserve little respect. The costly climate crisis they have left for the next generation could easily have been avoided had they listened to advise from the science community.

I am optimistic that the next decade will give us the needed turnaround to appropriately address climate change.

Youth from around Nairobi gathered to show solidarity for climate marches around the world on 15 March, 2019 — © UNEP


This interview will be featured in The Beam #10 — Local Heroes of Climate ActionSubscribe now to save your copy of The Beam Magazine!