C.G. Rapley on climate change


in Politics, Science, The environment

The Earthwatch Institute lecture tonight was an educational experience, for a whole slew of reasons. I learned a lot about the organization, the talk itself was very well done, and I spoke with some unusually interesting people.

Earthwatch is a slick organization: corporate partnerships, wine receptions before and after talks given at the business school, and a 153-page full-colour glossy book distributed in a ‘treat bag’ to each attendee at the end. This all gives a really interesting glimpse into the world of relationships between private actors. These people aren’t lobbying the state, they are engaging with the scientific and business communities, along with individuals inclined towards certain concerns. Anyone who thinks that regulating carbon emissions is a matter for the leftist fringe should probably meet these people. In the ecosystem of contemporary international actors, they are an unusual species, worthy of further study.

The talk was given by Professor C.G. Rapley, the Director of the British Antarctic Survey. He was well chosen: articulate, funny, and capable of presenting technical material in an engaging and highly effective way. That this is an outset of an international polar year made the choice particularly timely. My transcript of the talk is available on the wiki.

Perhaps the most unusual thing he said – his greatest deviation from the Stern-Gore Axis – was the suggestion that we could (and should) jump-start the demographic transition. This is is transition from high birth and death rates, to massively lowered death rates (due to medicine, agriculture, etc), through massive population growth to the eventual lowering of birth rates and stabilization of the population overall. Rapley alleged that 76m unwanted pregnancies occur each year, worldwide. Giving these people effective contraception and social orders in which they can use it could accomplish a number of good things: he focused on the reduction of future emissions and a reduced push towards urbanization. Of course, the politics of birth control are fiendishly complex, and the possibilities for harm considerable. That said, a world where women have more control over how many children they have would, all other things being equal, be a much better one. Rapley seems to have written more on population for the BBC.

My thanks to all those – both employees of Earthwatch and fellow guests – with whom I spoke at the receptions. Altogether, this evening has reinforced my conception that climate change is the single greatest challenge facing the world today. It has also bolstered my hope that it is something that we can overcome.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous March 7, 2007 at 11:12 pm

It is obvious that fewer people will cause less harm to the world. What isn’t obvious is how to do this without being absurdly evil and repressive.

Brett March 8, 2007 at 12:37 am

But can our current eco-system handle the economic growth that would take? i honestly don’t know…maybe…maybe not.

Milan March 8, 2007 at 12:51 am


Rapley was unusually insistent on curbing population growth. Clearly, he is more concerned than Stern or Gore about the consequences of ever more human beings.

Anonymous March 8, 2007 at 12:53 am

Scott’s warning may be a portent for the rest of humanity:

“Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake, look after our people.”

Edward March 8, 2007 at 3:30 am

I’m not sure that I would agree with your assessment that climate change is the single greatest challenge facing the world today. I qualify this by saying that climate change is probably more intrinsically linked to other world problems than most people realize. I would venture to say that world poverty, international development, and global conflict are all playing some fuzzy role in climate change. Of course, the relationships between them are complex, and I am being deliberately vague because it is not entirely clear how focused solutions can arise from involving all of these problems at once.

I do like your wiki notes on Stern, particularly that rich countries should (and must) fund the majority of the research that will tackle climate change. We do, of course, have the most to benefit as well – both financially and environmentally.

John Feeney March 8, 2007 at 4:25 am

Thanks for reporting on that. It’s great to hear Chris Rapley is continuing to speak up about population growth. It’s a topic which too often goes unmentioned for a variety of reasons. (Your mention that his suggestion was a “deviation from the Stern-Gore Axis” speaks to that.)

In the first comment, “Anonymous” said, “It is obvious that fewer people will cause less harm to the world. What isn’t obvious is how to do this without being absurdly evil and repressive.”

While that thought is understandable in light of China’s draconian policy, there are humane, effective approaches to reducing fertility rates. I summarized a few in a blog post not long ago. In brief, strategies which empower women apparently correlate well with reductions in fertility rates. Increasing childhood survival is key too. The great thing about such approaches is that they not only bring down fertility rates, but they address social and health problems in terrible need of attention in their own right.

Antonia March 8, 2007 at 1:32 pm

Earthwatch events

In Oxford, there is a students debate scheduled in mid-June, plus all the local volunteering opportunities, of course.

This year’s annual balloon debate looks particularly interesting (the one I went to years ago was really good):
Earthwatch Debate: Precious Resources, Multiple Threats. (‘Which ecosystem is most under threat and urgently needs protection? … featuring five critical areas; forest, mountain, freshwater, marine and polar regions’)
Thursday 15th November, The Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW1
Poorly phrased, maybe. We need all of them but we can only vote for one and they obviously aren’t discrete systems,but the speeches are likely to reflect high-quality current understanding of the issues.

There are two lectures on managing the marine environment on 6th June (also at The Royal Geographical Society).

Antonia March 8, 2007 at 1:36 pm

Transcript was very interesting. Thanks.

Milan March 8, 2007 at 1:57 pm


Poverty is certainly the other big contender. The reason I say climate change is a greater threat is because there is the real (though probably small) chance that it could become runaway, and thus generate huge and irreparable damage.

Milan March 8, 2007 at 1:58 pm

For the confused, the anonymous poster above was referring to Robert Falcon Scott, doomed Antarctic explorer.

He is mentioned in the transcript of Rapley’s talk.

Milan March 8, 2007 at 1:59 pm


The literature they sent me listed lots of interesting events. It’s a shame so many of them are in London, though it may be worth organizing a trip to see an especially interesting one.

Tristan March 8, 2007 at 5:23 pm

I’m not sure it ever could be right to talk about “the greatest challenge facing the world”. While it could be true abstractly, given a lot of presuppositions about what other people value, it’s hard enough to generalize between the values of people in a single country, or city, to divine out the single greatest challenge.

World Poverty, Injustice, etc… Can these even qualify to be considered for the title? There are simply many people who don’t see it as a problem, certainly not as a problem that they have any responsibility towards. Another thing, these problems have been around as long as civilization, and they arn’t fixed yet. If climate change is miraculously fixed, it will because the elites recognize it is in their own best interest.

Without an ethical turn, which would invariably be a turn away from sports cars and jet skis, and the massively wasteful western consumer market, there will be no solution to world poverty and injustice. Our greed runs of that injustice. Liberal guilt has never been as strong as liberal greed. Ergo.

Antonia March 8, 2007 at 6:01 pm

The impact of environmental change is seen as creating a climate (sic) in which all of the other contenders for ‘humanity’s biggest problem’ become far harder, if not impossible, to address: the physical known’s of a region fundamentally alter adding a new layer of problems for both economic development and bare survival of the most disadvantaged, while previously satisfactory situations become untenable.

While this could be thought to reduce global conflict as funds and personnel are diverted to handle domestic emergencies or towards technological innovation for addressing the new problems, historical comparisons show it is more likely that conflict would increase as competion for particular resources gets more intensive. Pressures on borders could increase as the premium on fertile agricultural land and settlement space rises.

Milan March 8, 2007 at 8:45 pm

Kate Wilson just let me know that my transcript is linked on the Earthwatch homepage.

Anon @ Wadh March 8, 2007 at 9:21 pm

On the transcript, it’s great that they see your notes as credible enough to link in that way.

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