A Conversation With Mark Lynas, Climate Advisor to the Maldives

The latest installment in our ongoing series of exchanges with experts on the subjects of health, design, food, travel, and sustainability

MarkLynas-Post.jpgWith his most recent book, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, long-time environmental journalist Mark Lynas has caused quite a stir by arguing, among other things, that we must rely on genetically-modified foods to feed the planet and turn to nuclear power as a way to combat global warming. While these recommendations are controversial, Lynas explores the social and political implications at length in the book, which looks at how humans have become God-like in our influence on the planet. In addition to writing books -- he is also the author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet and High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis -- Lynas serves as the climate advisor to the Maldives, an island nation that is working to become the first to go completely carbon-neutral.

Here, Lynas discusses carbon-neutral nations and why the whole world needs to be carbon-neutral by 2050; how the rapid development of China, India, and other emerging economics are making the decisions in Washington and Paris less important than ever before; and why people need to be a little bit more skeptical of localization.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

I wear a lot of hats. I'm a writer of books about global warming and a popular science take on our environmental crises. But I also advise the leader of a small country, President Nasheed of the Maldives. And I do quite a lot in my local area in various community groups. I'm a bit of a busybody. I'm also principal child-carer, which requires an increasing amount of the time as my wife Maria's communications consultancy career takes off.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainability or the environment?

I'd say carbon-neutral nations. The Maldives wants to be the first, achieving carbon neutrality by 2020. But there are others also in the game, including Costa Rica, Samoa, and Ethiopia. This is what matters -- we need the whole world to be carbon neutral by 2050 realistically. I make the analogy with slavery: You didn't seek to cut it by 20 percent by such and such a date, and 45 percent a decade or two later; the only option was to eliminate it completely. So it must be with our use of fossil fuels.

What's something that most people just don't understand about what you do?

That's easy! When I reveal I work for the President of the Maldives, people imagine I spend half my time lying around on a tropical beach. Actually, the Maldives is indeed a beautiful country, but almost all my work is done from home in Oxford, and at various intergovernmental meetings in tedious conference centers around the world. I get to the capital, Male, at most two or three times a year.

What's are some emerging trends that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Undoubtedly the rapid development of China, India, and the other emerging economies. That's a game-changer in sustainability terms, because it shifts the main theater of action away from the West and over to the East and South. What we decide in Washington and Paris doesn't matter so much anymore.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

I wish people were more skeptical of the idea of localization. Of course it is important to love and be rooted in your home area. But, at the same time, there is a lot to be gained from trade, even in environmental terms. For example, it is much more water-efficient to grow wheat in a well-watered area and import it into a desert place than to try to grow it locally, and probably more carbon-efficient too, as the transport energy cost is relatively minor.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

There are lots of those. Probably most of my current fascinations will end up in that basket. I don't really regret much though, as it all adds to the learning experience.

Who are three people you'd put in a sustainability Hall of Fame?

Well, President Nasheed would obviously be one. He is championing the rights of small island states to stay alive. On a different note, I'd suggest Stewart Brand, the American environmentalist who has been very influential. I'm also a big fan of Bill McKibben, who has combined being a masterful writer with also being an uncompromising activist.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Meteorology. But I was no good at math, which turned out to be important.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I love WordPress, which I use to run my blog. The instantaneous nature of publishing on the Internet is a marvel -- but it can also be dangerous.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"This Charming Man," by The Smiths.