Interview: Robert Watson – “We’ve got to address this aggressively”

Defra's chief scientist is a man that Al Gore has turned to with questions on climate change. And he even used to work for NASA, after he challenged the way it managed science. Erik Jaques met up with one of the most influential environmental thinkers - for what was originally scheduled to be a 20-minute chat

Defra, which didn’t exactly cover itself in glory on Tony Blair’s watch, pulled off something of a coup when it appointed the distinguished American (UK-born) climatologist Professor Robert Watson as its chief scientific advisor in September 2007.

Recently ranked as number two in The Independent on Sunday’s list of top 100 environmentalists – the highest ranking of anyone in the political sphere – and a highly influential figure in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning body of work, his credentials are about as good as it gets.

Watson is so good, in fact, that in 2002 the Bush administration lobbied hard, and succeeded, in ending his tenure as chairman of the IPPC (a post he’d held since 1997 and which saw him preside over the organisation’s third assessment report on climate change in 2001).

As a scientific appointment, it’s the equivalent of Manchester City’s petrodollars luring Kaka from the San Siro – imbuing Gordon Brown’s environmental agenda with some much-needed intellectual oomph as Labour seeks to claw back any ground lost since David Cameron got on his bike and went green.

Watson’s Defra brief is to ensure that money is well spent on prescient research, that environmental policy is underpinned by robust science and, crucially, that it is communicated clearly to the public via outlets such as the media. A fizzing, bearded bundle of unbridled enthusiasm, Professor Watson (“just call me Bob, for goodness sake!”) certainly gives Defra its money’s worth on the latter. Gregarious and refreshingly direct, his ebullience nudges the interview toward the hour mark, well beyond the 20-minutes originally granted by his attendant press officer.

When asked to summarise his career, he breathlessly recounts a journey that begins with a PhD in gas-based chemistry from Queen Mary College in London and takes in post-doctorates at the US Universities of Berkeley and Maryland (studying man’s impact on the ozone layer), the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (running his own research group) and a stint as NASA’s science division director and chief scientist for the intriguingly titled Office of Mission to Planet Earth.

The NASA appointment came after he challenged the way the organisation managed science and was promptly asked if he could do better.

He could, and did. And, after coming to the attention of the Clinton administration, was installed as associate director for the environment at the White House in charge of a hefty $7B budget. Subsequently, he joined the World Bank as its chief scientist and now he’s at Defra (while also concurrently holding the post of chair of environmental science and science director at the University of East Anglia).

All that, he says matter-of-factly, can be considered as his “classical day jobs”.

His “real” achievements include instigating the first unified international assessment on ozone depletion, his work at the IPPC (joining as an author at its inception to his time as chairman), as well as chairing or co-chairing assessments of major international importance such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the United Nations Environment Programme/World Meteorological Organisation (UNEP/WMO), the UNEP Global Biodiversity Assessment and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development.

Watson’s brilliance lies with his ability to take institutional-based scientific assessments by the scruff of their necks and optimise them for genuinely influential political interface.

“The thing that really changed my life was when I transitioned from a purely academic PhD and started to realise that the science had societal implications,” he reveals.

Arguably, the pinnacle of his achievements came in 1989 when he roused the planet out of its ozone-devouring stupor by establishing the International Scientific Assessment of Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, an organisation he went on to chair until last year.

As the first coherent, singularly dedicated assessment of its kind, it was spectacularly successful in formulating and shaping the international response to what was emerging as a major crisis.

Today, this manner in which science was able to elicit resolute political action is still held up as a blueprint for combating climate change. “At the time there were about five or six different assessments about how human activities were or were not destroying stratospheric ozone, including one I was involved with at NASA,” he remembers.

“I thought, ‘this is bloody ridiculous!’ So I called up some friends of mine and said ‘why can’t we all get together on one big international assessment?’ So, slowly but surely, we brought together this major international assessment, and all international policy followed the science and assessment process – absolutely unbelievable!

“It is incredible how quickly the world responded to new scientific understanding. We would do a piece of science, assess it and the international negotiations would change.

“Never again in life will there be such a one-to-one correlation between new knowledge, assessed knowledge and the response of the political process and industry – unbelievable.”

Climate change will be trickier to resolve, though he is proud of how the IPCC and the Kyoto Protocol have moved things along – albeit having been severely hobbled by a recalcitrant Bush administration.

Watson, of course, has first-hand experience of how insidious the US government could be on the issue. Within days of Bush’s inauguration, a lobbying campaign to oust Watson from his post as IPCC chairman had begun, presumably as he was one of Clinton’s men and because his fervent, lucid communication of the science behind climate change did not chime with oil-reverent policy.

“It was politics, but that’s the real world. I don’t have a problem with that,” Watson reflects, pointing out that the IPCC’s strength is the cumulative power of thousands of experts. And, in any case, his successor, Dr Raj Pachauri, has done a fine job in chairing the fourth report.

Casting his mind back to his own time in the White House, he invokes a tantalising scenario of what might have been had Gore prevailed in the 2000 election. Watson tells how each month Gore would ask him and his then-boss, the White house science advisor John H Gibbons, to assemble two or three scientists for a two-hour breakfast meeting on different aspects of climate change. “It would be an incredibly interactive meeting.

“I would tell the scientists, ‘You’ve got five minutes each to talk,’ and they would say, ‘But, we’re supposed to be here for two hours,’ and I would say, ‘Exactly, the vice president will ask you penetrating questions for the remainder of the time.’

“He [Gore] truly understood the science behind climate change. He would read the original literature and he would occasionally phone me up and say, ‘Bob, what do you think about this new paper?’ And I would say, ‘What new paper?’ – he would sometimes get hold of them before I would.”

Clinton saw eye to eye with Gore on climate change, but progress was curtailed when the Democrats lost their majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Pockets of bipartisan opposition further undermined the cause.

President Obama represents a second chance. “I’m incredibly enthusiastic,” he bellows excitedly, almost falling off his chair, before launching into detailed synopses and endorsements of the newly assembled scientific team, many of whom he knows personally.

He offers particular plaudits to Nobel Prize winning physicist Professor Steven Chu (the new energy secretary), John Holdren (assistant to the president for science and technology), Nobel prize winning physicist Harold Varmus (one of co-chairs of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) and Dr Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“He’s put around himself four people that are truly excellent and in very, very senior positions, so from everything I’ve seen of Obama, he recognises that science is crucial for economic development and wise environmental stewardship.”

This, he says, bodes extremely well for the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. “These people understand the full energy transformation that is needed. They recognise energy is crucial, they recognise it has to be affordable, they recognise it is central to jobs and they recognise it is central to the climate change debate. I would expect to see a very different negotiating strategy by the US.”

As for the UK, Watson believes Gordon Brown is firmly on the right track – citing the Climate Change Act and Energy Bill – and emphasising that there is solid intra-department dialogue, joined-up thinking and collaboration taking place, particularly between Defra and the newly established Department of Energy and Climate Change.

“I absolutely love the job, but I’ve always loved every job I’ve had,” he gushes. “The issues we deal with at Defra – food security, the natural environment, ecosystems, how do we adapt to climate change – are really important issues at national and international level.

“We’re at a very exciting point where we’ve got major challenges of addressing climate change, food security, but I get this sense that there’s a real willingness to work together in government, in the private sector and with the public – monstrous challenges.

“Can we easily succeed? No. Can we be successful? Yes. But it will take political will. It will take moral leadership. These challenges are huge and not easy to achieve – don’t let me fool you. We can’t afford to fail – we’ve got to address this aggressively.”

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