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by Liam Kirkaldy
22 September 2020
'Whatever lies ahead, we will adapt to it': Interview with Chris Stark

'Whatever lies ahead, we will adapt to it': Interview with Chris Stark

Chris Stark doesn’t have much time for talk of the apocalypse.

The news over the last year may have been filled with visions of environmental disaster – of wild fires in the Arctic, the Amazon ablaze and tropical storms, flooding and drought on the rise globally – but the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is not one for giving in to despair.

“I’m not a big fan of apocalyptic visions of where we might end up”, he tells Holyrood. “Let’s be clear on this: whatever lies ahead, we will adapt to it. But adapting to it is going to be enormously difficult if we don’t do something about the temperature increases that are to come.

“If you step back from this, we are doing pretty remarkable things to the climate right now. People often look at the last 200 years, and you can see the amazing change in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere globally, but it’s really the last 50 years that should worry us because it has happened so rapidly. That in total amounts to one degree centigrade of warming or there about, and it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is a lot, in planetary terms, the speed it’s happened at is huge. It’s really troubling.”

“What lies ahead of us? Much of it is baked in. So we’re not going to be able to reverse from some of the warming that is still to come, but we’ve had one degree, the world has said it wants two, preferably one and a half, but realistically we are on track for something around three. That’s where Paris [the 2015 climate talks] left us and not very much has happened since. But what has happened since Paris is a remarkable story of progress in some of the key technologies. So I am very optimistic about what lies ahead of us. I do worry too, and it is important to worry, but it’s important to have a bit of worry and a lot of hope.”

The CCC is tasked with advising both the UK and devolved governments on climate policy, and this is a critical time to be in the job. The chief executive since 2018, Stark’s background was as a statistician – he claims he wasn’t a very good one – before working in economic and energy policy. Born in Hyndland in Glasgow, he moved from his home city to London for a job in Whitehall, before a Scottish Government post in the strategy unit took him to Edinburgh. Eventually though, the urge to return to the place he was born was too much.

And he is clearly delighted to be back. “When you’re away, you appreciate the things you miss,” he says. “Obviously I missed the family and different connections and stuff, but I also missed a city that is trying to recraft itself. When I went away I saw it much more. Glasgow has a real identity – so does Edinburgh, incidentally – but I completely associate myself with the city. Even with the stuff I deal with, the opportunity to host the COP [the UN climate talks] next year, as another step in Glasgow’s story of renewal is really important. But that’s what I missed. It’s a cracking city, a brilliant city.”

Yet even sitting down with Holyrood in the plush surroundings of an upmarket hotel in the West End, the reality of climate change is all too apparent, with Glasgow having experienced torrential rain in the days leading up to the interview. Stark’s tenement building around the corner had struggled to stay watertight in the deluge, and it was not the only one. After just one degree of warming, the prospect of extreme weather events is becoming more and more frequent.

Scotland and the UK remain at particular risk from both flooding and drought as the world warms up, with water availability in the east of the country likely to become a big issue in the coming years. That will have knock-on effects in areas such as agriculture, though Stark remains optimistic here too, suggesting the country will be able to adapt by changing the sorts of crops we grow.

Scotland has done pretty well on adaptation, he says, though the country still has “a hell of a long way to go”. But could the issue benefit from greater focus? It often appears as though the need to adapt to the changes we cannot avoid is given less attention than mitigation and the need to cut emissions.

“It’s definitely talked about less,” he says. “One of the problems with adaptation is that it can be quite a negative discussion. We did a report a couple of years ago about coastal change – with rising seas and bigger storms nibbling away at the coast there are bits of England and Wales now that need to be ‘decommissioned’ because there isn’t a plan that will defend them against that kind of change. It is a pretty niche issue, but it’s the second most downloaded report we have ever produced because those communities want to know what will happen. The cost benefit [analysis] says you can’t hold the coastline, and the interesting thing is that for most local authorities, if they have a plan, it is simply to hold the line. But if you look at the cost of doing so, and the benefits of it, it would never stack up under any investment appraisal.

One degree of warming is what is driving the extreme weather events you are seeing every year now. It’s not a coincidence

“That’s a really uncomfortable message. But we aren’t being fair to those communities if we’re not having a sensible discussion around that. They call it decommissioning, which is an absolutely dreadful term. It makes it sound like a power station, but it’s a real community where the local authority’s made the decision that they can’t afford to keep defending the coastline, so there’s a community that has to move. Many of these stories are like that, hence my desire for Glasgow to have a proper plan for the climate risks it faces, alongside Edinburgh, Aberdeen and every other town and village.”

And while mitigation is sometimes further down the agenda, much of the focus in the Scottish Parliament is on how fast and how far we can go in cutting emissions. Is there too much of an emphasis on targets?

“Yes, definitely. I think politicians attach too much significance to targets. I do think for something like the challenge of mitigating climate change, targets help. If you have a problem with carbon, you can build a model of an economy and a society that allows you to understand what to do about it, and targets help.”

“Net zero is the right goal, but now we have it we almost need to put it out of our minds and focus on how we deliver it. The environmental community needs to stop focusing on targets as well. XR [Extinction Rebellion] had a really good run of it in discussing the target. I don’t think they’re right about the date, but they raised the profile to the point that we got comfortable with the concept of net zero as a target. That was something that, even a few years ago, would have been just completely out of sight politically. Frankly I don’t care about the date we achieve it by, it has to be done as quickly as possible.”

But with the UK set to host COP26 – delayed by a year because of COVID – Glasgow will soon find itself host to leaders from around the world. The CCC doesn’t have a formal role in the talks, but Stark is planning some work to support the UK as president, producing modelling on technology transitions, covering things like the shift away from coal and changes to transport, to help provide a template for discussion.

And as a proud Glaswegian, he is obviously pleased at the prospect of the world coming to his city, even if it looks highly unlikely we will see Donald Trump at the SEC, whether he is still president after the 2020 election or not.

“It’s just such a big deal. I don’t think people have grasped just how big a deal it is. You’re going to have world leaders here in Glasgow. God help us. They’ll be here wandering up Sauchiehall Street.”

He adds: “No I don’t think we will have Donald Trump at the SECC, [even] if he is still US president. He owns a very prominent hotel 40 miles away, so it’s not a bad place to do some gladhanding – if he’s allowed to touch anyone’s hand – with some other world leaders. One reason for being happy about the delay in the COP is the US, because we will know what is happening with the US presidency. That uncertainty would have hung over the COP if we had had it this year. It would have been about a week after the presidential election, so you would have known something but we still would have had the Trump administration in place.”

Yet it is hard to escape the sense that time is running out for action on climate. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already warned humanity had 12 years to limit the most catastrophic effects of warming, but that was two years ago. Stark says he is optimistic, but surely it must be hard not to worry on a personal level about the future.

He is responsible for holding government to account, but this isn’t someone who arrived in the position as an activist. A talent for policy brought him into working as an economist, and that turned to energy, and energy became climate. But now, as much as anyone, he is confronted daily with the nature of an existential threat, and the clear evidence of the progress or otherwise being expended in confronting it. That must bring uneasy thoughts from time to time. Does he find himself getting nervous?

“Of course I do,” he says. “And the way you framed that question is the right one – I don’t come at this from the perspective of a natural born environmentalist. I’m not a campaigner, but I’ve definitely moved towards that. My background is economic policy and because of that I come into it thinking this is a challenge we can address, but of course I worry about it. One degree of warming is what is driving the extreme weather events you are seeing every year now. It’s not a coincidence. It’s not just because journalists are reporting on it more. You are seeing more extreme events and you are seeing them more frequently and that should worry us all.  It’s not just a thing that's happening somewhere else either and the thing for me is that this is not a discussion about the future anymore.

“One of the best speeches ever made on climate change was by Maggie Thatcher. It’s an odd thing to say about a Tory prime minister, but she made this speech in 1989 that really led to the UN grasping onto its importance. She talked about it in future terms, and probably partly because she was a scientist, but actually most of the progress on climate in the UK has happened under the Conservatives’ watch. In that speech she talked about it as something in the far future. Well, we are here now. I do worry about that. I worry that people think of it as something we should get onto eventually.

“The steps need to be in the next decade if we are going to tackle it. And if you step back from it, that is what worries me. We don’t focus on the urgency of making those steps. I’m not overly worried about not getting there in the end, I think the penny will drop, it’s just that we will do it too late and it will cost too much and the damage will be done. I’d much rather we took a solid look and said the next decade is what matters.”

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