John Ashton Q&A: ‘The USA is still a climate follower, not a leader’

Former UK climate envoy answers your questions on Obama, China, David Cameron, loss and damage and World Bank funding for coal plants

John Ashton was the UK’s chief climate diplomat between 2006-2012.

He’s agreed to partner with RTCC every few months and answer any questions our readers have about climate politics, economics and the UN negotiations.

Send your own via the comments form at the bottom of the page, on Twitter @RTCCnewswire or by emailing info (at)

Qu 1: Obama’s climate change speech. Were they just words or did you hear anything else of significance?

Laila Patel, New York

John Ashton: It’s worth noting that I think this is the first major speech on climate change by any major world leader since Copenhagen. There has been a lazy sense in the media in this country and others that Copenhagen was a damp squib and the attention of the world moved onto other things, and people don’t care.

But people do. There’s evidence from polling, and events like Superstorm Sandy. It may be that the headline writers have moved on, but I don’t think the place of climate change in the public imagination has collapsed. What this speech does is it nails on its head any attempt to say leaders don’t care about climate change anymore.

If you have President of the USA making a carefully considered speech, nailing his colours to the mast, climate change is by definition on the international agenda.  I think many of the people who say this is no longer a priority don’t want it to be a priority. You always have to be careful about the motives of people who express an opinion on that kind of thing.

In itself it adds political momentum and is very welcome. Another point I’d make is that those who have followed the career of John Kerry will know that there is no prominent politician in the world who has a longer and more powerful track record on commitment on cc than he has. You have a President and a Secretary of State who are deeply committed to the issue, and who I suspect will become more not less focused as the Presidential term develops.

As I read the speech, it seemed to be a carefully considered speech politically – the kind designed to try and draw together as many forces from within American politics as possible onto the side of high ambition on climate change. He spoke to young Americans, the moderate side of the Republican party, so that’s a sign that he has given this a high priority.

Having said all of that – here are two cautionary notes.

Again – from my position in the UK there seem to be huge obstacles within the US to deliver progress on the scale we need, particularly in Congress. The President accepted he will not be able to get high ambition agreed by Congress soon, which is why he has chosen his current route. But the fact that the Congress route is blocked limits what he can do.

One can only hope that by starting to do these things that will mobilise the country and weaken opposition in Congress, because only a comprehensive approach would require action at federal level agreed by Congress. This is about a fundamental restructuring of the growth model. The measures are a start but there is a lot more that needs to be done. America is still a follower – it needs to summon a lot more domestic ambition before it can be seen as a leader.

The other aspect is the global talks. It would be tragic for the global effort on climate change if the administration drew the conclusion as we approach next year’s summit that they can only stand in favour of something else – other than legally binding targets and timetables – because there isn’t something else that would be credible as a response to climate change.

Qu 2: What is the role of UK climate diplomacy towards Chinese government and scientific institutions? When did the 2°C temperature target enter the Chinese policy discourse and how did British and European diplomats advocate it?

Olivia Gippner, Free University of Berlin

JA: Our starting point for this (when I was working for the UK government) was always – the decision to deal with climate change is a matter of national interest for countries, and that can and will only ever come out of domestic politics, what the national interest is. We never felt we were in a position to dictate to anyone – be it a big or small country.

We can give an explanation of our interests, but we were conscious you have an internal conversation in any country, and what we can do is say look – have it in a way that is open to your partners outside.

We consciously did that with China, and we invested as much into that effort in building a multi-layered and faceted bilateral conversation than we did probably with probably any other country.

The decisions China takes on its national interest will be as important as the decisions anyone takes. What we found as we did that was that those institutions we talked to was there was a high degree of pragmatism that you find in Chinese elites that you find about what the economic and development model China wants to pursue.

There’s a willingness to look creatively to look at how their model can meet a number of needs – including building a low carbon global economy. So I think you can find in the debate, a strong desire to build a low carbon growth model in China, and that it will be better for jobs and competitiveness than other models. That was exciting to discover.

On 2 degrees – that has been around for a long time – before my engagement in climate change. It was being discussed in EU circles when I got involved in the 1990s. That number at that time was probably devised on the back of an envelope, and we have generated an enormous amount of new knowledge since then, but I think none of that tells us we can afford to be more relaxed or set ourselves a more gentle target than 2C. It became part of the conversations between Britain and China – no special project but part of the debate we were having.

The issue came onto the table in the months leading up to Copenhagen, whether the governments of the major economies should try and agree on a threshold, and I remember the various meetings that took place where it was agreed. I remember being pleased that when it came to the time for China to express a view it said it could accept that target.

Qu 3: In the UK there seems to be an implicit link between progressive climate change thinking and left wing parties. Why do you think this is, and is it a mistake by NGOs and media organisations like the Guardian to emphasise this?

It wins them short term support by creating a bogey man, but does it actually help the debate move forward?

Huw Hearn, Brighton

JA: It’s an excellent question. It recognizes up front that this is a political problem rather than any other problem. It’s through politics that societies make decisions and get legitimacy. Secondly I think you could actually do what we need to do on a basis that is rooted in the left or right. Arguably it would be more natural in the left, not least that there is no aspect of the climate problem that is more important than justice. If we fail on climate change, the victims will be the poor and the most vulnerable – who are least equipped with the consequences.

The politics of the left is more to do with fairness and justice than the politics of the right. It’s not to say parts of the right are not concerned.

I think Labour leader Ed Miliband has stolen the One Nation vision from the right, and I think under the banner of a one nation policy from the right you could build an effective response. Look at  conservatism – conserving what we value. Well unchecked, climate change will sweep away what we value, making countries unmanageable. Philosophers like Roger Scruton have written about that.

Having said that, if you look at where the mainstream parties are – neither the left or the right are talking about climate change in a way that suggests they have got their head around what this is about as an issue. Both have talked about this as a policy issue, rather than an issue that is reflected in the way they see the world, and their values. There is a long way to go in terms of political engagement on either side.

I think you can say in Britain that the high point came in the final years of the last govt, when we had the 2008 Climate Change Act coming through…if all of the major economies were to do that we’d be giving ourselves a fighting chance of keeping warming to 2 degrees, and that cross party consensus was very powerful politically, and I was able to use it in my last role as climate envoy, pointing to the fact our major parties agreed, and that it wasn’t part of the political rough and tumble that goes on.

It has been revealed subsequently that the consensus was there but that the roots were not as deep as some of us hoped they were at the time. Maybe that was revealed under the stress of the financial crisis and weak growth in our economy. I think you’d say in Britain the tide has gone out somewhat from that time, and also Copenhagen was a factor.

If I was going to criticize our media and NGOs, it wouldn’t be for the reason Huw has given, but I think it’s more that we have been challenging the parties to talk politically about climate change – if anyone wants to think more about this look at the speech on it I gave recently. I think we need to try harder to create a stronger context that forces parties to think about this in a more existential way.

None of our political parties have built this into the way they think about the future or the economy or the tattered and frayed social contract we have in Britain at the moment.

Qu 4: The UK along with many Annex 1 countries were fiercely resistant to the AOSIS and LDC demand for a new negotiating track on Loss and Damage at COP18 in Doha. In particular they resisted the inclusion of an international mechanism on Loss and Damage. However, in the end they agreed to look at options.

In Bonn this June many Annex 1 parties reverted to their pre-Doha resistance to taking this forward in Warsaw at COP19 next November. Do you agree with that stance? Especially since you have already alluded to losses from climatic events even in developed countries.  

Saleemul Huq, Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development , Independent University, Bangladesh

JA: First off I’d like to hail the work Saleem has done on climate change around the world and in his own country of Bangladesh. Saleem probably knows I have been a supporter of the idea that there should be a conversation on loss and damage under the UN convention. It is undeniable that loss and damage is already happening, and it’s better we have a conversation about it than that we don’t.

I welcomed the decision at Doha. In terms of the politics in a sense you can boil it down to a political struggle between two opposing forces. The people who are locked in through their business models to a high carbon economy, who have an interest in a low ambition response, and those who want high ambition and are on the frontline of climate change,

The first group are forces of incumbency – deeply embedded in society, they know how to manipulate politics, wealthy, good at influencing outcomes. The others are not – disaggregated, not well particularly organised, not together as a political force, and so far they have tended to be out-manouevred by the ‘climate makers’.

Loss and damage can be seen almost as a containment vessel in which the forces of high ambition can become more organised, because the idea that we should all focus on exactly what the losses we are suffering – politically provides a useful template. We have to be careful as we take it forward in the UNFCCC to do it in a reasoned manner, to avoid slanging matches and posturing on both sides, so we can build a methodology for dealing with this rooted in reality and serious analysis but make no mistake will provide a vehicle strengthening a high ambition response.

Qu 5: John, it has been three years since David Cameron made his ‘Greenest Government Ever’ pledge at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Why do you think he made such a bold statement when it would (perhaps) have been clear to Conservative insiders that much of the party had no intention of following this path?

Steve Pearson, London

JA: I think he was serious when he talked about the Greenest Government Ever, and I went to a lot of trouble to try and understand whether it was a slogan or seriously intended, because I was being invited to carry on in my role as UK climate change envoy by the new Foreign Secretary William Hague.

With hindsight you could say there was an intent but it had not been thought through politically. It hadn’t been built into the way leading politicians in the conservative party were thinking about the economy, the way they were thinking about the role of Britain and the EU, and the role of Britain in the world. When the party came under stress by those who were uncomfortable with modernization and under stress from the problems we’ve had from the economy, it didn’t prove resilient.

I’d say now, the record in delivering the greenest government ever is not strong, and that is to put it mildly. They have not fulfilled the promise they made. It’s not to say Britain has fallen out of the race, partly as a result of the momentum that was already there as a result of the Climate Change Act, and partly as a consequence of the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition who tend to be a bit greener.

There is still a lot of interesting stuff happening. A vote to ensure the UK had a carbon neutral energy system by 2030 recently fell short by a few votes – that would have been dramatic and that prospect has not gone away.

But I think with all its internal stresses, you can’t say the conservative party has been a driver and a thought leader on climate change, and that is something I regret. It could be in the future.

Qu 6: I’d like to ask John what he thinks about Obama’s call to end US funding for coal plants overseas. Will the UK follow suit? And does the UK still support World Bank funding for a new lignite coal-fired power plant in Kosovo?


JA: You can’t have an effective response to climate change if you are still building coal power stations. The global coal industry is making very well financed efforts to lock in as much as possible in terms of new coal power stations. I support the position in the US President speech to end funding for overseas plants.

We have to recognize that different countries have varying circumstances, and I would bend over backwards to help the poorest economies, but we have to recognise that even in that case we should be looking to support systems moving away from coal, or building carbon capture and storage.

As for the plant in Kosovo – I don’t know if the UK is supporting funding for it – but what I said generally applies to that. I think there are other opportunities and I wonder of they have been looked at in comparison to the lignite plant which is under discussion.

Qu 7: If you care about the environment, you should welcome shale gas fracking….discuss!

Sam Bartholemew, Highgate

JA: I’m not sure where to start. As I have said earlier on – if you want to stay within 2C then the major economies have to be building a carbon neutral system within a generation. That means renewables, nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels with full CCS. Very few shale gas advocates I have heard say let’s use shale with full CCS.

They are saying ‘we can promise you lots of cheap gas that you can burn in a way that will keep your bills down’ – they are offering – disingenuously as I see it – shale gas as part of the solution. First off there are a number of complex questions over shale exploitation to do with contamination of water, methane leakages and above ground disruption. Secondly I think the predictions on how much is there and how it can be developed deserve more scrutiny. I think the case is far from established.

But we should not lock ourselves into more fossil fuel dependency. Yes, gas is going to be part of the energy mix sometime into the future. But beyond 2030 I don’t think any of the major economies should be burning gas without CCS. If you want to do that explain how it is compatible with keeping below 2 degrees. If you say – we’re going to do it – then explain how you will move CCS down the cost curve now.

I’m not enthusiastic of this taking place in large parts of Britain. I love the countryside and I think people have not understood the amount of above-ground disruption with shale gas, and I also think there is a narrative of cornucopia – a sense that there are unlimited possibilities that if only we open them up would allow us to cling to how we have always done things. It’s an illusion – like one last fix from your drug dealer.

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