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Fireside chat with Ms. Alyssa Gilbert

Photo: Dennis C J

The world is definitely getting hotter, thanks to climate change – the topic that is hottest at the moment! What responsibilities do scientific institutes and businesses have, to make this world a cooler place, quite literally? Who can explain this better than Ms. Gilbert, Head of Policy at the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London! Ms. Gilbert is engaged in connecting relevant research across universities with policy-makers and businesses. In a candid interview during her visit to the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, she opens up on her role and its challenges, the opportunities this situation presents, and her opinions on actions that need to be taken in tackling climate change.

“The scientific community has a huge, untapped potential as a vast store of information that can be useful to society”, comments Ms. Gilbert opening up the discussion. “On the other side, you have a group which is struggling to find ways to solve economic, environmental and social problems at a practical level. Someone has to make this a two-way connection; someone has to build this bridge”, she expresses, explaining why her role is critical in today’s scenario. At present, businesses, media and academia speak different languages; each bringing with them their own form of exclusivity. It is a huge challenge to have these groups understand each other and see eye to eye. Hence, the role of translators who can build this bridge between these different groups becomes extremely important.

Talking about the challenges translators like her face, Ms. Gilbert exclaims – "It was a big culture shock for me!” Being new to this field, she had to immerse herself in academia, build trust with a lot of researchers, get to know how they work and learn their language. She recollects her strategy of talking to people who had spoken about their research in public in the past and were willing to talk to her, and then talking to newer people who would be far less comfortable simplifying their research and who would have reservations about it. “But at the end of it all, I find it deeply satisfying that I am able to get this kind of work done”, she says with a smile.

Ms. Gilbert’s work plays a critical role in helping policy makers make the right decision. Often, it is believed that all the information that policy makers need is readily available in the public domain. However, in reality, it is an enormous task for policy makers to access, sort and prioritise the information they need. And how does policy making work? “It starts with some clear top-down political priorities informed by public opinion and pressure, followed by instructions to civil servants to make a suitable policy for implementation”, explains Ms. Gilbert. This process, she says, includes research and consultations with stakeholders like local people, NGOs such as environmental pressure groups and trade unions and companies, which results in a draft. Depending on the legislative status of the draft policy, this draft could result in standards, legislation that requires a Parliamentary process, or the creation of voluntary or other mechanisms. And who makes the decisions behind these policies? “Generally, policy makers can range from elected representatives in the parliament to civil servants operating in their office”, she adds.

In today’s world, it is increasingly challenging for policies to strike a balance between climate action and economic development in developing countries like India. Policy makers decide what form a certain law will take, which is extremely important for climate positive action at the grassroots. “Tension between economic growth and environmental change is a key challenge. Since developing countries are also home to the populations worst affected by climate change, they have serious challenges in terms of successful adaptation and mitigation strategies. The need of the hour is to arrive at creative solutions - a win-win policy for both parties”, opines Ms. Gilbert. “Some countries suffer due to absence of capacity to make important policies. Fortunately, India is not among those since it has a good research network built around addressing these issues”, she says. Nevertheless, there is hope for developing nations. “They have a wonderful opportunity to chart a new course of climate compatible economic development. They have the example of the developed countries and they should know what consequences await those trajectories. Don’t repeat what we’ve done. It doesn’t work”, she warns.

Another concern that Ms. Gilbert points out in tackling climate change is the fact that people all over the world have always been reactive, rather than proactive. “Attribution of extreme events is really important to make people take climate change more seriously, especially in the light of the recent El Niño event. If we could tell people how much of recent extreme droughts and storms are due to human influence on our climate, we would be able to stimulate more action. I believe that we should offer realistic and pragmatic solutions to people in order to combat climate change”, she articulates.

Talking about reasons for the reactive response, Ms. Gilbert points out an interesting tendency among scientists to be over cautious when making predictions in the face of uncertainty. There is consensus among activists and policymakers that there are enough studies on the causes, effects and factors that drive climate change. “What the world needs now is action! Infrastructure, investment in climate change mitigation measures and sustainability should be our focus. Infrastructure such as water, transport and grids need to be made more sustainable. Engineering solutions such as carbon capture and storage solutions for power need to be tested immediately and adopted”, she urges.

When asked if concepts such as anti-consumerism, de-growth and reduction of resources help in tackling this situation, Ms. Gilbert is quick to point out its drawbacks. “I think it is not realistic. The juggernaut of economic growth is too big for states to avoid it. For example, India is rapidly developing. You can’t really go and tell people to not want growth, which has brought along a lot of good things. I think the right way to go forward is to harness the power of consumerism into doing something better rather than the other way around.We need to have responsible consumerism and responsible production, now”, she explains.

What can policymakers in India learn from the UK? “The nature of challenges looks different in the two places. But, from my experiences in policymaking in different countries, I see that the crux of the problems in most countries is very similar. I’d be excited about having someone like me at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change here at IISc! Then we’d be able to probably draw on these similarities and work together to solve those issues”, she signs off.