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Bill Hare at a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2013.

Bill Hare at a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2013.

Greg McNevin/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Q&A: The physicist who has become a go-to climate adviser for dozens of poor nations

Bill Hare, a physicist and climate scientist, has become a scientific adviser for some of the nations on the front lines of climate change—poor countries with limited resources to adapt. His Berlin-based nonprofit, Climate Analytics, was established in 2008, with funding from the German government, to help provide scientific and technical advice about climate change to the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries.

Previously the climate policy director for Greenpeace International, he has attended all 21 annual meetings of the Conference of Parties—the global climate change summits begun after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In Paris, he is working with a number of poor and developing countries, including the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries Group. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How did you come to be working with the least-developed countries?

A: I’ve noticed for many years in climate negotiations that the small island states and the least-developed countries often lacked high quality scientific and policy advice. So they were often asking people around the negotiations for advice on the issues. About 6 or 7 years ago the opportunity came up to obtain funding under the German government’s International Climate Initiative to provide scientific and policy advice to these countries.

Q: How did this lack of scientific advice put these countries at a disadvantage?

A: Take a relatively simple issue like: What are the emissions that the world should have as a goal to limit warming below a certain level? There are many different viewpoints and analyses. We’re able to provide advice on the state of the science. We have our own energy and climate models that we’re able to run for a country. We’re also able to advise on the risks that they face with certain levels of warming. Which then helps them work out the goal they would like to see.

Or [another example]: How much loss and damage would a country or region be expected to experience [from climate change]? What can a country adapt to? What kind of adaptation? What would the cost be, and what will be leftover that you can classify as irreversible damage? That’s the research and policy analysis that we’ve been doing for the countries—in a lot of cases in Africa.

Lying behind the climate negotiations, behind all the politics, lies a tremendous amount of science. And many countries don’t have access to that. We hopefully provide a gateway to that advice, as well as enable them to up-skill themselves to be able to compete with the extremely well-advised and richer countries.

Q: The push to limit warming to 1.5°C is a rallying point for the countries you work with. How realistic is that, given that it would take aggressive action pretty quickly to make it happen?

A: The way I figure, there are two sides of the same coin. The positive side is that the INDCs [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are commitments made by individual countries to reduce emissions] make progress. The negative side is that there’s a long way to go. 

The question is: Will there be momentum to actually keep moving forward with policies? Or in cases where there aren’t policies, to get them into the INDCs? That, in the end, is what the whole negotiation is about—to build the direction of travel in the right way.

There are some hopeful signs, where we see countries actually moving toward reducing emissions. Plenty are not. But one can be hopeful that they would learn that the needed measures are not so costly and even beneficial. On a technological front we see rapidly dropping costs of renewable technology—wind, photovoltaics. I just think we’re at a stage of history where it could go one way or the other. There’s no convincing evidence that it’s unrealistic. And there’s not convincing evidence that it’s realistic.

It depends on your perspective. I’m optimistic by nature, so I’m seeing the trends going in the right direction. But I’m seeing the very great risk that it could stop and go backward.

Q: What do you think of carbon capture and sequestration, and even geoengineering of the atmosphere to help address climate change?

A: There’s a lot of thinking and work going on in these areas. Because of a lack of action over the last 20 years, we will need what are called “negative carbon emissions technologies” to be deployed in the 2040s for a 2° pathway, and [in the] 2030s for a 1.5° pathway, coupled together biomass combustion systems and carbon capture and storage. So you can burn conventional biofuel, extract [the carbon] from the flue gas or in some other way, and store it in a geologically secure reservoir. That’s already in a few trial plants around the world. That’s something that will have to be scaled up to successfully meet 1.5° and 2° limits.

Geoenginering … I just don’t accept that this sort of technology can ever really work safely. It doesn’t deal with ocean acidification. From a real world policy point of application, I think it could be extremely dangerous to deploy that.

Q: Do you see a tension for developing countries between their interest in addressing climate change and their interest in reducing poverty and developing their economy?

A: There is a real tension. Politicians can’t deal with climate change in a developing country without simultaneously dealing effectively with development needs, whether they are electricity needs or water or just economic growth and development. That has to be the center of any government’s agenda in the developing world.

The trick is to make sure that climate policies and technology actually bring advantages to populations in the short run as well as the long run. And I think fortunately that this is the case, more often than not.

What is often needed are additional sources of investment finance to get over the barrier. Whether you’re going to build a coal fire power station or whether you’re going to take the risk and deploy wind instead, or distributed solar, is an issue of investment costs. [For example], in the long run, running costs will be lower for renewable systems. But you need more up-front investment support. And that’s where there’s [a role to play for] the whole matrix of evolving international institutions and organizations aimed at so-called climate finance.

So yes, this is a tension, and in many instances it’s at the heart of the negotiations: How do we provide the finance and technical resources and capacity to actually help developing countries overcome these barriers?

Q: What would it take for you to call this climate summit a success?

A: That’s a tough question actually. What Paris certainly won’t do is agree to emission reductions sufficient, in one go, that will get us on a 1.5° pathway. We know that won’t happen. But on the other hand we need to see significant emission reduction action being promised. And then Paris has to start a believable, strong process to keep the momentum up. In other words, there will need to be a review within 5 years of what happened, and what further needs to be done to make sure that actual policies are being changed.

So I see Paris as being a kickoff point for a major global process that’s going to be ongoing now for decades to actually begin and secure global emission reductions. To do that, the Paris agreement has to provide what the negotiators call “direction of travel.” That signal that provides not just governments, but the private sector [and] civil society with the message [that] the time has come to make some big changes in fossil fuel use and in other aspects of our industrial societies to reduce emissions.

I doubt there is any single article, within any agreement, which on its own will convey that kind of signal. That strong signal will be an emergent property of the elements of the agreement taken together.

Q: Where do you see the biggest risk of Paris failing?

A: From where I’m sitting now I can see a lot of risks. For example, [agreeing to] the 5-year cycle of commitment reviews could be a stumbling block. There could be a stumbling block over the basic emission mitigation commitments. Are they going to be sufficient? Are they going to be clear enough? There could be a very weak long-term goal. There might be insufficient force given to long-term finance—a big issue for the poor developing countries.

At this stage of the negotiations, there’s definitely a lot of political theater. I’ve learned over the years that what a country says out loud—[such as:] “This is a terrible thing, we could never ever agree to that”—[later] turns out to not have been what you thought it was. At the end of the negotiations, a country walks away apparently having given up on something, but it got something else that wasn’t so clear.