Interview by Holly Bodeker-Smith with Svein Tveitdal on Inklings (original blog post) on the topic of Climate Change, lovie of nature, driving change at home, and the importance of educating the next generation.
Climate change is now part of the daily news cycle. It’s easy to forget, then, that for decades many thousands of scientists and activists delivered warnings that went unheeded.
Among them is Svein Tveitdal, a former UN Environmental director, climate consultant and activist who has dedicated his life to educating the public about global warming.
We spoke with Svein about loving nature, driving change at home, and the importance of educating the next generation.
Svein Tveitdal grew up on a farm in the Norwegian countryside. His family had few neighbours; most of the locals got around on horse and cart. “I spent my time outside – trout fishing, bird watching and walking,” he says. Those years were formative in Svein’s understanding of and respect for nature. He came to see it as everlasting.
As a young adult, he studied civil engineering and started working as a surveyor, “mainly so I could work outside in nature”. A clarifying moment came in 1987, when he read The Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development. “I realised everything that we use, eat, wear and live comes from nature. So if we don’t take care of it, and we lose it, we are all lost”.
Svein worked in environmental consulting for a decade before joining the United Nations in 1992. At that point, the UN was focusing on bridging the knowledge gap between climate scientists, policymakers and the public. Its primary vehicle for this was the Global Resource Information Database (GRID), established in 1989. “GRID provided a scientific basis for decision making, and made environmental information more understandable for the public,” Svein says.
“WHEN THERE’S DANGER ON THE HORIZON, HUMANS GO ON AS NORMAL. WE DON’T LIKE TO BELIEVE WE HAVE A PROBLEM, EVEN IF WE DO.”
Svein set up GRID’s fifth centre in Arendal, Norway. From then on, the necessity to educate the public on climate change became more and more apparent to him. But he was swimming against a tide of studied ignorance. “When there’s danger on the horizon, humans go on as normal. We don’t like to believe we have a problem, even if we do.”
Indeed, in the final stretch of the 20th century, people were more concerned about obliteration from nuclear bombs or computer glitches than a warming planet. “30 years ago you had to be a scientist to observe that there were changes going on. It’s only clear now that we have a big problem.”
Svein kept away at driving change from within the UN, serving at the GRID Arendal centre in Norway; the UN-Environment headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya; and working closely with the IPCC in Geneva throughout the 1990s.
Eventually, he grew weary of the delays in translating UN-backed research into policy in nation states. “Through the UN and the IPCC, politicians have access to the best scientific assessments on the current state of climate change, which they can use for policy making. But the UN is not stronger than what governments agree to.”
The shortcomings of the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) are testament to this. Delegates left without an agreement on how to respond to climate disasters, regulate the carbon market, or assist climate change-affected countries. This is despite the clear need for a globally coordinated response. Rising seas are swallowing Tuvalu, Kiribati and Bangladesh. The Bahamas is reeling from its most destructive hurricane. Fast-sinking Jakarta has experienced its deadliest deluge since 2007. And 12 million hectares, larger than the landmass of South Korea, have been scorched in Australia. In some parts of the nation, the “black summer” has been replaced by heavy rains and flash flooding.
“Everything we see now – drought, bushfires, heatwaves, floods, hurricanes – is strengthened by 1°C warming since the Industrial Revolution began. The temperature is now increasing at 0.2°C per decade, so we probably won’t stop at 2°C warming. Though I am optimistic that [we will take action] soon, because it is becoming so obvious,” he says.
Svein believes that some of the most tangible, immediate action that governments can take is decarbonising the energy market, stopping subsidisation of fossil energy, and the implementation of carbon taxes.
“THE GREEN SHIFT IS THE WORLD’S BIGGEST BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY. BUT POLITICIANS NEED TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR BUSINESSES AND PEOPLE TO MAKE GREEN CHOICES.”
After his tenure at the United Nations, Svein returned to Norway with a renewed vigour for local change. He spurred his hometown, Arendal, to become the first city in Norway with a climate-neutral administration following UN Guidelines; founded Climate Partners Norway; and started his environmental consulting agency Klima2020.
But his real convictions lay in addressing those who would be most affected by climate change: young people. He gives over 100 annual lectures at Norwegian high schools. “These students must learn about nature. Because what you don’t know about, you don’t care about, and that’s how you lose it,” he says.
These children are being raised in a nation lauded for its action on climate change. Norway is aiming for climate neutrality by 2050, was an early signatory to the Paris Agreement, has incentivised electric vehicle purchases, and invested in protecting rainforests. But it remains Europe’s second-largest oil exporter, and is developing its third-largest oil field.
Amidst what critics have called climate hypocrisy, Norway’s students are keeping politicians on their toes. They go to parliament and debate with ministers about climate change. “These children are polite and learned, and they are winning the debate. Politicians say: ‘Don’t worry, go to school, we will stop global warming.’ But young people can see they are not doing that,” Svein says.
“They must stand up against the forces that try to ridicule them and stay motivated. Through social media and strikes they might force the older generation to confront this crisis and initiate a green revolution.”
It is these children, and his own grandchildren, that keep Svein motivated to continue spreading awareness. “Never since I was a child has the need for political action been more important than now.”