SPC: Brian Dawson – A Voice of Calm in the Climate Change Debate


New Caldonia – Amid the clamour of alarm bells ringing about global warming, Brian Dawson likes to keep a cool head.

The calmly spoken climate change expert says constant warnings about rising sea levels and increasingly common natural catastrophes may only spread panic. What is needed, he says, is a measured approach to mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects.

Mr Dawson was speaking earlier this month at the Ministerial meeting in Noumea, hosted by regional organisation the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). The meeting brought together ministers from 22 Pacific island countries and territories, as well as Australia, New Zealand and the US, to discuss the theme ‘Climate change and food security – managing risks for sustainable development’.  

[Brian Dawson]

Though he shuns the description, ‘expert’, Mr Dawson, whose academic background is in economics and natural resource and environmental management, is a respected voice in the international climate change arena. Last year he joined the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) as its Senior Adviser on Climate Change.

While he believes the vigorous debate in the Pacific about this issue is healthy, it is not always well informed.

“The focus of some of the leaders has been on the much longer term issues rather than the shorter term issues. I think we need to populate the space between the different sectors a bit more and get people engaged in what climate change actually is and how we respond to it,’’ he says.

Mr Dawson feels that some of the scientific fraternity has mystified the issue instead of making it accessible to the layman.

“These scientists have tended to make it a bit more complex than it needs to be and it is actually a message that you can deliver quite simply,’’ he says.

Mr Dawson wants to bring the issue down from the heights of scientific debate and national strategising to “where the rubber hits the road’’ as he puts it.  His aim is to engage people in thinking about what climate change is, when it’s going to occur and what it will mean in their day-to-day lives as well as for their longer term futures.

He says we need to look at climate change from sector-level perspectives, for example, looking at what a fishery manager needs to know and how he or she can plan to deal with its effects.

“Those are the things we need to get down and drill down to and give some ownership at the sector level and the community level,’’ he says.

Mr Dawson has a positive view of the situation and says there is still time to avoid severe impacts of climate change.  Many of the projected impacts will only become serious problems if the world’s population does not curb greenhouse gas emissions, especially fossil fuel emissions, he says.

“It is never too late because these things are yet to occur and the most of what we perceive as the impact in 2100 you have to consider is three or four generations away…we still have an opportunity to avoid a lot of that. There are still opportunities to adjust and change the way we do things to make those impacts a lot less than they would be if we did nothing.’’

He says Pacific island countries can approach climate change in one of two ways: “Give up and blame the rest of the world or actually try and be constructive and change the way the world is progressing in terms of the lifestyles and the emissions that are actually occurring, but more importantly, look for opportunities that do exist as a people in the Pacific to actually adapt to climate change’’.

SPC carries out analysis to determine the likely impact of climate change on food production, ecosystems and socio-economic structures.

“If we stopped emissions today, what we would end up with is probably one point five to two degrees warmer (temperatures) whether we liked it or not, just because of the inertia of the system,’’ he explains.

“It sounds small when people talk about a two-degree rise or three-degree rise…Ecosystems and humans can adapt to that if it is slow enough – the problem is the rate of change that would be occurring. What would normally occur over a 10,000 to 20,000-year period is occurring over 100 to 200-year periods. So that is what creates that imbalance in the system and species find it very hard to adapt to such rapid change.’’

Mr Dawson says that sea level change has tended to dominate the climate change agenda, however, while long term sea level rise is an important issue there are far more pressing concerns to deal with in the short to medium term. The high-priority issues are water and food security, the health impacts of climate change and the increasing intensity of extreme weather events.

He says the huge amount of international funding for climate change projects must be targeted carefully and spent where it is most needed.

“Let’s use that wisely and not build unnecessary sea walls that might be needed in 50 or 70 years’ time, but don’t do that now. Is that money better spent on improving the education system to make people more aware of what the key issues of climate change are? Or include the resilience of the health system risk to disease outbreaks or to extreme weather events?

“In my view, that is where the investment should go.’’