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Climate Change: Cost and Opportunity; Where Are the Big Ideas?; Epic Story of Human Existence in Britain; Imagine a World

Aired February 10, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The British are famous for obsessing about the weather, but now they have lots to obsess about. Parts of Southern England are literally submerged and they have been for more than a month, as the wettest January in nearly 250 years continues to wreak havoc into February as well.

The River Thames has reached its highest level ever recorded, threatening thousands of homes and lives. The Prime Minister David Cameron is visiting the hardest hit areas, trying to limit the growing criticism of his government's handling of the crisis, and troops have been dispatched to flooded Datchet, which is near the Queens Castle at Windsor. It is also one of the busiest commuter routes into London.

Even the future king has waded in, Prince Charles visiting victims and urging everyone to wake up to the perils of climate change.

And today in the United States, none other than President Obama, along with the visiting French President Francois Hollande are calling for an ambitious global climate change agreement.

Of course extreme weather knows no boundaries; 2013 was Australia's hottest year ever. California has just experienced the driest year in its history. These satellite images show the dramatic reduction in snow compared with this time last year.

All of this doesn't just impact our lives, our jobs and the environment in which we live. But according to the World Bank, the global economic loss from extreme weather is rising as well, from around $50 billion in the 1980s to around $200 billion in the last decade.

Last month, Rachel Kyte became the World Bank's vice president and special envoy for climate change. She said this is because the bank knows that its mission to eradicate poverty will be upended by, quote, "the ultimate curve ball," which is climate change.

And Rachel Kyte joins me now from Washington.

Welcome to the program.

Let me just focus you, who are a native-born Briton, on what's happening in England. You've just heard; you're watching. Your parents are here.

Could this have been prevented or at least mitigated?

RACHEL KYTE, WORLD BANK SPECIAL ENVOY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: I think every country is trying to process the fact that the extreme weather events that we thought were going to happen to somebody else, over there, in the future, are now actually happening right now, here, to us.

I don't think that necessarily the specificity of each storm can be predicted. But the fact that the trend is here, and that that trend for the moment has brought a stream of storms across the Atlantic to hammer into Ireland and to the U.K., I think we do have to be cognizant of these trends. And we have to be cognizant of the level of preparedness and the level of resilience we're going to have to build into our economies to cope.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's talk about that in a second. And, first, I really want to ask you, though, look, we've got U.N. special envoys and conferences on climate. We've got E.U. benchmarks. And now we have a World Bank vice president and special envoy on climate.

Forgive me, but how is this going to change?

What will your mission be?

And what can you do to effect what looks like inertia?

KYTE: Well, I think in your introduction, you laid out part of the problem, which is that climate change has been seen as to be an environment phenomenon, something that environmentalists are worried about, something that ministers of environment need to be worried about.

What we're trying to do is actually bring the science of climate, which nobody's arguing about now, into the economic policy-making rooms: into the cabinet, into the highest levels of decision-making, and start looking at what does climate science mean for the economic trajectory that you're planning for.

What does it mean for your hopes for growth, competitiveness and jobs over the next five years, 10 years, 15 years?

And not in every country of the world is that a debate that's happening. And I think that we want to try to bring the science and the economic planning together so that we have a difference set of decisions being made.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, then, how will you communicate what you're just saying? Because, you know, up until now, we've had the doom and gloom sort of scenario of climate change.

What is a way to communicate the necessity and the urgency which still, despite the talk about it all the time, doesn't seem to be getting through?

KYTE: Well, I think there are three things that we have to understand, that climate change is causing costs now; the costs of repair. It is going to mean a cost of adapting, adapting to very different weather systems and the impact that they're going to have over agricultural, over our energy systems, over transport, over the cities.

And then there is the additional costs of actually making the choices now to do things in the low-carbon way. That can be seen as doom and gloom. It's going to be more expensive in the short run but it will be cheaper in the long run.

But there are huge opportunities that come with that. There are opportunities to live in cities where it's easier to breathe; opportunities to change the way that we farm so that we can feed people and at the same time now have emissions from the way in which we farm and from the destruction of forests; opportunities for all of the new jobs that will come from the greener economy and the competitiveness that comes from public transport systems that allow poor people to get to work more easily.

So I think we have to convey the excitement and opportunity that could come with expensive decisions that have to be made now, but that will have a benefit over time.

AMANPOUR: Some of the opportunities you're talking about, obviously, are involved in the employment sector, and God knows we have a world in which so many of our young people are struggling to find jobs.

Is there a way to really train a whole new generation to deal with our climate changing world? I mean, I'm struck, for instance, by people here say, oh, my goodness, there's not enough people to help, you know, this village in England or not enough people to, you know, fill sandbags or whatever it might be. There just seems to be immense amount of employment opportunity for the future.

You're the World Bank. What would be your prescription for that?

KYTE: Well, so the need for jobs, good quality, decent-paying jobs, is a worldwide phenomenon. More intense in those parts of the world where the youth, the population, is burgeoning. So in each country, there is a transition, a transition in energy system, a transition in the manufacturing and the sort of -- the soup to nuts of jobs that would come in any new supply chain; the technical skills that young people need to have advantages to open up opportunities for themselves in those sectors are something that are country specific, regional specific.

I think at the moment it's a little factious to say that there's going to be a green economy with lots of green jobs when we know that there's a transition because there's a lot of people who will potentially lose jobs as the brown economy evolves.

So the challenge for every country is to try to find a way to look at the skills mix that's needed, retrain those who need retraining and to then build opportunity for the new jobs.

And my father's a very good case in point. He was employed in the state- owned electricity industry. He retrained more than 20 years ago into energy efficiency, a huge industry for every country that has a built-out energy system today.

And so I think that we -- it's really something that needs cabinet level attention in every country, whether rich or poor or middle income and growing --


AMANPOUR: You're talking about --

KYTE: -- and about we're only just beginning to see the data we need for that.

AMANPOUR: -- you're talking about political leadership and every time we turn around, all these great sort of words that we hear from our politicians, all of a sudden, economic realities; they say dictate that we pull back.

So benchmarks, as I say, you know, go missed, deadlines are missed, conference recommendations are simply shelved and put in the drawer.

Tell me about what it's going to take to get political leadership up to scratch.

KYTE: Well, the secretary-general has called for -- has called for that political leadership to start manifesting itself this year. We can't keep pushing off until tomorrow that which we know we need to do today.

I don't think it's a completely bleak picture in that there are a number of leaders around the world, a fairly sizable economies, who've decided that they just can't wait and have decided to put in place the kinds of national action that they need in order to reengineer their economies and move their economies to a much more efficient place.

So I think we see a real leadership coming out of Mexico, Brazil in certain sectors of their economy. We've seen leadership from the Philippines, which is one of the countries the most devastated in the short to medium term by extreme weather events.

And so you can start to see national leaders supplemented by city leaders and mayors taking action right now. The question is can the top 20 emitters of the world, can they lead in terms of energy transitions?


KYTE: Can the big food producers of this world, will they stand up and lead?

And it's political leadership at the end of the day.

AMANPOUR: -- well, you talk about the top -- the top polluters, of course the top top is the United States.

It, though, and Mexico, which you mentioned, are thrilled with their new discoveries of shale, you know, the fracking and the natural gas and this and that.

That is not a great incentive to, you know, increase green technology, is it?

I mean, they're just thrilled to have the opportunity to bring out more fossil fuels.

KYTE: So the shale -- the shale revolution in the United States has helped the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions total, which is a perversity of the situation. But I think that shale is perhaps something that may only be a short-term or medium-term step in a transition towards a much cleaner and low-carbon energy system.

We mustn't lose sight of the fact that by the second half of the century, we really need to be carbon neutral as a global economy. And so different countries are going to take different steps to get there and maybe shale is a transition option for the United States, whether or not it turns out to be the option that everybody thinks it might be for other countries is difficult to say.

North Dakota is slightly less densely populated than Lincolnshire. So each country will have a transition that it tries to engineer. At the end of the day, we need public political leadership in order to start decarbonizing our growth. And there's no getting away from that.

AMANPOUR: Well, we'll be watching and we hope you prod that political leadership, Rachel Kyte. Thank you very much indeed.

KYTE: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And this disaster has been a boon to satirists like the magazine here in England, "Private Eye." Its spoof cover shows an underwater diver posing as the British environment minister visiting the hard-hit Somerset area, and insisting, quote, "It is all under control."

But back in 2009, this was no spoof. The government of the Maldives held a real cabinet meeting underwater to dramatize how climate change threatens to sink their island nation in the Indian Ocean. It's the lowest lying country on Earth.

So where's the big idea that will save our planet? Where is it going to come from? I will ask an Internet innovator how to keep our planet afloat when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Now the race to tackle climate change often looks more like a crawl. President Obama's administration in an effort to act without a difficult Congress last week announced the creation of so-called climate hubs to help farmers adapt to climate change -- a humble step.

Critics say leadership and big ideas are lacking at the very top. If government is unable to tackle the problem, do private companies need to step in? My next guest, billionaire investor Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook, is actually no fan of government intervention. But, he says, the tech sector also lacks imagination and he's joining me now from San Francisco.

Peter Thiel, welcome to the program.

PETER THIEL, COFOUNDER, PAYPAL: Christiane, thank you for having me on the show.

AMANPOUR: So I just set you up by saying that you also criticized your own private sector tech groups; in fact, famously you were sitting alongside Google's Eric Schmidt and you kind of criticized the fact that there aren't enough advancements and they're sitting on bundles and bundles of cash.

Tell me what you would have them do.

THIEL: Well, it's been a -- the technology story in the last 20 or 30 years has been a story of tremendous innovation in the world of bits and computers. But much less innovation in the world of atoms and stuff. And the energy problem is certainly a problem that's more a problem involving atoms and how we -- how we build new kinds of -- new kinds of power sources, new kinds of ways to produce energy.

I think there are a lot of things that look like they could be done when you look on them on paper; but the translation has been difficult --


AMANPOUR: Why is that?

THIEL: -- some numbers --

AMANPOUR: Sorry; give us --

THIEL: -- talking about -- well, it's -- Silicon Valley's invested $50 billion in clean tech in the last decade. Most of the money has been lost. Forty separate solar companies went bankrupt in 2012 alone. And so it has been -- there was definitely a motivation to try, but for a variety of reasons, I believe atoms are much harder than this.

I think there was -- you know, I think energy's -- unlike computers, is an issue where you do need some complex coordination with the government. And in many cases, government regulations have prevented clean tech from coming about.

So you cannot build windmills because it's aesthetically seen as ugly or it's hard to build power lines across the desert in Southern California because the restrictions on zoning.

AMANPOUR: But surely --

THIEL: -- often have these stories of these very complex tradeoffs.

AMANPOUR: -- exactly. But surely, I mean, here you are, an innovator; you can see the market of the future.

Aren't there other people with brains like that who could see employment opportunities, you know, could see how to shift our whole economy, not only that, how people get educated in order to actually tackle this great -- and some could exciting challenge?

THIEL: Well, it's -- there certainly are -- there's -- it is -- it is an enormous challenge. I agree with you that it is probably the largest one that we have. But you have to always think of it in very specific terms. And you know, our -- the debate has been dominated by lawyers and politicians who like speaking these very abstract terms.

But I think if we -- if we talked about it in scientific or technological terms, you would ask what are the specific technologies we should develop? Should it be solar? Should it be wind? Should we reconsider safer and cleaner versions of nuclear power because nuclear, after all, is something that does not lead to carbon emissions. And so we should perhaps rethink some of the biases we've had against nuclear.

And which everyone of these tracks you go down on, there is this very complex process of coordinating -- coordination, getting the power grid to shift over to one or the other. And our political leadership is not really capable of talking in scientific or technological terms.

I looked at the U.S. Senate and House, the 535 people, by a generous count, 35 of them have degrees in science or engineering. And the rest are basically living in the Middle Ages. They don't know that solar panels don't work at night or windmills don't work when the wind is not blowing. And so there is this incredible disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., on this -- in this regard.

AMANPOUR: Yes, you couldn't have put it better. Some poor beleaguered activist said, "And even then, many people in Congress, many in the government treat climate prescriptions and climate change as some kind of left-wing plot."

But let me ask you, because that really does add to the inertia in government.

You hark back to a nostalgia for like the '60s, where actually there was great technology, great innovation, the moon landing, that whole program was so utterly successful, identifying an aim and going for it.

And controversially, you have given something like $100,000, grants to people under 20, to drop out of school to pursue their big ideas.

Are you really hoping that this could be one of those motivators?

THIEL: Well, I think that culturally, we're -- our society's become very tracked, very incrementalist and somehow very hostile to big ideas. If Einstein wrote a letter to the White House, it would get lost in the mailroom, so something like the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program are quite unthinkable today.

You know, Nixon went on TV in 1970 and promised that we'd cure cancer in six years. Now that did not happen, but you could not imagine a major political leader in the U.S. or anywhere in the Western world trying to coordinate against specific innovations.

So --

AMANPOUR: Well, just --

THIEL: -- and it's always -- the discussion's always framed in these very abstract terms, where we're going to have processes; we'll have innovation hubs. But it's never -- we never talk about specific things --

AMANPOUR: -- which is extraordinarily --

THIEL: -- we have to be specific to actually try to get things done.

AMANPOUR: -- when you consider that America is the land of the greatest technological progress, the greatest scientific progress in the history of humankind.

THIEL: And so -- and so to the extent -- yes. The United States has always been the country where people do new things. And to the extent it becomes harder to do new things in the United States, this is a tremendous challenge because this is our comparative advantage as a country. And if we no longer are the place where people can do new things, we will have lost something very special about this country.

AMANPOUR: Peter Thiel, thank you so much for joining me.

THIEL: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: So, as we said, Britain is submerged under floodwaters; Australia is broiling under its hottest sun ever.

But at the turn of this century in 2001, to be precise, one of the most famous writers and activists from down under, feminist Germaine Greer, spent her life's savings, a half-million dollars, to purchase an endangered rain forest, almost 150 acres. Now at age 75, she's chronicled her rescue efforts in her book, "White Beach: An Epic Journey," made all the more important now that a new Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, remains in the dark, having abolished the climate change commission and continues to scoff at the notion that we aid and abet climate change.

So when we come back, imagine a world where 10 Ice Ages have created an epic struggle for human survival. It happened here in Britain. People trading places with hippos and rhinos; we'll step back a million years in time at an extraordinary exhibit at London's Natural History Museum, after a break.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine the epic story of human existence in Britain just got half a million years older. Yes, footprints recently found along the east coast now dates it back 900,000 years, instead of 450,000 years as previously thought.

And hippos roamed in Trafalgar Square; lions and rhinos stalked the countryside, often when humans were driven out by dramatic climate change in the 10 Ice Ages that have swept this land.

A timely and eye-opening new exhibition opens later this week at London's Natural History Museum, and we got a special preview with the leading paleontologist, Chris Stringer, who curated it.


CHRIS STRINGER, PALEONTOLOGIST: This is it, the big freeze. There's the size of that huge orange tree (ph), covered most of Britain, 450,000 years ago.

AMANPOUR: And this is -- we're now in the Ice Age.

STRINGER: Yes, (INAUDIBLE) cold stage. At times Britain was warmer than the present day. It was like the Mediterranean. And at other times the extremely cold, extremely dry, as you can see an environment where there were mammoths living on these cold steppes, sometimes too cold for humans. At other times, people were here alongside those mammoths.

AMANPOUR: Here you've got an amazing replica of an early Homo sapiens, right?

STRINGER: That's right. Yes.

AMANPOUR: That's us?

STRINGER: That's us. Though this is a member of our species reconstructed from over 30,000 years ago. So one of the really early modern human Europeans and here he is based on material from Wales and from the Czech Republic but (INAUDIBLE) built up here, very accurately, here to show the shape of the body.

And modern humans came into Britain about 40,000 years ago. So he's one of the earliest people into Britain. But of course, even these groups couldn't keep their occupation here. Twenty-five thousand years ago, the peak of the last Ice Age, it looks like everyone in Britain died out. And then it has to be repopulated all over again, twice more before we get to the last 12,000 years, which is our present occupation.

AMANPOUR: And how does this all play in as we have this really vivid climate change debate right now?

STRINGER: We would have been going into an Ice Age, really, (INAUDIBLE) any time now, because we're burning all these fossil fuels and putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We are stopping that from happening. We're dampening it; but the danger is that we're sending the climate in the other direction to another extreme, which will be warmer than anything we've seen in human history.

AMANPOUR: And this is the Neanderthal.


AMANPOUR: Which climate change was part of, part of what made him extinct.

STRINGER: Well, I think so, yes. I mean, there are different views. So these people were around for several hundred thousand years, very successful. And they died out by 30,000 years ago; physically they'd gone. Now we know they hadn't completely died out, because a little bit of their DNA lives on in many of us today because there was a bit of interbreeding.

But physically they disappeared by 30,000 years ago. And we've been arguing about why for over 100 years, partly it was the arrival of the modern humans who were competing with them for resources, but also at the same time, the climate of the Earth was fluctuating every few thousand years, very dramatically from relatively warm to freezing cold.

AMANPOUR: And let's walk into these other rooms, because what's incredible is the notion of hippopotamuses in the center of London.

STRINGER: So in Trafalgar Square, on the south side of Trafalgar Square, if you dig in the foundations of the buildings, you will find the remains of animals from 120,000 years ago, where the climate was even warmer than the present day, maybe 1 degree warmer in the summer.

AMANPOUR: Amazing.

STRINGER: It's an amazing story.

AMANPOUR: The epic struggle of the human experience.

STRINGER: Absolutely, yes. And here we've got it in Britain for nearly a million years.


AMANPOUR: And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.