John Ashton pulls no punches in climate arena

The retirement of a British civil servant often has something in common with the schoolboy released into the playground, bursting to shout out all the words suppressed by teacher in the classroom.

John Ashton ©SOAS
John Ashton ©SOAS

Since July last year, John Ashton, CBE, has embarked on a flurry of speaking engagements and media contributions. As former Special Representative for Climate Change to three successive Foreign Secretaries, his thoughts are hot off the press, admirably forthright and worthy of attention.

The retired diplomat has told the Koreans to grow up and commit to an emissions target. In Tokyo he suggested that the Japanese should stop behaving like Hamlet. And, in so many words, Ashton informed an academic audience in Arizona that America is losing its soul.

At home, Ashton has advised some of the world’s leading climate scientists to get their act together on the politics of climate change. He encouraged young students in Bedford to draw inspiration from the Occupy movement.

John Ashton has an unusual résumé. Abandoning an exotic early career as a Cambridge astronomer, he forged his craft in the bowels of the Foreign Office. The scientific training made its unexpected comeback in the latter part of his career, culminating in the first recognition in the British honours system for “services to international climate change.”

For good measure, Ashton speaks Mandarin and claims 30,000 followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter – “a very small number there,” he observed in his revealing valedictory evidence to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.

We should be grateful that he has so far resisted the revolving door of corporate sinecures that are without doubt stuffed in his back pocket. Now describing himself as “an independent commentator and adviser on the politics of climate change,” Ashton has clearly invested time in crafting his speeches. I’ve tried to pull together the recurring observations from those that I’ve read:

  • The 2008 banking and economic collapse ended all credibility of free market ideology and casino finance but politicians and their electorates remain in denial
  • The stress on food, water and energy systems accelerated by climate change represents the new systemic risk to global security and prosperity
  • Power is controlled by default by political and business elites whose interests lie in the status quo
  • Pleas that economic recovery can only be secured through conventional fossil-fuelled growth are clinging to the wreckage of an obsolete model and will fail.
  • Developed countries must rapidly decarbonise their power generation and electrify all transport and heating. Transformation on this scale requires a revival of the post-1945 shared resolve to build a better world.
  • China, Germany and Korea lead the way in low carbon competitiveness;
  • Don’t blame the negotiators for the impasse in UN climate negotiations. They are hidebound by their political bosses back home.
  • National delegations have no leverage in negotiations unless their own countries walk the talk. The UK is losing ground in this regard.
  • The unlikely prospect of the US Senate ever ratifying any international agreement to limit US emissions casts a dark shadow over the promise of the Obama/Kerry partnership.

The gaping hole in these reflections is the special predicament of the poorest countries and the current failure of UN climate negotiations to interpret the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. How should the burden of emissions reductions be shared and how should the cost of climate action in the poorest countries be reimbursed? There can be no international agreement without answers to these questions.

It was telling that the only mention of these issues that I could find in John Ashton’s material – a brief reference to the decision to locate the Green Climate Fund in Korea – makes the error of stating the amount of promised climate finance to be $100 million per annum, instead of $100 billion.

Ashton must have been deeply involved in the climate justice dimension – why does he leave it out? Presentations scheduled later this month at RSA and SOAS offer the chance to rectify the omission.

I’ve embedded below the text of the Arizona speech, in preference to the YouTube recording (46.00-57.30) which portrays John Ashton as a poor speaker. This may have been on account of the rather un-British culture of that conference or it may simply reflect the Foreign Office tradition that its cadres should write beautifully but keep their mouths shut, in deference to their political masters.

Other speeches are posted in the news archive of E3G, the climate advisory group co-founded by Ashton. RTCC also posts this material, having engaged Ashton for a monthly q&a session with its readers.