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ScienceI am Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. Climate change, oceans, air pollution, green jobs, diplomacy - ask me anything!

May 10th 2017 by ErikSolheim • 18 Questions • 6873 Points

I noticed an interview I did recently was on the front page. It was about the US losing jobs if it pulls out of the Paris Agreement. I hope I can answer any questions you have about that and anything else!

I've been leading UN Environment for a little less than a year now, but I've been working on environment and development much longer than that. I was Minister of Environment and International Development in Norway, and most recently headed the OECD's Development Assistance Committee - the largest body of aid donors in the world. Before that, I was a peace negotiator, and led the peace process in Sri Lanka.

I'll be back about 10 am Eastern time, and 4 pm Central European time to respond!

Proof!

EDIT Thanks so much for your questions everyone! This was great fun! I have to run now but I will try to answer a few more when I have a moment. In the meantime, you can follow me on:

Thanks again!

Q:

Erik, what is being done about plastic in the Ocean?

A:

We have just launched the #CleanSeas campaign which is aiming to get companies, countries and citizens on board to rid ourselves of marine litter.

Citizens can clean beaches, governments can regulate markets, and companies can provided new and better alternatives to plastic. For sure we need to do a lot to solve the problem and we will do it by working together.

If you want, check out cleanseas.org to see what you can do!


Q:

Hoping you can answer a few! Thanks for doing this.

  1. About how many jobs is the US expected to lose? Any predictions on a number amount?
  2. Do you expect Pres. Trump will follow through on his campaign promise and cancel US involvement with the Paris agreement?
  3. Is coal really that dead? Would we really expect to see much greater job creation if we invested more in green energy areas?
  4. What's the status on nuclear energy - are we still developing nuclear technology to use on a large scale? Would investment in that be more efficient than in wind, solar, or hydro?
  5. What can average people do in their lives to reduce pollution? Is recycling helpful enough?

Any insights would be great because my knowledge on energy in the US could use a bit of refreshing. :)

A:

1 - It's hard to give numbers. But for sure if the US was to stop the transition to renewables, the jobs will go to China, India and other places. Already there are 400,000 jobs in solar vs. 70,000 in coal in the US. That gives you an idea of the scale of the issue.

2 - We very much hope that President Trump will keep the US in the Paris Agreement. We are ready to work closely with the Administration to help them achieve the job growth that they promised during the election. Where to find these jobs? The green sectors.

3 - It's not dead yet, but it's headed that way. The coal museum in Kentucky recently decided to get its power from solar energy, which is cheaper than coal there. I think that's symbolic.

4 - In UN Environment, we prioritize the renewables revolution, which can provide huge numbers of jobs in wind, solar and others - and provide the environmental solutions we need. If nations want to invest in nuclear, it's important they take the strictest precautions and optimize waste management.

5 - The trick is to think about the changes you can make not only on an individual scale, but on a big scale using your voice. Drive less, buy green products, recycle - for sure! But also - vote for environmentally friendly politicians. Join groups working for the environment.


Q:

Hi Erik

For someone who is very keen in Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living and wants to actively participate/work for the cause, where and how do you think should they start ?

A:

There are many ways! Lots of NGOs working for the environment need talented people to volunteer and work. Green companies like solar wind firms need employees. You can put pressure on business with your money and governments with your vote to act. Be active on social media and in your local community advocating for these issues.


Q:

Hi Erik, thanks for all of the good work. I'm a PhD student studying climate change and find it difficult to motivate myself when bombarded with constant 'alternative facts' from the media (seeing climate deniers rolled out again and again on news channels in the interest of 'debate'), lack of action from governments, a reluctance to meet targets which will result in massive fines from the EU. I suppose I'm wondering if you stay positive and how you stay that way.

Also - with the lack of energy devoted to the topic globally I'm worried about employment when I finish my PhD - any advice?

Thanks!

A:

I'm at heart an optimist. There's no need for a debate about whether we can or cannot go into space or cure diseases. Let's be confident that we have that we have the ability to solve the problems we face. I think it's silly to believe NASA can send a person to Mars, but their climate science is a hoax. So we have the ability to solve the problems, and in my view it's a matter of time until we do.


Q:

Dear Erik, I am a Singhalese from Trincomalee, Sri Lanka (as the minority in Eastern/Nothern provinces we didnt or dont like your bias approach), and I would like to ask a question from you regarding the failed Peace Process in Sri Lanka. If you are given a second chance to make it a success, what would you like to change the whole process a success? (assuming all the stake holders are still alive and the situation is still the same)

A:

Great to hear from someone from Trincomalee - a beautiful city!

There is fantastic book by Mark Salter called "To End a Civil War". If you want an answer to your important question, I highly recommend you start there. It sets out the lessons from the Sri Lankan conflict as I see them.

Mediators can only negotiate peace when there is a real will from both parties to go for peace. Unfortunately at critical moments in Sri Lanka that was not the case. The two main difficulties we faced was the Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran's reluctance to accept the federal solution and the lack of ability of the two main Sinhala-dominated parties - Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party - to work together. These were the two issues we should have been able to fix.


Q:

Why are there so many misconceptions about both how expensive solar energy is and how efficient it is at powering cities?

A:

Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing areas of technological development, and the constant innovation has pushed efficiency up and prices down. What was true a few years ago is no longer the case. Take a look at places like Cochin airport in southern India -- they installed a solar farm because the electricity bills from the power company were too high.


Q:

Hi Erik, thank you for partaking. With the current US president, the current leader of Russia and the biggest Media mogul all being athropological affected climate change deniers. How does the UN look to work with these individuals to progress the battle with climate change?

A:

We will clearly set out the science, which has close to unanimous support from climate scientists from all over the world - including the US. I would also say that I've never heard President Putin deny climate change. That said, we need to work with everyone in any way that can advance the fight. So if President Trump wants to combat air pollution or focus on job creation in solar and wind, for example, that's where we have common ground we can work on.


Q:

Would you rather fight 1 horse-size duck, or 100 duck-size horses?

A:

As a former peace negotiator, I would try to find a peaceful settlement that would mean I wouldn't have to.


Q:

What is your favorite dinosaur?

A:

I was in Montana last year - you could pick up fossils of dinosaurs off the ground. It was really amazing! But I'd say it's hard not to be impressed by the big carnivores - the T rexes and so on.


Q:

Hi Erik,

How are you doing? What's your plan to support developing countries (for finance and technology ) for implementation of Paris Agreement if USA pulls out of it?

Regards

Nisar chattha, Pakistan

A:

We have agreed with UN Climate Action that we will support all developing countries in implementing the Paris agreement. We will solicit support for that from China from Europe, and from others. Many developing countries have substantial resources themselves these days and don't necessarily need help from others to do the right thing.


Q:

What is the current stance of the UN on China's blatant disregard of Environmental Protection?

A:

China was until recently a huge environmental offender, there is no doubt about that. But the changes we've seen in recent years have been extraordinary and I'm very positive. China's leaders have put what it calls 'Ecological Civilisation' at the heart of their policy process. China's support for the Paris Agreement was critical in building global momentum. There is strong action on air quality, a major public health issue in many Chinese cities. China is driving innovation on renewable energy, and is taking concrete action to get off coal. China's recent ban on ivory sales was also hugely important for Africa's elephants. I visit China regularly and the change taking place is incredible.


Q:

Hi Erik, undergrad environmental science student here. Since I'll be graduating next spring, I'm very worried about jobs that will be available especially on the entry level side. A lot of my friends who just graduated were scrambling more than usual because of the EPA/NPS ect hiring freeze here in the United States. I know of at least two cases where my friends had to drastically lower their standards for a job in order to secure a source of income. Do you think this trend will continue for the next few years?

How bad do you think the impact of the current administration in the US will be on future environmental (excluding clean tech and renewables, talking more along the lines of conservation and remediation types of work) industry?

A few personal questions, I want to hopefully work internationally sometime after graduation, how would you suggest making this possible, given that its pretty hard to find even meagerly paid work abroad?

Is it even possible to work in the field without having a Masters degree? I ask this because I don't think I can afford a Masters degree without aid and lets just say my gpa isn't anything special compared to my classmates (barely over a 3.0).

Also why are UN internships unpaid? I would love to apply but I need to eat and live. I feel like this practice shuts out students who are passionate about these causes but cannot afford to go 6 months without payment for basic needs.

A:

The environment is becoming more and more important to the world so for sure there will be more environmental work opportunities in the future. You don't need to look at just the government. Look at the myriad companies in the states moving into the green sector that need expertise like yours. Look at international institutions who continue to work on the issues. Over time, for sure there will be more, not less green jobs in the public sector in the United States.


Q:

Food systems have a huge impact on our planet. It's no secret that the current global food system is detrimental to the environment, as seen in eutrophication, methane emissions from food waste and livestock, soil-depleting monocultures, and lots more! What do you think are the most important measures one can take to eat in a way that is better for our planet? What is UN Environment doing to address these issues? And what is your favorite food?

A:

This is a great question! We definitely need to look at climate-smart agriculture as a solution. We need to step up efficiency in agriculture, especially in places like Africa and places where land is at a premium, to produce more food without hurting the environment.

I really love all the big cuisines of the world - Chinese, American, etc. But I cant deny my special love for Indian - spicy and vegetarian. And it just so happens that vegetarian food is better for the environment than a meat-based diet.


Q:

As a fellow Erik with his name spelled with a K instead of a C, do people still misspell it after high school or is it lifelong?

Edit: The fact that his whole name screams Norwegian/Scandinavian flew over my head. I'm from the states so I'm around less Eriks and more Erics, at least in my town, and teachers I had for 3 years and multiple subjects in a small school would still spell it with the occasional C, so I assumed this problem was more universal than it is. I would again like to thank OP for taking the time to answer my question.

A:

Lifelong.


Q:

Hi Erik,

How does the UN feel about rainforest deforestation? Is this a top concern for the UN Environmental Programme?

Thanks for your time.

A:

Absolutely a huge concern! I'm actually headed to Borneo tomorrow to look into the orangutan conservation and peatland restoration projects in Indonesian rainforests. We are working closely with countries with large rainforests to support their preservation and restoration. Also, I can point to Brazil, which has reduced deforestation by about 70% in the last decade. Great progress.


Q:

Hi Erik, I'm writing a thesis on the links between environmental education and environmental security in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. My research has made me curious why UN Environment has a limited presence in the KRI? What are the obstacles to UN Environment playing a larger role in the Kurdistan Region? How, if at all, does the KRI's semi-autonomous status factor into this? Thanks!

A:

We're in close contact with the Iraqi government and have been working in Iraq for quite sometime - for example on the rehabilitation of the marshlands in the south. Clearly there is a huge need for environmental recovery programmes in the areas that have been liberated from ISIS/Daesh. Their scorched earth strategy has left countless not only displaced, but without a healthy environment to return to and rebuild.


Q:

Good morning erik, i just wanted to know, if we continue this way of living, internationally, how many years is the earth expected to hang on?

A:

Stephen Hawking said recently we only have 100 years left. I think that we have much much more than that. We can provide energy by solar and wind - it is a matter of rolling it out on a massive scale. We can provide prosperity for the world not by destroying nature but by protecting it. It's basically a matter of political will.


Q:

How do you think climate changed deniers can be convinced? Can they ever be?

A:

We can't wait for them to change their minds in order to act. Some people will always believe NASA never landed on the moon and some minds can't be changed, regardless of the weight of evidence.