Environment

Professor Brian Cox: We need a 'CERN-type model for the environment'

The leading British physicist called for greater international collaboration in the Earth Day special edition of The Big Issue magazine, guest-edited by Chris Packham.

Professor Brian Cox at the Science Foo Camp in 2008

Professor Brian Cox at the Science Foo Camp in 2008. Image credit: Bob Lee/Flickr

Leading British scientist Professor Brian Cox has called for renewed international co-operation similar to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as Cern, to address global warming and escalating environmental crises.

Speaking to naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham as part of a special edition of The Big Issue magazine, Cox said a solution which locks countries into committing longer-term “funding and effort” is the only way to side-step domestic politics which have so far failed to address the climate crisis.

Cern is funded by dozens of countries in the pursuit of science for peaceful purposes. It has been responsible for successive breakthrough discoveries about the nature of the universe since its foundation in 1954.

“There’s democratic oversight, each country funds it, but Cern was set up by international treaty in a way that makes it difficult for individual countries on short timescales to pull out or change their budgets,” Cox said. “So it was very smart. I think that sort of thing is the way forward.

“My personal view is that the answer is some kind of Cern-type model for the environment, set up by international agreements between countries.” 

The UK will host the Cop26 environmental summit in Glasgow in November 2021, bringing political leaders from around the world together to find collective solutions to environmental problems such as air and water pollution, deforestation, and rising global temperatures.

More than 190 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions and slow the speed of global warming in 2016, but then-US President Donald Trump pulled out of the treaty within a year. 

It followed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which 192 signatories promised to reduce emissions.

The solution is continuity of funding and effort. [The question is] how to achieve that.Professor Brian Cox

Both treaties had the stated aim of preventing global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say is key to minimising soaring temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather. Both have been criticised for a lack of any binding enforcement for countries to fulfil their promises.

“One sort of idealism is that we might take environmental care out of our current political system, which is run to terms of office,” said Packham. “And we’ve got party politics which are constantly in sometimes rather trivial conflict as well. 

“Basically that mechanism of governance can’t deal with the longer term and investment required.”

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“You’re absolutely right,” replied Cox. “The solution is continuity of funding and effort. [The question is] how to achieve that.” 

“Maybe an example, directly from my field, is Cern, the Large Hadron Collider, the largest scientific experiment ever attempted, which sits under Geneva and France and is a collaboration of 80 countries around the world and was set up after the Second World War for Europe, initially, to come together in the endeavour of understanding basic science for peaceful purposes. It’s in its charter that it’s nations collaborating together for peaceful purposes.”

Cox added: “We have an extremely complex problem here. We’re talking about the governance of the planet, ultimately, aren’t we? And we’ve never governed the planet before.”

In a 90-minute conversation, Packham and Cox also discussed the wonders of earth, origins of our species, the complex relationship between politicians and science and where we go from here when tackling climate breakdown. 

Read the full interview in this week’s Big Issue Earth Day 64-page special, which also includes an exclusive interview with activist Greta Thunberg. 

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