What is your greatest fear for the future of our planet?
My fear is that, although the solutions are out there to make a better future, if we carry on with business as usual we will run out of time and the point of no return will come.
Are we focusing too much on human impact?
Some of the arguments are certainly very human focused but to be pragmatic about it I think it is only when it is human focused that we get sufficient political will. It doesn’t really matter what the focus is if the outcome is right because that will help people, animals and the environment.
Are you worried about what will happen to chimps and other primates?
Yes, definitely. It is already apparent in some of the chimps’ more arid habitats. It is getting drier and hotter and that is going to affect food and water supplies.
Is there scope for them to migrate or adapt?
Some won’t be able to migrate anywhere – there won’t be anywhere to go. I think [climate change] is happening too quickly for evolutionary-type adaptations. Baboons and macaques are opportunists and they will do much better, but the apes really have very prescribed lives and it is much harder for them to adapt.
You have said that tackling deforestation is a big issue – what should we be doing?
If you are a poor community and you are relying on the forest to cut down trees to sell the timber or to clear for agriculture to feed your family, there has to be an alternative – you can’t just tell people they can’t use [the forest] anymore. The Redd-plus programme [reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation] that we worked with actually made a very big difference in the part of Tanzania where we work. The villagers got benefits and we trained them to be forest monitors.
Which is more important, putting pressure on governments or empowering local communities?
The second is more likely to be successful. All these climate conferences so far haven’t led to much political will at high levels. Even if one politician is pretty tough and makes strong emission capping regulations, if there is an election and he is gone somebody else can overturn them. And the big corporations, the vested interest groups, are so powerful and their links with governments are so strong that one gets a little jaded.
You are going to the Paris summit this year. What would you like to see come out it?
Strong agreement among the politicians and legislators to cap carbon emissions in a meaningful way.
Are any politicians doing a good job? Or are they holding up progress?
There are quite a lot in the US who are climate change deniers and ranting that it is nothing to do with us. We blame the politicians, but politicians in a democracy get elected, politicians want to be re-elected and I have known politicians who go into government with really good ethical standards about something like climate change but unless they have got at least 50% of the electorate supporting them if they make a tough regulation, they are not going to do it.
So it needs a mandate from the community?
It does. And here’s another hope for the future: I was part of the climate march in New York on the last UN peace day and the organisers expected about 100,000 people and in fact it was almost 400,000. All around me, particularly the younger people, they were all on their iPhones and iPads and tablets. They were all tweeting and twittering to their friends. And people were coming – they responded. So this is a huge new power that particularly the youth is on to.
Is it important that celebrities get involved?
Yes, if they are genuine. If they stand up and say you have all got to control your carbon emissions and then they go flying around in private jets for holidays it just makes them seem absurd.
You are vegetarian – should we all go meat-free for the environment?
I became vegetarian because of the horrendous cruelty. But now [I see] the impact on the environment – the huge areas of forest cut down to provide space to grow grain to feed the livestock or for grazing, the huge waste of water [in] turning vegetable protein into animal protein and then the CO2 emissions from the fossil fuel that is burned to support this vast agroindustry. And as an additional big problem for climate change, these creatures, particularly cows, produce methane gas and that is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
Was there one experience really that woke you up to the scale of climate change?
Yes. It was standing with some Inuit elders in Greenland looking up at the icecap and they were saying when they were young the [ice] never melted even in the summer. It was early spring and the water was gushing down this ice cliff. The sound of the ice breaking off and the crashing, the thunderous crashing, it was absolutely shocking – then looking out at the sea and seeing all these icebergs and little pieces of ice bobbing about. I went directly from Greenland to Panama and again met indigenous elders whose people for as long as they could remember had been living on the offshore islands and they had made plans to bring them island by island on to the mainland because more and more of the islands were becoming uninhabitable [because of high tides]. So going directly from the speeding up of the melting of the ice to people who were being driven off [their land] – it was just a shock.
Is that what it will take to change policy - a disaster closer to home, like the Florida floods?
It will certainly make a much bigger impact on policy in the US if Florida floods as compared with Bangladesh. It is very sad, but true.
What would you say to a climate change sceptic?
I find it hard to believe that they really believe what they are saying. If they do really believe [it] then they clearly haven’t properly investigated the scientific reports, they clearly haven’t travelled around the world and seen what I have seen of ice melting and people forced to leave their island homes.