The Oxford Today interview: Chris Patten, Oxford's Chancellor, on facing up to global challenge. Greg Neale reports.

'I don't myself much care for politicians' memoirs. I haven't written one, and I don't intend to. What I've written so far - apart from a largely unknown book on political philosophy - are books that have drawn on my experiences. This one goes further.'

Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University, former Cabinet Minister, Conservative Party Chairman, European Commissioner and Governor of Hong Kong, is talking about his latest book. What Next?, subtitled Surviving the Twenty-First Century, is a wide-ranging examination of some of the more pressing challenges facing the world, from globalisation and climate change to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, water shortages, potential pandemics, drugs-trafficking and international crime. It's an ambitious scope, and all the more so considering the author's other commitments.

Chris Patten was elected to the chancellorship in 2003, shortly before his term as one of Britain's two European Commissioners came to an end. Life since then has been far from ceremonial. He has taken an active part in University affairs, most recently beginning a busy round of international trips to support Oxford's ambitious development campaign - to China, Singapore and Australia, with visits to India and a tour of the United States scheduled for this year. Beyond that, he has been playing an active role as co-Chair of the International Crisis Group, is also Chancellor of Newcastle University (from which he steps down later this year) and has written two other books, on international diplomacy and the relationship between Britain, Europe and the United States. Given the scope of his activities, I wondered, when we sat down to talk at his West London home at the end of last year, why he'd taken on another literary project of such range.

'It was rather a lot of work to fit in between all my other activities', he agreed, before listing his objectives. First was a desire to demonstrate the need for greater multilateral cooperation to address the world's problems. 'Here we were with a US administration [of George Bush] which, at least in its first term, had been committed to a rather hapless unilateralism and was getting the Americans and everybody else into a whole heap of trouble. Second, I'd long believed that in order to demonstrate the case for international cooperation, it was necessary to go through all the main problems that we face globally, and point out why our nation-states couldn't cope with them on their own. And third, while I agree that there is a huge, benign case to be made for globalisation, I think some of the things that have been said about it are nonsense. I wanted to make the point that although globalisation has flattened national boundaries, it hasn't flattened nation-states, which remain the principal building blocks of the international community.'

If the topics addressed in What Next? reflect much of Patten's own political career - not just his more recent high-profile international positions, but also his time as a young Minister for Overseas Development in the late 1980s, followed by a spell as Secretary of State for the Environment - his thinking, as he admits, owes much to the work he has observed within Oxford's academic community.

'I'm a huge admirer of what Paul Collier [Professor of Economics, Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies and author of the recent book, The Bottom Billion] has written, particularly about development and the relationship between poverty and conflict, for instance. I drew heavily on his arguments. I was also very struck by much of what I heard about and knew was being done by the James Martin 21st Century School [founded in 2005 in Oxford] in areas like epidemiology and demography. I had a brief tutorial about disease from Professor Angela McLean [Co-Director at the School's Institute for Emerging Infections] before I tackled the reading list on epidemics - so yes, I certainly knew what was happening in the University.' Patten also gives due acknowledgement to Professor Sir Adam Roberts, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, as well as several Oxford postgraduates who helped with his research.

I wondered whether the international politician in him believed that the value of a university was not just that it brings together so many disciplines, but that this had lessons for policy-makers. 'Yes I do,' he said, 'and I also think that we should be looking at more dialogue between the academic community and the policy-making community in and around government. It doesn't necessarily mean that because you've got smart work being done in universities and think-tanks that you will have smart government policy as a result. If you look at the United States, Washington is full of think-tanks doing fantastic work, but it hasn't stopped the Bush administration - which will have ended by the time this conversation is published, of course - stumbling into some pretty catastrophic errors.

'In this country, I think sometimes that universities have been a bit too backward or a bit too academically introverted, and I hope we can change that. I think there is far more evidence of academic interchange between disciplines than there used to be, and that can have hugely benign impacts. That's one of the things I see in the 21st Century School.'

Given the range of issues Patten has encountered during his four decades in public life, I asked him whether he'd been surprised by anything in his research for the new book. Two points emerged.

'A subject which I hadn't known much about before, but which I became completely gripped by, was the question of water and the relationship between the stress on water supplies and potential conflict. This is a huge and very serious issue. The more I've read, the more I've been fascinated by the fact that six out of the seven rivers that run into India and China rise in the Tibetan Plateau and are going to be hugely affected by glacial melting as a result of climate change, with potential security implications for the relationship between India and China. And when you look at the difference between the amount of money that we spend on development assistance for water, and what we spend on bottled water at home, the disparity becomes extremely shocking.

'I also became interested in the so-called war on drugs - that's a terrible phrase - and a little bit fixated on the extent to which good domestic policy is often good foreign policy. I mean, we talk about Afghanistan as a "failed state": 85-90 per cent of the heroin injected on the London streets last night came from Afghanistan. But the Afghans could just as easily talk about failed societies like ours. One subject which we haven't debated sufficiently openly is the almost complete failure of a drugs policy.

'I don't myself favour legalisation, though the argument for it at least deserves to be explored without moral approbation simply driving the debate. What I do favour is distinguishing between production, manufacture and distribution, on the one hand, and use on the other. I don't see the point of locking up users. I think drug use is a public health issue and should be dealt with by mandatory registration and treatment, and not by incarceration. We have doubled the number of people who are in our prisons for drug offences, and trebled the length of the sentences, but there are now still 280,000 dependent drug users in England and 50,000 in Scotland.'

Of all the topics that he considers in his book, there is one that Lord Patten describes as 'the only really existential issue facing the world': climate change.

'It isn't very often that you get such a wide scientific consensus on an issue', he commented. 'Four years ago, Sir David King [the British government's former Chief Scientist, now Director of Oxford's newly opened Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment] said that climate change was more dangerous than terrorism and he got dive-bombed, as it were, by ministers and others for saying this. But it's true. There aren't any terrorists who can melt the permafrost; there aren't any terrorists who can change the weather patterns in the Atlantic so as to prolong the drought in Sudan-Darfur; there aren't any terrorists who can influence the rate of glacial melt in the Himalayas. So I do think that climate change is the biggest issue that we face. And as David King has himself argued in a wonderful little book, Hot Topic, the issue is not whether global warming happens - it is happening. The issue is whether we keep it nearer to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, or whether it goes up to three degrees, with pretty dire consequences - and it is going to be difficult enough in the range of two to two and a half.'

While international negotiations on steps to tackle climate change have moved slowly since Patten was an environment minister in the late 1980s, he is cautiously optimistic. 'I think things are changing quite rapidly. And Barack Obama's election is going to help, I hope. So there are hopeful signs. But there's a down-side as well - there are politicians, like [Silvio] Berlusconi [the Italian prime minister], who say that because we are in such dire straits economically, we should postpone or dilute our commitments on climate change, which I think is ridiculous and economically illiterate. But by and large, I think, people have got the message. The question is whether they can manage successfully the extraordinarily complex diplomacy which is going to be required in order to get this fixed.'

Again, there is an Oxford echo. 'When I was starting to write this book, I reread - partly for fun, because it's wonderfully written, and partly as a reminder of past negotiations - Peacemakers, Margaret Mac-Millan's book on the Versailles Treaty. Without belittling what was attempted there, the effort to put in place the post-Kyoto agreement is as big as politics get, and it's even more horribly difficult than the negotiations at Versailles or Yalta or Potsdam.' Professor MacMillan, of course, is Warden of St Antony's College.

The subject of terrorism is something that has book-ended Lord Patten's career, with an early posting to the Northern Ireland Office, and the chairmanship of the Independent Commission on Policing in the province after his years in Hong Kong. He takes a long view. 'Terrorism isn't a new phenomenon. It's not something against which you fight a war. And it's a technique which uses violence to try to promote a political cause which is sometimes drawn so vaguely that there is no political response that you can make to it. Of course, there are two things which have changed.

'The first is that modern technology makes it easier to magnify the atrocity. Second, globalisation makes it easier for terrorists to move around, to move money around, and to get hold of weapons. I very much hope that we can improve our policing, improve our intelligence cooperation. You can defeat this or that terrorist movement. But I don't think one can ever suppress terrorism completely.'

The phenomenon of globalisation, which permeates much of Lord Patten's book, raises a wry look. 'I liked very much the banner I saw at an anti-Doha Round demonstration, which said something like "The World-Wide Movement Against Globalisation". Globalisation is the relationship between human development, commerce, demography, societal linkages - it's just a description of how the world works. And its consequences are speeded up and augmented by technology.'

If, as Patten argues, globalising trends have always existed, then universities are part of them. 'Great universities have always been, in a sense, ahead of their time, in terms of global trends and global contacts. That was certainly true of Oxford in the Middle Ages. What all great universities have to recognise today is that they compete on the world stage and they serve the world. To take one example: if we are trying to attract more clever young people to do a doctorate, we have to try to provide the excitement and the financial support greater than they could expect at an Ivy League university. We are also global in the sense that we are not just preparing people for the contribution they make to the community in Britain, but around the world.

'I've been pretty upset by the cuts that have been made in graduate research programmes by the government, and I suspect that there's worse to come on this. It's one of the areas where I'm keen that we should raise more money ourselves. One of the arguments that the Foreign Office once used was that our scholarship programmes for students from abroad weren't producing enough leaders. I was in Australia when I first heard this argument, and look at the Oxford alumni there: three prime ministers, two present members of the High Court of Australia, business leaders, the leader of the opposition Malcolm Turnbull, Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney É Not producing leaders? Give me a break, as they say!'

Would Chris Patten take a break, I wonder. Would he like to be a student again? 'I think I'll always be a student. In this sense - that I've found there are too many things that I become intellectually enthusiastic about for me actually ever to satisfy myself. I guess I'm always enthusiastically turning the pages. But I wouldn't like to go back, formally, to being a student. Because I think students - this isn't just a sentimental, elderly Chancellor remark - I think students today work harder than we did, and I'm a bit sorry that for the next few years they are going to have rather a bleak world to go into.'