Professor Corinne Le Quere, Director of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, was recently the subject of a typically accurate and helpful article in the Daily Telegraph. Her reply was superb. It inspired MCFly to send off a request for an email interview. And here, a few days ahead of Professor Le Quere’s free seminar in Manchester (Thurs 27th February), are her answers.
1) Doubtless you have been on the receiving end of denialist sneers and smears before. Was responding to the blog post on the Telegraph website something that you had to weigh up as to whether it was worth your time and energy? Why was it important to do so in this case, rather than obeying the dictum “don’t feed the trolls”?
I had to respond to the blog post on The Telegraph because it was a direct attack on me. I was astonished to see that the blog had already received over 1500 comments after 12 hours. It beats me why that blog generated so much interest, but it was begging a response.
2) Tell us a little bit more about your current work. What research are you undertaking? What sorts of “public engagement” are you doing?
In the past 20 years I have worked mainly on the carbon cycle [wikipedia] from the perspective of the natural environment. I looked particularly at how the carbon emitted in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, and how this ocean carbon ’sink’ is influenced by climate change in return. This work has led me to look at the carbon cycle in its entirety, and I became more and more interested in understanding the drivers of carbon emissions. I currently focus on the drivers of carbon emissions in China. With colleagues at the Tyndall Centre, we are trying to estimate when and at what level China’s emissions are going to peak. The dynamics of emissions growth and peak in large regions of the world is controlled by population, wealth, and the available fuel source. Within identical constraints, countries go through energetic transitions at different pace. I’m working on understanding these differences, and trying to see what can trigger accelerated transitions. Historical data in Europe and in US states show a progression with countries or states that are ‘leaders’ in terms of emissions dynamics, and countries or states that are ‘followers’. Climate mitigation policies might be more effective if they recognised what positions countries are in, and if they were targeted to accelerate the process of having leaders lead and followers follow.
I spend perhaps a quarter of my time engaging with various communities about climate change. Much of this is spent trying to provide information needed to support climate policy-makers in the UK and abroad. For example, I worked last year to design the Global Carbon Atlas (globalcarbonatlas.org), which provides access to carbon emissions for all the countries in the world since 1960, with additional information on recent trends. Countries can even compare themselves to others, which we love to do. In the UK, we like to know how we do compared to Germany and to the EU, and the Atlas provides the tool to do just this. I also co-lead an effort to publish annual updates of the Global Carbon Budget, which provides up-to-date information on global emissions and other carbon trends. Finally, I was an author of the new assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research are generally very engaged in sharing the outcome of their research with policy-makers and the public, check out our twitter feed (@TyndallCentre). We find this very rewarding, and in return it helps focus our research towards what is important for society.
3) Recently Professor Kevin Anderson told Manchester Climate Monthly that he considers silence by climate scientists to be advocacy for the status quo. Do you agree with him or not (even though we like him very much, you’re allowed not to agree!!)
I do think the role of climate scientist in 2014 goes beyond doing good science, but also includes an element of communicating knowledge to society. The findings of climate science have huge implications for the way we use energy and live our lives. It is essential to make the effort to get out of our research bubble and speak up.
4) Science is a pretty “male” profession, though improving. Does it matter?
It matters a lot for the communication of climate science that this research field is dominated by men scientists. The thing about communication is that by and large, people relate best to people that look just like them. Thus it is great when a common message is carried by people of all ages, race, religion, and also gender. If it is always middle age men that conveys the information on climate change, the reach of the information is not as wide.
5) Asking you to look into your crystal ball; What sorts of things will the climate science community – nationally and globally – regret not having done – by the time COP 25 rolls around in Paris in November/December 2015?
We’re not good at translating what we know about climate change into what it means for people here and now, and what are the costs and risks. The uncertainties are higher as we go from global climate projections to regional projections, but nevertheless we have already quite a lot of knowledge and I feel we could make more efforts to make it accessible, and that would make a difference. We could also make more efforts to listen to the concerns of people and try and develop solutions to address them. For example, there is some opposition to wind farms, yet wind energy is an important part of the solutions for low carbon energy production in the UK. Another example is the role of climate change for floods in the UK. We have information to provide on this issue, it is not clear-cut and thus it is difficult to communicate, but it is important that the public is aware of the state of understanding on topics of concern. In general, scientist must be much more prepared to speak to the press about what they know about climate change. This is not something we have learned to do as part of our training historically. There has been much progress on this in the last few years, but I think this is the one single thing that scientists need to do before COP25: speak about what you know about climate change, on all occasions, to different people, on and on, up and clear.