‘Global community’ has accepted reality of climate change – scientist
Work of climate scientist far from over as science continues to evolve, says Dame Slingo
Climate scientist Dame Julia Slingo: ‘Our knowledge and understanding of how the climate system works and how it’s going to change continues to depend on answering fundamental scientific questions.’
After decades of denial, the “global community” has accepted the reality of human-induced climate change and the imperative of tackling it, climate scientist Dame Julia Slingo has said.
So is the science done and dusted, and all we need now are technological solutions and getting on with implementing the landmark Paris Agreement? Wrong, wrong and wrong, she replies.
“The work of the climate scientist is far from over as the science continues to evolve. Our knowledge and understanding of how the climate system works and how it’s going to change continues to depend on answering fundamental scientific questions.”
Moreover, the role of climate science is greater than ever before, as we face immense challenges in mitigating global warming (by reducing carbon emissions), how to adapt to a disruptive climate, “and how to make ourselves more resilient to weather and climate hazards”– notably, more frequent extreme events.
Speaking before delivering an EPA climate lecture in Dublin, Dame Slingo cites big advances in the past decade but the one limiting factor is glaring; lack of adequate supercomputer capacity to do number crunching on staggering vast amounts of data using climate models that chart likely scenarios where the world’s climate is increasingly disrupted.
She has served as chief scientist at the UK Met office, worked at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, a leading developer of models to predict future climate scenarios, the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research and Reading University.
Her influence is indicated by the impact of a letter she – with scientific peers – wrote to former British prime minister Theresa May, calling on the UK to declare unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency and to enshrine it in law. The UK was the first national parliament to do so; others followed including Ireland. Revoking legislation is never easy, she adds, especially when it would run against the tide of public opinion.
Those unanswered questions include: “Where does all the heat go? Where does all the carbon in the atmosphere go? Where does all the water go?” The water issue, especially in the form of rising sea levels, will become more acute in coming decades in coming decades, she predicts.
Meanwhile global society will have to take hard decisions based on understanding the extent to which people are exposed to extreme events; dangerous “tipping points” and “feedback effects” separate to warming that determine the future climate state.
‘Share not duplicate’
Fortunately, she notes, climate scientists have been considering such questions. Their answers combined with actions taken by global society will determine whether it’s possible to keep global heating to with 1.5 to 2 degrees.
Overcoming the limitations of current tools to observe the Earth requires big co-operation “to build up capacity”. That means met services and academics “must share not duplicate” their work, and for it all to be underpinned by international collaboration.
The political response is a vital cog, but she believes climate science is not fully understood by some within that circle, though the UK is in a better position because of its structure for innovative research and robust climate governance, setting it on the right course. She has no fears that global leadership will be diluted by Brexit.
The challenge in the “adaptation-mitigation response” is to overcome the view that the task is overwhelming. This, she believes, is a blockage on progress, which is all down to communication.
On a positive note, public understanding of climate change “is in an unbelievable place now . . . Acceptance is overwhelming. That social tipping point was reached in the past year or two.” It contrasts with push back from sceptics a decade ago when “climategate” raged, which was “so, so difficult”.
The deniers in the climate science field “have pretty well evaporated”; though the arguments have shifted to a different realm – indicated by lines such as, “it’s not as bad as we make it out to be” or the economic implications of radical action are too great.
Looking at the pace of climate change and risks even in today’s world, “it’s not acceptable to claim it’s not that big a deal”, she says.
As for persuading people to act rather than be despondent, Dame Slingo urges people to understand the issues – “the facts and how to interpret them”.
Everyone can make a difference, especially in influencing politicians, through their investments, their businesses and their communities caring about their environment and embracing the principles of Earth stewardship.
On an individual basis, reducing carbon footprint and changing purchasing habits make a difference – this combined with embracing energy efficiency “can take you a long way to [achieving] the Paris goals”.