Three Fridays

“Her students’ papers fluttered across the road”, I read, nerves mounting as I came to the end of my piece of writing, “veering up over car windscreens and pirouetting in the vortices of a blustery wind.” I looked up at the audience in front of me – the two course tutors, the other participants and the centre director’s Labrador retriever – and waited for their reaction. Thankfully, apart from the dog, they clapped appreciatively. There were a few generous words from Mavis Cheek and Paul Sussman, the two professional writers who had guided us all superbly through my first course at the Arvon Foundation’s centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon. Then, having taken my turn at the writer’s chair, I returned to my place on one of the saggy sofas placed around the stone walls of the ancient barn to listen with my own appreciation to my fellow tutees and what they had written. That Friday night celebration was a wonderful culmination of an inspirational week, one that thanks to the insights and kindness of Mavis and Paul had opened up a new, more hopeful world of discovery and opportunity.

The previous Friday, the 20th of November 2009, was very different. I spent it in the open-plan offices of the Met Office in Exeter trawling frantically through thousands of emails that had been stolen from a good colleague of mine. I needed to check whether claims being made about them, of scientific malpractice in the development of global temperature records, were true. They weren’t. It was a big relief, if not a great surprise, but I sensed that climate deniers were going to make mischief with those stolen emails. And so it proved. The controversy soon to be dubbed climategate caught fire in the mainstream media, derailed crucial climate negotiations in Copenhagen the following month, and drove the scientist at the heart of it all almost to suicide. For those of us hoping that the scientific evidence we had found about the reality of climate change would lead to reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, the confected emails scandal was a huge setback.

I had been working to identify the fingerprints of human influence on the atmosphere and oceans since 1996, travelling to conferences, writing papers and contributing to the influential reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that assess the latest state of scientific knowledge. On Friday 2nd February 2007, I was present in Paris at the unveiling of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, perhaps the best attended and most widely reported press conference in the history of climate science. As we waited for the headlines to be announced – including the stark statement “Warming is Unequivocal” –  we scientists who had worked long hours the previous days finalising the report chatted light-heartedly with the reporters waiting expectantly behind us in the packed hall. We had amassed vital new evidence and now people were sitting up and taking notice. Our celebratory mood in Paris reflected our belief that the world was about to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.

But it wasn’t to be. The much anticipated Copenhagen meeting failed. False balance in the media – of matching climate scientist against climate sceptic as if what they had to say deserved equal weight – continued to confuse the public. And all the while the costs of weather disasters continued to rise, in lost lives, livelihoods and prospects.

It took even stronger findings in the next IPCC report in 2013 – on which I also worked – and another political meeting, in Paris in 2015, for climate action to get back on track. It took the people directly affected by weather disasters, that they themselves could see were not natural, demanding change. And it took a young Swedish activist called Greta Thunberg to galvanise people into realising what the latest science really means: that in 2020 time is running out, that human carbon emissions need to be driven down fast, all the way to zero over the next thirty years.

At Totleigh Barton in 2009, Paul Sussman had inspired me to try my hand at writing a fictional climate change thriller. But although I enjoyed the challenge, I realised that not only was the task overly daunting, what I really wanted to do was write about my own experiences. Over the last twenty five years, I have seen a lot. I have seen how our scientific understanding has developed, from detecting the first signs of unusual warming in weather records, to being able to pin the blame for recent heatwaves directly on human activities. I have seen how climate deniers have obscured the true picture on climate change by their false claims that global warming has stopped or that weather events remain unaffected. And I have seen what climate change means to people who are bearing the brunt of recent weather disasters, such as the man I met in Hobart, Australia whose house had burnt to the ground from forest fires only the week before. What I have seen of the battle to halt climate change going on behind the scenes felt like a story worth telling.

To help me, I went back to Arvon in 2016, this time to their centre at The Hurst in Shropshire and took a course on popular science writing. Once again I benefited from the insights of two remarkable writers and teachers – Aarathi Prasad and Michael Brooks – and the companionship of a group of fellow enthusiasts, although this time without a dog. I left, set firmly on the non-fiction path of writing. And after attending yet another memorable Arvon course to help keep me inspired, this time a wonderfully quirky exploration of hybrid writing at the Lumb Bank centre in Yorkshire under the expert guidance of another two remarkable writers and teachers – Tania Hershman and Maria Fusco  – I found a literary agent to take me on, Andrew Gordon at David Higham Associates. A few months later, I signed a contract for future publication with Atlantic Books.

Three Fridays, three contrasting emotions:

2nd February, 2007 – relief that our scientific testimony about the reality of global warming was being taken seriously.

20th November 2009 – dread at what the climate deniers would do to derail negotiations to reduce emissions based on unfounded allegations about stolen emails.

27th November 2009 – hope in the possibilities of writing, that bringing my story to a wider audience could help build a growing public awareness of the ever more pressing need to tackle climate change.

It’s a hope that echoes still through the Fridays beyond, the day of the week when I tend to find most time to work on my book, Hot Air.

The Climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland

COP24 was my sixth. My first attendance at the annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was COP3 in Kyoto in 1997. There, for the first time, world leaders agreed a Protocol to start reducing humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Nineteen years ago, I went to present the latest scientific results on planetary warming at a relatively small conference centre from a table in the main lobby. The two of us from the Met Office Hadley Centre were the only climate scientists presenting results directly to delegates at the meeting. But thanks to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who had assessed our work and that of many other researchers, politicians knew enough to act, even then.

Frustratingly, through the succeeding two decades as I travelled to COP9 in Milan in 2003, COP17 in Durban in 2011, COP19 in Warsaw in 2013 and COP20 in Lima in 2014, greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures continued to rise. In a ground-breaking deal agreed at COP21 in Paris in 2015, world leaders committed to preventing global warming reaching dangerous levels. It felt like, at last, the political will was there to deal with climate change.

Now three years on, I arrived in the Polish coal mining town of Katowice to present our latest scientific results. Our analysis showed that human-induced emissions had increased the chances of 2018’s heatwave in the UK by thirty times. Elsewhere that summer, extreme temperatures caused widespread fires, many deaths from heat stress and substantial damage to crops and livelihoods. All the scientific evidence points to dangerous climate change being with us in the here and now. The Paris agreement that aims to keep global warming to well below two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels and to try to keep it to below 1.5 degrees is designed to stop that dangerous climate change getting so out of hand humanity can’t cope. As I showed in another of my presentations at COP, this time presenting the latest analysis by the World Meteorological Organisation, global temperatures have already reached 1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. There is a massive urgency to start reducing our emissions. Time is running out.

At each COP that I’ve attended the atmosphere has felt different. In Kyoto back in 97, there was a fevered air of excitement as negotiators raced towards a historic agreement to reduce emissions. But without progress towards meeting the Kyoto protocol, the atmosphere at the Milan meeting in 2003 felt listless and flat. A catastrophic COP15 at Copenhagen in 2009 took international efforts to deal with climate change to a new low. But COP 17 in Durban felt more hopeful, and by the time I went to Warsaw and then Lima the mood around the conference seemed much more purposeful. Countries were working towards the historic Paris meeting. It felt like the tide had turned.

In Katowice, the mood in the air of the vast conference complex seemed to have switched again, and now seemed fractious and edgy. Tens of thousands of people, negotiators and journalists, lobbyists and scientists, had gathered in this chilly and drab city for a meeting supposed to agree the “rule book” by which the Paris aims would be met. But three years on from Paris, the very latest data showed global greenhouse emissions had reached a record high. The Paris aspirations had to be turned into progress on the ground, and fast. Doing so, and without any further delay, had begun to seem like a tall order.

I spent much of my time in the huge tented structure that had been set aside for the “side-events” hall where I was involved in three different presentations of scientific results. This aspect of the conference had grown massively from its incarnation I had encountered four years before in Lima. The Peruvian version had been a series of tented rooms with chairs. The Polish version had become something else entirely. There was live music in the bright custom-made country pavilions and in the early evening tables of wine and nibbles came out. A constant flow of talks, films, food and drink tempted the never-ending flux of delegates milling past the colourful flags and slogans to stop by and partake of the freebies on offer. A country’s pride was on sale or a lobby group’s mission was touting for supporters. It was loud and it was always busy.

In the presentation space of the UK pavilion, which came with several rows of benches in front of a large television screen, I presented my results on the UK heatwave in one presentation and in another our latest work on providing scientific advice to help make societies more resilient to the effects of climate change. Even amplified through a microphone it was hard to be heard over the constant, noisy hubbub from the crowds milling around us. The ambience that had been created in this garish trade fair seemed designed to make us focus on the bright, shiny, noisy present, rather than the difficult choices we all face in future if we are going to combat the existential threat of climate change. If delegates wanted considered reflection, they were going to struggle. For that they needed to look elsewhere.

I found it in a quiet corner of the Side Events Hall, in a walled off room, where the clear star of this conference was taking part in a panel on the value of storytelling for helping solve the climate crisis. She was Greta Thunberg, a fifteen-year old Swede with plaits and Aspergers who had reached worldwide fame for going on strike from school. Now she had brought her fight for climate action to the government leaders who were supposed to be dealing with the problem, but had signally failed in her lifetime so far. The cameras had followed her here, as they had done all round the conference centre, reflecting a mounting fascination with such a slight figure having such a massive global impact. Hearing her answer questions from the floor, I could see why she was commanding such interest and respect. She was clear-sighted and determined, and she definitely wasn’t going to respond to a question with an answer designed to please the audience. Asked if she thought children cared more about climate change than adults, she said they didn’t. And they wouldn’t until their parents cared more. Her answer put the focus back on us, where it belonged, the supposed grown-ups.

I had come to see her in person because I, like many others had been so struck by her speech to senior COP delegates the day before. In it she said, “For the last twenty five years countless of people have stood in front of the United Nations Conferences asking our nations’ leaders to stop the emissions. But clearly this has not worked because the emissions just continue to rise. So, I will not ask them anything. Instead I will ask peoples around the world to realise our political leaders have failed us because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness. Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep the oil in the ground. So, we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed. So, we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge and since our leaders are behaving like children we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”

That’s what I learnt at COP this time. Change is coming whether our leaders, or indeed ourselves, like it or not. For over twenty years, climate scientists have been warning the politicians that they need to act to avoid dangerous climate change. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that I saw delivered to the policy makers gathered in Katowice gives them, and us, a stark warning. There is little over a decade left before global emissions must be heading steeply downwards. Yet still, at COP24, the United States, Russia, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait repudiated the scientists’ findings by boycotting a motion at the conference to “welcome” the report. The childishness of these four nations’ leaders, who had previously approved the IPCC’s report but who now signalled they wanted no part of it, showed us Greta is right. It’s the people who are going to have to lead the change we need, not the politicians. They will act only if truly forced to by the people they are supposed to represent.

Speaking as a citizen, and not as a scientist, the bad news about climate change is it’s down to us. That’s also the good news.


Chatham House

On Monday 15 October, I gave a short after dinner speech at Chatham House, to forty or so invited guests from the upper echelons of industry and policy making. Or rather I did the pudding. My fellow attributors of extreme weather events, Myles Allen and Fredi Otto from Oxford University, had done the starter and the main course respectively. They set out the case for how and why our weather is changing while their plate of food sat uneaten before them and everybody else tucked in. I was asked to talk about science communication over a sorbet.

There was a delicious irony in my having the dessert course of this dinner that was taking place during the annual Chatham House meeting on climate change. I’m not referring to the food, which thankfully didn’t melt while I made my point about the irony. It was me being asked to go last that I thought was telling. We’d done the meaty stuff – although, remarkably perhaps, all Chatham House food is now vegetarian – so now it was time for something sweet and fluffy to round things off. I’m not criticising the organisers for the ordering of the speeches. Far from it. It gave me an opportunity to use the metaphor of the three courses to try to make my point.

I think high quality communication of climate science needs to happen at the beginning, middle and end of our collective attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change. We can’t wait until climate scientists have beaten down their scientific uncertainties to almost nothing before acting on the information we have, including about the big risks we face from melting ice sheets and dangerous storms. And we can’t wait until we have all the solutions to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change poses a great threat but collective human will and endeavour provides a great hope. We don’t fully understand the extents of either. But we need to talk more about both, now, before it is too late.

This means we need climate scientists to get better at communicating our science. This is why I have been exploring how the arts can enhance scientists’ ability to talk about climate change through the Climate Stories project I lead. Our NERC funded project has shown us there are many talented people ready to take up the outreach challenge in innovative and more effective ways. But we climate scientists can’t save the world by ourselves. There have to be people in positions of power ready to listen to what we have to say, help us get our scientific message out, and move our societies faster in the direction our science tells us we have to go.

For over twenty years, we scientists have been telling the world that climate change is real, that global warming is human-caused and that it’s bad for our survival as a species. Over that time there has been no shortage of influential people working to obstruct that message being heard. But now we seemed to have reached a new stage in climate science denial. It’s one of apathy rather than outright hostility.

It seems like publishers and broadcasters have an aversion to doing climate change because it’s too depressing and doesn’t sell. That attitude doesn’t make sense. I learnt during the Chatham House event about some of the progress that is being made to solve the climate problem. I heard about a former oil company that has switched its entire business to making off shore wind turbines, some off which rise more than 250 m tall. I found out that car manufacturers are rapidly scaling up their production of electric vehicles. And I discovered that regulation, backed up by legislation, is rapidly forcing industry to change their business models so they avoid stranded assets and expensive litigation.

Understanding the nature of climate change and realising there are solutions can make people empowered to do something to stop it. And climate science isn’t just useful, helping us chart our progress to a safer world. It’s also  fascinating. The tale of how we detected the fingerprints of human activity on changes in our atmosphere and oceans is just as interesting as the story of how we discovered the fundamental particles of nature or how we uncovered the hidden workings of the brain.

We may still be chewing through the starter course of solving the climate change conundrum. But it’s now that we need to start hearing more from climate scientists. We’re going to need to if we want to make it safely to the promised sweet dessert.