Interview: Climate Change Analyst on IPCC Report, Hurricanes & Donald Trump
We caught up with Climate Change Analyst & Diplomacy Expert Claire Fyson to badger her about the increasingly urgent topic of climate change.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in October 2018, resulting in panic-strewn headlines worldwide. The UK’s Daily Mail says “Eat less meat and give up your car: Unprecedented changes humanity must make by 2030”. The Guardian says we have “12 years to limit climate change catastrophe.” What, in your opinion, are the main takeaways from the report?
One of the major takeaways is that we really don’t want to see a world that has warmed by more than 1.5°C. A few years ago we didn’t have very much scientific information available about what impacts we should expect to see in a 1.5°C warmer world, and how these impacts compare with those that would happen at 2°C. Now we have that information, and the difference is stark.
Another key message is that it is still possible to limit warming to 1.5°C. It won’t be easy, and will require rapid action in the next decade, but it is possible as long as the political will is there. A really clear finding is that coal power simply has to go, and there’s no excuse for lingering on this one - the cost of renewable energy has dropped faster than anyone could have predicted, meaning that in many places renewables are already cost competitive with fossil fuels.
What are the major challenges to implementing the report’s recommendations?
The pace of action needed to keep to 1.5°C is a huge challenge. This is largely because of a failure to adequately address climate change in the last few decades - we have already put a dangerous amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere by continuing to burn fossil fuels, like coal or gas. If we want to keep the planet within a safe(ish) level of warming then we need to peak global emissions in the next few years and get them down to zero by mid-century. This means decarbonising the electricity sector within three decades, phasing out fossil fuels, shifting transport over to low carbon options, cutting energy demand, and reducing the emissions intensity of our agricultural systems. We need to design our cities to enable lifestyles that consume less. And at the same time we need to build resilience to those climate change impacts that are no longer avoidable.
For the least developed and most vulnerable countries this will be a particular challenge, and the report calls for international cooperation, shifts in finance flows and capacity building and technology transfer from richer to poorer nations. For developing countries, the transitions required are sometimes perceived as possible barriers to development, but the report shows that pursuing low emissions and sustainable development can be beneficial for reducing poverty, provided that the right governance mechanisms are put in place.
What explains the lack of political will?
This report hasn’t looked at the reasons why we have not yet taken the threat of climate change seriously enough, but many others have done so. It’s astonishing to think that governments were warned about climate change in the 80s, and set up an international process for dealing with it in the late 80s and early 90s (the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Clearly something got in the way of the serious action that climate change merits. The lobby power of the fossil fuel industry and vested interests in governments have certainly played a role in delaying action. Many have also blamed neoliberalism and capitalism - agendas that seek to promote growth at the expense of planetary and human health - and the short-termism of politicians who cannot see more than five years into the future. Climate change is a long-term problem, and while we can already feel the effects of climate change, it is our children and grandchildren that will suffer the most.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. Recent years have seen big changes in how many governments are responding to climate change, and it’s moved up on political agendas. The Paris Agreement is an excellent example of this - never before has a global Treaty entered into force so rapidly. Many governments are already promoting renewables, phasing out coal and incentivising greener forms of transport.
A crucial next step comes this December at the COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland, where governments will assess their collective progress on limiting warming and consider the way forward. It’s really essential that governments take the IPCC’s latest report on board and come forward with new commitments for the next decade, as any failure to do so will make climate action in the future much more difficult and expensive, and will place us at risk of very dangerous levels of warming.
I live in the the United States at the moment, where Hurricane Michael recently devastated Florida, causing multiple deaths, property destruction, and outages. With Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico last year, alongside a whole range of others, it seems like there is more extreme weather than ever. Is this true? If so, is it down to climate change, or other factors?
It’s a good question, and one that a lot of research has gone into in recent years. When we try to understand whether an extreme event is caused by climate change we call this “climate change attribution”. We can never say for a single event that it was caused by climate change, because a whole host of natural drivers also play a role. But what we can say is that an event was made more likely by climate change. So, in the case of hurricanes, climate change increases the likelihood of a more intense, higher category hurricane forming, and it raises the risk of devastating impacts. And this is clear from the historical record: since 1970 the proportion of the most intense (categories 4 and 5) hurricanes has increased. Scientists are even now considering whether a new category – category 6 – will be needed in the near future.
Why does climate change cause more intense hurricanes? Hurricanes draw their energy from the ocean, and hotter ocean temperatures means more fuel for hurricanes, allowing them to rapidly intensify and climb up the category scale. But it’s not just about the overall intensity. Climate change also exacerbates the most devastating and costly impacts of hurricanes: rainfall and storm surges. High temperatures allow hurricanes to store more water, leading to the devastating rainfall fates that we saw with Hurricane Harvey last year, and sea level rise worsens the severity of storm surges.
For the recent hurricanes Florence and Michael, scientists have not yet been able to complete climate change attribution studies as this takes time. However, it’s pretty likely that climate change played a big role in making these hurricanes more destructive.
In response to claims by climate scientists that hurricanes are likely to grow stronger in warming oceans, in October 2018 US President Trump stated: “you’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda”. Do climate scientists have a political agenda? If so, what is that agenda?
97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening. It is very unlikely that 97% of scientists have the same political agenda, and that’s perhaps the easiest rebuttal to Donald Trump’s claim. Scientists don’t gain anything from climate change being a real problem, and many of them have spent their lives defending the science against those who do have a political or economic agenda, such as those oil and gas companies and politicians who choose to deny climate change.
The report just released by the IPCC is further evidence that climate scientists are not following a political agenda: the report drew on 6000 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific literature, and the report’s summary was approved by all governments, meaning that all countries had the opportunity to scrutinise the report’s findings. Any document with a political agenda would not have survived such a process.
Finally, we at IdeaSphere are very interested in language and social change. Do you ever wish we used different language to talk about climate change? If so, what? Is climate change the most accurate term for the scientific phenomenon? Are any misunderstandings generated through the use of language on the issue generally?
The term “climate change” is scientifically accurate, but a major challenge for communicating climate change is that it’s not an easy term to square with our everyday experiences.
First of all, it’s very difficult to describe how we feel climate change. To understand how the climate is changing, scientists need to measure changes in temperature, rainfall, extreme events, sea level rise etc. over a long period of time (at least a couple of decades). But what we feel on a day-to-day and month-to-month basis is the weather, and this short-term atmospheric behaviour is strongly influenced by natural variability. Climate change, on the other hand, affects the long-term average of weather. A common misconception is that a cold snap one year is evidence that climate change is not really happening. In reality, natural cycles and fluctuations mean that there will always be colder and hotter years, but climate change makes it less likely that next year will be very cold, and more likely that next year will be very hot.
Second, climate change manifests itself in different ways, depending on where you live. From drought and heat waves to storm surges and heavy rainfall to species and crop losses, there is no one “symptom” of climate change. But a clear challenge is to connect these often distributed impacts of climate change with our global target for limiting climate change – that is to keep global warming to 1.5°C, or at most “well below 2°C”. This is where the IPCC’s recent report is very useful. While 1.5°C doesn’t sound like much warming, and in many ways is not an intuitive target to understand, the IPCC’s report clearly outlines what a 1.5°C warmer world looks like in terms of the symptoms that we will experience, and shows how much worse these would be at 2°C.