Sir Mark Walport delivers CSaP lecture on climate change

18 October 2013


Reported by Helen Ewles, Postdoctoral Research Associate, and CUSPE committee member

“Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”, said UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, as he delivered the CSaP distinguished lecture on 'Energy and climate change: challenges for science and policy’ to a packed audience of academics and policy makers in Cambridge.

Fiona ReynoldsChaired by Dame Fiona Reynolds (Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge) Sir Mark began his lecture by explaining that climate change presented a complex challenge, but could be addressed as three individual challenges of science, communication and policy.

Starting with the science of climate change is timely given the recent release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 5th scientific assessment report, which Sir Mark described as an "outstanding piece of meta-analysis", combining 209 lead authors from 39 countries to produce a rigorous update on the latest climate change science and its consequent climate predictions.

View Sir Mark's lecture here:

Both Sir Mark and the IPCC are keen to communicate that climate warming is unequivocal and, although it is challenging to untangle the different contributing factors, it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century. After stressing that the science behind these findings is so well evidenced and supported that it doesn’t really warrant any argument, Sir Mark quickly moved on to the science of climate predictions.

Scientists have been extensively modelling the possible outcomes of climate change on the world, particularly focussing on what is likely to happen in the case of a 2 ˚C rise in global temperature. Changes will not be identical throughout the world, which also adds to uncertainties in predicting the future. The potential impacts on the world are numerous and diverse, from effects on water stress, to food productivity, flooding and disease, to list but a few.

Sir Mark then moved on to the challenge of communicating climate change, a subject in which his passion was apparent. He was keen to stress that "clarity was everything" when it came to communication, holding aloft the IPCC’s two-sided summary of its report as an example of communication done well.

Sir Mark pointed out that climate change itself had its own specific communication problems; as evidenced by the fall in recent years of the number of people believing that the world’s climate is changing from 91% in 2005 to 72% in 2013. (Although he was quick to add that any politician getting a 72% majority would think they were doing quite well).

His view was that the public seemed to be suffering from climate fatigue, no doubt propagated by confusing scientific jargon, and not helped by the use of abstract numbers such as ‘gigatonnes’. It is hugely important that climate change is understood well by the public, as policy debates surrounding climate change concerns need to occur and it’s important for the public to be involved, particularly if the policy requires them to change their behaviour. Sir Mark called on the scientists to do a better job of communicating their work, stating that "science isn’t finished until it is communicated".

Sir Mark then moved on to arguably the biggest challenge of them all – policy. Global policy needs to play a role in climate change but this presents its own unique challenges. The UK currently produces less than 2% of global CO2 emissions, but looking at historical emissions tells a different story, with the UK responsible for around 6%. How will this sort of information be factored into any global policy decisions?

To explain the policy challenges more clearly, Sir Mark presented three possible responses: to mitigate, to adapt, or to suffer. In reality we are going to have to do all three, but policy can be involved in trying to optimise the ratios between them. How to reduce our emissions in the UK is still up for debate, with renewable energies, solar energy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power and bioenergy all possible options. However, it is important to acknowledge that science is not the only part of the advice to help shape policy, particularly in a political arena, and that it is very important to understand the value sets of the public, as they will need to live with the policy decisions.

Sir Mark also stated that it is possible to have a grown-up debate around choosing to do nothing about climate change, however this debate is only reasonable as long as the science is not ignored, or as he put it "people can have their own opinions, but they can’t have their own truths".

Bringing his talk to a close, Sir Mark suggested that we should be looking at climate change as an exciting opportunity. The UK is at the forefront of much important research, we are innovative and ingenious and the challenges presented by climate change should be regarded as a huge technological opportunity.

Banner image from United Nations Photo via CC4.0