Its always interesting and rewarding to be interviewed about my research, but its difficult to get the balance right in terms of getting the science across so that everyone will understand the main message as well as the important nuances of our current understanding.
I was recently interviewed for the St Anton Film Festival magazine, and was advised to prepare to talk about glacier change in the Alps. I did some preparatory reading and checked some numbers of glacier change in Tirol, but in the end the conversation was more about climate change and personal perspectives on what we can do about it. So basically I went well off track from what I had prepared and I guess I would have wanted the emphasis to be a bit different on some points, so I thought I’d reproduce it here, with some comments (in brown) … so this is a massive post!
Lindsey, is climate change really happening, or is it something invented by the Chinese?
It all depends on what is meant by “change”. The climate on our planet has undergone continual change for millions of years. However, what we can confirm is that, since the industrial revolution, man’s activities have had an effect on our climate, in particular on account of the amount of energy accumulating in the atmosphere. But it is possible to influence this anthropogenic climate change.
“Climate change” is a tricky expression to work with as an earth scientist. The question is really about man-made climate change. Which is real. By changing the composition of our atmosphere (through burning fossil fuels, changing land use, etc.), we change the amount of the suns incoming energy it can store. This much is simple physics and its incontrovertible that human activities cause this. The extra energy is stored as heat in the air and in the ocean. What is more complicated to know is exactly how the whole planetary system will change as this amount of stored energy changes, and where these changes will be felt first/strongest.
Check out this awesome feature from NASA Earth Observatory for more information and explanations: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page1.php. Click forwards through the 6 pages on the index at the top right to get a full overview.
Why is climate change actually a bad thing?
The global climate has warmed by about 1.5 degrees C in the last 200 years. Some research confirms that climate warming can benefit certain parts of the world. Nevertheless, the negative effects of a warmer climate outweigh any benefits and are primarily associated with a rise in sea levels. When oceans warm up, they expand. That is simply physics. On top of that, the ice masses across the world are melting.
Globally it must be expected that the effects on human societies will be negative as we have developed our current lifestyle to fit with climatic conditions that we are moving beyond. As an illustration of this look at Joy plot (named after the Joy Division by the way) GIF (from Dr. Gavin Schmidt via www.realclimate.org) to see how monthly global temperatures (GISTEMP data) have changed over recent decades:
There are many changes resulting from a warmer climate that may negatively affect humans (and their environments), its my personal opinion that sea level rise is one of the clearest problems we must face: I don’t know of a place on earth that will be made better for humans by rising sea levels.
And that in turn affects millions of people?
That’s right. Most people live in coastal areas. By 2100, we expect sea levels to have risen by about a metre, and we have to prepare for that. If a huge storm and a flood coincide, a lot of damage can be caused. On top of that, many regions of the world are suffering from drought, and extreme weather events are becoming much more common. Climate change will be the biggest geopolitical and humanitarian challenge for succeeding generations.
I expressed this badly. I should have said ‘lots’ of people live by the coast, but I didn’t have my numbers ready. In fact 250 million people live within 5m of present day sea level. Not all will suffer from local sea level rise but some communities will suffer flooding, erosion and storm surges from a 1m rise in sea level by the end of the century. Our societies will have to be ready and able to relocate the worst affected people in a humanitarian way, as well as deal with any losses to coastal infrastructure.
There is an awesome scientific magazine made primarily for children called Frontiers for Young Minds, which is written by a scientist and edited by children to make sure it covers what they want to know in a way that is clear. Adults and children (11-12 years) alike can read the article in there to find a clear explanation of Why should we worry about sea level change?
Why is climate change research still necessary?
Because of the amount of data we now have and the the various interpretation possibilities, our ability to predict future conditions has improved greatly over the last ten years. We are always finding out new things or we can be more precise about existing forecasts. But what I believe we need right now, much more that scientific review/stocktaking, is active engagement – on a political and personal level. We know that our climate is changing and we know that we have to do something about it.
Yes, sometimes it can be discouraging to work in climate science: scientists have delivered a lot of state-of-the-art information to decision makers via the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, but despite the significant step forward represented by the Paris agreement, political action may still be too slow. Sometimes it can feel like this (from kudelka cartoons):
Also, many members of the public remain skeptical about the reliability of the messages of the IPCC. This remains the responsibility of scientists and informed governments to pass on the evidence for the messages from the IPCC report so that less time is wasted in public debate discussing what we know is happening, and more time and energy can be devoted to coming up with viable strategies to minimise the potential suffering man-made climate change could cause us and our planet.
Can we still halt climate change?
As far as the Alps are concerned, we won’t be able to save the glaciers. They will have disappeared about 60 years from now. Sea levels will certainly rise too. Even if we were to immediately stop our CO2 emissions, we would still have to bear the effects of the CO2 emissions of the last centuries. For example, glaciers take about 20-30 years to react to changes in the atmosphere, and the same applies to other systems.
Damage limitation is possible, and I think we should go for it! But its true that the future of our glaciers here in the Alps is a little bleak as I tried to summarize here.
We all know that we have to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels – easier said than done. What can we, as individuals, do?
We can do simple things, such as stop using paper and plastic cups, refill our own water bottles, car-share with friends, strive to produce less waste, buy organic foods and less meat. We call all begin with these things straight away. That could perhaps smooth the way to achieving better cooperation, something we certainly need, if environmental conditions are not to become drastically worse for many people on our planet.
I do not want to say that not using paper cups will save us. My point here is that by taking a principled personal stance, we influence those around us to do the same, and in this way we prepare our society to make collective legislative changes that are needed to really alter the degree to which we will keep on altering our climate. I think we can do it, by the way 🙂
Thanks to the St Anton Film Festival for the chance to speak with them. Thanks to the participants of the movie Guilt Trip, who thought it important enough to consider the environment in how they went about having their adventure and making their film.