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One climate data point

21 Nov 2016

Dr Tamsin Edwards, Lecturer in Environmental Sciences at the Open University, discusses the looming challenge of climate change and possible solutions, using all the tools and experiences at our disposal

Thirty years is a single data point for a climate scientist. Such is the challenge we face, scientists searching for slowly-shifting patterns and making them meaningful to an impatient world.

Perhaps it helps to think at climate timescales. Four data points ago, in 1896, Svante Arrenhius made the first global warming predictions. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations were 295 parts per million (ppm). Three data points ago, while Alfred Wegener presented his controversial theory of continental drift, they were 305 ppm. Around two data points ago, in 1957, Charles Keeling began directly measuring CO2 concentrations and discovered an unexpectedly rapid rise. 315 ppm.

One data point ago, as CaSE began, a Republican senator stated: “There is a very real possibility that man – through ignorance or indifference, or both – is irreversibly altering the ability of our atmosphere to perform basic life support functions for the planet.” A bigger jump, 347 ppm, and a few years later the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first report. We are now preparing the sixth, CO2 levels are the highest in three million years, and the world has warmed by 1 degree Celsius.

One data point from now, in 2046, scientists predict warming will be around 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, and that if all emissions stopped we would still have up to a 1 in 3 chance of exceeding 2 degrees. We can no longer claim ignorance or indifference.

How can we make a future we want? Globally: support for a wide range of science and engineering to predict future climate, help vulnerable people and species to adapt, and expand the toolkit of solutions. In the UK, strong action to protect science from the risks of leaving the EU. My most rewarding and long-lasting collaborations result from a 24 institution EU project ice2sea, and younger researchers might not lead or even see such barrier-free multinational research. More optimistically, I look forward to results from the new interdisciplinary UK Global Challenges Research fund focusing on problems facing developing countries.

Some solutions may be less obvious. We must escape filter bubbles. We rely on algorithms and social connections to navigate the oceans of information. Unchecked – whether climate concerned or unconcerned – this can further entrench our views. This will only worsen in the future, unless we actively look beyond our cultural groups.

As a society, we should educate our children in critical thinking, computing and statistics, so they can filter information themselves. Climate changes are statistical patterns in big data and predictions of risk. We need to show girls that their coding can change the world. Helping the planet’s future can also help theirs.

We should hold our media accountable, not only when they minimise climate risks but exaggerate them too. At the same time we should make it unacceptable for publicly-funded science and data to stay behind paywalls and firewalls. Climate scientists have seen huge damage done by real or perceived gatekeeping of information, and huge benefits from increased scrutiny and openness.

But facts are not solutions. Facts are the raw clay with which dialogue and consensus-building can start to shape action. We should recognise the value of getting people in the same room over online discussions, of humility and openness over dogma and outrage. Perhaps most of all, we should seek diversity. It should no longer be acceptable to ask only western white men onto scientific panels and into decision-making rooms. Innovation flourishes from diverse ideas, and climate change affects the most vulnerable in society so their views should be sought. This is the only hope for finding better ways to live on the planet that we can all agree on.

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