A message to climate researchers: persevere with public engagement – when it works, it means the world!

By Moritz Schwarz1,2,3 and Luke Jackson1,2

We wanted to share this story with you because as climate researchers trying to communicate our stories and work, we know the tread mill of public engagement can be exhausting and frankly, sometimes can feel like a waste of time.

Don’t get us wrong, we both love doing outreach and sharing our knowledge of the climate, economic and policy systems with people from primary school (through Operation Earth, Super Science Saturday’s and others) to teenagers (through Let’s Talk About Climate) to adults (Curiosity Carnival). We always hope that we can inspire people to think about climate when they walk away from such events – but we are aware that it is at the door that the engagement ends. We have had loads of great feedback from the stuff we have done, and we are sure you are doing a great job too. But sometimes we wonder – what impact are we having? Wouldn’t it be great to stick a tracker on those people attending an event to see and hear what they think, if they have changed their mind on something, or if they are looking to a different place for their information? Given how many rights this would infringe, it’s probably a good thing we can’t do something as ridiculous as this – and so we are left to wonder.

Luke Jackson at Church Cowley St James CofE Primary School

Then sometimes, and completely out of left-field comes a response that you’ve hoped for – evidence that your hard work is paying off. We had this experience off the back of a Let’s Talk About Climate School’s Day event last month. An email came to our LTAC co-ordinator at the Museum, from an A-level teacher who needed help with a student’s tricky climate questions that no A-level teacher would want to answer. So we decided to have a look and respond.

Now, between us we are a middle of the road sea-level scientist (jack of all trades and master of none) and climate-econometrician in training (PhD student). The questions the student sent us ranged widely (paraphrased here for brevity):

  1. Why are scientists as well as politicians not using the climate model from CMIP5 that best fits the observed global mean temperature when making policies?
  2. If sea levels will rise 60 cm under 1.5°C temperature rise by 2100, why are banks giving out loans to estates in flood plains contracted over a 40 plus year horizon?
  3. Civilisations have lived on earth for 6000 years withstanding lots of natural catastrophes; why should we care about the effects of climate change?
  4. How much do greenhouses gases actually affect the climate?
  5. Does mitigation of emissions imply the demise of capitalism and a slowing of economic growth?

Ouch! What a fun set of questions to field! But to be fair (and everyone working in research knows this): We have so much on our plate with our respective research, it would be so easy to avoid this and conveniently fail to reply. Is this, after all, actually our job?

We decided the short answer to this is yes – after all, if we are unable or unwilling to answer a number of tough questions from a bright and curious young mind, what are we doing here? While our full answers are shown at the end of this piece our responses tried to mix our prior knowledge with a bit of on the fly research (drawing on resources and visualisations by the IPCC, Bloomberg, and Skeptical Science), as well as posing our own questions to engage the student with the topics to evaluate their own thoughts and consider how their world-view might influence their thought process. We don’t necessarily think we gave the most eloquent or comprehensive answers (you can see for yourselves: we do ramble on a bit!) and of course highlighting some things more prominently than others based on our personal judgement (and we are sure we’ll find countless people heavily disagreeing on certain points) but responding with a true interest in engagement was more important for us.

So response sent off, pat on our back, back to work. At most we might have expected a short “interesting, thanks, will look into it”. But then we received this a few days later:

I would like to start off by thanking you not only for your time and effort in answering some of my questions, but even more so for challenging my sources because, you have to understand, at the time of writing my first email to you I was a sceptic of climate change influenced by the likes of Mark Morano who made their arguments very clear but it hadn’t occurred to me to research much the other side as well. However, as you meticulously dismantled my questions you have changed my perspective greatly and now I am looking into the various fields that you mentioned.

I’m a devout catholic and so I follow teachings from the Bible therefore I believe that we have a responsibility to look after the earth with all of its inhabitants but have to recognise that there will be some species that we cannot rescue. I also think that we should act to tackle the root cause because anything else would be postponing the problem for later or adapting to the problem which later down the line could branch out to be a greater problem than if we had actively dealt with it in the first place.

An interesting point that you raise is that ‘we need to fundamentally reshape our entire economic system’ which would mean huge investments by the government into renewable energy and a drastic change in the buyer’s mentality for example, thinking twice when buying the newest iPhone every couple of years or choosing to take the train instead of a plane for a journey of short distance. I would like to know how you think we can reduce carbon emissions in a practical sense (along the lines of policies or laws) in a way that the public would be happy to comply with without causing a yellow vests movement of our own in the UK.

I value your feedback, so let me know what you think!

When the two of us read this, our minds were blown! Meaningful engagement can work! It’s tedious, challenging and takes a lot of time and preparation – but it can change minds. Every single outreach talk, event, social conversation and email to interested people outside of academia now feels somewhat different.

We have since had other academics tell us of the other side to this coin – of the long drawn out correspondence with those who remain on the sceptical end of the spectrum (by the way this is not a binary position, people’s views on climate change and causes vary enormously) [see British Social Attitudes Survey (2018)]. But with the response we received, we felt that those on what can feel like an endless tread mill of public engagement must know that what you are doing is really important. It is having an impact, and you are fulfilling part of your mandate as an academic when you engage. Keep going!

Moritz Schwarz at Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s Super Science Saturday

1 Climate Econometrics, Nuffield College, University of Oxford
2 Institute of New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
3 Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford

Transcript of our responses to the full questions asked by the student

1. The UN acknowledges 31 government models and we use the average of these projections to predict future temperature increase, however, the only model that has consistently been accurate has been the Russian model which has been below the average significantly. Why are scientist as well as politicians not using their model when making policies?

When it comes to modelling past, present and future temperatures two types of models are generally used: General Circulation Models and Earth System models. The 31 models you mention are a mixture of these and the Russian model (INM-CM4) is one of the latter. Can you explain what you mean by the Russian model being “accurate”? Where is the source that shows this? If I get a chance I will look at the temperature output for INM-CM4, but in the meantime I would say that no one model should be trusted above any other.

The idea of using these 31 models allows you to calculate the average, but also the spread of models (i.e. the standard deviation). The point is that we cannot have absolute certainty about the future so using a set of models helps us to see if there is a consistent story about the future across all models. If the Russian model did something crazy in the future, we wouldn’t know because we would only be relying on one model.

Also, different models perform better (compared to observations) than others for different parts of the Earth system, so while INM-CM4 might do a good job for global temperature, it might do a poorer job for rainfall, ocean temperature, wind speeds, etc. Therefore it is much better not to rely on one single model, but to look across the models to understand what they are (or are not) telling you.

2. According to the best case scenario, global ocean levels will rise by 60 centimetres with a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 meaning that coastal cities will be flooded. One of these places is Miami where banks giving out loans to estates that are contracted over a 40+ years period. Why would they do that?

Banks primary concern is to receive their loan back with interest. If they are confident of getting it back, then they will give it. Future sea level rise is a relatively recent issue that banks, insurers, etc are just picking up on, and they are not typically accounting for these impacts when deciding to give out loans. Furthermore, if losses do occur, then banks assume they can fall back upon national financial support to recoup their losses. Additionally, they could take into account the expected government intervention regarding adaptation measures that would mitigate the flood risk. Aside from this, it is general practice in the financial industry to sell-on and securitise loans, so that the bank that gives out the loan does not hold long-term risk while the eventual holder of the loan might not have any idea of what they are holding. Lastly, typically financial institutions have a very high preference for the present over the future i.e. their discount rate is typically extremely high. This in effect means that they do not care about potential losses in the far future as much as short-term profit.

3. Civilisations have lived on this earth for over 6000 years withstanding lots of catastrophic natural disasters, why should we care about the effects of climate change?

I suppose this is really about what value or importance you place upon different parts of the Earth system. Which of the following describes how you see things?

a) We must safeguard the human race while preserving our current quality of life to the detriment of all else.

b) We must protect people from all walks of life while improving the quality of life AND safeguarding the natural world recognising our inescapable relationship between humans and the environment

If a) then, adapting to climate change effects while not dealing with the root cause is probably the route to take.

If b) then, mitigating climate change by tackling the root cause will serve to help both people and nature.

Perhaps neither a) or b) are how you see things – I’d be interested to know your perspective.

I’d also just add that human beings have not faced such rapid changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, the resulting effects upon wind, temperature and rain, the knock-on effects upon the ice, ocean and land over the last 6000 years, as this period in fact was one of the most stable climatic periods in a very long time and many argue this is the reason we could develop civilisations to start with. In addition the vast human activity altering vast areas of the land surface through land-use, development, deforestation etc, have resulted in dramatic losses in the amount of life (biodiversity) on Earth. Until now, human beings have been able to adapt to the environmental disasters they have faced though not without severe challenges mainly through barriers and technology. However many questions remain about our ability to cope with the multitude of impacts projected to occur in the future, many of which are already occurring – including questions whether we value a society or a concept of fairness that mostly endangers much poorer developing societies resulting from the consumption of richer societies.

4. There are hundreds of factors that affect the climate from volcano eruptions to ocean patterns, so how much do green house gases affect the climate?

Your question focuses on a research field called “attribution” – which is to say, how much of climate change is due to natural changes and man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. In the fifth IPCC report (synthesis report: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/) the summary for policy-makers (physical science basis: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf) and chapter 10 (https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter10_FINAL.pdf) unpack this question and Bloomberg has produced a very nice animation that gets at this question https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-whats-warming-the-world/. There are a number of ways to do this.

One way is to run a climate model with the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution (say before 1800) for the last 150 years. Then you run the climate model with the estimated increases in greenhouse gases due to man-made activity for the last 150 years. Then you run the climate model with just the amounts of aerosols (e.g. sulphates from volcanic eruptions) over the last 150 years. Then you run the climate model with the estimated changes in the amount of solar radiation (sunlight) over the last 150 years.

Each of these model runs will give you a temperature output for the last 150 years. The result of doing this is shown here (Figure 10.6, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/Fig10-06-1.jpg). The top graph (a) shows variations of the observed global average temperature (black line) and the best model fits using different published methods (red line, Lean; pink, Lockwood; green, Folland and blue, Kaufmann). (Below) The contributions to the final model fits shown in (a) are (b) El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), (c) volcanoes, (d) solar forcing, (e) anthropogenic forcing and (f) other factors (like the North Atlantic Oscillation).

You can see that the contribution to global temperature from man-made greenhouse gases (e) makes up almost the entire trend. All the other components contribute to the variation from year-to-year or decade-to-decade.

Alternatively, here is a useful list of findings that prove that humans have caused current climate change and that sceptics have failed to proof wrong:

The first four pieces of evidence show that humans are raising CO2 levels:

  1. Humans are currently emitting around 38 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  2. Oxygen levels are falling as if carbon is being burned to create carbon dioxide.
  3. We can detect that fossil carbon is building up in the atmosphere because there is a difference in the isotopic relationship of C12/C13 in plant and fossil carbon and we see this in the atmosphere.
  4. Corals show that fossil carbon has recently risen sharply.

Another two observations show that CO2 is trapping more heat:

  1. Satellites measure less heat escaping to space at the precise wavelengths which CO2 absorbs.
  2. Surface measurements find this heat is returning to Earth to warm the surface.

The last four indicators show that the observed pattern of warming is consistent with what is predicted to occur during greenhouse warming:

  1. An increased greenhouse effect would make nights warm faster than days, and this is what has been observed.
  2. If the warming is due to solar activity, then the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) should warm along with the rest of the atmosphere. But if the warming is due to the greenhouse effect, the stratosphere should cool because of the heat being trapped in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere). Satellite measurements show that the stratosphere is cooling.
  3. This combination of a warming troposphere and cooling stratosphere should cause the tropopause, which separates them, to rise. This has also been observed.
  4. It was predicted that the ionosphere would shrink, and it is indeed shrinking.

References for all of these findings can be found at https://skepticalscience.com/10-Indicators-of-a-Human-Fingerprint-on-Climate-Change.html.

5. Do you believe that in order to minimize the effects of global warming that that it will be the demise of the capitalist system and potentially slow down economic growth?

As I understand this question, there are two views promoted by different groups of researchers. The first is that solving mitigation can only be done by reducing consumption and our energy demands, which implies zero to negative economic growth. The second is that mitigation is possible while growth continues due to technological changes to our energy production (to renewables) and the introduction of emissions capture (carbon capture and storage). Historically our energy consumption has increased rapidly (even exponentially, https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-energy-sources). Depending upon whether you think a major shift in our consumptive activity will lead to which of the two possibilities is likely, though both will need the carbon capture technology and green energy transformation. The question is whether you think people will change, and what might it take to change them? (E.g. education, new laws/policies)

Personally, I think that in order to achieve any of our climate targets we need to fundamentally reshape our entire economic system. It would seem appealing to say we can do with less (and this is indeed in the case in certain sectors, e.g. aviation and meat consumption), but realistically to roll-out massive renewables, low-carbon transport and develop extremely expensive negative emission technologies will require us to invest hugely, which will inevitably increase growth. What will need to stop is dirty growth (i.e. fossil-fuel based), as this will lead us towards planetary boundaries that we must not cross.