It’s been a couple of years since I last heard a lecture on state of the art climate science. A lot has changed in the politics and dynamics of the subject in that time, so I was looking forward to Sir Brian Hoskins, an expert in atmospheric modelling, getting me up to speed at a Society of Chemical Industry lecture event last night.
After a basic rundown of the usual suspects – the Keeling curve, energy budgets and the like – Hoskins summarised the UEA email theft and IPCC mistakes, taking a measured view. More interestingly, the bigger picture of the unusual temperature distributions of the last couple of Northern Hemisphere winters were explained. The band of extreme cold in December was more than counterbalanced by very warm temperatures in the Arctic. One particularly amazing point was that, when it was freezing in the UK, it was 11C in Greenland!
The focus of the lecture shifted to climate models. While he admitted the current academic environment around climate modelling is a bit “incestuous”, Hoskins noted that “those of us who work with models are more critical of them; those baffled by them are more likely to accept them implicitly or reject them out of hand.”
The picture becomes even more difficult when trying to predict the future, for one main reason: us. “Modelling the climate system is bad enough: modelling humans is even worse!” However, the outputs of all but the most hopelessly optimistic models place 21st century warming between 2-4C, potentially up to 6C in the worst cases. Most divergence in that range happens after 2030; what we do in the next 10 years won’t seem to do much immediately, but can make an enormous difference after 2050.
Hoskins moved on to look at mitigation, adaptation and geo-engineering solutions. Unfortunately, these are what I’d really come to hear about and were only touched on superficially. Geoengineering, in particular, is a thorny issue, because a single entity could feasibly attempt global geoengineering without international agreement. Of course, no-one can really talk about such a possibility in any more than speculative terms; perhaps it would be more stimulating in a panel discussion situation.
I was impressed by the frank honesty of Hoskins throughout the lecture. He didn’t sugarcoat climate models or temperature reconstructions. The UK is taking some of the most proactive steps to deal with climate change, which was a nice note to end on, though international agreement was the silent monster in the room towards the end of the talk. Hoskins ended by calling climate change a challenge science, technology and society: “Can we look into the future, rather than just think of now? Somehow, we need to get enough social interest in this to achieve action.”
I had the chance to ask for an elaboration on this final point in the Q&A. As I’ve been saying this week, the social dimension of the climate problem is where our real challenge lies, and Hoskins agrees. There won’t be any updates in science which provide a ‘silver bullet’ to convince a majority of people to push for action. He argued that presenting people with a problem and not giving them a tangible solution would cause them to reject it, which seems to be what is happening. One part of the way forward, then, is to pursue solutions that may not be the most efficient, but get people involved, such as small-scale solar. This may then lead to them playing more of a part in the social change necessary to influence the democratic process. Schools, particularly, should be centres of renewable technologies, so that the next generation grows up seeing these as part of modern life.
I commend SCI for putting on an enjoyable event – nice venue, a great speaker and what was shaping up to be a stimulating discussion over drinks afterwards, before I had to rush off. The next one is on the 9th of June and promises to be more controverial, as one Lord Lawson takes the stand to deliver on economics and climate change. We think the climate’s complicated: throw in the perplexing systems of human finances and you’ve got a melting pot of drama waiting to happen!