Sir David Attenborough looks at the science of and potential solutions to climate change in a new BBC Documentary (broadcast 9pm Thurs 18 April 2019). Met Office climate scientist Professor Peter Stott appears in the programme and also supported the BBC as they researched the facts. Here he looks back at his career and how the science of climate change has developed.
When I arrived at the Met Office in 1996, it was an exciting time to be starting climate research. Scientists were beginning to identify the fingerprints of human activities on climate. I joined a team of researchers who showed that warming temperatures were being caused not by increasing solar activity or natural climate oscillations but by the rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. By the turn of the century, the conclusions of climate science were clear. Substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would be needed to avoid the worst effects of a warming world. If this was not unexpected, being the inevitable result of basic physics, the new century brought a much more surprising revelation.
Whereas the large-scale climate trends panned out as climate models had predicted – with warming temperatures, melting ice and rising seas – I found the rapidly increasing toll of extreme weather startling and shocking. In August 2003 I travelled to Tuscany to celebrate my wedding anniversary in the hilltop town of San Gimignano. The heat that year was unprecedented. Temperatures reached 40 degrees for days on end. We could cope by keeping in the shade when the sun was up. But many others throughout Europe were not so lucky. More than 70,000 died from the heat, many of the fatalities being elderly vulnerable people unable to escape sweltering apartments in cities like Paris.
Returning home, I decided to investigate whether climate change could be implicated in this devastating event. My research, undertaken in collaboration with colleagues from Oxford University, showed that greenhouse gas emissions had more than doubled the risk of the extreme temperatures seen that summer
Ours was the first study to link climate change to a specific meteorological event. It showed that climate change was now no longer just a future threat, the threat was already here. It led me on to a whole new field of research, one that aims to help people cope better with heatwaves, floods and droughts by providing up-to-date information about the changing risks of such extreme weather.
While we can make efforts to adapt to our changing climate, the science shows this challenge becomes much harder if we don’t also take action to mitigate its effects by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases. The Met Office Hadley Centre is heavily involved in providing policy relevant advice to the UK government. As part of that role, I have been to some of the major climate conferences where nations decide on collective action on climate, including last year’s COP meeting in Katowice, Poland.
There, I presented the latest data showing that the last 4 years were globally the warmest on record and I released new analysis of the extreme record breaking temperatures of last summer across Europe). I also attended an event with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who started a mass movement of school strikes on climate. I found it very inspiring to hear her speak so articulately. Thanks to her leadership, there is now a younger generation of citizens actively involved in promoting a more sustainable future.
More and more, I realise, we need to talk more about climate change; its causes, effects and solutions. That is why I was delighted to be asked to be involved in the BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts. It chimes with a growing interest I have in science communication. As part of my joint position at the University of Exeter, I lead a project called Climate Stories. With a group of scientists from the Met Office and the University of Exeter, artists and local community groups, we have been writing poems, composing songs and making pictures to find new ways of talking about the work we do and connecting with wider audiences. Creating stories together has helped build new positive narratives about our changing climate.
Climate change is not an easy subject to talk about. Even though there are many possible ways to reduce our emissions it is still a challenging task. But like other difficult topics, talking about it helps. When we do, the future can look a whole lot more hopeful.