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Climate change has been one of the most frequently discussed topics over the past year, with increasing natural disasters augmenting the significance of the decisions made by world leaders to tackle the issue. Due to the relevance of climate change debate, the University of Exeter hosted an event on Wednesday the 4th of October titled ‘Can we live with a warmer planet?’ The debate was hosted by the High-End cLimate Impacts and eXtremes research project (HELIX), featuring panellists including Drs Astrid Wissenburg, Director of Research Services, Dr Tania Osejo representing the United Nations World Food Programme and Manuel Carmona, from the European Commission. I was fortunate enough to sit down with panellist Richard Betts, the Project Director, to discuss the work of the HELIX team in the lead up to the talk.

The HELIX team

Starting off, I was hoping to learn more about Professor Betts, and how he became so involved in climate change. I asked ‘can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became involved in your current research?

‘I am Professor Richard Betts and I am Chair in Climate impacts here at the University of Exeter’, he introduced, ‘I also work at the Met Office Hadley Centre, on a joint position where I am Head of the Climate Impacts research operation at the MET Office’ The Hadley Centre is the UK government climate research organisation. Moving on to how he became involved in this research ‘It depends where you want to start’ he smiled. ‘I did a degree in Physics and then a Masters in Meteorology, and then started at the Met office in 1992, then while I was there I did my PhD in Climate Modelling at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, and the last 25 years I have been working in climate modelling. Mostly, my work was on the carbon cycle, but I became more interested in the impacts of climate change. The research project HELIX was a response to a call for proposals by the European Commission over their Framework 7 research program. They invited proposals to look at the impacts of climate change at different degrees of global warming and I gathered together a consortium of leading experts to address this, and that became the HELIX project.’

I gathered together a consortium of leading experts to address this, and that became the HELIX project

Looking to learn more about what exactly the HELIX project is about, I asked ‘Could you explain what the HELIX project do and what your research is aiming to uncover?’

‘We have sixteen partner institutes from thirteen different countries so it is a truly global project. The total funding is twelve million Euros, so nine million euros comes from the European Commission and the remaining three comes from funding from the partner institutes. It is a really big project. We have about fifty people working on it at any one time, a whole range of disciplines from atmospheric physics calculations through to interviewing people in West Africa to find out why they moved from one place to another, looking at their reasons for migration. We have a whole range of things to do with climate change.’ Going into more detail Richard discussed how ‘the original exam question from the European Commission was to advise them on what the impacts of climate change above two degrees would be. Two degrees global warming was originally the international target to stay below, but they wanted to know what would happen if we missed that target and how much we could adapt to that change. Really, can we live with a world warmer than two degrees?’

Richard continued to explain more of the political context around the HELIX team’s research, explaining how ‘halfway through the project the Paris Agreement occurred as part of the United Nations programme that we feed into. We were at the Paris Conference when this happened, and we gave briefings to the Commission before this, and the ambition of the international community became greater to keep global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees warming. Everyone really thinks this is hugely ambitious, and a lot of people think this is impossible, I don’t really know but its worth trying’, he explained. ‘But the scope of our project has expanded to look at the impact of 1.5 degrees global warming compared to 2 degrees and above. Basically, we are looking at the impacts of the whole level of global warming which is different to what is being done before. We are choosing to see what the world will look like at different temperatures, as opposed to at different time periods. Looking at what would happen in 2030, or 2080 gives a wide range of uncertainty. What we are saying is if the world keeps warmer, it is a logical conclusion that we will get to 1.5 or 2 degrees sooner or later, and what could it look like is what we are assessing.’

We are choosing to see what the world will look like at different temperatures, as opposed to at different time periods

Going further into the technical side of the HELIX project, I asked ‘how do you actually calculate what the world looks like at each temperature?’

‘We are using computer modelling of climates. These are the same types of computer models that the Met office use for weather forecasting. They are mathematical models of the atmosphere, and the oceans, and also these days they include global biology and global heat systems.  The computers complete vast calculations and around two million lines of code. Huge computing power goes into making these calculations.’ Richard explained ‘we can never say for sure what exactly a 2 degree world is, because you get different answers depending on how you set the model up. We set up different versions of the model with different assumptions and then see whether it agrees or not. One of the crucial points is looking at where we have agreement, and the people who are making decisions on the basis of this like the United Nations and governments, they need to know that we can’t say 2 degrees equals x amount of change in India etc, they need to know it is a range of possibilities so they can account for the range of different outcomes.’

‘Are there currently any unavoidable risks of climate change?’

‘Yes, we cannot stop sea level rise completely, we can stop it from getting faster but it is already happening and it is already locked in. And even if we did cut global emissions drastically, and bring them to zero in the next 30 or 40 years, which we are obviously not going to do, but even with that sea levels will continue to rise to a certain extent. Countries like Bangladesh, small islands like the Maldives will have to deal with this to some extent. We can still avoid the worst from kicking in though’.

‘Seeing as you were at the Paris Conference how do you respond to people like Donald Trump, who has made efforts to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and has gone as far as to say climate change does not exist?’

‘It is completely and utterly wrong to say that climate change does not exist, and to claim that humans are not causing it. We are confident that this is happening. I think for any country to be withdrawing from an international treaty sends a really bad message to the world, and a very selfish message, and short sighted as well. The US, like everywhere else, will be affected.’

It is completely and utterly wrong to say that climate change does not exist, and to claim that humans are not causing it

‘Can you summarise what the talk is going to cover?’

‘’Students will be able to see some of the new scientific evidence and calculations of what the impacts of global warming might be going forwards, but also they will hear from some of the people making big decisions on the basis of this advice. The panel will also include a partner who is working with the Indian government on managing responses in India, such as changes in the Ganga River. We also have someone from the World Food Program, and someone from the European Commission who works on Climate policy on reducing emissions. Students will hear about the science, but also the kind of decisions being made on the base of it.’

‘What do you think the direct effects of climate change are that we might notice in the UK?’

‘The two most obvious will be changes in ecosystems and species, and flooding risks. We are already seeing the impacts of flooding, weather and flooding do happen anyways, but when it rains in a warm world it rains harder, and we are already seeing a lot of species moving northwards a signs of spring come earlier. For example, migrations happening earlier and leaves coming out earlier. If these patterns don’t happen in the right order, it can disrupt the synchronicity. Birds could be hatching out a week earlier, but the caterpillars they want to feed on aren’t out yet, and then the food supply isn’t there. There is potential for a change in eco-systems in this manner. We may also see the change of the jet streams, and potentially more storms in the Atlantic, but we don’t know for sure yet.’

Carrying on with the discussion of weather patterns I inquired ‘with the recent hurricanes in the United States, is this something we can expect to see more frequently with Climate Change?’

‘It is a mixture, hurricanes happen anyways, it is not really clear whether the number of hurricanes will increase. The stronger ones you would expect to be even stronger because of climate change because the temperature of the Atlantic is rising.’

To conclude the interview, I asked Professor Betts ‘Are we doing enough to reduce climate change, and are we doing the right things?’

‘Anything and all we can do is worth trying. I wouldn’t rule out any of the issues that traditional environmentalism doesn’t like, such as nuclear power. There are also downsides to low-carbon energy sources which need to be taken into consideration, such as bioenergy. If you cover the world in bio plantations, you have less room for food and wilderness. This is not to say that bioenergy should not be used, just that we still need to be careful about how we use this and any other alternatives to fossil fuels- its a complex process but one that we need to solve, and this is where the debate should be now. We need to move on from the conversation about is climate change happening or not, to what we can do to minimise its impacts. We will have some of that debate on Wednesday night.’

Climate change is an incredibly fascinating and relevant point of debate, especially when it comes to how we will have to adapt to the changes the planet will experience in the coming years. I left my interview feeling inspired to learn more about the impacts of climate change, and would encourage everyone to become more involved in the discussion that surrounds the issue.

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