An interview with Professor Tim Lenton
News Editor Megan Haynes and Editor-in-Chief Ana Anajuba speak to Professor Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute and Chair in Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter, about his work on the Earth System and how students can help to reshape the climate crisis.
Exeposé: What first got you interested in Earth Systems?
Tim Lenton: When I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, it was 1991 and the ozone hole had been discovered, the Amazon was being destroyed at an accelerating rate, and we were all worried about global warming, because famous scientist Jim Hanson had testified to Congress about it in 1988. The generation of students around me were, not everybody but a bunch of them all, worried about the climate and what Hanson had called the ‘crisis’.
I was kind of depressed that my course, natural sciences, didn’t really address any of that. The best career they could offer me was a chemical engineer or something like that, which I thought would be rubbish. I had a great moment where my dad gave me Jim Lovelock’s books on the GAIA for Christmas after my first term at uni. I read those books and it just clicked for me completely. Here’s a version of the earth, a living system, that makes total sense to me. That’s how I knew that I wanted to do scientific research. So, I was lucky that happened to me when I was 18, and I decided then that that’s what I want to do.
É: What is your biggest source of hope in the climate crisis?
TL: The first source of hope is to see the movement that young people have had a key part in starting, such as Greta Thunberg and others. I think that’s a source of hope, because it shows they have rejected the crazy ideology that been dominant, and they want to change.
Also, the actual signs of real change that affect greenhouse gas emissions and thus affect the climate in a good way. These can be simple things that people haven’t really heard of, like we’ve shut coal burning out of power generation in the UK in just a decade and we’ve managed to reduce our emissions faster than any other major industrialised country in the world. And, has anybody even noticed? I mean, its brilliant. We are making transformative change and barely anybody knows about it, it doesn’t have to be unpleasant. We do still need to embrace an accelerating, transformative change, but yeah, substituting one form of electricity for another, you don’t necessarily notice, which is kind of cool.
É: Do you worry about the pessimism exhibited by some young people, as they feel like they can’t actually affect change?
TL: It does worry me, and it did worry me. That’s why I wanted to talk about this positive tipping points narrative and the fact that there were self-accelerating changes that were beginning to happen that could get faster and, and hardly anybody was hearing about it. And yeah, there is this real danger of nihilism, when actually we’ve got so much to play for, and there’s so many potentially encouraging signs. I don’t want to pretend that it’s all easy either, but it’s not hopeless and it’s not disempowering because those changes actually belong to us. We can all make choices, and we can all be part of the change. So yeah, I really want to give everybody a bit of empowerment back in the face of what looked like a pretty big, scary challenge.
There’s an ideology that it’s the responsibility of the individual to fix this, when in fact, it was some very large corporations and some very rich individuals in them who had a disproportionate responsibility. But as individuals, collectively we can be a big driver as well, which is why, for me, it’s at both ends. We’re doing some work seeing if big companies are living up to their rhetoric, but I’d like to see a bit of both.
É: Last year, the University announced its 2030 strategy, including plans to be net zero by 2030. Do you think the University is doing enough to tackle climate change?
TL: I think the University have been making a heroic effort to try and reduce emissions from the University, with retro-cladding and smart-metering buildings and all of that. I think the way that the University is staking its reputation on not just telling the world about climate change, but actually getting its own ‘house in order’ are great. Walking the talk, as you might say, is really important.
Historically, we maybe didn’t bring this up to a boardroom level as much as we could have done. So, it’s the more we do, the more likely we are to deliver. I’m sure there’s still more to be done; I would push for even more leadership and even more investment into this sector. After all, universities are an obvious sector to lead ahead of other sectors because universities are like a public good, right? So yeah, good effort. Let’s keep trying harder.
É: Greenwashing is something that many young people are concerned about, as we feel we don’t know what ‘green’ really means. What would you say to address that? How can we become more aware of it?
TL: As researchers we try to get the data and expose what’s real and what’s greenwashed. I think one of the things that Vice Chancellor Lisa is driving for is that we work more with the private sector on net zero and tackling the climate ecological emergency front. In the team I work with at the Global Systems Institute, we have been going in and interrogating 12,000 companies about how they are performing on their net zero targets, and how big is the gulf between what they say their doing or going to do, and what they’re actually achieving. We would want to try to work towards being a ‘visible dashboard’ or something like that.
The problem is, companies aren’t always wild about exposing the data, so we have to work around that kind of stuff. But yeah, I think we can make progress there.
É: Are you happy with the work that you and your team do at the Global Systems Institute, and the progress that your work is contributing to?
TL: I am proud of some things, but I’m quite a tough taskmaster on myself. I salute the work of my colleagues; I think we’re making some real kind of global difference on some issues. For example, championing the Global Carbon Budget, which is really powerful and matters to everybody. I’m proud of the work that I’ve been involved in around both identifying the bad tipping points in the climate and identifying the positive tipping points. And I’m proud of the master’s programme in Global Sustainability Solutions, lead by James Dyke.
I would love to offer more education options in this space. We’ve tried to develop a postgraduate taught level offer, but I really think that so many people are hungry for this ‘applied systems thinking’ from a whole range of disciplines, and I think if we had the capacity and the institutional support, we could expand on that a lot more. I don’t just want an undergraduate or a master’s degree, but also for people who want to learn in the evenings when they’ve got a regular job. It would be great to expand this space.
É: There is a lot of debate about whether companies are trying to be green out of self-interest, or whether they are actually trying to create positive change. Do you think companies are just trying to cash-in on green markets?
TL: The nature of the capitalist economy means that there has to be some kind of self-interest in it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its bad. Its about aligning a degree of company-interest and self-interest, with some more positive goals.
É: As University students, we are often referred to as the ‘next generation’, with the world’s problems now ours to resolve. Do you have an overall message to our readers about this?
TL: You’ve got the agency to help change the world for the better, we all have. Don’t despair at this climate and ecological emergency; you’ve got the agency to go out into the world and make a difference. I’ll keep trying to do my bit on the teaching side, and to help equip you, but there’s a great space for opportunity out there.
When you leave the University, in a way, it’s like building a community of change out into the world.