Paul Brown’s talk at the public meeting on climate change, 16 November 2019

Paul Brown’s talk at the public meeting on climate change, 16 November 2019

Paul Brown is the former Guardian environment correspondent

Paul started by remarking that we had just been listening to a scientist, and one of his criticisms of scientists is that they are far too cautious; they have been under attack for the last twenty years from the fossil fuel lobby, and their careers have often been blighted because they’ve stuck their heads up. He was going to tell it like it is, rather than being cautious.

Disastrous climate change is already happening, and man is damaging the planet in all sorts of other ways. We have been overusing chemicals , and we’ve seen massive extinction of species, particularly the loss of insects that pollinate our food crops. If we kill the all, we’ll kill ourselves as well.

We are now seeing climate change in action – dramatic bush fires in Australia, following years of terrible drought; similar fires in California; most of Venice under water because of exceptional high tides and sea level rise; and the second so-called hundred-year flood in the Midlands. Weather patterns have changed; we should expect a lot more of these devastating floods.

In advanced countries, particularly Australia, the United States and the UK, scientists are saying that these extremes of climate change are happening now, and we need to factor them in to our daily lives. They are saying that by 2030, these kind of events will be even more violent, and commonplace. Yet none of the governments of these three countries are taking action on climate change seriously, or anywhere near fast enough. And worse than that: the Australian government has not produced an action plan at all to tackle climate change, and is intent on opening vast new coal mines that will inevitably make their own heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires worse, and everybody else’s, as well.

In America, president Trump has pulled out commitments to do anything about climate change all together, and has spent the last three years reversing US environmental legislation built up over the last two decades.

In the UK, the government’s actions to avert climate crisis are grossly inadequate. We are not going to meet our climate targets. The UK government claims it is making progress on climate change, but fails to include emissons from air travel or shipping in its total

Elsewhere in the world, Brazil’s ruling class seems intent on burning down the Amazon to supply the world with beef and soya.

Most nations will fail to meet the climate targets they signed up to in 2015 at the Paris climate talks, and the world is going to miss its target of keeping temperature increases down to two degrees, let alone the much more desirable one and a half degrees. We are already at 1° more than preindustrial levels, and we are facing climate extremes.   The rise is likely to reach 3° C by the end of the century. This will already have caused irreversible damage, including sea levels rising by a metre, drowning many of the vital food growing areas of the world, including much of East Anglia.

The message is simple: if the human race is to survive, we’ve got our work cut out. This really is an emergency, and we need to do something about it now.

We have the solutions in our hands; we have already developed the technologies to save ourselves. All we lack is the political will to implement them.

Paul went on to mention some recent developments and reasons to be cheerful.

The price of electricity produced by solar power and wind power is now less than fossil fuels. It is now economically crazy for the world to burn fossil fuels when solar and wind are cheaper.

We could produce enough electricity from offshore windfarms in the North Sea to provide electricity for the whole of Europe. Each wind turbine now produces twelve times as much power as it did ten years ago. Similarly, solar power is now 80% cheaper than it was a decade ago.

What a terrible waste of resources nuclear power is, and our government’s preoccupation with it is driving our addressing climate change badly off course. If we opt for nuclear power, we will have lost the battle on climate change. .

The better news is that despite president Trump’s subsidies for both coal and nuclear generation, the companies that own these power stations are going bust in the United States because even existing power plants cannot compete on price with new wind and solar.

Texas, the oil capital of America, has a fantastic number of windfarms because they outcompete oil.

Another bright spot is batteries – in the last five years, battery technology has come on in leaps and bounds. Prices have dropped 70%.

We also have other non-battery technologies which make nonsense of the claim that intermittency of renewables is a problem.

Green hydrogen produced by renewables is one of the fuels of the future, with huge investment in it in the last twelve months

Electric lorries, cars, buses and bikes are now a practical  proposition.

Buildings can be made energy efficient. That energy efficiency in all its forms has always made economic sense. Even without our government doing anything to help, the use of electricity in this country has been going down every year for the last ten years because of EU regulations on light bulbs, fridges, boilers and other appliances we use in our homes, making them more efficient than they used to be.

Now we come to the difficult bit. Our politicians have not got the message, at least the ones that are currently in power, not just here in the UK, but in many other countries throughout the world. Many of them are stuck in 20th-century thinking and are not up to the challenge.

But there is some hope: many people are getting the message. Greta Thunberg has started a school revolution. Adults are joining in too, in the UK-inspired Extinction Rebellion. Some people dislike the these groups’ tactics, but before they started taking direct action no one was talking about the climate. Now they are. The coming generations have at least some chance of a better life through the school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion protests. So that is where we come in. We all have a civic duty to do our bit.

We can take action in two spheres. First of all, there are small but important actions we can all do in our own lives.

A few examples: save energy, shop locally, eat less meat, reuse or recycle, cycle or walk or take public transport rather than drive, try to avoid flying, sell your gas-guzzling car and get a smaller one, preferably a hybrid or electric.

As individuals or as a community we can invest in renewable energies, solar or heat pumps.

For example, a junior school in Somerset went into partnership two years ago with a local energy cooperative to place solar panels on its roof space, and is now saving four thousand a year. Good for the school budget, but what matters is the educational value for teachers and children at the school.

Are we spending our money as consumers in the right places, and indeed spending our time for the cause? For example, getting involved in tree planting and looking after our local environment.

But more than that, we need to take political action. We must pressurise not only politicians, but also the people who run companies, banks and shops. What really works, is putting pressure on decision-makers. Ask your MP, local councillors, company directors, people managing your pension fund, difficult questions about what they’re doing on climate. Ask repeatedly for answers, and don’t take no for an answer.

Politically, a very important milestone is coming up next year when the UK plays host at the 2020 climate talks in Glasgow. We need to make sure the UK government takes a lead..

The situation is still not hopeless; but we need to act, and act now.

Dr Chris Brierley’s talk at the meeting on climate change, 16 November 2019

Public meeting on climate change, 16 November 2019

 How the climate evolved in the past and how it will develop in the future

Dr Chris Brierley, Associate Professor in Climate Change, University College, London

 Dr Brierley has two roles at UCL. One role is as a researcher, using climate models to simulate the climate of six thousand years ago, when the Sahara desert had vegetation right the way across it. Then the Earth’s orbit changed, the  vegetation collapsed, and the people living there migrated into the Nile valley, which sparked off the Egyptian civilisation.

His other role is as a lecturer, talking to and teaching students.

At the public meeting, he structured his talk around some of the things he’d done in the previous week, and how they related to climate change in the broad sense, to give a broad perspective.

For example, last weekend he went to see the film The Aeronauts, a story about a balloon ascent in the 1860s, when we really didn’t know much about what the atmosphere was, to find out more about the weather. This reminded Dr Brierley just how hard it was to get science information then, compared with today when he could sit in front of his computer all day. Then, they had to go up in a balloon and discover some fairly fundamental things about the structure of the atmosphere, and it was a very dangerous occasion.

To be more precise, the average temperature between 1850 and 1900 is often used by the international community as a definition of the Preindustrial time, which is the baseline, against which many climate agreements are measured. For example, the Paris climate agreement that was signed in 2015 was aiming to limit warming to 1.5°, and at most 2°, above that preindustrial baseline.

The science community was asked, what is the difference between a one-and-a-half degree world and a two-degree world, a thick textbook was produced; and one important thing that emerged was, what exactly was the preindustrial climate?.

So one of the things he did this week was to discuss with his colleague Ed Hawkins, who’s writing the next, more formal, assessment, the sixth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and they want to quantify just what exactly is the difference from that 1850-1900 period. That period is when we first had a global network of thermometers, and so we can really know what the temperature was. And the temperature during the period 1860-1900 turned out to be  0.1° ± 0.1° warmer than the slightly stricter ‘preindustrial period’, of round about 1700.

His first real lecture on Monday was talking to his first year students, to explain what the cryosphere was. The cryosphere is the ice sheet, the sea ice and the snow cover, and it is the most depressing lecture that he ever has to give. Because in saying what it is and where it is, you have to show observations of it, and this component of the Earth’s system is the one that is changing the most. And certainly on his slides, he has the sad note that by the time these students – who are about 19 or 20 – by the time they’re his age, it is expected that there will be no summer sea ice in the Arctic. And that is not a happy message.

He felt that his task at some point – and if he keeps on with his career, with maybe another thirty years of lecturing – his task in talking to geographers will not be to explain to them the science of climate change, but rather to explain to them a historical perspective of why we didn’t act fast enough, to deal with it, and why we bequeathed to them the changes that are going to come, and the changes that have already come.

He remarked that he probably has another thirty years left in his career, and at some point while he is still lecturing, he will have to explain to his students the historical perspective of why we didn’t act fast enough, and why we bequeathed to them the changes that are going to come, and the changes that have come.

There are two responses to looking at the future of the cryosphere, and looking at the future of the climate; they are defined as mitigation, and adaptation.

Mitigation means dealing with the cause of climate change, in other words, not putting any more stuff into the atmosphere. Nearly all of the scenarios described in the IPCC assessment show that once you get past about 2070, instead of having carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, they are sucking it out. You can do that by planting forests, or by burning biomass to get energy and then capturing the carbon – you don’t let any of the carbon go into the atmosphere, and you put that carbon back down into the earth, and you sequester it away.


The carbon already in the atmosphere has committed us to some future warming, so the other side of our response is adaptation. That means how we adapt to the changes that we’re seeing already, for example, working out how much of the wildfires that have been happening in Portugal, in California and in Australia can be attributed to anthropogenic warming (i.e. warming caused by humans).

Adapting to these events involves changing our society, and changing the infrastructure within which that society works.

Within a community like this, we need to be thinking both about mitigation, and so cutting our carbon emissions, and we need to be thinking about how we can change our town and our community to better cope with the changes that are already in there.