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What some of Wales’ top scientists think about our plans to tackle climate change

22 Aug 2022 20 minute read
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Richard Youle, local democracy reporter

Welsh scientists who study the climate as part of their work said plans to become ‘net zero’ should be brought forward from 2050.

It would mean, among other things, a faster electrification of heating and transport systems than is currently taking place and a continued expansion of low-carbon sources of power to enable that transition.

Net zero means reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and offsetting the ones you can’t eliminate with measures such as planting trees.

Seven academics in Wales responded to a survey about climate change by the Local Democracy Reporting Service. Questions included how concerned they were, out of 10, with 0 “not concerned at all”, 5 “fairly concerned”, and 10 “extremely concerned”. Five responded with a 10, the other two with a 9.

The world has warmed by around 1.2C since the industrial revolution when humans began pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while continuing to clear forests for agriculture.

Economic growth and a rapid expansion of food production followed but scientists and many politicians and business leaders have warned that rising temperatures threaten the systems on which we depend, partly because climate tipping points could accelerate the process and make changes irreversible if they are crossed.

Crop yields are down in much of western Europe after prolonged dry conditions and record-breaking heat this summer, which makes wildfires more likely and causes more soil evaporation – in turning requiring more rain to make up the deficit. The shortage of rain has also reduced hydroelectric generation and the capacity of rivers to handle freight.

The Met Office has said that the heatwave in western Europe has been replicated in China and parts of the USA, among other areas, and that many such events were connected by a naturally-occurring pattern in the atmosphere. This pattern, it said,  had combined with climate change and soil moisture feedback to make temperatures in the UK of 40C, which occurred last month, possible.

The UK has been reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and now contributes around 1% of the global total – although historically it’s quite a large emitter, making up only 0.87% of the global population – with Wales responsible for a smaller share.

There are developments that many will welcome: a chunk of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has recently recorded the highest levels of coral cover in 36 years, US and UK scientists have achieved a 20% greater soya bean yield by genetically altering the way the plants photosynthesise, and public attitude surveys in the UK, US and China, for example, show a majority are fairly or very concerned about climate change.

But the warming trajectory is embedded, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said the impacts of a 2C temperature rise compared to 1.5C include that risks in energy, food, and water sectors could overlap and create new hazards as well as compound current ones.

Professor Mary Gagen, of Swansea University

Prof. Mary Gagen

Mary Gagen is a professor of geography at Swansea University, who is on secondment as chief adviser on forests to conservation group WWF UK, has worked on climate science for around 20 years.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Unfortunately there isn’t any area of climate change which is not a particular concern. Every aspect of our climate is changing at a faster rate, and in a more globally consistent way, than it has for thousands of years. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which are causing these changes, are higher than they have been for millions of years. Whilst the climate has been warm, and has had higher CO2 in the past, the difference now is the rate of change and how globally consistent the warming is.

In natural climate change not everywhere is warmer than average at the same time, like most places are now. That speed of change, and global pattern of change, are the signatures that tell us the climate changes we are experiencing now are not within the range of observable natural climate variability.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of less concern and if so what are they?

Answer: No. From changes in extreme weather such as droughts, floods and heat waves, to ocean acidification, declines in oxygen levels in the sea, warming of the surface of our planet, losses to the icy regions of the planet, and every other part of our blue and green planet we can see, feel, observe and measure climate change. And it is widespread, rapid and intensifying.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: The faster we can bring emissions down and the faster we can transition to a financially just low-carbon future the better. Every fraction of a degree of warming we avoid is a positive. These things are not easy to do – we need to protect livelihoods, and not exacerbate inequality as we decarbonise, but we also need to reverse the declines in nature and re-stabilise our climate. Luckily in Wales we have an Environment Act and a Well-being of Future Generations Act that put into law the requirement to look after its environment for future generations.

Wales is also forming a new Agricultural Bill this year. We have a fantastic opportunity in that bill – it might seem odd to talk about farming in relation to climate change – but the way we farm and grow food, the stability of our climate and the health of nature are all linked.

It is a triple challenge to feed ourselves sustainably, whilst reversing the trend on nature loss and addressing climate goals. Farmers in Wales need to be rewarded for the food they grow and nature needs farmers to also be rewarded for conservation work. We have a real chance to do both those things in the Agricultural Bill.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: Yes, I do – a lack of knowledge is not the problem. There’s lots of research around the seemingly odd situation whereby the public, in surveys, say they are worried about climate change and the environment and display a lot of knowledge about environmental issues, but at the same time we see inaction in our societies and in Governments around the world on taking meaningful steps to protect and restore nature, and meet our climate targets.

When we talk to social scientists and anthropologists, however, they understand this paradox quite well – it all comes down to our social and political views.

Someone might feel concern for the environment but if saying that, and acting on those thoughts, doesn’t fit within our social and political circle – and would make us feel like an outsider – we tend not to act on those thoughts. When it comes down to it humans are social beings and we feel uncomfortable going against the norms in our social circles. So the best thing that can happen, for equality in our society, for the climate and for our natural world, is political and social cohesion around the need to protect our planet.

The way the IPCC describes this is that we need changes in every section of society and the economy at a pace and scale not seen before, to meet our climate targets.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 10.

Question:  Any other comments?

Answer: Whilst every climate scientist I know is extremely concerned about human-caused climate change many, like myself, are also of the view that we can, and will, take the action we need to protect nature and climate. In the 20 years I’ve worked as a geographer the study of how our climate is changing has gone from being a small section of geography and geology, and actually quite a small community of scientists, to a place where climate is everyone’s business; from artists to inventors to pop and film stars, farmers, industrialists, everyone knows how our climate is changing now – that’s the start of action to protect our planet.

Professor Tom Rippeth, of Bangor University

Prof. Tom Rippeth

Tom Rippeth is a professor of physical oceanography at Bangor University and has been involved in climate science since studying for a physics and meteorology degree in 1984.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Increasing occurrence of severe weather conditions, sea level rise, and in combination with the increased occurrence of severe storms, the increasing risk of coastal flooding. Linked to these are declining levels of Arctic Sea ice and the slowing of the North Atlantic overturning circulation current system – a system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean which brings warm water up to Europe from the tropics and beyond.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of less concern and if so what are they?

Answer: As the whole climate system is linked I am not sure it is possible to say any one aspect is not of concern.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: In Wales there are strong signs of a policy shift which will help achieve net zero by 2050, such as the freeze on new major road schemes as part of the strategy to reduce car usage although, particularly with the cost of living crisis, action will have to taken to substantially reduce the cost of public transport if this is to be effective. The big proposed expansion of offshore wind offers a fantastic opportunity in working towards net zero and job creation. However, there are blocks to this being realised within the time frames possible under current Government consenting requirements.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: I think some are, particularly those who have experienced weather extremes first-hand. I think others blank it out because they can’t accept something as small as a human could adversely impact some as massive as the planet Earth. Then there are a third group who are deniers.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 9.

Question: Any other comments?

Answer: The 9 above is because we think we can predict the speed at which climate change will impact – however, everything appears to be happening faster than predicted, suggesting we are in unknown territory as far as the climate is concerned.

Dr Judith Thornton, of Aberystwyth University

Dr Judith Thornton

Judith Thornton of Aberystwyth University’s department of biological, environmental and rural sciences, has studied environmental and climate change-related disciplines since 1999.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: It is difficult not to be concerned about almost everything relating to climate change, but the key issue for me is the difference between rhetoric and reality.

It does not matter how many 10-point plans you announce if you have no delivery strategy. This is exemplified by the High Court recently finding that the UK Government was in breach of the Climate Change Act 2008, because the policies put forward fail to explain or quantify how the emissions targets will be reached.

Neither is Wales looking particularly good in this regard: the Welsh Government’s Net Zero Wales Carbon budget for 2021-2025 is a disparate collection of policies and proposals, few of which seem to be sufficiently developed to make a significant difference to carbon emissions in Wales. The UK Climate Change Committee’s 2022 progress report to Parliament was similarly downbeat; the sound bites coming from both Governments are often good, but the lack of attention to detail and delivery is worrying.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of less concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Reaching net zero is going to be challenging for many sectors. But if we keep a focus on the emissions data, it is fairly easy to see which sectors are progressing and which are completely stalled. A common distraction tactic is to use percentages instead of the actual numbers and to fail to provide contextual data.

For example, we might hear that “sector X is only 14% of total emissions”, which might be perfectly true, but it says nothing about whether emissions in that sector are actually decreasing.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: Ideally, we would meet net zero as soon as possible. 2050 feels like a long time in the future, but under the Climate Change Act we have interim carbon budgets covering five-year periods, which in theory prevents the Government of the day leaving its climate change homework until the last minute. I would be delighted to meet net zero before 2050, but even that seems hugely ambitious because of the enormous challenges faced by particular sectors, for example the practicalities of insulating 26 million houses by 2050.

Some sectors have closer target dates, the National Farmers Union for example wants agriculture to be net zero by 2040, but these targets need to be matched with clear delivery strategies.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: It seems to me the public are better informed than Governments about climate change; there are lots of inspiring examples of individual and collective action being taken while Governments dither.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 10.

Question: Any other comments?

Answer: We can all take measures as individuals to reduce our emissions, but we also need Governments to take decisive action to make it easier for us to live low carbon lifestyles; better-funded public transport, a nationwide house insulation programme and a frequent flyer levy are measures that would result in significant reductions in emissions but for whatever reason are still beyond the grasp of policy makers.

Professor Stefan Doerr, professor of wildland fire science at Swansea University

Prof. Stefan Doerr

Stefan Doerr is a professor of wildland fire science at Swansea University and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Wildland Fire. He has been studying wildfire science for 28 years and climate science for 10 years or so.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: It increases the magnitude and frequency of climate-related extreme events, with often unforeseen consequences and in some cases further accelerating climate change.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of less concern and if so what are they?

Answer: The known and emerging impacts are so substantial, they dwarf the potential benefits that may arise from climate change in some areas.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: Those plans are ambitious and it would be great if they were fulfilled, but bringing the target date forward would be very wise and show international leadership in a challenge that is not addressed anywhere near as seriously as it needs to be.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: No – many will be aware of the types of consequences, but my sense is that their magnitude/seriousness is underestimated.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 10.

Dr Margot Saher, of Bangor University

Dr Margot Saher

Margot Saher is a marine micropalaeontologist who lectures ocean sciences at Bangor University and has been involved in the climate science field since 2001.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Yes – increases in frequency and severity of heat waves; increases in the variability of rainfall causing both droughts and floods, and rapid sea level rise due to Antarctic ice melt.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of less concern and if so what are they?

Answer: I am less than average worried about increased storminess.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: 2050 is too late.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: No.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 9.

Question: Any other comments?

Answer: You sometimes hear of people who claim that climate is always changing and that therefore anthropogenic climate change is not something to really worry about.

However, if you actually know what climate has been doing over the past hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of years, you see the problem we have caused in even sharper focus. Only if you see the speed and magnitude of what we are doing in the context of the longer timescales, you realise how enormous it is.

Professor Rhian Jenkins, of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Prof. Rhian Jenkins

Rhian Jenkins is the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s environmental conservation programme director, and has been involved in environmental management and conservation for 22 years. She said climate science was an important part of that.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Biodiversity loss and watershed management. Currently we are concerned about drought, but flooding is a huge issue and our built, as well as natural environments, are simply not being managed to cope with the changes in extreme weather conditions. We continue to build infrastructure on or close to floodplains.

We fail to manage peat bogs which are invaluable carbon stores. When healthy, they play a vital role in carbon sequestration, flood management and provide important ecosystems for wildlife. The same can be said for seagrasses in the marine environment.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: Action is required immediately on so many fronts. There are always going to be pressing societal issues which demand Governmental expenditure, but we must stop diverting money from environmental projects and strategies for short-term gains in other areas of the economy. Politicians need to be braver and show a concerted commitment to the climate change targets and green infrastructure promises.

For net zero to be achievable by 2050, greater support and guidance will be needed for smaller businesses – particularly in Wales where 62% are small to medium-sized enterprises. Greater cohesion is needed between Whitehall and the devolved nations so that we are all seen to be working towards the same agenda. The only way we can tackle this is by showing leadership between business, industry and ultimately schools and universities.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: No. The recent heatwave and subsequent wildfires have accelerated that discussion but for many, there is a huge disconnect between actions and impacts.

Many do not see how their food purchases, travel behaviour, consumable choices, how they live their lives, drive causes of habitat destruction.

Small changes can bring about enormous benefits to wildlife/biodiversity and flood prevention and there are some great examples of community projects where this is happening. But we need to stop seeing environmental management as a niche area or a necessary evil – we simply can’t have a secure and safe built environment without it.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 10.

Question: Any other comments?

Answer: Following Covid it felt that there had been a sea change of attitude. Society recognised the value of balancing work-life pressures. More people worked from home and that had positive benefits for air quality and reduced traffic levels. People had started to reconnect with nature. That’s what must happen going forward but it feels as though we have just gone back to the ‘status quo’.

Climate change is a global issue which must be tackled at a local level as well as a national/international one. Changing mindset and entrenched behaviour is not a quick fix but we do need a radical rethink on how we plan for, and deliver on, the future of construction (future-proofing our homes and workplaces), food production/agriculture and water/waste management.

Dr Pete Robins, of Bangor University 

Dr Peter Robins

Peter Robins is a senior lecturer in physical oceanography at Bangor University, and has been involved in the climate science field for 10 years.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of particular concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Flood risk uncertainty, particularly to extreme compound events driven by changes in extreme rainfall and sea level behaviour. Compound flooding occurs when multiple events happen at the same time to exacerbate the flood, such as heavy rain occurring at the same time as high sea levels.

Question: Are there aspects of climate change which you consider to be of less concern and if so what are they?

Answer: Hard to answer, as everything is on a scale, but ‘no’ I suppose is the answer.

Question: Do you consider the Welsh and UK Governments’ 2050 net zero plans are equal to the climate challenge, or should that target date be brought forward?

Answer: Brought forward.

Question: Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change?

Answer: Clearly not. Climate scientists are not sufficiently aware of the risks posed by climate change – more investment into climate science is urgently needed.

Question: How concerned are you about climate change, out of 10, with 0 ‘not concerned at all’, 5 ‘fairly concerned’, and 10 ‘extremely concerned’?

Answer: 10.

Question: Any other comments?

Answer: The umbrella term of climate change is misleading, as people don’t really know what this means. It’s time to be more specific and talk about atmospheric warming, sea level rise, rainfall, acidification etc.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

They need to talk to those fools on the Tory benches and then they would see how hopeless the situation is until they have been removed from said benches and the lobbyists locked up along with every CEO in the country, until…then is a war…

Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
1 month ago

How are we to interpret the fact that none of the 7 scientists who responded to the survey are based in Cardiff, home of most policymakers with influence on climate-change mitigation measures in Wales? Are the Cardiff-based scientists too busy influencing policy to take time to respond to an educational survey? It would be nice to think so!

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