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The reality of climate change

Updated Friday, 11th December 2009

Attending the Art & Climate Change event hosted by TippingPoint is just one way Professor Mark Maslin, director of UCL Environment Institute, is highlighting the realities of climate change.

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Copyright The Open University


How does your work relate to climate change?

My own research is about past climate. What I’m interested in is the nuts and bolts, how does climate work and how does it actually change. And we can see that the past is really our key to the future. We can see how, how do clouds actually change, how do ice sheets change? And by putting that together we can look at mechanisms, and by mechanisms we can then look at whether that’s going to happen in the future. The other part of my work that applies to climate change is I run the Environment Institute at University College London, and the key thing there is to bring lots of different disciplines to bear on the problem of climate change.

One of the most recent things we did was a commission for the Lancet. Now the Lancet’s a medical journal and we brought together 12 professors from all different walks of life, from anthropology, from law, from economics, geography, climatology, medicine, and we put them together, and we did a unique report on managing the health effects of climate change; very unique because the solutions are actually multidisciplinary.

Where does the passion come from?

I think my passion for my science and for studying climate change comes from a real optimism. I’m an optimist. I always believe that humanity can make things better. And being able to see a problem like climate change means we can do something about it, and we have so many good ideas, so many opportunities to actually make the world a better place. It just frustrates me sometimes that we don’t just get on and do it.

What are you looking for over the next year?

I think the two most important things that I’m looking for in the next twelve months is two agreements at Copenhagen. The first one is to actually have binding targets which are large scale, 20 to 30 per cent on the developing world, and binding targets on the developing world. Not necessarily that we’re actually going to be able to achieve them but it actually sends a message around the world that this is important and something has to be done. The second one is about deforestation. One of the key things we need to do is reverse deforestation and actually start to reforest if we’re going to combat climate change. And actually we need to get the financial instruments right, and that requires again another international agreement at Copenhagen this December.

Informing public policy over the next 10 years. What do you anticipate?

My feeling about the science is that we really have got to the point of knowledge whereby we can actually start to make policy changes. I actually think the changes in the next five to ten years in science are going to be incremental. We’re going to improve the models, improve the predictions, improve our ideas of how climate will change in different regions, but there won’t be any seismic shifts. There won’t be any real new revelations there.

On the policy side, I think one of the most important things will be the Waxman-Markey Bill going through the US Senate; the idea that the US will start to internally trade carbon and actually have a carbon market there. The interesting thing is then how that links to the European trading scheme, and you start to trade carbon between Europe and the USA, and then within ten years actually hopefully encompassing lots of other economic zones. So suddenly you set up a major economic development based on carbon trading.

Optimism or pessimism?

I think the reason why I’m an optimist, apart from say my own personal character, is because ten years ago I was lecturing with many other scientists saying climate change is a problem, please believe me. I was going on TV programmes with an opposition person going I believe that it’s not true. Now the whole world’s moved on. If you look at the President of the United States saying climate change is real, we must deal with it. If you look at say California and the United Kingdom’s Government saying, we will make legal cuts of 80 per cent in carbon dioxide by 2050. The world has seismically shifted on the climate change agenda. Yes it’s not fast enough, no there’s a lot more to do, but it has already made a big difference, and I can see that just in ten years of me trying to jump up and down pulling my hair out saying climate change is real, please believe me.

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