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No conspiracy theory

Updated Tuesday, 15th June 2010

From COP15: Leader for climate change, David Viner, reveals his passion for accurate science and puts forward his opinion that the science that underpins climate change is robust.

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Copyright The Open University


Interviewer: So the first question is about how you’ve ended up personally thinking about environmental issues. Where have you sort of come from to end up here?

David Viner: Well, how have I got here? I was born in Liverpool, so very much detached in the early days from the environment, I lived in a big urban city, but then I moved to a very small village near Canterbury in Kent in England. And from that, you know, every summer I worked on farms to earn a bit of pocket money. And I was always in touch with the environment, you know, just looking at the fields, and how the fields moved, you know, what caused erosion etc. And I did a, I was very interested in geography, always had a real keenness for geography, especially physical geography when I was at school and I did well at it. I then went on to the University of Sheffield to study physical geography and just wanted to be part of the environment looking at the study of land forms, all manner of work around geography, physical geography, real passion I just wanted to just learn and learn.

I was really interested in it, whether it was looking at, you know, what caused over land flow and agricultural land to the impact of glaciers and how they’ve managed to sculpt the landscape of the planet, so all manner of physical geography, very much important. I then decided I’d do a PhD. I ended up at the University of Salford where I did a PhD in, well the use of weather radar for flood forecasting. So real time flood forecasting in very flashy upland and urban catchments in Northern England, but developing real time flood forecasting models and how to import radar data into those to make them more reliable and also to get better lead times as well for flash flooding events.

One of the issues I did manage to work out was how to read the UK Met Office data. It might not be as simple as it nowadays, it was very complicated the way it was processed and I managed to write a very small bit of code that could process that. I then left, no I got my PhD. I did that quite quickly; I did that in less than three years. I then went on to look at, well, what people call postdoc but I needed a job, and I found the role at a small unit called the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and I started there in 1991. The first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just been produced, and climate change was starting to get traction, politically and in society as well. And I was very fortunate at the Climatic Research Unit it’s one of the world’s leading centres. A bit more infamous these days than famous because of a certain issue around emails, but I’ll explain that later on.

I was then given a really good responsibility to run a project which I ran then for fourteen or so years that distributed data around the world to scientists who were involved in climate change impact assessments. So I was at the hub of the global community on climate change and I started to contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1993. I also established the, helped establish the IPCC Data Distribution Centre. As a result of that role I was involved then in all manner of projects looking at the impacts of climate change on everything from, again, on hydrology, agriculture, forestry and developed a good niche and I was very happy with climatic research. I mean in my latter years I looked more particularly at the landscape scale issues around climate change, how the landscape would evolve as a result of climate change and also tourism, the impact of climate change on the tourism industry, which was very novel, well it still is a very novel area, a huge industry, very little work been done on it.

So I formulated that sort of area of thinking which is, yeah, so that’s good. I then left the University of East Anglia, the Climatic Research Unit, to go to Natural England, which is a conservation agency for the UK, to really there look at how we can spend the large amounts of agri-environment spend, the agricultural subsidies for climate change adaptation. So I was very happy there, but then a role came up at the British Council and I was sort of, yeah, I couldn’t say no really, fantastic organisation. Natural England’s a great organisation, cutting edge research, really good, but British Council, probably another order of magnitude above that, global organisation, huge impact globally and it was something that I could really push on to develop the work and my own personal background.

So I wouldn’t class myself as an environmentalist. I’m not an environmentalist. I don’t campaign, what I’m passionate about more than anything, and this is where the issue about these emails comes in, at the Climatic research Unit, I’m passionate that the science is accurately reported. And as a result of that I’ve always been keen I suppose I’ve done many interviews on television, have presented TV programmes etc, but it always comes down to the quality of the science. And I’m totally convinced and I’m undeterred by the fact that the science that underpins climate change is robust and it’s there, and I really, you know, I sometimes take it personally, which is wrong, that people who misrepresent the science, they’re normally called climate sceptics, for their own political or personal gain, I really, I just think, like I say I can’t say this strong enough, I really detest that. And it’s not, you know, it’s portrayed as a great big political conspiracy.

If you look at the issue about the emails, you know, it looks oh my word it’s a great big global conspiracy. Well if that’s the truth it’s a great big global conspiracy put in place by a small probably underfunded research unit at the University of East Anglia, and I can assure you I’m not at the heart of a global conspiracy, it’s just not there. It’s a, you know, a load of emails taken out of context, hyperinflated by people who just will not accept that the climate system is changing.

Interviewer: Thank you very much, that was very insightful. Can I ask you then about what you’re currently doing? What’s your current role and what are you currently working on?

David Viner: Well the British Council is the cultural relations agency, cultural relations organisation for the UK. Building engagement and trust is what we do. We’ve identified that climate change is one of the key issues affecting the planet and an issue that will affect culture relations and culture. So we’ve put in place a strategy to develop a programme of activity that will help address climate change from a cultural perspective and a cultural relation perspective. So we’re looking at knowledge, leadership, innovation and research, and each of those identifying a key audience of the target groups we can work with.

So under our leadership work we’ve got a programme called Climate Champions, which will grow into something called the Climate Generation, a network of hundreds of thousands of young people who are active in helping put down solutions to climate change. Whether that be awareness about climate change in developing countries, helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change or looking at mitigating responses to climate change. We have a large number of climate champions at the Copenhagen talks, and they’re engaged with their leaders, their negotiation teams to help provide a voice for the young people.

Other issues we’re looking at is providing education resources for teachers in a programme called Climate for Classrooms. We’re looking at engaging with faith communities and faith group leaders worldwide, help give them the support so they can address through their communities climate change, and again that spans all areas of climate change from awareness raising, providing early warnings of weather events in maybe a place like Africa, affected by seasonal cycles and El Niño etc, so we can provide seasonal, help provide the support for those organisations looking at seasonal forecasting, through to the leaders of the major world faiths, like they feel confident to tackle this issue. They are, and that’s a big area because the faith, well, global faiths, the major global faiths affect most of the global population.

And we’re looking at research. We want all our work, and this reflects my background, to be underpinned by sound evidence and research as well. And new research, research about why as a cultural relations organisation we’re getting involved in the issue; we’ve identified that. There’s a whole series of barriers, the traditional approaches of politics, economics and technology, and not really addressing the issue properly yet. We’re still struggling to get the international agreements in place. So we need to look at our, you know, the role of a cultural organisation, such as the British Council, in addressing the barriers and breaking down those barriers.

Interviewer: Brilliant, thank you very much. That’s very thorough, very thorough in terms of what you are doing. And so thinking then, moving out into the future over the next one year, over the next five years and over the next ten years, how do you think personally your responses and your work will respond to?

David Viner: Well I’m personally frustrated because I know I’m seeing an urgent need for a really comprehensive agreement on climate change. We’re here in Copenhagen, we will get an agreement. It won’t be perfect. We need to put in place a binding agreement that commits the global community to an 80% or more reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a huge ask. So there’ll be frustration but that agreement won't be as robust as what was required from the scientific perspective. Personally though we’ve got a great deal of work doing to developing our own, professionally developing our climate change programme with the Council, so I want push ahead with that, I want to engage with the large numbers of people that we need to engage in order to be successful. And personally, yeah one thing I do do, you know, I’m passionate about cooking, I like cooking, and I grow as much of my own food as possible.

I was interviewed once by the British Council for a programme when I was an academic and about the one thing you can do, if you want to help reduce the impact of climate change is never go to a supermarket again. I still stand by that because local food is what’s important if you want a more sustainable future. And if you can grow it yourself, it tastes a lot nicer as well.

Interviewer: Brilliant, thank you. Something I’m also very passionate about. I’m going to finish with a …

David Viner: Do you want me to do the five and so years or?

Interviewer: Yeah. If you’d like to talk about …

David Viner: So yeah. And going a bit further ahead, five years, ten years, okay, professionally I want to develop. You know, we all have our areas we can develop and get excited about. I’m in a very fortunate position; I’ve had a very good background working in the area of climate change. I’ve been at the heart of the issue working at the Climatic Research Unit, Natural England and then at the Council for almost twenty years.

Where are we going to go on the climate issue? It’s going to be a struggle. You know, we will see the impacts of climate change more and more. 2009 is the fifth warmest year on record. It’s most likely that 2010 will be the warmest year on record. That the Noughties, the first decade of the 21st Century the warmest decade in the last thousand years or more. The next decade, the 2010s are going to be the warmest decade then. So we’re seeing this almost year on year rise in temperature. It doesn't look like that at the moment but one or two cooler years. It’s still very much warmer than the past. So we’re going to see the continuing impacts of climate change. We’re going to see global society, I believe, struggling to come to terms with it.

Interviewer: Thank you. I guess that that kind of in a way it’s already answering the question that I was going to ask which was do you personally think that there’s cause for optimism or do you see yourself as pessimistic about the chances?

David Viner: I’m, as I sigh and shrug my shoulders, I’m a naturally optimistic person. I’m a Liverpool supporter. Every year I believe Liverpool are going to win the League, the Premier League, and the European Cup, and I will stay that, that will be with me until I die. However, on this issue about climate change, I just can’t help but being pessimistic. It’s a huge issue. We’ve had the information in place since 1995 when the second assessment report really put the robust evidence that climate change was being influenced by human activity, and yet where are we, fifteen years later the politicians still haven’t grasped this issue. We’re trying our best and our programme of activity will really help influence this I believe. I’m passionate about that. But we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change. We’re committed to a two degree or more rise in temperature by the middle of the century even if we turn off all emissions now.

We’re committed to sea level rise for many, many centuries to come. We’re seeing the collapse of Arctic Sea ice. We’re seeing the melting of most of the world’s glaciers. That is irreversible in the lifetime of myself, probably my children, their children and their children. The deforestation issue is huge, and we’re seeing it, we’re witnessing the damaging impact human activity is having and we’re failing to address them. We need activity and we need the global community to really come together. And it might take a shock but basically the politicians have been distracted lately with the global economic collapse. Has that been a good thing, we don’t know. Wouldn’t it have been better if the whole global economy collapsed, I don’t know. A lot more people would have been less well off but would the planet have been, you know, would the environment be better as a result of a less vigorous economy, we don’t know.

So what’s likely, in my view what’s likely to happen are another of couple of great big shocks. Katrina should have been a wake up call. We can’t pin it on climate change but we saw a city, a developed economy, the biggest developed economy in the world, basically get obliterated overnight. That if, you know, we had things like that. We saw, I’m sure, the effects of the cyclone in Burma, 250,000 dead; same amount as the Tsunami. There’s many other accidents waiting to happen, and it’ll take something like that to have big shocks where many people will die to get the action and get the wake up, be the wake up call, even though the scientific base is absolutely robust.

Interviewer: Brilliant, thank you.

Exploring climate change





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