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Tamsin Edwards - Stories of Change

Updated Friday, 4 December 2015
Tamsin Edwards, Lecturer in Environmental Sciences at the Open University, is interviewed by Roger Harrabin for 'Stories of Change'.

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Tamsin Edwards Tamsin Edwards is a Lecturer in Environmental Sciences at the Open University. She uses computer models to study climate change and its impacts, particularly how confident we can be in model predictions. She blogs for PLOS at All Models are Wrong and on Twitter she is @flimsin.

© ​ The Open University


Stories of Change Project

Tamsin Edwards interview


RH:      = Roger Harrabin, interviewer

TE:      = Tamsin Edwards, Open University


RH:         Tell us about yourself and your blog.

TE:         My name’s Tamsin Edwards. I’m a lecturer at the Open University in Environmental Sciences, and I have a blog run by the website PLOS called All Models are Wrong, and that’s named after a fairly famous quote within science, by a statistician called George Box, which is ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’ S  o the idea is that I talk about climate models, the models we use to describe the earth system, what their strengths are and also what their weaknesses are.

RH:         There’s a group of people come on the scene in recent years who call themselves the Lukewarmers, they’re obviously very interested in modelling. Can you tell us about them; who are they and your relations with them?

TE:         Well it’s their nice catchy name, isn’t it, Lukewarmer, you’ve got to have a good name. It’s become quite a popular position and quite well known from people like Matt Ridley. There’s an independent scientist called Nick Lewis. And it’s this idea that they completely agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas; they completely agree that there’s warming; they agree that humans are causing some part of that warming and that we should probably do something about that, perhaps adapt to that warming; but they disagree with perhaps the rate of change that’s been predicted – they think it’s slower or at the lower end of predictions, and perhaps they don’t really agree with the kind of standard, fairly accepted mitigation options out there.

               I know Nick particularly well because he actually comes to a lot of scientific conferences now and he publishes in the literature. He’s got a very mathematical background and he’s actually … give him a lot of credit, he’s put a lot of effort into working out the numbers for himself that he thinks are right for how sensitive the earth’s climate is to CO2, how much warming would we get say if we doubled CO2? So he comes to conferences and he defends his ideas, and there are a lot of people who’ve in some senses gathered around him and people like Matt Ridley, to hold that position of a lukewarm future.

RH:         Do you see this as a positive or a negative thing, the emergence of the Lukewarmers? And the absence, almost complete absence now in the UK, of what you might call deniers or people who just refuse to accept human responsibility?

TE:         I think it’s a really welcome change and it’s particularly prevalent here in the UK, I think, where the debate about climate change and what to do about has moved away, as you say, from the position that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas, the very simplistic, stubborn viewpoint. So I think it’s a good thing because it shows that we’re much more on the same page than we used to be, there’s much greater consensus across scientists, activists and climate sceptics, there’s much more overlap. So in some senses it’s now the devil is in the details. We’re moving the debate on to what to do about it rather than wasting time arguing about the basic science.

RH:         The Lukewarmers say we don’t need to do very much about it at all.

TE:         Yes, they’ve got an interestingly optimistic view, I’d say. I don’t agree with the Lukewarmer position. I wouldn’t at all call myself a Lukewarmer, and that’s because they have a viewpoint that’s not that coherent in my view, because they say that there’s a lot of uncertainty about future climate predictions, and that’s true. There’ a broad range of predictions, partly about what we will do as a species, what actions we’ll take, what technologies there’ll be, but also just from our own science and the climate laws and the observations and so on. So they talk about all of that uncertainty and how you can’t be sure, which is fine – the devil’s in the details.

RH:         And it’s true, isn’t it, as well?

TE:         Of course there’s uncertainty, there’s always going to be uncertainty about future predictions. But at the same time they say but they’re very confident that the predictions will come out at the low end. So that’s not really a terribly coherent position to take, I would say. There’s quite often a lot of focus about the last 15 years or so of surface air temperatures, where the global warming trend has been much slower, or certainly somewhat slower, and basically some people have even called it a pause in warming, and they say, ‘Oh well, the models have overestimated how much warming there’s been and it hasn’t been seen, but they then ignore the 15 years before that, when the models tended to be too cold, and like Goldilocks where you have one bowl of porridge that’s too hot and one that’s too cold, if you actually look at the whole 60-year period of the last 60 years, the models get it just right. So they’re focussing one particular time period and also one particular aspect of climate. If we think about climate change there’s so many aspects to the planet. There’s arctic sea ice, for example, and again there the models actually have been underestimating how much change we’ve seen. So it’s a very, very narrow, slightly blinkered view of what the world is doing and how well the models are describing it, so it is cherry picking really.

RH:         You can understand their point of view, though. The world is about to spend or commit to spend trillions of dollars on clean energy to avoid climate change, and the Lukewarmers are saying, ‘Well, maybe we don’t need to avoid that much of it. Maybe in fact some degree of warming will be beneficial for us, it’ll encourage the growth of plants, for instance, with the extra CO2.

TE:         It’s interesting. A lot of what we aim to do with climate change of course comes down to our values. Do we care about the financial costs of climate damages; do we care about biodiversity? And every person on the planet will have a different answer to those questions, so clearly there’s going to be disagreement about how much to spend and where to focus our efforts. Do we value humans over other species; do we value the people of today over the people of tomorrow? And those are value judgements but crucially there is a lot of agreement. The Lukewarmer, if you like, independent scientist Nick Lewis, his predictions actually for warming in the future, they’re not at the very, very bottom end of the mainstream predictions; they cover the whole lower half.  What that means is that he still predicts that we would reach two degrees of warming by the end of the century. So in fact there’s agreement, given the kind of trajectory we’re on in terms of emission scenarios, we will reach this two degrees of warming. Whether or not you care about that two degrees or the fact that it happens in 100 years or 50 years, that’s … up for debate I guess, and that’s what we are debating. But there is consensus on reaching that kind of level of warming this century.

RH:         If you read the UK media, or a large part of the UK media, you could be forgiven for believing that there was still a huge debate raging about whether climate change was a serious issue to address or not.

TE:         Yeah, well journalists like to tell stories and someone like Matt Ridley is also a great story teller, he’s a well-respected science writer in other areas, there’s always appetite to hear about debate. People don’t like to hear about depressing things, they want to hear that they can be optimistic about the future and ignore all those predictions, but when it comes to something like the benefits of warming, of course there will be some benefits of warming, there will be fewer deaths from extreme cold, there will be some benefits to some areas of the world in terms of crops but we really think that the negative impacts outweigh the positive very quickly and again it really is cherry picking just to focus on those few areas where we think things might get better in some parts of the world under some circumstances.

RH:         Let me talk about the specific thing that you mentioned earlier, which is the pause, if we can call it the pause. Do you think the mainstream science predicted that? I don’t remember predictions from mainstream science that there would be such a long potential pause in warming. And also do you think mainstream science has been too defensive in the way it’s responded to its shortcomings being pointed out?

TE:         Well if we think of the so-called pause as a kind of 15-year or so change in the warming trend, certainly climate scientists have been predicting that kind of thing for a long time, well before this happened. So climate models have always shown quite big changes in trends, due to the natural variability of the climate system. What we haven’t done for a start is communicated that clearly at all. We never really thought about it happening in practice I guess. We never really thought about, ‘What if we get such a big change that it effectively looks like global warming has stopped; what would that mean for how society understands the science. And also it’s not just about natural variability. There have been some other changes in the other factors that influence climate. So for example there was a bit of a dip in the output of the sun; there have been changes in the sulphate aerosols from things like coal pollution which cool the climate; there has been volcanic  activity that has the same kind of cooling effect; so it was a kind of perfect storm I guess. We knew that there would be changes in the trend of that kind of timescale, but because climate scientists probably think in the abstract a lot, we think about climate … climate’s kind of defined as 30 years or more. 15 years in a sense didn’t register to us as a concept, but of course to your average person 15 years is hugely long. So we always thought about the long term and we always presented the long term, and I think we didn’t really anticipate the reaction we’d get. But it was actually predicted to some degree. There have been papers that, certainly early on in the period, said, ‘Well if we try to incorporate all the latest observations into the climate models, we do get this slowdown.’


RH:         Isn’t the problem that organisations like the Met Office, well respected, would come along to a climate change conference and say there would be a rise in temperature globally of 0.2 or 0.3 degrees per decade, and we haven’t seen anything like that. And so people from outside might look and say, ‘Well this is clearly completely wrong!’

TE:         Well, again that’s an oversimplification really. I mean I think –

RH:         But wasn’t it hubristic at that time?

TE:         Well <chuckles> none of us are perfect, scientists, science isn’t a perfect enterprise. It’s done by humans and it’s done with incomplete data and imperfect models. That’s just the way that science is, and any area of science is like that. So it may be that we overestimated the warming with these models. That’s true for this period.

               As I say, if you do look at the long-term 60-year timescale, 50 or 60 years, the models are getting it about right, so it’s really this focus on the short term that’s scuppered this, because actually that’s not what we’re trying to predict.  Of course it’s very important to talk about the caveats in your predictions and the uncertainties, and usually we can always do better. We’re always more confident one day than we are the next, because we get new information and we understand the world. That’s what science is. It’s a process of improving our prediction, so we would always expect to get better with time and to be worse longer ago than we are today.

RH:         And what’s the IPCC predicting now?

TE:         The biggest uncertainty really in future predictions is in what we do; so whether we make drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, in fact even start extracting greenhouse gasses and CO2 from the atmosphere. That would be the low scenario; or whether we continue on our current trajectory towards the high scenarios, perhaps even accelerating our emissions, that makes the biggest difference. So for the low end of that set of scenarios, we might end up with something like a degree of warming, 1.5 degrees of warming since pre-industrial times. If we stay on the upper end of the trajectory, as we are doing now, we don’t see much change in emissions, it would be more up to sort of five degrees of warming or more since per-industrial times. So that’s the biggest uncertainty.

               Within that there is uncertainty from things like the climate models because they’re imperfect, but that’s less important.

RH:         Should we just throw the models away?

TE:         <Laughs> No. Models are always useful for some task or other. The quote, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful,’ the point of that quote is to say you’ve got to be aware of the limitations of models; you’ve got to know what you’re using them for.  I can’t use a climate model to predict what the weather will be on Tuesday May 15th in 2099. That’s not what they’re for. But what I can use it for is to say do I think that the number of degrees of warming will be closer to one or closer to five, you have to know what to use them for. So it’s only misuse of models that should be thrown away, not the models themselves.

RH:         Climate Lukewarmers of course have their own model, although they complained about models, they actually run off a model themselves, and I think you’re not happy with that, their model, what it doesn’t show?

TE:         Well, Nick Lewis, the Lukewarmer scientist who comes to these conferences, he’s someone who uses, along with other mainstream climate scientists, a type of mathematical model which is very, very simple, to think about how sensitive the earth’s climate is to CO2, and it uses the warming of the past 150 years or so to try to understand how sensitive things are, but it’s quite a difficult problem because lots of things are changing, not just CO2. And there’s also a time lag in the response of the planet and you have to account for all these factors. And what we think is that the kind of model that people like Nick Lewis use is actually systematically biased low, so it really just gives us the lower limit of how sensitive the earth’s climate is, and when you look at other evidence, not just from climate models but actually if you look into the distant past, if you look at the paleoclimate, as we call it, record, that gives us estimates that are higher than that method. So it’s not that the Lukewarmer method of using the last 150 years of observations is necessarily wrong. It’s an approach that’s used by other mainstream climate scientists, but there has to be an awareness, and certainly Nick Lewis is aware of that, very much so, that it’s really a lower limit on warming and it can’t give you the upper limit.

RH:         Is this all ultimately coming down to people’s attitude to risk?

TE:         People’s attitude to risk is an interesting question. I think even amongst scientists, amongst the public, everyone has their own angle that they care about. Some people care about the worst case scenario; some people care about the most optimistic, they want to think that everything’s going to be OK; some people want to think about the most likely think that’s going to happen. And so when we’re thinking about risk the best thing to do is really to look at all of those together and not to ignore either the upper end or the lower end of predictions. And if you’re not doing that, if you’re only focussing on one part of the predictions, then it’s not really a balanced view of risk.

RH:         Even the Lukewarmers agree that there is the slight chance of extreme warming.

TE:         Absolutely. Lukewarmers’ projections are very much open to having that small probability, perhaps a 10% probability, of being quite a large warming, and they sometimes kind of gloss over that I think when you talk to them in say an interview, but it is there. You can’t rule out the high warming predictions completely. You can never be absolutely certain. You can never claim you’re totally sure that it’s going to be low.

RH:         There was an incident on Radio 4 recently where Peter Lilley, the MP, was talking about models and predictions of various kinds, and when the presenter pointed out to him that scientists were now saying, ‘Well a lot of the heat that would have warmed the climate, that’s now gone into the sea,’ he laughed and said, ‘Well that’s a dog ate my homework excuse.’

TE:         <Chuckles> Again it’s nice to tell these stories, isn’t it? It’s nice to capture the narrative with these little quotes. Scientists have always known that heat goes into the ocean. It’s possible that we did underestimate how much would go in at the present time, how much things could change, but of course we’ve always known that the dog’s been eating our homework – just maybe not how much of it and how fast.


RH:         So what are we going to do about that? How can people trust? Even in the UK now there’s still a large percentage of people who don’t really know whether to believe whether climate change is a serious issue or not, and percentages are much greater in the USA.

TE:         Absolutely. I think part of the problem is there aren’t that many climate scientists in the public eye, so it’s easy to not believe someone if you don’t see them face-to-face, I’d love there to be more scientific debate out there with the people that are doing the research, and people can see that we’re just ordinary physicists, mathematicians, chemists, geologists –

RH:         You’re a mathematician?

TE:         I’m a physicist. So my background is originally in particle physics. So I think that would help. I think also just being really open and transparent and saying, ‘Well look, we listened to this criticism. We have these Lukewarmer scientists coming to our conferences, taking part in the vigorous, robust debates that conferences that we have, publishing the literature, and we listen to these criticisms and we criticise their results back, so it’s a two-way process. And I think if we’re really clear that it isn’t some ivory tower, it isn’t some wall where we have the secret knowledge and the perfect knowledge that nobody else does; we are talking to people with all different views and checking what they’re saying. That’s an important part of the scientific process.

RH:         Can you explain, for people who are not well versed in this, explain the process of feedback and tipping points?

TE:         Feedback can have two meanings. So positive feedback doesn’t mean positive in the sense of good, it means amplifying, so something happens and then escalates and accelerates and amplifies, so that’s the kind of thing we’d worry about in the climate system, for example with Arctic sea ice; if you lose some of the sea ice then it exposes more of the dark ocean, which absorbs more heat and therefore amplifies the original effect of losing sea ice.

               There are also negative feedbacks, so again it doesn’t mean a bad thing, it means self-regulating, like a thermostat in a house. So that’s the kind of thing where something happens to the climate and then there’s some kind of mechanism that lets the earth settle back more or less to where it was. And so it’s the balance between positive and negative feedbacks that will determine our future, and it’s a difficult thing to quantify because models are better at some things that others, people study and develop models in some areas more than others, so there’s always going to be a difficulty in balancing those things out and working exactly what the rate of change will be. And that’s where those details lie really, the regional changes and the speed of change. That comes from things like the balance of positive to negative feedbacks.

RH:         ‘cause the models aren’t very good at predicting potential tipping points, are they? I mean the IPCC has basically said we can’t forecast these, we can’t project them; therefore we’ll leave them out. And that alarms some people, that we’re leaving out potentially the most dangerous things from our point of view, because we can’t quantify them.

TE:         Yeah, tipping points are the kinds of things – irreversible change, you nudge the climate system and it moves into some new state, and we think –

RH:         Actually can you stop, because we have seen that in the past, sudden shifts; can you talk about sudden shifts in the past and then talk about the present?

TE:         There’s definitely some evidence that climate models underestimate big changes and tipping points in the past. There was a big warming event about 55 million years ago and we tried to reproduce that in climate models and they get the broad brush picture right, but they don’t show enough warming at the poles, so we think well does that mean in a warmer world the poles will be much warmer than the climate models are telling us? Maybe they’re not really getting that right. In terms of tipping points, one that people might have heard of is the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, so the Atlantic Ocean currents, and again in the past, over about the last 120,000 years there’ve been times when we think the Gulf Stream has shut down, but we find it very difficult to get the climate models to reproduce that, and we give them a big push, we chuck a load of fresh water into the ocean, and it really takes a lot to get those climate models to show those tipping points. They seem to be too stable. So that makes people worry that they’re too stable for predicting future changes over the next one or two hundred years, and actually they’re very settled in present-day climate and they’re actually going to be underestimating future change. It is difficult to balance that out. There are instances where models overestimate change and underestimate change, and it really depends on which thing you’re looking at, whether it’s sea level, sea ice, the glaciers and ice sheets, the warming, rainfall – you have to look at the whole picture and it’s not going to be a simple story of models are systematically too high or too low in any of these predictions. It will always be a mixed bag.

RH:         Isn’t that a bit alarming from the general public’s point of view? We’re in the hands of you people, you scientists, and you’re sailing the Titanic and you’re saying, ‘Well actually there might be an iceberg there or there might not; we can’t really tell.’ Doesn’t fill us full of confidence, does it?

TE:         Well I think that gives you more confidence than us saying we did know when we didn’t. We have to be clear about the limits of our knowledge and I think we are improving with a lot of these things. We’re gathering more evidence about the climate system with things like satellite data, we are refining the models, we’re testing them against more data and we do think they’re getting better but we can only do what we do. The planet is a very complicated place. We can only observe parts of it. We can’t go back in time and measure bits that we didn’t measure at the time. So there will always be a limit, and so the most important thing, when we talk to people who are making decisions about policy, when we talk to the public, is to say, ‘Here is what we know and here is what we don’t,’ and that’s the only way we can inspire any kind of confidence in what we say.

RH:         At the moment it looks as though all the pledges of countries added up together are going to take us to something around three degrees, something like that. How confident should we be about a world with three degrees warming?

TE:         <sighs> I’m a physicist so the kind of questions that really come up when we think about living in a three degree warming world are much more in terms of life on earth, I would say: ecosystems, humans, human adaptation, and those aren’t really my research area. I think it’s something we’ve got to be concerned about. We’ve got to see these things as a risk and we’ve got to work out how to reduce those risks. There’s more than one way to reduce risk, there’s not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there is adapting. Some people have put forward ideas for trying to engineer the climate on purpose to counteract climate change. There are a lot of options on the table. That would be my view.

RH:         As a physicist, and a modeller, the two degree target that we have agreed internationally, that’s a made up figure, isn’t it?  It’s just plucked out of the sky. What might be remotely achievable and is a round number? Er … two!

TE:         Well, we as humans like round numbers. It was based in the evidence we had at the time those decisions were made. in some senses the fact that we use a round number reflects our uncertainty about that number, because if we said, ‘Well, 1.7 degrees is fine and 1.8 is terrible,’ that would imply a degree of certainty and precision that we don’t have. So in a sense two degrees is sort of a ballpark number, and some people would say it was too low and some people would say it was too high. But you have to have a tangible way of seeing the future, and I think two degrees has been useful for that. It’s been a focus of debate. There’s obviously no exact threshold in degrees for dangerous climate change versus not dangerous. It’s clearly going to be different for different things, coral reefs versus trees versus the ice caps. Those numbers will be different for each of those things. It’s just been a useful, simple story to tell that we can try to move on to then how do we avoid that target?

RH:         It’s fascinating with an issue like climate change how science has become so contested, so fought over, so brought into disrepute in some ways and lauded in other ways. You were talking about other ways to communicate science, the way governments deal with their way they assess science themselves and the way they communicate with the public. Had you any idea when you came into this that things would just be so complicated and actually quite so interesting?

TE:         Well I have to say things were a little bit simpler when I was a particle physicist <chuckles>  certainly climate science is challenging, it’s under scrutiny, of course, as it should be. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to talk about it in public, it’s a difficult science to do. I relish that challenge. It’s fascinating. I love the breadth of the story, trying to understand the way the planet works, just for its own sake is fascinating. But I also love the fact that actually there is public interest. Lots of people will switch off when they hear about climate change on the news. They don’t want to think about it. They’ve got their pressing concerns of the day. But there are lots of people and lots of times when people just absolutely hammer you with questions, they’re really interested in understanding is it volcanoes, is it the sun, is it us, what’s going to happen, are we doomed, and so that interest in science is something that I really welcome, because not every area of science has that, and I’m also interested in public scientific understanding and familiarity, so in that sense I think it’s a fantastic thing to have that scrutiny.

RH:         When you hear people, and there still are people, particularly in the USA, who will say, ‘We don’t think humans are anything to do with climate change at all and we don’t think this is an issue.’ How do you feel about that?

TE:         Well, sometimes it depends on the day I’m having. Sometimes I roll my eyes, sometimes I might laugh, sometimes I might get cross, sometimes I might think, ‘Oh, let me try and talk to them.’ Of course we know from psychology that it’s very difficult to change people’s minds and often the more facts you throw at them, the more entrenched they become. It’s very useful to try and ask someone why they believe that and where they’re coming from, to try to unpick how much of it is politics and culture, how much of it is information where they’ve been misled, how much of it is misunderstanding, and how much of it is genuine understanding of particular studies perhaps. I’m lucky, I think, to be in the UK. It is a different scene here. We have a lot more talking across the spectrum of views, we have more nuanced positions I think in climate change, and we don’t really get that very polemic, polarised, aggressive, combative scene that we do see in the US and Australia particularly.

RH:         We interviewed Marsha Blackburn, who’s a senior US congresswoman, very senior, and on the House Energy Committee, and we asked if there was any evidence that would persuade her that climate change was a problem, and she said no. And so then I asked, ‘Do you believe in evolution?’ and she said no.

TE:         <laughs> I don’t know what to say to that in a way, because the relationship between science and the public, science and policy makers, it’s always been a difficult one in any area of science, any controversial and politicised area of science. Obviously evolution is one… I think a good way to go is to make space for people to change their minds, in as dignified a way as possible for them. So what I mean by that is I think if you’re very combative in the climate debate, it makes people very entrenched and it makes it very hard for them then to change their mind and change their position. I think if you allow people space to move along the spectrum from not really being sure that the climate is warming through to OK, well it’s probably warming and it’s probably a bit us but I don’t really believe it’ll be that serious, through to OK, well it might be serious but I think we should do x policy instead of y. If we allow people the space to do that and not cut them down for it, I think that’s a useful way to go.

RH:         You would have heard it more fifteen years ago from Bob May and David King, that the science is settled. People tend not to be saying that anymore. What would settled mean; how much consensus is there?

TE:         I would say we’re certain about the direction of changes, most changes, so we’re certain there’ll be warming, we’re certain there’ll be sea level rise, we’re certain there’ll be losses to glaciers outweighing any gains. What we’re less certain about is the rate of change and how that varies from one place to another, so I think we can say settled in the sense of we’re really  confident about the way the world is moving. What’s difficult is how fast.

RH:         So there’s still room for debate, or at least a limited amount of debate?

TE:         It really depends on whether you want to get bogged down in details, because you could say, ‘Well are the predicted changes in heatwaves going to be this or that?’ And the difference might be 20%, say, in that prediction, but really does that 20% matter? What are the actual issues that you care about? Do you care that heatwaves will get more frequent and more intense, or not? And actually, by how much … doesn’t always matter if you care about that particular area. I think it’s good not to get too bogged down in the details. Us climate scientists will keep trying to predict those details, because we want to push the science, we want to improve, we’re interested in it, we want to improve our climate models, we want to be right <chuckles>. We want to have our theories and our predictions validated. But in terms of the rest of the world, outside the scientific community, details are really not making a huge difference, I think, to the kinds of snagging points and difficulties of the decisions we need to make.

RH:         And how do you perceive the media responding to those small changes?

TE:         I understand why there’s a lot of confusion out there, because the media might highlight differences between different studies, a sea-level prediction of 50 cm by the end of the century versus a metre, say, and that you know… it’s propagating the story, ‘Why are there these differences, is climate change better than we thought or worse?’ There are stories to tell there and stories, of course, to sell, and I understand that, but that scientific debate is going to continue for many decades I would say. We’re always going to want to predict what the climate is doing and try to improve our resilience to extreme weather and climate change, and actually we sort of need to step outside that, but I understand why the media wants to focus on these differences, because it sells.

RH:         And it’s a story. If man bites dog it’s a story and these are man bite dog stories. OK, it’s maybe climate change isn’t as bad as we thought.

TE:         One of the issues is of course that a lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, I didn’t like maths at school, I didn’t like physics, I didn’t like science at school,’ and particularly in the UK actually we’re funnily enough sometimes proud of, ‘Oh, I was terrible at maths at school, terrible at science’ but what I think is then lost, and particularly if people aren’t engaging with the amazing popular culture of science that’s out there, lots of scientific programmes on the BBC but also elsewhere, is that there’s not really an instinctive understanding, I think, in a lot of people, abut science being a process that evolves; that you do get these studies that seem to be conflicting, you do get predictions that are different. It’s not a book of facts, it’s not a wall that you build up brick by brick; it’s almost more like a bun fight or a mud wrestle or something. It’s a lot more messy than that. You’re always going to get a kind of a tossing and turning until things settle down and we really know what the answer is. So I think it’s good to talk about those differences, and why they are differences, why the different methods and the different data sets give you different answers, as part of that conversation about what science is. And that applies to any science.

RH:         The question I’m asking people as part of these interviews, is when did you first get interested in energy?

TE:         I’ve been interested in environmental issues all my life. I don’t think I could put an exact date on being interested in energy but I remember being concerned about humans’ imprint on the environment, certainly since I was about eight years’ old but particularly when I was teenager, so I’ll say teenager.

RH:         Would you count yourself as an environmentalist?

TE:         I would class myself as environmentally concerned. I feel like the world environmentalist, these days at least, implies environmental activist, and I am not an active activist, but I’m certainly someone that cares about the environment, that’s interested and thinks we’re having serious effects on the environment, and also I’m a lecturer in Environmental Sciences, so in that sense I’m an environmentalist.

RH:         So it’s just as well you’re interested in the environment, but environmentalist has almost in some ways become a dirty word nowadays, certainly in some newspapers.

TE:         It’s understandable in some senses. There’s been a lot of conflict of course in the environmental movement, between different types of environmentalism. The kind of what you might call the bright green techno-optimists, technological solution, versus the deep green traditional let’s just consume less, perhaps even anti-capitalist. And there’s also been a lot of controversy about the use of science by the environmental movement in terms of GM foods, for example, in terms of nuclear power.

RH:         I take it that you’re not anti-GM and you’re not anti-nuclear power.

TE:         I would say I’m relatively undecided actually on GM, because it really depends on the particular technology you’re talking about and what the intended use is. I don’t think you can paint it with a broad brush of it is a good thing or a bad thing. 

RH:         And nuclear?

TE:         Nuclear, yes, I suppose I am someone who’s moved more towards seeing nuclear as a positive in terms of carbon emissions, set against the difficulties of obviously the radioactive waste. I am broadly in favour of phasing out nuclear, because I think renewables are the way to go, but that’s my own personal view.

RH:         When you look at this whole sphere, energy, climate, all that stuff, how optimistic are you?

TE:         I’m an optimist in the sense that I think humans are brilliant at devising technologies and we’ve seen lots of great changes out there. I couldn’t say if I was an optimist or a pessimist about the climate itself, because we don’t know how that’s going to respond and we don’t know what surprises are out there, so I’m afraid I’m going to give a bit of a mixed answer and say a bit of both.

RH:         Perhaps you’re a rational optimist?

TE:         <Laughs> Well everyone likes to think they’re rational and almost no one is.

RH:         Splendid. Thank you. 

<End of Interview>


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