‘The ball is slipping through our fingers’: Meet the Bristol Uni climate scientists who wrote landmark IPCC report

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By Billy Stockwell, Investigations Editor

Bristol University’s leading climate scientists have sounded the alarm in the UN’s latest climate report, but there is still time to act, they say.

‘The science speaks for itself … it is now up to governments to decide how to act’ says Professor Dan Lunt, an academic from the Cabot Institute for the Environment at the University of Bristol.

Alongside his work as a lecturer and researcher at the University, Professor Lunt is one of the lead authors who was involved with the UN’s latest IPCC report which is currently making headline news around the world. In total, six climate scientists from the University of Bristol have been involved in this ground-breaking report.

What is the IPCC and what does the report say?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 to assess the latest climate science and provide solutions for world leaders to (hopefully) implement. Published on Monday, the latest IPCC report has highlighted the need for ‘immediate, rapid and large-scale’ reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The report issues a stark warning: the climate crisis is already here, and human activity has undoubtedly caused it. But what do the IPCC say needs to happen? Well, we must cut emissions drastically, or we risk breaching the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5°C global warming above pre-industrial levels. If no action is taken, we could see something more like 4°C. At the postcode level, this could mean temperatures as high as 40.4°C in Bristol.

Bristol University's climate scientists have been involved in the latest IPCC report. Top row (left to right): Jonathan Bamber, Joseph Daron, Dann Mitchell; Bottom row (left to right): Dan Lunt, Eunice Lo, Matthew Palmer

However, whilst some – like UN Secretary General António Guterres - have described the report as a “code red for humanity”, others have slammed it as doomsday hysteria.

Professor Lunt hits back against this criticism, stating that the report is a ‘unique collaboration between more than 200 scientists, and the findings have passed through multiple rounds of peer-review’. He says it represents the ‘gold-standard’ of the current state of climate science. Not everything about the future of climate change can be predicted, but Professor Lunt is certain that this global issue is one of the ‘most challenging’ threats for future generations to overcome.


KEY POINTS FROM IPCC REPORT

• We can still meet the 2015 Paris Agreement targets if we act quickly
• However, even with sustained reductions in emissions, it could take up to 30 years for global temperatures to stabilise
• Under the best-case scenario of 1.5°C warming there will still be an increase in extreme weather, including more heat waves, and at 2°C this could affect human health and food security
• Climate change is already impacting every region across the world


Dr Matthew Palmer, another lead author of the report, told me that the ‘amazing teamwork’ demonstrated by the global scientific community was one of the best things about working with the IPCC. ‘There was enormous commitment shown by everyone involved, especially since many were also struggling with the impact of COVID on their "day jobs" as academic teaching staff,’ he says. ‘I can't even begin to count the many hundreds of hours that I must have spent over the [past] 3 years on this report.’

How reliable are the findings of the IPCC report?

With hundreds of leading climate scientists from over 60 countries making contributions, this latest report is no doubt one of the most authoritative and comprehensive in history. Before the report was published it received nearly 80,000 expert and government review comments which all had to be taken into account.

Professor Dann Mitchell, an academic from the Cabot Institute at the University, was involved in overseeing this process. He, alongside others, had to ensure that authors addressed the comments appropriately and that any resultant changes to the report were ‘strongly backed up by science’.

Despite Professor Mitchell remaining fairly optimistic about the future, he tells me about one aspect of climate change which has already caused devastation around the world this summer. ‘One of the clearest impacts of climate change is rising temperatures, which is seen in higher magnitude heatwaves,’ he says. ‘The Pacific North West heatwave in July of this year was an extreme example of how heatwaves are being significantly increased due to human induced climate change.’

These types of events can cause heat-related illnesses, Professor Mitchell says, which may be direct, like heatstroke, or indirect, like mental health issues.

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Another contributing author to the report, Professor Jonathan Bamber, warns me of ‘guaranteed’ sea level rise for decades to come. ‘This will have consequences for coastal flooding and affect millions in low-lying coastal areas,’ he says. ‘For some small island nation states in the Pacific it represents an existential threat to the entire nation.’

I asked Professor Mitchell whether he thinks we will be able to avoid climate catastrophe. ‘Some would say we are already in it’ he replies.

To accompany the latest findings in the IPCC report, scientists are providing us with new tools to monitor and tackle the climate emergency. Dr Joseph Daron, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, was involved in one such project - the IPCC’s Interactive Atlas - which is available to the public online.

This interactive resource allows people to see how their own area might be affected by floods, droughts, extreme heat and other impacts of climate change in the future. ‘The Interactive Atlas provides a step change in our ability to explore the potential impacts of global climate change at the regional scale,’ he says. ‘This will help inform adaptation policy and solutions across the world.’

What does the IPCC report mean for the future?

Well, all of Bristol’s IPCC contributors told Epigram that they still have hope for the future, and they are the experts! ‘I have faith that we can strengthen our climate action to avoid the worst climate outcomes’ says Dr Eunice Lo, a Research Associate at the University of Bristol.

‘The ball is slipping through our fingers, but we have not yet dropped it!’ says Professor Lunt. ‘If we can achieve ambitious emissions goals, and reach net zero by 2050, then we can still meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement.’

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Dr Daron believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that we can make ‘sensible and informed choices’ when we need to. ‘I see evidence of people across the world recognising the severity of the threat and what needs to be done to respond to the risks we face,’ he says. ‘Society’s response to this report and the action of governments at COP26 and beyond is critical.’

Not only has COP26 come at the right time, according to Dr Palmer, but the eyes of the world are focused on climate change. That can only be a good thing.

Featured Image: Alisa Singer / IPCC AR6 WGI Report


What do you think of the IPCC's latest report?

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