Chris Field: Science is bringing new and creative solutions to climate change

Chris Field
Chris Field chairs the Scientific Committee of the Our Common Future under Climate Change conference taking place this July in Paris.
Jun 2015
5

Solutions-based, integrated science is driving progress on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

This article was first published on the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference blog, which profiles climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at the conference. For more visit commonfuture-paris2015.org/Blog.htm and follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15.

Scientists have made significant progress in understanding the risks and challenges associated with climate change, but they must work together across disciplines and seek innovative solutions to ensure that countries are able to meet broader climate and development goals, says a leading climate researcher ahead of 2015’s largest international climate science conference.

“Science is the foundation for effective action on climate change. It tells us the risks, the opportunities for building sustainable solutions, and the costs. However, I think the science needs to move towards solutions,” said Chris Field, Chair of the scientific committee for the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference in Paris, which brings together scientists from across the world to discuss innovative solutions to the huge challenges posed by climate change ahead of December’s UN climate meeting in Paris.

“We are only beginning to learn about the solutions that are most attractive when thinking about broader sustainable development goals, adaptation goals, mitigation goals and disaster risk reduction goals,” he added.

Climate science has played a crucial role in highlighting the risks associated with a global two degree rise in temperature, helping global leaders understand what is at stake as they consider new emissions reductions targets at the UN climate change conference in Paris as part of a new climate agreement to be implemented in 2020.

However, scientists must go further to identify innovative new solutions, work across the scientific disciplines and engage with different stakeholders if solutions are to work on the ground, said Field.

“It has become increasingly clear that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary…climate scientists need to understand not only the physics of the atmosphere but also the carbon emissions of different technologies, and the reasons people decide to buy cars or enact laws.”

And there has already been significant progress in the past decade.

“In technology, we are seeing dramatic innovations in electricity generation and energy storage as well as energy efficient buildings, transportation, and manufacturing. At the same time, we are seeing rapid innovations with drought-tolerant crops and water efficient irrigation”.

“I think that the importance of solutions based climate science is a really big feature of where we are in 2015 and I hope it will not only be the focus of this science conference in Paris, but also the UN climate change conference in December,” he added.

Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Field, who can be reached for comment at cfield@ciw.edu

Why is this conference happening and why is it important?

Chris Field - The Our Common Future under Climate Change conference is an opportunity for the scientific community to share and explain the foundation of scientific knowledge on which future climate agreements can be built.

Future climate agreements, including the agreement from December’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP21) in Paris will depend critically on scientific information that examines the risks associated with a changing climate as well as the opportunities for climate solutions.

The scientific community has huge amounts of information to share, but the sharing will work best if the process is an active two-way exchange. This conference is a core element of that exchange.

Climate research has changed a lot in recent decades. What are the main changes you have noticed since you first started in the field?

Chris Field There are three areas where I have seen significant progress in climate science over the past decade.

The first is that science has become more integrative and we better understand the connections between hazards (changes in physical climate), vulnerabilities (who is susceptible to exposure and why) and exposure (what kind of assets are a risk). It is very hard to find a problem associated with climate change that does include those three aspects and the interaction between them.

The second - there is much more emphasis on understanding extremes. Most of the damage from climate change occurs from extreme events, such as heat waves and heavy rain, and we expect that these events are likely to increase in frequency and intensity in the future. Understanding the nature of the relationship between climate change and the frequency and intensity of extreme events is a key topic at the forefront of climate science.

The third topic is risk. Risk is understood as the product of the probability of outcomes and consequences, so when the probability is high or when the consequences are high, so is the risk. For example, a very rare event with high consequences (think of the European heat wave of 2003 or Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast United States in 2012) can generate a very high risk, and therefore warrants greater protection efforts. A very frequent event with only moderate consequences, such as a small storm surge on top of an elevated sea level, can also generate a high risk.

What’s new in climate science since the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report?

Chris Field The IPCC Fifth Assessment report (AR5), provides a definitive state of the climate science, particularly in relation to climate changes, impacts, and risks. However the science is constantly progressing and while there is progress, there are still a number of issues under debate.

For example, there has been a lot to progress looking at single event attribution; to what extent a particular extreme event can be attributed to climate change. There are many individual extreme events that have now been assigned changes in odds, from the 2003 heat wave in France to changes in the risk of drought, such as that in California in 2014.

The second area of progress, yet without an overall consensus, is our understanding of how sea levels are rising due to the melting of the continental scale ice sheet. There is a lot of work in Greenland and in West Antarctica looking at this.

We hear a lot about scientists increasingly working across disciplines around climate change, and the increasing prominence of social scientists of various disciplines in the field. Is this really happening?

Chris Field Part of the reason the climate challenge is compelling and difficult is that climate interacts with everything. Human activities which are often at the core of our current energy systems and global economy are some of the key drivers of climate change, yet a wide range of natural processes in ecosystems and the oceans can alter the pace or severity of the changes.

The impact of climate change therefore spans oceans and continents, a wide range of ecosystem process, and many aspects of the human endeavour. It is difficult to imagine a topic that is, by nature, more interdisciplinary.

As the scientific community has developed a deeper understanding of the roles of different processes, it has become increasingly clear that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary for scientific progress and for developing solutions.

Some examples of breakthroughs from interdisciplinary approaches concern climate modelling, especially the integration of land and ocean carbon cycle models with climate models. Others concern impacts, for example, ways that effects of climate change interact with changes in land-use to create risks to biological diversity.

Others involve solutions, for example, the trade-offs between using land for crop production or for producing biomass energy. Across all these areas, we see increasing opportunities and need for collaboration among climate scientists, ecologists, hydrologists, social scientists, economists, political scientists, and others.

Is this trend happening in other scientific fields? Or is the urgency of the climate problem really driving this movement?

Chris Field Science always progresses by looking for new information and this new information is typically found by identifying the ‘gaps’ between the islands of knowledge. For some topics, these islands are closely spaced and clearly within an established discipline. For others, they are separated by large distances and are best described as being in separate disciplines.

The scientific study of the whole Earth, including climate, but also other topics from land-use to air pollution, has wide gulfs between the islands of knowledge, making it highly interdisciplinary.

Climate scientists need to understand not only the physics of the atmosphere but also the carbon emissions of different technologies, and the reasons people decide to buy cars or enact laws. Climate science is interdisciplinary because the compelling questions are the interdisciplinary ones.

To what extent do scientists need to work more closely with stakeholders who are likely to implement the solutions to climate change on the ground?

Chris Field For some kinds of climate action, major reports like those produced by the IPCC provide all the information stakeholders need.

For many others, the key to success is close collaboration between scientists and stakeholders, with the stakeholders refining questions based on new knowledge and the scientists revising studies based on new questions. Examples include the climate change adaptation plans for New York City or Australia’s Murray Darling Basin.

This kind of co-production of knowledge can be fundamental in assuring that stakeholders have the information they need, when they need it.

Looking back at Copenhagen in 2009, the major science conference that preceded the UN talks that year was criticised for being too policy prescriptive. Does science have a duty to speak out this year, or should it stay within the “honest broker” role of providing knowledge to policymakers?

Chris Field It is really important for scientists to clearly distinguish between which aspects of information they are providing are truly science based and which are values based. It also important for scientists to recognise that decisions about climate policy can be built from a foundation of science, but ultimately they need to address society’s values, priorities and goals. Of course, scientists have their own values, priorities and goals, but when they speak as scientists, their goal should be clear communication of the issues while also embracing the importance of each individual making their own decision..

I think the Paris science conference will be most valuable if scientists do a robust job in building the foundations and pointing out the trade-offs in addressing broader questions around these priorities.

Does the conference point to the future role that science will play in the next climate regime in helping to invent, define and evaluate solutions?

Chris Field I think of science as the foundation for effective action on climate change. It tells us the risks, the opportunities for building sustainable solutions, and the costs. This includes the costs of not acting as well as the costs of acting.

This kind of information is critical for supporting good decisions, even though the decisions need to go beyond the science, incorporating values, priorities, and goals. A lot of the research has shifted and is finding a good balance between understanding the problems and also understanding the solutions. However, while we already know plenty about the problems, we are only beginning to learn about the features of the solutions that are most attractive when thinking about broader sustainable development goals, adaptation goals, mitigation goals and disaster risk reduction goals.

I hope solutions-based climate science will be the focus not only of this science conference in Paris, but also the UN climate change conference in December.

What are some of the most exciting things we can expect to see from the technology/innovations/solutions space at the conference?

Chris Field We have made progress in finding solutions to climate change adaption and mitigation challenges in some exciting areas such as technology, finance, and governments. In technology, we are seeing dramatic innovations in electricity generation and energy storage as well as energy efficient buildings, transportation, and manufacturing. At the same time, we are seeing rapid innovations with drought-tolerant crops and water efficient irrigation. Other opportunities are arising from novel ways to manage and share risk, through, for example, innovative early warning systems and insurance products. Planners are finding ways to save energy by rethinking the relationships among living and working spaces or the nature of urban transportation.

There is some concern that a bottom-up approach of inviting nationally determined commitments to reducing emissions, or INDCs, may not be enough to limit warming to two degrees. What is your perspective?

Chris Field It is very challenging to start where we are today in 2015 and confidently plot the societal course that will keep the world below warming of 2C. Part of the problem is scientific (we are still learning the details of the relationship between emissions and warming), part is social (there is no agreement on the most effective way to share emissions cuts among countries), and part is that we don’t know the future, including the costs and co-benefits of alternative non-emitting energy technologies.

However, despite these challenges, the INDCs provide a way to compare what governments think they can do now, with what scientists think is necessary to keep warming below 2C. Even if INDCs appear insufficient, we still have lots of opportunities to learn by doing, to drive costs down through research and development and to better integrate climate adaptation and mitigation into sustainable development.

Learning by doing, decreasing costs, and reimagining the ways we want to live may all play a role in seeing stronger INDCs.

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