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Ahead of COP21, scientists discuss implementable and available climate solutions

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 and follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15.

With pressure mounting for governments to agree in December on an ambitious plan to curb climate change, scientists are working across disciplines and perspectives to shed light on the climate solutions that are currently implementable and available.

“This conference is really about bringing different countries, cultures and scientific perspectives to take stock and get a more comprehensive understanding of climate change and the possible solutions,” said Hervé Le Treut, Chair of the organising committee for the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference.

“It is a chance to take a closer look at research that is likely to shed light for negotiators on what solutions are currently implementable and available.”

The conference has been designed to include multidisciplinary perspectives, Le Treut said, with a range of side events around the main scientific conference exploring the interface between the climate science and the societal impacts, which includes perspectives from companies, students, NGOs.

Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Le Treut, who can be reached for comment at 

Why is this conference happening now and why is it important?

Hervé Le Treut – With the upcoming UN climate change conference in Paris in December the dynamic of this conference is to take stock of the scientific knowledge produced so far and get a chance to relate results from diverse disciplines on great challenges such as food security, energy, biodiversity. It is also a chance to take a closer look at research that is likely to shed light for negotiators on what solutions are currently implementable and available. 

Will we hear new trends in climate science since the IPCC report?

Hervé Le Treut – As we have been analysing the climate system for a long time, I think that we are beyond making any revolutionary discoveries in climate science compared to other disciplines. But what we are gaining is an understanding of complexity and how everything is interrelated and this goes from understanding how far any component of the climate system may be predictable to understanding the many social component of this system.  The IPCC reports are a factual documentation of the effect of climate change on the whole climate system, so what we need now is better understanding of what this implies and therefore what we want to do about it and how. 

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 and can you give examples from the conference?

Hervé Le Treut  – I think we are definitely talking to each other more, but in terms of real interdisciplinary research, this is only just beginning to happen. Let’s say we look at droughts, which are likely to become more and more frequent because of climate of change. One of the direct impacts of a drought is the increase in food insecurity, so to tackle this issue it means we have to go from understanding not only the direct physical impacts on soil, crops, biodiversity, but also the societal and economic impacts. There are so many different concerns involving the planet we need to address, that we must understand the interface between different scientific diagnostics, and this can only be done through a multidisciplinary approach – although not at the expense of disciplinary sciences, which still require a lot of attention. 

With a greater focus on finding solutions, what are the challenges for scientists now?

Hervé Le Treut – Today the scientific community very largely agrees on climate change being a reality, that human activity is greatly responsible for it, that there is a need for action if we are to limit the impacts in the coming decades, and adapt to them. 

One of the challenges for the tomorrow’s science is to bring together various disciplines on a common issue to find solutions that integrate technology, socio-economic aspects, risk assessments. These issues are also tied up to a whole range of regional, cultural and ethical issues. We need that interdisciplinary expertise, just as much as interdisciplinary sciences.

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 within the 'honest broker' role of providing knowledge to policymakers?

Hervé Le Treut – Scientists have a role to shed light to policy makers on what are the possible solutions and perspectives to face challenges like climate change bring about. In my view, decisions are not ours to make when it comes to take action against food insecurity, global pollution, depleting biodiversity. We are in a world that faces many economic and political challenges; as scientists we need to be objective, provide accurate information, confront our results across disciplines, so that decisions to be made rely on strong recommendations. But decisions must be taken by citizens, by elected representatives, and they also involve ethical issues, a sense of what is just.  

There is a need for a dialogue between scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders. That’s why this conference has two tracks, we have the main scientific conference, but around this we have several side events to be the interface between the climate science and the societal impacts, which includes perspectives from companies, students, NGOs.

There is some concern that the bottom-up approach of inviting nationally determined commitments to reducing emissions, or INDCs, may not be enough to limit warming to two degrees.  What do you feel about this?

Hervé Le Treut – The 2°C target in itself is a good objective for collective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Especially if the ratchet mechanism is in place, meaning that we can only do more and not less than what is proposed by the INDCs. There are of course several difficulties, because climate impacts should appear before we reach the 2°C increase, and also because assessing whether we are on the “ 2°C road” is something which requires to consider climate emissions throughout the century, while INDCs are mostly for 2020-2030.  I think that there will be a need to analyse carefully the INDCs and determine, on a partly subjective manner, what kind of ambition for a longer future they reveal. 

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

Hervé Le Treut – The most exciting results will be those which will come as a surprise! The scenarios proposed by the IPCC to stay under 2°C require carbon dioxide removal. It is not clear what technologies may help us to develop this capacity at a sufficient scale. But it becomes urgent to know!