Professor Emily Shuckburgh OBE is Director of Cambridge Zero, the University of Cambridge's major climate change initiative.
Emily is a climate scientist and mathematician, a Fellow of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy and a Fellow of the British Antarctic Survey. She leads the UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training on the Application of AI to the study of Environmental Risks.
A polar expert, she previously led a UK national research programme on the Southern Ocean and its role in climate.
In 2016 she was awarded an OBE for services to science and the public communication of science. She is co-author with HRH The Prince of Wales and Tony Juniper of the Ladybird Book on Climate Change.
Cambridge Zero Policy Forum
Centre for Landscape Regeneration
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Michael Liebreich: Before we start, if you're enjoying these conversations, please make sure that you like or subscribe to Cleaning Up, it really helps other people to find us. Cleaning Up is brought to you by the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation. Hello, I'm Michael Liebreich, and this is Cleaning Up. My guest today is Professor Emily Shuckburgh. She's a mathematician and a climate scientist. She's a member of the British Antarctic Survey, and she's the Director of Cambridge Zero, that's Cambridge University's climate change initiative. Please welcome Emily Shuckburgh to Cleaning Up. So, Emily, welcome to Cleaning Up.
Emily Shuckburgh: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure.
ML: Now, we have managed not to meet properly over the years, until last month, where we took part in a seminar the Christ's College Climate Seminar, and we finally met, and I'm a Christ, alumnus. I'm a Cambridge alumnus. And that I believe, is where you are today.
ES: Well, in Cambridge, not in quiet groups, but in campus. Yes. And unfortunately, we didn't meet in person though it was we met virtually the climate seminar.
ML: That's right. So I start, I feel that I know you very well, and that we've always worked together. So I've never actually met. But I also discovered preparing for this conversation something about you, which I would have been much, much more intimidated doing that seminar with you had I known, which is that you are the co-author of the Ladybird book on climate science, along with HRH Prince Charles and Tony Juniper.
ES: It's true. It's true. Yes.
ML: So never mind all the other publications and citations that you've got as a scientist, that is the one that really intimidates me.
ES: Really, oh? It was immense. It was a means to put together but it was in terms of science communication, it was probably the most difficult thing, because what we were trying to do was effectively condensed down the whole of the IPCC reports into a Ladybird book. So we had, you know, just a couple of hundred page words to describe each super difficult concept. In a language… It wasn't, that particular version wasn't really aimed at children. It was aimed at an adult audience, but in the format of a ladybird book. So, it had to be incredibly clear what each of the concepts were trying to get over. And it took us but ever to really distil down that information in, you know, in a simpler way as we could.
ML: I can imagine, I'm not sure if everybody perhaps we've got listeners around the world may not know what a Ladybird there is, there you go. So, you can see it's quite a slim volume. And these are, play an iconic role in most certainly British children, I think, children of the Commonwealth, in their childhood.
ES: This is what it looks like.
ML: And I love the blurb because it says you'll learn about the causes and consequences of climate disruption, heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather, disappearing wildlife, acid oceans, the benefits of limiting warming, sustainable farming, new clean technologies and the circular economy. You know, I've spent 20 years and I still don't know anything about new clean technology. So, I am actually expecting a copy of that book signed, hopefully by all three authors after this episode.
ES: You can do and you know what we are actually just so we wrote it a couple of probably about five years ago now.
ES: I know when it was because we actually most of the writing was done by Tony Juniper and myself around my kitchen table with my what now is eldest child, no, it must have been the second one running around the floor as a baby. Anyway, there we go. But we know the point is we're just about we're just in the process. But this may be top secret, I don't know. But anyway, if it is, you heard it first here, of doing a new version, which is for children. So, we're going to condense it down even further to do a children's version of a ladybird book.
ML: I actually had considered doing a children's version or children's climate book, because I've got children who are 10, 11, 12. And it's really hard for them to cut through... I think we're probably going to come back and talk about you know, some of the difficulties and, you know, our stories exaggerated and if they, if they are, is it appropriate for children to sort of depress them and scare them with their stuff and so on? And so, I was thinking of doing a version which I would feel comfortable my children reading but maybe I'll just use yours.
ES: Before we move on from that, that that is the other thing that we do. So, this is the only Ladybird book ever to have been published that's been peer reviewed. Because I, you know, coming from the science perspective, I really wanted to make sure that every single, you know, word in the book was referenced through to the published literature. And then we put it through, you know, the normal full peer review process, I think ladybird thought we were completely mad. But it was because we wanted to have that same level of quality, but just in a different format.
ML: That's absolutely fantastic. And it is actually the perfect segue into what I was about to say we should talk about, which is your career as a mathematician and an academic because you've won your OBE for services to climate or science communication. But actually, you are a… I'm going to waive that. Is that your eldest?
ES: Do you want to see the other one while we're in it?
ML: Well, I mean, we yeah, we might as well absolutely. Know, this, most of our audience are actually they listened by podcast, so they won't have a clue what we're talking about there. But for our podcast
listeners, there are two very lovely small children wandering around in the background waving and looking incredibly cute. But you started, actually, not as an environmentalist, or an environmental sciences person. But as a mathematician, is that right?
ES: Yep, that's right. That's absolutely right. So, I was an undergraduate studying mathematics. And when I finished my undergraduate studies, I was wondering what to do afterwards. And I really wanted to see how I could use mathematics, actually, just to better understand the world, you know, mathematics can be a very theoretical subject. And actually, the beauty even for a mathematician, there's a lot, the beauty of the theoretical aspect of it is very compelling. But I also wanted to see how that mathematics could be used to understand the world. And when I first started getting into the climate area, frankly, it was just at the start of when it was, you know, becoming a topic of political importance, if you like, it was just when the first IPCC report came out. So, you know, really, my motivations weren't the sort of saving the world motivations, they were more just a desire to understand the world more than anything else.
ML: So you got into climate modelling?
ES: Yeah, so I started off... And actually, it was even the very first topic that I was applying the mathematics two, was actually a slightly different environmental problem. So, it was actually more focused on ozone and ozone depletion. Because from a mathematical perspective, both the atmosphere and the oceans, they’re fluids from a mathematical perspective, and we need to understand how they in any aspect of the of the physics of the atmosphere and oceans, you need to understand how fluids move around. And for the ozone hole, there was a, there is a really interesting interaction between the movement of the air in the atmosphere, and the chemistry of the atmosphere. So, the hole itself that you have in terms of the ozone hole, it’s primarily over Antarctica. And what happens is that in the winter, in particular in Antarctica, you get this incredibly strong winds that circulate high up in the atmosphere in the stratosphere, around Antarctica and isolate the air. And that's actually down to the physics because it's predominantly those winds are a result of the very strong temperature gradient that you have in winter between the Pole and the equator. So, the air gets isolated, but it gets chemically isolated as well, because it's literally in this vortex. And that enables chemical reactions to occur that essentially take the chlorine out of what was you know, there was the aerosol spray cans or refrigerants that were the CFCs. But the problem, they take that the chlorine out of the air, and that chemical reaction happens on the surface of clouds and so much so many really fascinating elements of it. It's one of these systems that all comes together. But then to destroy the ozone, you have to have a photochemical reaction. So, it doesn't happen in winter, you just get the kind of chemicals stored up in winter, and then the sunlight returns in spring. And those chemicals then destroy the ozone. So, it's a really fascinating interplay between different parts of the system. So that's the aspect that I was originally looking at. And then from there, I started to move into looking at climate related problems.
ML: But it's that's a great sort of vignette of just how complex these models are, because that interaction… I have enough of a scientific background to understand kind of how complicated and how many terms, how many different things, how many variables, you've got interacting. And that is just in a sense, that's just, air quotes, ozone, but when you get these big models of the, the whole geophysics of the planet, you're getting to climate modelling. I guess, I suppose I'll turn it into a question here. Do you worry that we are you know, that we're so incredibly good at certain, you know, pieces of that model, but because we can't do some types of clouds, or we can't do some types of interactions, that actually what we're producing, you know, we've sort of got five decimal places of accuracy about part of a model, but actually, no decimal places of accuracy, or only one about the overall outcomes.
ES: That can certainly be true in a way, I think that actually the way that I mean, this is where it's really helpful, I think, to be coming from a more mathematical background. Because, actually, there's no from looking at it from a mathematical perspective, it's not one model, there's a kind of hierarchy of different models. And actually, many times, you know, the mathematical insight will be about actually not the sort of secret, all singing or dancing, throw it all in model with every, you know, trying to model every different part of the system, it would be about extracting information from that has much less complexity to it, but potentially greater insight. Or it's about understanding which aspects of that incredibly complex system highly uncertain, and which aspects are the really robust elements of the of the problem. So, we it's almost a slightly different lens to look at the problem through. I mean, actually, one of my current bits of research that we're focused on is how to take a slightly different approach. So traditionally, the modelling approaches, I mean, in climate are very much out of weather forecasting. And the original models or the atmosphere came out of attempting to forecast the weather. And then slowly those climate models have developed, as we've added, for the purposes of modelling climate, more components of the system. So first of all, you started off with just the atmosphere-based models that were then simulations and more complicated oceans were added in, then some of the atmospheric chemistry, etc. And the models have become more and more complex, as we've been able to model more and more aspects of the climate system, both in terms of our understanding of the physics, but also the amount of compute power that we've had, that we've been able to, that we've been able to dedicate to that, but and predominantly, the way that those climate models have been developed, you know, right from those weather forecast models was by looking at how we could represent our understanding of the physics in terms of equations, and then those will get discretized and then simulated using the computer models. What we're trying to do now is blend that with more data driven approaches. And so, we're looking at how we can bring in AI machine learning approaches to augment those physics-based models with data driven models as well. And that's where the kind of cutting edge of the, of much of the model development is at the moment.
ML: But that's, that's really fascinating. So, what you're saying is that sort of the physics models will, they'll do their thing, but they might, but they may not be fully calibrated, in a sense against…
ES: In a sense, they're limited by our understanding of the physics. So, if it's in the maybe… I mean, this is the whole thing about, you know, machine learning and AI is that there may be that actually the data hold more within it than we can obviously immediately see. And if we can incorporate that into the models as well, and the scale of data that we have now available to us, um, not least data from remote sensing from satellite is so enormous, that, you know, it's, it's to date, it's been largely an overlooked resource in terms of the climate modelling. So, we're looking to see how we can incorporate.
ML: So I think I've understood it. So what you're saying is, if we've got some data that shows when a happens and B and C and D and E, then we always get some G. We may not know why, but we can still use that in future to get a more accurate, accurate prognosis.
ES: Yeah. And the key thing about climate is that so, of course, the thing that defines the reason for us wanting to predict future climate is precisely because we're in a state where the climate of yesterday is not a good predictor of the climate for tomorrow. So, you might say, Well, what, you know, how can you possibly do this if you're using data from the past, and that's why you can't throw out the physics because it's actually a combination of the two, you know, you want to have information about how certain parts of the climate system respond that you can achieve from the data. But you also want to have the physics that tells us how the system is changing over time, as a consequence of, you know, changed what we would call forcings, changed, you know, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and so forth.
ML: Right. But there's a fantastic rabbit hole that I'd like to just kind of visit briefly, which is about these physics models that actually don't produce the average temperature that is observed, right, they all run either hot or cold, I will almost guarantee, or I will guarantee, that almost none of the audience knows this. But they've got these incredible models with incredible complexity and all these different physical laws and everything. We know so much about radiation of heat, and what happens at different temperatures and how the oceans move around them. And we've done, you know, decades, many decades now of modelling. And then you say, so model, what temperature will the planet on average be, and it comes out with a number, which is like a degree out, which is a huge delta. And then what they do is hide that by only ever talking about differences from baseline. So, if we pump out this many emissions, then the temperature will go out by up by, you know, naught point three to four degrees. That's it, yes. But your baseline could be out by a whole degree. Is that fair?
ES: Well, it's sort of I mean, it Well, it's true that and so you, we were if we compare models, or compare models with observations, you will always see the anomalies, the differences compared to the mean condition, and plot it for that reason. I mean, it is something where you can, you can either do that, or you could tune things, or, you know, you could change slightly the amount of, you know, radiation coming in from the sun or something.
ML: Otherwise known as fiddling in my world.
ES: Yeah. Again, from the mathematical perspective, the I mean, it, we really frequently separate out these two things. So, we really frequently separate out, you know, aspects of the mean conditions and aspects of the variation, because, you know, they're two differently. So, it's from a mathematical perspective, we would see no, no, no challenge with doing that.
ML: So just to be clear, for the audience, what that means is that there is some very good maths that says that even if your baseline is out by a bit, that the anomalies, the changes can actually be very well represented. And I do worry about whether that's also true around zero because water does things like freeze, and thaw and all those. So, I, there is a part of me that goes, hmm, that's a bit of a Yeah, I'd love to have more time to probe that. But it is a bit of a rabbit hole, but sorry, you are going to continue to be there.
ES: I don’t know what I was going to continue with.
ML: You were saying it was justified. And I was translating, I was passing that for the audience. So yeah, justified, it's fine. Okay. So the models aren't very accurate, but they're just and they're getting better, and there's no, and the anomalies they deal with really, really well.
ES: That's right. And, you know, no model is perfect, right? And it's really important to recognize that no model is perfect, but they give us really valuable insight. And I mean, you know, we, again, that this history of the connection with weather forecast models, I mean, that's one area where we've really been able to see how progress over, you know, the last decades has really translated into predictive power. You know, we had a big storm in the UK, the end of last week, that was predicted days in advance in a way that you roll back 20 years, and it certainly wouldn't be in. And that's all down to the way in which these models have grown in terms of their fidelity in terms of how accurate their forecasts are.
ML: And just to be clear, what if you sort of fast forward? That's how you got into the modelling. Fast forward to today. Are you still able to do any of that? Or are you too busy writing Ladybird books and, and running Cambridge’s climate change activities?
ES: And so, I currently have or so-supervise seven PhD student students. So, I have a lot of PhD students who I mean, me myself, do I get involved in writing computer code? Not so much any longer, but I have a large number of students.
ML: Okay, very good. I do want to I want to back up to a particular time though, because I want to dive into the Antarctic. So, you, you joined the British Antarctic Survey in 2006. And you lead is one of the one of the most strangled acronyms that I've come across the ocean regulation of climate by heat and carbon sequestration and transports, otherwise known as all Orchestra.
ES: Yeah, I didn't come up with that name.
ML: And then you became head of the Open Oceans 2009, Deputy Head of Polar Oceans in 2015. You're a Fellow of the Royal Antarctic Survey. So, I guess what everybody wants to know is, how much time did you spend in Antarctica? I mean, this is the coolest thing ever, right? Literally.
ES: In total, I did five polar trips, three to the Arctic and to the Antarctic. And so, the first trip I ever did was to the Arctic. And that was looking at what was when I was working on the ozone problem. And so it was looking at the ESA, and it was much smaller ozone hole that exists over the Arctic than the Antarctic. And that was my very first polar trip. And then I did two trips to Antarctica and my Antarctic trips. I was primarily, as you just described, my focus of research at that time was the oceans and understanding the ocean around Antarctica. So, my main purpose of my research was to study nations, we were taking measurements in the oceans. And when I was actually on Antarctica, stepping foot on I was slave labour, basically, because so we were stopped. So we would go by No, we would take the research ship, we'd be doing all the science in this other nation, particularly in the Drake Passage region. And then the main British research base is rather which is on the Antarctic Peninsula. So then the ship would go down the Antarctic Peninsula to rather where we'd be dropping off people and supplies to the to the research base there and as I say, we were we were basically the slave labour at that point.
ML: You're like lugging boxes when you say slave labor?
ES: No, literally, yes,
ML: I mean, first task is unload the ship and so I mean, if you're on you know, if you're doing science on the you know, you get you do everything from cleaning the toilets to unloading the ship. So, everyone, everyone walks in together. And we do actually I tell you what, the other thing that we the my main kind of touristy thing from that trip that I remember more than anything, was doing some midnight when it was we go in Antarctic summer, basically. So it was still complete daylight, midnight skiing, down downhill skiing so they take a little snow cat ski down in Antarctica.
ML: Now you're talking my language? What's the skiing? How many pieces are there and how many lifts?
ES: At the back of the base as a small hillock?
ML: Did you do apparently this or the thing that the real pros do is they over-winter? Did you know overwinter in Antarctica?
ES: Oh, I did not, no, you're absolutely right. Now as you know, it doesn't properly count who's going to Antarctica and over-winter, but actually, only quite a small number of scientists overwinter. It depends on you know exactly what kind of research you do. But the basis, I mean, our main base rather, in summer can have a couple of 100 people on the base and in winter, it goes down to a really a Skeleton, skeleton number of people on that base, so many fewer people, but that's his only counts really properly if you if you have winter, there was only but the person I first went up to the Arctic with was from British Antarctic Survey, Joe Falah. And he was one of the people who originally discovered the ozone hole. And he had at the time done 14 overwinters in Antarctica. And when we went up to the Arctic together, again, you know, sort of extracurricular activities, skiing was involved, but cross country skiing. And you know, if you've done 14 overwinters, in the Antarctic, you are very good cross-country skier, I can tell you, I was left long behind as this, I mean, Joe must have been easily in his 70s by that point. He was whizzing off into the distance, and I was left a long way behind.
ML: So I'm hoping that there are some, you know, some students, maybe even some kids listening that were like, oh, you know, I want to be like her, I want to do those things. That's my goal, because of course, the closest I've ever got to Antarctica is reading about Shackleton, that hasn't got quite the same sorts of… You can't put that on your resume.
ES: Yeah. I mean, listen, that the research I mean, even on the ship, go, you know, the great passage. Research. I mean, it's an amazing experience going cross strait passage. You have to be prepared to get quite seasick because at times we would have no 10 metre waves and you'd have to stop doing the science because the ships even a beak research ship is rocking about too much at that point to be able to put the instruments over the side of the ship. The wildlife is incredible. So, particularly many of the whales, I think they like the sound of that they think it's a friend or something when we put the instrument into the water and it pings. Often whales come to investigate what's going on. Albatrosses are incredible. Penguins come in hopping along behind the ship. So, it's amazing from that perspective. And actually, the first sight of Antarctica, when you see this, the icebergs that you first see are not like the sort of icebergs that you imagine instead, that these huge cliffs of ice, tabular ice sheets. So, it is absolutely incredible. But the science is, you know, is really amazing as well, especially. Now, I'm a mathematician, I come from a theoretical background. And to actually go and do field work is, I think, incredibly important for somebody from a mathematical modelling background, because you get insight by seeing things, you know, actually, in real life that you wouldn't do otherwise, you see, you know, you understand some of the uncertainties on the data in a way that you wouldn't do if you weren't actually involved in taking those, those measurements. So I think it's, it's an amazing experience. And, you know, you do feel incredibly privileged to be doing science in a place like Antarctica. But it's also absolutely fascinating.
ML: I couldn't agree more with the need, even for the theoretical modellers to get out there actually see the thing they're modelling I mean, just from my own area, which is more about, you know, energy and transport analysis, but actually going and standing next to a big wind turbine or climbing up one of the towers or seeing the size of an offshore wind turbine or going down, I was very privileged when I was on the board of Transport for London to go down into the Crossrail tunnels where they were building it, and just seeing what goes on behind the scenes, you just have a different relationship with, you know, your analysis or your writing on, you know, subject X when you've been up close and personal. So, I agree with that. If we talk about though, the results of all that research, it's very difficult to get a sort of clean signal with uncertainty bands on what is happening in that I'm thinking particularly Antarctic I mean, Arctic, we know it's floating ice, we know that when it melts the out the albedo, the brightness reduces. And so, it's a feedback mechanism. We've talked about some of these things with you, and rock strum, who came and talked us through some of the planetary boundaries work in an earlier episode. But if we go to Antarctic, that, you know, you'll get everything from, you know, these stories about the breakup of a guy or the glass here. And we should all sort of start buying property on the high ground and buying shotguns and bottled water. And, you know, get all the way through to you know, har har har that research ship got caught in ice, there isn't supposed to be any ice anymore. And it's all a hoax, and there's nothing going on. And you get these kind of two extremes. So first of all, could you tell us what is what is the impact of climate change on Antarctic kind of today? And how it plays out? In a sense, what's the what's the, what's your current best description of that? And we know that there are uncertainties, of course.
ES: Okay, so the first thing is that it's important, and you have, to distinguish between two different types of ice because they sometimes get confused. So there's the sea ice, which is floating ice on the sea that forms now when they when they see water freezes, and then there's the ice shelf and ice sheet so that the ice sheet off Antarctica that then goes down and creates an ice shelf. And those, you know, those are distinct, physically different types of advice in terms of the ice sheets in in Antarctica, the one, I mean, the whole, the whole of Antarctica obviously is covered in in ice, but the component of it that we are most concerned about is the western side of Antarctica. Well, we call the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And the reason that we are particularly concerned about that is because we've seen significant loss of ice from that West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And in particular, there are the ice sheet itself has glasses, no, it's made up of glasses. They're sort of, you know, almost like the spine or system of the of the ice sheet itself. And we are, you know, we believe that there's a number of the glasses that are critical to the stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet that are potentially already in irreversible retreat. And so that, to an extent, the ice sheet is melting from above as the as the air is warming, but that, you know, Antarctica is so cold that that's not a particularly significant aspect. The key aspect is really that the oceans around Antarctica, the Southern Ocean is warming up. And then that warmer ocean water is getting underneath the ice shelf and melting it from below. So that's the key mechanism. And so, another concern is that as those glasses start to retreat, two things happen. First, more ice their glasses as they it sounds a bit counterintuitive, but as they start to retreat, they're always shooting ice off into the sea, but they can accelerate as they start retreats and more ice actually comes from Antarctica into the, into the ocean. But also, the whole system can eventually disintegrate. And there are key instabilities that can occur that, you know, accelerate that process. And there's a huge amount of ice, I mean, 60 metres or so locked up in the in a sea level equivalent, locked up in the Antarctic ice sheet altogether. But that Western, the bit that's potentially vulnerable in that Western West Antarctic ice shelf, something around three metres of sea level rise equivalent.
ML: And we, you know, if that's process started, and that, you know, the eventual destruction, we don't really know how long it would take, I mean, it's probably centuries. So it's probably not something that you need to worry about tomorrow. But we don't really know. And we don't have a good understanding of all those processes, all those instabilities that might speed that up. And so, there's been a big, conservative research effort over the last few years, to go to what is an incredibly remote part of Antarctica, to study that Western Antarctic ice sheet. And in particular, those key glasses and the weights last year, Pine Island last year, to understand it, we know all the critical processes, and it comes down to, you know, issues like how does the ice move against the bedrock? And what's the frictional processes associated with that? And exactly what is what form does the bedrock tape because in places that are critical bumps in the bedrock that the mortar boot and water would need to get over to the melt the rest of the ice shelf. But if it's sloping downwards into Antarctica, if that then happens, you can get the process that it then just self-reinforcing process. And that's how you start to get this really rapid acceleration. So there's lots of details that are important, but it is a genuine concern. And the other piece of evidence that we have that's really pertinent to this is understanding what's happened in the past, when the world has been, you know, not much warmer than today. And we can ask question whether or not that West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been tapped in the past, because if it hasn't, then we're in trouble, or at least in trouble, you know, eventually. And there's all sorts of evidence that we can use to understand where that ice sheet has been, in the past, not least looking actually at the bedrock and seeing you can see the sort of route that the lines that are carved out in the bedrock for where that ice sheet has been in the past. And there's significant evidence that in warmer periods in the past, the ice sheet hasn't been there and sea levels, global sea levels have been many metres higher.
ML: But okay, so let me just try and pass some of that, because I want to make sure that people have kept up with the sheets and send your shelves. So you've got because you, I think… That's what I kind of want to get the basic anatomy here. And I'm doing this for those who are listening on the podcast, I'm doing this and so are you in sort of interpretive dance, so it's a lot easier to follow this on the on the YouTube channel? Well, when I say a lot easier, I say maybe a little bit easier. So, you've got the ice sheet is the thing that blankets the whole of Antarctic that's the thing that's like 3000 metres thick, and it's got mountains under it, and we're starting to probe and find out where those mountains are. That's the ice sheet. And then you've got these glaciers which are like tongues, or you call it the spinal columns, that kind of go down from that into through valleys and they go out and they hit the coast. And at that point, you've got an ice shelf.
ES: Floating on it. It comes out over the water.
ML: And it's constantly on the move because it's going down from the higher levels, and it's coming. So, it's constantly on the move. And then it will have floating ice potentially beyond that that's on the ocean surface or is.
ES: And you have the sea-ice which is seasonally formed which if frozen sea water that comes out.
ML: And it's the sea ice that goes up and down, in and out, and that some people say, ha ha, it's getting bigger. And so it's all virtually irrelevant.
ES: But it's useful to understand why the sea ice is irrelevant, because the sea ice is melting massively in the Arctic. And, you know, we've seen this vast loss of sea ice in the Arctic. So why haven't we been seeing that in the in the Antarctic? And why in some place, you know, as you say, ships get stuck in the ice. And actually, sometimes our research ships find it difficult.
ML: Good question, why haven’t we seen it in the Antarctic? I know somebody I can ask: Emily?
ES: Well, so the thing is, but Antarctica is pretty cold. Even with global warming, I talked to the still pretty cold. And the other thing that's really important is the winds and Antarctica, if you've ever been to Antarctica, it's very windy. In fact, it's not only the coldest. It's also the windiest place in the world. And so what the key thing in Antarctica is literally, that the depending on where the wind patterns are, the sea ice get blown around. And you can have and when if you essentially you can get a sort of sea ice factory generated because the wind will blow the sea ice away, creating open ocean surface, more sea ice forms, and no etc. So not only is the sea ice compacted by the wind in certain areas, and not another area, so it gets blown shifted around. But also, you can generate this kind of essentially sea ice factories as well. So, it's just a completely different system in terms of the physics to the to the Arctic.
ML: So back to sheets and shells I think you talked about, then you've got this warm water that can get potentially underneath the shelf. And then, and then, you know, if that starts to carve, and it starts to stop, then things can start to flow more quickly. But here we go. So, I'm going to come back to how quickly this might be happening. And you said, we don't really know. So, you may have already answered it. But you know, if I look at December last year, there were these headlines. And the best one, my favorite, was Rolling Stone magazine that you know, a non-peer reviewed journal, not even as good as a ladybird book in terms of peer review, but it says the fuse has been blown. And the doomsday glacier is coming for us all right. Now that would make it sound like it's coming for us all people who are alive today. You've got the BBC that said, Thwaites Antarctic glacier heading for dramatic change. And then it says there is sufficient ice held upstream to the glaciers drainage basins, to raise the height of the oceans by 65 centimetres, where it's all to melt. And then Science, which said ice shelf holding back Antarctic glacier within years of failure. And again, that is the headline. But then paragraph four, in the Science piece, says, a collapse of the entire glacier, which some researcher think is only centuries away, would raise global sea level by 65 centimeters. So, you've got to go to paragraph four of the science piece to know that actually, all these things, that the 65 centimeters is centuries away.
ES: It’s actually potentially more than 65 centimetres, but the would be just one glacier, but the whole, the whole ice sheet is more. Yeah, and the key thing, Michael, is that, yes, it might, it probably will take centuries to get all of that because it takes you know, things happen slowly, it even things that we think are faster, still slower, still fast and Antarctic terms. But the key thing is that, and what's the sort of more immediate thing is that it may irreversibly be set in process. Now, that's the key thing is that there might you know, you can, you're not going to be like some kind of, you know, Dutch dike where you can stick your finger in the hole. And once you set in play in train, change on that scale and Antarctica, there's not going to be anything that you could that we could do as you know, a human society to reverse it. And that's the bit that could be that is the immediate thing. It will you know, to actually see the full impact in terms of the eventual sea level rise. You know, we don't There are uncertainties, and as I described, there are these instabilities that might speed up that timescale. And there's an awful lot of research going on at the moment to try and better understand those to see to get more of an understanding about you know, exactly It was, you know, obviously, a key question is how much sea level rise we might see from Antarctica over the, you know, this century. But, but from the perspective of what's the immediate impact now, it's the risk that we will set this and train and not be able to change it.
ML: And that's exactly what we covered with Johan Rockström, he calls it the impact time, which might be centuries, but the commitment time being much better than I have. At the time, he hasn't got the OBE for science communication. You're up there as well, which is why we're talking but so we've got this kind of, I think you talked about three metres from the Western Antarctic, and this one glacier 65 centimetres, and then it's but you know, when you read things like the doomsday glass, they I'm not sure, what's the house style, Iceman into the doomsday glacier is coming for us all, then, you know, that is quite clearly not talking about centuries that is talking about us. It's coming for us all. And I think this is, you know, goes to the heart of the communications challenge, which leads into the heart of the public policy challenge. How do we, how do we deal with this kind of, you know, I do think there's one piece out of the Rolling Stone article that I like very much, which is called talking about the fuse has been blown. But I would rather call it the fuse has been lit, you know, that the that this kind of commitment time these next few decades, we either like the fuse, or we don't like the views on something that that probably isn't catastrophic for some centuries, but is then absolutely unstoppable. And how do we communicate that without leaving people to be complacent? And what is the correct public policy response? Because my worry is that you sit people sort of say, well, you know, we can't think of it like that, because people become complacent. So, we have to exaggerate how quickly things are going to happen. And of course, the problem with that is that you'll miss allocate resources.
ES: I mean, I agree with you completely. But let's, you know, let's not forget that we are seeing the impacts of climate change around the world today in terms of extreme weather. So it may be that, you know, the, the Antarctic evolves slowly, you know, there's different the, we've got the whole thing together, right, we can't take one piece of this of this climate story without another piece. So, the Antarctic issue is that we, you know, we could be setting in chain changes that are effectively irreversible. The extreme weather example, when we’ve flooding events happening in the UK right now, is that we're seeing the impacts of climate change affecting lives and livelihoods around the world today in all parts of the world. So, there's, you've got to see the story as a whole.
ML: Absolutely. And I agree with that. But, you know, the concern with sort of lumping it all together and saying, you know, it's happening. And so, we have you know, that the sea level stuff is slightly different, because the adaptation that you do for sea level is different from the mitigation and the adaptation that you do for the other stuff. Let me let me just explain what I mean by that. If you believed that that doomsday glacier is coming for us all, you know, today, you would, for instance, need right now to start building another Thames barrier, which would subtract the resources that you would have available, perhaps for other sorts of adaptation, against flooding in towns that is caused by runoff from heavier rainfall. So you might do the wrong thing and spend the wrong money if you just kind of, oh, no,
ES: no, no, of course, of course. And actually, that sea level, I mean, that this is another thing. Climate change is not straightforward. But you know, another thing that's complicated is that, so even if we, even if we limit temperature rise to two degrees, or even 1.5 degrees, we'll still continue to see sea level rise for a long time to come. But the timescales of what's happening to temperatures and the timescales of what happens to sea level rise are just different. And that's just the nature of the you know, of the physics and all that complexity, you're right to make informed decisions to make the, you know, decisions that are based on the best available evidence, you have to be able to effectively communicate that evidence because otherwise, there is a real risk of taking decisions that are maladaptive to climate change, and potentially ones that could be very, very expensive.
ML: And I worry about the maladaptation and very expensive worry that we sort of spend money on things that aren't going to happen for a while and don't focus on the mitigation and the adaptation we need today. And I also worry a lot about something else, which is that there are those people who would rather we did not do anything about climate change. And I don't use words like denial, because I think that's a I think that's in a sense of bad faith, attempt to push them out of the discourse. But there are people who are, let's call them extreme contrarians, right? And there are these extreme contrarians. And as soon as they see exaggeration, about one thing, be it sea level rise, be it the scenario this, you and I spoke a little bit at that webinar in January the crisis College Webinar about RCP 8.5, the extreme scenario, which is so implausible, and yet, so heavily sort of promoted by climate activists, and some scientists in parenthesis, my worry is, as soon as you have part of your evidence base or part of your communication resting on something that can't be backed up, it makes it so easy for those bad enough to push back.
ES: That's my view. And actually, to go back to the we know where we started with this Ladybird book, one of the criticisms we had from the editor of the Ladybird book was that it was boring. Because we weren't absolutely just telling, you know, telling the facts, as the facts are. And the editor originally tried to kind of, you know, make it a little bit more flowery, shall we say? And, of course, you know, we were insistent that it couldn't be like that, because I think that we fail. You know, as scientists, we fail society, society, if we don't just convey the evidence, as the evidence is, as clearly and accurately as we possibly can. And that's all that's our role. Our role as scientists, and I, you know, I personally feel very strongly about this, and different people have different views. But my personal view, is that we have a somewhat special role as scientists in the climate debate. And it's not to advocate, it's to convey the scientific understanding that we have, and we've gathered as accurately as possible, and we might, as personal citizens have particular political views. But in the context of science communication, that's not our role. Our role is to convey the evidence as clearly as possible. So, that's what I personally always tried to do. And, you know, I think it's really important for decision making that and it comes down to trust, which is something that you mentioned, at some point earlier. We need you know, the world needs scientists, as trusted communicators. And for that purpose, you want to be confident that those scientists are conveying that information as clearly and in his, you know, on flowery way as possible, boring, though that might be.
ML: But doesn't, then some of what you see around you drive you crazy? I mean, I can give you an example. You may have heard of this, you may not. Professor Michael Mann, poster child for climate science, author of the famous hockey stick chart that has been, you know, so controversial. A few weeks ago, he did a television interview, where he talked about how climate change, and he lists the impact of storms and fires and coastal inundation is already killing more people and COVID, right? now he's out by two orders of magnitude COVID has killed somewhere between probably six and 20 million people, huge tragedy globally, and deaths from weather related natural disasters are over the last decade have been less than 20,000 a year. And we all know, right, we've just been talking about how, you know, we've lit the fuse on some really bad things, and it's not going to get better, and we need we've got the commitment time and we need to act. But when you have a scientist of that stature, that profile, making a statement like that, that is so obviously wrong and easily refuted, doesn't it just make your blood boil?
ES: I mean, you know what I actually I think the biggest challenge for that statement is that it's really difficult to calculate. So, you could calculate the number of people who've been impacted by extreme weather. And that's one way in which you might be able to answer that question how many people have already been killed? It's quite dramatic way of saying it, isn't it? But let's go. Let's run with it. How many people have been killed by climate change today? And you could… So it's gonna be a really difficult calculation because first of all, we you know, we can't as you know, we can't take an extreme weather event and say that was caused by climate change, we can say the risk of that is increased. But then the other thing is that…
ML: But the figure that I gave you a less than 20,000 is all people killed by extreme weather, not just the climate ones. It's all of them.
ES: Well, but if you look at heat waves, for example.
ML: It includes them. You that's the that's the extraordinary thing. But I don't know how you…
ES: I don't believe you. Anyway, I'm not I'm not really disagree with the data.
ML: That's the data that has been, you know, reviewed by the IPCC. I mean, that that, you know, what can I say? That's why I say it's out by two orders of magnitude or more, because I don't know how accurate it is. But the fact is, we don't have 5 million and then find there are no 5 million people killed by a heatwave, it hasn't happened. And, you know, look, I could give plenty of other examples around the kind of the, the literature around RCP 8.5. And in fact, you know, I want to just move on also from the role of scientists, because it's not just a scientist, it's also I believe, our role as parents. So, my daughter came to me saying she was very upset because the penguins were all going to be functionally extinct by 2100. And she asked me what functionally meant. And I said, well, there might be a few, but they're not enough for a healthy population. And, and I then said, wait a minute, and I went into the science and discovered that, to believe that you have to believe that the coal industry is going to grow by a factor of 10x by 2100, something that absolutely isn't happen, you know, not going to happen. So I was able to reassure my daughter, but there are people who don't want my daughter reassured they want her terrified to the point of anxiety and mental health issues.
ES: I know. And there are also people who, you know, who are actively, you know, campaigning on the other side as well. Right. So, I mean, of course, this whole, you know, if we're to make sensible decisions in the face of, you know, what is a very severe threat to our global society, we need to ensure that those decisions are based on, you know, a hard assessment of the evidence, and some of that evidence is uncertain. So that means, you know, complicated issues about taking decisions in the face of uncertainty. And, you know, and within all of that is politics in it, that there are going to be people who are exaggerating the case on one side, and be blue exaggerating the case on the other side, and we've got to kind of navigate through all that noise to try and make the, you know, the most sensible decisions as to how to how to respond, and in the face of what I say is a genuine, significant threat to our society.
ML: And don't get me wrong, I'm under no doubt, but it's a genuine insignificant threat. I mean, I think my last 20 years of my career, probably speak for themselves on that. But it's just a kind of a plea, I think, what you share, we just have to follow the science. And we can't have one side saying follow the science, but they're not following the science themselves. That is not that's not how it works. But this is a fantastic segue into the final topic that I'd love to cover with you, to talk to you about. And that is Cambridge Zero, you are the Director of Cambridge Zero amongst all the other things that you do. Do you want to talk about what that is?
ES: Yes. So I spent a very long time, you know, the last 20 years studying the problem, essentially, and I decided it was about time if I was going to keep on, you know, studying the problem, to actually look at the solution. And essentially, that's what Cambridge is, you know, I joke slightly but essentially, that that is what Cambridge Zero is about. So, it is the University of Cambridge is climate initiative. It spans the entire university, and literally everything that the university does and stands for, and is essentially looking at how all that resource and assets can be brought to bear to help support a, you know, a response to climate change is zero carbon sustainable future. And so, it's joining up all the research across the university. And that means all the science and technology or the social sciences, you know, the legal and policy, expertise, really importantly, understanding the connections with other critical issues, conservation and public health and so forth. And then it's also looking at our educational capacity. So, looking at how we educate our own students in Cambridge, recognizing that we're essentially shaping the leaders of our future here in Cambridge is looking at how we can contribute to school education, we've been talking about that quite a bit over the course of today. But you know, what the university's role is in terms of helping to shape that not just in the UK, but globally, looking at how we can contribute to post-university education, executive education, or more generally adult education. And then looking at all our, I guess, our broader influence. So how we communicate widely to everyone, whether it's policymakers about the findings of our research, or whether it's about engaging, collaborating with industry about generating some of the solutions, or whether it's about inspiring innovation and entrepreneurship to translate the ideas that are developed in the university on lab benches into real world deployment and scale up across all sectors of the of the economy. And then it's about our own operations. And how do we decarbonize the Universities of state? How do we decarbonize our operations. How do we stop our academics flying around the world to conferences and using up carbon emissions? And how, how can we consider how do we look at our own investments? And look at that from a sustainability perspective. So, as I say, it's across everything. It's not just the university itself, it's all the colleges as well, it's a collegiate University activity. So, Chirst College, which is, again, where we started this conversation, it's very much part of that initiative, but so are the other parts of the university. So, Cambridge University Press and Assessment, for example, when we're looking at the education aspect of it, we're working very much with Cambridge University Press and Assessment, to see how we can take that to a global audience. So, it's really, you know, it's, it's really exciting. And what makes it distinctly different to what I think any other university is doing, maybe quite a number of globally leading universities have, in recent years, set up climate schools as sort of no siloed activities. And, and we've just done it differently. So we've centered this right in the center of the universities spanning everything.
ML: And do you have a secretary? Or do you have a team? Or is it a kind of a big matrix with you at the at the heart of it, but…
ES: There's a there's a core team, but it's, you know, about, I'd say, the purpose of it is really to enable everything else across the university. So, it's a very lean operation, because we're what we're doing is we're just essentially unlocking and connecting everything that already exists, and creating, you know, somewhat of a common purpose. In terms of the research, I mean, a really key thing that we're able to, that we we're now starting to be able to do now is take a much more systems-based approach to many of the key issues. So, there's a big prod project that we've just launched earlier this week, which is looking at sustainable land regeneration. So, one of the areas that we're looking at is local to Cambridge, which has all kicked a lot of fenland around Cambridge, which is all peat drained peatland. And it's very actively formed at the moment. And the challenge is that the peat is degrading, it's releasing large amounts of carbon emissions across the whole of the UK something like up to four to 5% of UK emissions come from peatlands. So, it's a critical to understand how we can manage that land but manage it in a way that has climate benefit, a benefit to nature, and also a benefit as a social benefit as well, because there are people No, it is currently a really significant part of the local economy. So, we're trying to look at a very holistic way at all those issues working with their local farming community, the conservation groups, bringing in a very broad range of scientific expertise to assess the problem as well as the social sciences to understand that the social context to all of this.
ML: Very good, very good. And I'll tell you, just a little anecdote from when I before I started New Energy Finance, I sort of dived into fuel cells because it was one of the, every 20 years there's a sort of bubble of, you know, hype around hydrogen or a period of hype. Not all of it is hype today, but a lot of it is but it was the last cycle. And so, I went up to Cambridge because I am an alum, and I found that they were professors working on fuel cells in engineering in chemistry in the physics department. Then of course, there were some sort of systems thinking around energy systems that were in the management, groups and so on. And they were all working, none of them were working with each other worse than that, when I went to talk to them, they spent most of their time not talking about the fabulous work that they were doing, or the global importance of the solutions. They spent most of the time actually bad mouthing each other.
ES: But exactly. So there was a huge amount of research that was going on in Cambridge, but it was all in little pockets. And what we've been able to do is join that together. And it you know, I feel like, well, actually, you know, I use the word privileged, about how I felt down to Antarctica, I feel really privileged to be able to, to do this role in Cambridge, because it is an incredible resource that we have. And by bringing it together, I honestly think that we can make a really valuable global contribution, because we can start to really set some of the key thinking that will shape the solutions of the future. And it and it is by not letting it live in tiny pockets that are not talking to each other and by bringing that together so that you can have you know, you need those people to challenge each other robustly to understand where they, you know, where the where the flaws in their arguments are to make sure that we are coming back to our earlier conversation, that we are robustly challenging the evidence to create the evidence base that's necessary for making sensible decision making, whether it's on hydrogen or any other aspect of the of the, you know, response to climate change.
ML: I've actually got a final, final question, which I also don't want to miss, which is around getting women into science, right? You're very eminent, very successful. I know that you've done quite a bit in this area, but I don't know whether it's sort of within the Cambridge Zero under that framework, or more generally, the question would be, if science is going to be more obviously focused on solving sort of big existential problems, like climate change, you know, is that going to make it easier to get girls into science? Is that making it easier? Or is that irrelevant? Am I just sort of barking up completely irrelevant tree?
ES: Well, I mean, first of all, if science is going to be addressing, you know, problems that address the whole of humanity, then we really ought to be having representatives of the whole of humanity as being part of developing those illusions. Right. So that's the first, you know, point to make there. Is it's a topic that attracts more women to the to the topic. I don't know. I mean, I would like to think that in a way, that's not been. I'm not, I'm not sure that there are, there may be topics in which women are traditionally much more represented than others. And, you know, I've been working through mathematics, I'm now based in a computer science department. These are not topics that traditionally have had a large number of men, I'm not sure that there's anything intrinsic about the topics themselves that make them unattractive to women. I think there's been lots of other barriers that have been in place, which I hope we are starting to break down. And some of it is no, I, you know, I can say from my own experience that they've been many times in my career, actually, Antarctica is another one. So I've done I've almost got Oh, no Full House of places where there's not been many women involved. It was long time where women weren't even allowed to go to overwinter in Antarctica. But the, you know, I like to think that we're slowly making progress by not least by having prominent women and creating an environment where it's, it's not the subject that's not attractive. It's the environment that sometimes not attractive for, for women to be working in and I hope we're starting to change that.
ML: I very much hope so as well. In fact, one of our previous guests, Baroness Browne, Julia King, was on the show talking about her sort of times of pioneering engineering engineer and one of the first women to tread that path. So, it's, it could not I think you said it exactly, that we're not going to solve the most wicked problems in the world, drawing on a small gene pool of only parts of the population. You said it exactly.
ES: Yeah. And it's true of other you know, it's not just about getting more women into the subject. It's about getting know that full range of diversity into the subject as well.
ML: Absolutely. And on that note, I agree entirely. And on that note, I'm afraid we are out of time. But I want to thank you for joining us here today on Cleaning Up.
ES: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.
ML: So that was Emily Shuckburgh, climate scientist and mathematician and Director of Cambridge Zero Cambridge University's Net Zero initiative. My guest next week is Rhian-Mari Thomas. She's a recovering banker, and now leads the UK Green finance initiative. Please join me at this time next week for conversation with Rhian-Mari Thomas. Cleaning Up is brought to you by the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation.