A Mission We Must Not Fail

Interview with Dr Emily Shuckburgh of the University of Cambridge on managing climate change and the pandemic

Dr Shuckburgh, ideally we would have liked to have welcomed you here in Berlin in person. Unfortunately, the current pandemic situation meant this was not possible. However, we will at least have the chance to enjoy in digital format what I am sure will be an entertaining and informative Queen’s Lecture. The areas you address as a researcher are very broad: mathematics, information technology, meteorology. What are you currently working on?

My current research examines the question of how we can better understand and quantify the various processes of climate change. These include biological, social and economic processes. We are measuring local weather and climate events such as floods and other examples of extreme weather and using these to develop computer-based scale models. We combine these with further observational data to gain insights into the effects of individual influencing parameters on future climate developments or even the entire climate system. Machine learning and the use of artificial intelligence enable a fast and high quality data analysis.

What are the main goals of the “Cambridge Zero” initiative of which your are director?

In this center located at the University of Cambridge, we bring together scientists working in the widest range of disciplines from all over the world to address the global challenges facing humanity today. These include social inequality, mass species extinction and above all else global warming and climate change. The CO2 emissions produced by our industries represent one of the biggest threats to our future and are unparalleled in the history of humankind. The extreme weather events we are experiencing are making this ever clearer.

You have conducted a number of research trips to the Arctic and the Antarctic to collect data on melting glaciers and rising sea levels. What have you learned from these trips?

There is an unbelievably big difference between conducting theoretical research into the abuse of nature and experiencing the effects firsthand. Seeing huge icebergs up close is an amazing experience. But it is also shocking to look at maps and pictures as well as the data gathered at these locations which show the loss of huge areas of ice and document the impact of our global actions on this region. Talking to the people who live there also reveals in a very direct way the changes already affecting lives in the region.

What happens in the Antarctic Ocean also impacts on the climate in the northern hemisphere. What has been happening over the past few years?

The southern polar region seems a long way off to us. But changes occurring there have an enormous influence on northern Europe. Ocean currents also carry the meltwater of the ice here. Over the past two-and-a-half thousand years, the sea level has varied by some 25 centimeters. The last 100 years alone, however, have witnessed a rise of 20 centimeters. The Arctic region, in Greenland, has also seen a dramatic reduction of its ice sheet, which has thus far provided a constant supply of fresh water. An area of ice the size of Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Poland and northern Italy has so far been lost there. We believe this has a major influence on weather conditions in northern Europe and also results in the superacidity of the sea. The oceans have always served as CO2 sinks, meaning that they absorb the CO2 produced by plants, trees and humans from the air. However, oceans are now unable to cope with the CO2 emissions arising from the wholesale use of fossil fuels. They are acidifying and can no longer perform their natural climate role.

What new, clean technologies do you see and recommend to stop global warming and the melting of glaciers?

The challenge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to as near to zero as possible. This involves making changes to almost all areas of our lives: transport and individual mobility, travel, agriculture, waste production and disposal. We need more efficient and less energy-intensive construction materials and we need to make more use of natural materials like wood. But individual changes are also important, for example how we feed ourselves. Food production, in particular intensive meat production, is a key factor in CO2 emissions. We already have a number of technologies at our disposal, such as those for creating resource-efficient energies. We need a number of things to work together towards achieving a resilient and better future: Science to explain how things relate to each other and to develop modern technologies; politics to bring about changes in the economy and industry; and the willingness of people to rethink their individual behavior and consumption habits. I am convinced that we can overcome inequality to create a fair and just world, that we can value and help nature to leave it in a better and more resilient condition for future generations and that we can limit the threat climate change poses by quickly reducing greenhouse gases and committing to political and industrial changes.

A new threat to humanity in the form of COVID-19 emerged at the end of 2019, making the already alarming situation worse: Is this a setback for us? How can we approach the problem?

It drives home the fact that we are at a crossroads. The pandemic leads us to the same question posed by climate change: How can we make ourselves more resistant to such threats? The answer is that we have to learn new behaviors right across the globe to protect rather than damage our environment and our societies. We are in a transitional phase between the Industrial Revolution and a new era marked by cleaner industry and a society organized on fair principles. To achieve these goals, we have to realize that we need to invest in a better future and not in the past.

Are your own children also an inspiration for your research?

Naturally, I would like my two girls, aged five and seven, to be able to grow up and live in a livable world. I am also very much aware that the decisions we all take over the next few years will have a decisive impact on the future of both my children and the following generations.

Combating the problem of climate change requires international cooperation and, as you say, political support. What challenges does Brexit pose for you as a European scientist?

Science is a global undertaking, a global endeavor. Time is running out and it is obvious that we can only succeed by working together. We have to share our findings and innovations and work together with colleagues worldwide. Naturally, I hope that this can be guaranteed in the future.

You co-authored with HRH Prince Charles a book on climate change for the “Ladybird Expert Book” series. What was it like working with him?

Oh, working with him was very inspiring, though difficult to organize in terms of time it has to be said. He struck me as a very dedicated person. He has been following environmental issues for decades with an incredible level of passion. We wrote the book back in 2016 and it was already very important for him then to make the general public aware of the climate problem and the threat to our environment. He wanted to show people just how real the problem is and how closely it affects all of us. As an example, the cover of the book depicts a flood in the UK. Charles has visited a number of areas hit by floods in person and it was his express wish to use this illustration for the cover. He wanted to show the huge effect climate change is having on our country.

In this book, Prince Charles says: “We have been mistreating our planet and abusing its natural systems. If the planet were a patient, we would have attended to her long ago.” What is your message for the public?

Managing climate change is a mission we must not fail. We have to succeed. We have to do it for our children. We also have to succeed in the new challenge of combating the pandemic. We cannot leave the task of finding a solution to just a few people. We have to mobilize global creativity, the combined innovative strength of all universities and researchers worldwide to create a better world for our children and a sense of a new start and hope for us all.


Thank you!

Interviewer: Patricia Pätzold