Climate change about challenge of communicating with public on policy - UK science advisor

2015-07-17 13:15

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Pretoria - While moving humanity away from fossil fuels was critical to its survival, the onus was on politicians and scientists "to bring the public with them".

Speaking at the National Advisory Council on Innovation's roundtable on energy choice in Pretoria on Friday, Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific consultant for the British government, said part of the challenge beyond the science was communication and policy.

"We're not threatening the planet. The planet will be here... We are threatening our own species. It would be nice for future generations and animals to survive as well," Walport said.

The science on climate change was clear, with the evidence "extremely well and dispassionately summarised", he said.

"I always say the science is hard, the communication is at least as hard and I think that is the challenge and one of the responsibilities of scientists that work in this area," he said.

"It's about explaining small numbers and large numbers that are very difficult to grasp."

Walport said the planet has warmed by approximately 0.9°C since the Industrial Revolution, which might not seem much but is in reality a "huge change", responsible for increasingly important changes in the weather.

"The large number problem, like the four billion tons of CO2 going into the atmosphere, what does that mean?" he asked.

'We have a communication challenge'

"I think we have a communication challenge and I think the hardest thing of all is the policy challenge."

He said policy makers looked through three lenses when dealing with the challenges - security of supply, sustainability and affordability of power.

"I think a heavy responsibility lies on them, elected officials, and of course the Paris COP conference at the end of the year is going to be an extremely important [conference]," he said.

"As part of this discussion, we have to take the public with us because at the end of the day, it is the public that elect our politicians."

Dropping greenhouse gas emissions equated to decarbonising energy sources, mitigating the harm of CO2 gases as much as possible, and reducing power demand.

"The challenge is to optimise the ratio between those three," Walport said.

"The major burden is going to fall on our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren."

He said when people were asked if they cared about their grandchildren, they replied they did so tremendously. However, when it came to their grandchildren's grandchildren, people tended to care very little, if at all.

"We are going to have to use all of the technology. We are going to have to find the economic incentive to decarbonise and one of the challenges is if renewable energy sources were as cheap as fossil fuels, we wouldn't be having this meeting," he said.

"We clearly have to reduce harmful energy emissions. Everyone acknowledges we simply can't switch off fossil fuels over night...but it's about burning it efficiently."

Exploring new technologies

Moving away from the reliance on fossil fuels was about exploring technologies such as carbon capture and storage. The engineering was achievable; the question was the economics and feasibility of scale.

"The opportunity is there to be more collaborative in new energy solutions... we're all in it together. It's not a single magic bullet; we've got to work with all the solutions."

Power was so important because it was the thing that transformed humanity's ability to live on the planet. It has enabled population growth around the world, and it was the thing that has given people good lives.

"Of course we generated that power by, in some senses, burning our ancestors. So what we are doing, we are burning those micro-organisms, other trees that have becomes fossilised that themselves changed the atmosphere of the planet by fixing carbon dioxide," he said.

"What we've been doing since the start of the industrial revolution is burning them and releasing those carbon dioxides back into the atmosphere"

This resulted in the greenhouse effect, which led to more heat retention in the atmosphere, and rising temperatures.

"Because of the that nexus between power on the one hand, which is an essential part of our modern lives, and the consequence, the burning of fossil fuels, which is causing damage to our planetary environment... this topic so very important."

There was no single energy-source solution, with a mix of energy solutions and sources required, such as wind, nuclear, solar and tidal power, and bio fuels.

Read more on:    uk  |  climate change

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