An Interview With Professor Brian Huntley: Climate Change, Research and COP21

An Orange-breasted Sunbird feeding on nectar on an Erica sp., photographed by Brian during his travels in the Cape Province.

Professor Brian Huntley researches the relationships between environmental change and ecosystem dynamics and he also teaches my third year Biology module, Global Change Biology. His lectures usually end on a characteristically cheery note such as, “all the polar bears are going to die” or “global warming is following its worst case projected scenario”. In light of his research I thought it would be really interesting to find out more about his work and also his thoughts on COP21, and on a stormy Thursday afternoon after a global change lecture he was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

Asking how he first became interested in his line of work he explained that he had originally been interested in contemporary ecology but a second year lecture course first sparked his interest in the long term environmental change of the Quaternary and how species and ecosystems responded to changes between different interglacials. His PhD saw him analysing past and present vegetation of three national nature reserves in the Scottish Highlands, using pollen analysis especially. He provided evidence to strongly support the hypothesis at the time that the rich Arctic alpine flora found especially in the three areas had colonised as the ice melted away at the end of the last glacial stage and persisted ever since thanks to particularly good conditions. Using information about past climates to give insight into present and future ones has been a major theme of his work and has taken him to many different places around the World. He has done a lot of fieldwork in the European Arctic, working swaddled up in -15oC which he described as “challenging”. He has also seen the stunning flora of the Cape Province in South Africa, spectacular landscape of the Southern Alps of New Zealand and endured the “horrendous” heat and humidity of the equatorial climate of Borneo to enjoy the privilege of having breakfast watching orang-utans feeding in the trees 50 metres away.

Throughout the interview he emphasised to me not just the importance of the research him and his colleagues do but also the importance (to him) of being an advocate for the research and interpreting it for organisational bodies. He has been involved with advising various groups such as Bird Life International and the RSPB and is a member of the climate change specialist group advising the IUCN species survival commission. Days before our interview he had been in Strasbourg presenting a work plan in relation to biodiversity and climate change to the standing committee of the Bern Convention. Asking for his thoughts on COP21 he expressed its importance and his hope that an international agreement will be reached, “Unfortunately it will only succeed if there is international global agreement and reaching a global agreement that says “we’ll do this, but you’re allowed not to” will be difficult. There are problems with major producers of green house gases that are either parts of the developed world reluctant to cut back or are more developing countries who see that their development depends upon being able to continue with emissions in at least the shorter term.”

A 2o rise is still bad, for ecosystems and for us. “A 2o increase in the global mean means 4–5o warmer in the Arctic and most of the sea ice goes – so polar bears, seals etc. are all in big trouble.” Furthermore, a ¾ chance of achieving no more than a 2o increase requires a 70% reduction in emissions. I asked Brian to explain the importance of the deal, seeing as this sounds very hard to achieve and will still cause much harm. He relayed to me an answer, from a panel he was a part of, given at a conference in St Louis Missouri to the question, “do you think that global mean temp could be kept below 2o and if it was do you think that that would be sufficient to avoid extinctions?” The answers were unanimous that 2o was too much and the chance of keeping it below 2o even with international agreement was going to be very small. But the main South African spokesperson and delegate for the IPCC meetings (so has had a lot of exposure to these kinds of negotiations) argued along the following lines: “2o probably is too much. 2o probably isn’t attainable without a lot more effort than countries are currently willing to do. But, if we can get 2o agreed internationally and in 5–10 years it is clear we are really not getting there we have the basis for implementing more stringent measures because we have globally agreed on that target.” The speaker drew a parallel to the Montreal protocol of ozone destroying substances. The initial international agreement was for reductions in their use to a certain level but the next time they met it was clear that that was not enough. Thanks to their initial agreement they were able to tighten the screw and screw it down to the point where those things are not used at all now. “Even if you think 2o isn’t enough or it won’t be achieved, get an international agreement; the initial agreement gives you something which you can work against.”

Another question I put to him was what he thought about the recent headline that Uruguay has shifted 95% of its energy to clean energy and how likely was it that the UK could follow that lead. He pointed out the importance of what people use to define “green” energy. Biofuels, he said, in principle can be green although their production can be very damaging to the environment and wildlife, “one of the horrendous things I saw in Borneo was the extent to which forest is being cleared for oil palm plantations.” In his mind, this makes them no longer green. He also raised the question “is nuclear a green form of energy?” and explained his lack of support for it due to the waste and long term contamination it leaves behind, “not just for the next generation or two but for the next hundreds of years- the long term contaminated sites and controlling them in the long term plus the waste is a serious problem.” I personally agree. “Could the UK be entirely green?” he asks. “I have read varying views on this. One of the issues is, a major part of doing this has to be improving our efficiency in use of energy. ..I have seen various calculations that suggest that given a suitable combination of a real effort to be more efficient in our use of energy and a real commitment to renewable sources, we could get there. Other countries in Europe have demonstrated this such as Denmark and the Netherlands. They are much further towards higher levels of renewable energy generation.” These countries show it can be done, we just need more will to do it. Sighing, Brian pointed me to a quote on his cabinet dated 1990 that said, “It is generally cheaper today to save fuel than to burn it. The pollution avoided by not burning the fuel can, therefore, be achieved not at a cost but at a profit – so this result can and should be widely implemented in the market place.” (Amory Lovins (1990) The role of energy efficiency. In Global warming: The Greenpeace report.) He then hunted through the cabinet and pulled out a report, dated September 1989. “I was also funded by the US Department of Energy CO2 programme during the 1980’s. The US recognised the problem! They even recognised that learning about what happened in the past would help us predict….in the 1980’s!”

I personally think there is a massive lack in public understanding of climate change – studying it at University level myself I still struggle to get my head around a lot of it (the interview ended with a tutorial in how insolation forcing impacts Earth’s climate cycles) . A lot of Brian’s time is spent interpreting the science to organisations that can take action considering it and is key to the work he does. Important to achieving our environmental goals, Brian said “we need to point out to people the great advantages of doing things that will in the end save them money as well as helping the environment.” Current climate change is not a natural process, “we’ve got one species on the planet altering the planetary environment to an extent that no one species has ever done before, and in a way that is damaging for many other species and for us.” Even if some of the impacts take longer than our lifetimes, or a political cycle, it is still going to matter. COP21 does represent a beacon of hope for the future, but if international agreement is achieved we have to ensure we do not lose the momentum we have built. “Let’s hope COP21 comes out with that international agreement because it gives us something to work with.”

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