Interview. Ed Hawkins, IPCC scientist and author of the "warming stripes" explains why the crossroads at which the planet finds itself today is unavoidable: "The science is now clear. So far the Earth has warmed by 1.1 degrees. To try to stay below 1.5 we need to halve CO2 emissions by 2030 and reach "net zero" in 2050. Too many promises to COP26 - he warns - Concrete and timely commitments are needed in each country, otherwise we will exceed the threshold of intervention".

Ed Hawkins: ‘Governments must decide, or the climate will get out of control’

The Warming Stripes show increase in temperatures with colors. Ordered chronologically, from 1850 until today, colored vertical stripes represent the increase of global average temperature, from blue, colder ones, to red, warmer ones.

This graph is the most immediate and direct way to visually understand global warming over the last century, and it was invented by British climatologist Ed Hawkins, author of the latest IPCC report. In an interview he explained the current state of the climate and talked about the major obstacles to necessary political action in order to avoid the most devastating consequences of the climate crisis.

Can you explain the link between extreme weather events and climate change?

From the latest IPPC report, it is clear that human activities – mainly burning fossil fuels – have warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees so far. And one of the consequences of that warming is that it has made extreme, such as heat waves and heavy rainfall, more intense and more frequent. So, we’re already feeling the effects of a warming world on changes in extreme weather.

You must have heard about the medicane that hit the Southern part of Italy. Would you consider medicanes and other extreme weather events to be physical manifestations of climate change?

The way I like to think about this is that we’ve always had and always will have hurricanes and medicanes and heat waves and heavy rainfalls, they’re part of the weather that we experience. And we’ll always continue to have those types of events. What is happening is that climate change is changing the nature of those events.

So, when we get a heat wave, it is hotter than it would have been and when we get heavy rainfall, more rain falls. And the risk of flooding is greater when we get a tropical cyclone or medicane hitting land because the sea level is higher, which means that there’s more likelihood of inundation of the coastlines. What climate change is doing is increasing the impacts and effects of the weather that we always experience.

Can you talk about the warming stripes project and the #ShowYourStripes hashtag? How did it come about, what is it and how did it change data visualization for the public?

It started around three years ago or so, I was invited to a literature festival in Hay, in the UK. I was trying to come up with a way of demonstrating the effects of our warming world to an audience that was probably not used to seeing scientific graphs.

So, I used a set of colored stripes to represent the temperature changes in the town of Hay itself, just using one stripe per year and the colors representing the temperature in that particular year. And you can see the colors changing from mainly blues to mainly red over the last 130 or so years. And I put that up on the screen and I could instantly see people recognize and understand what I was sharing. And it so struck me that this was going to be a very useful way of communicating more broadly.

I think we need a wide range of ways of communicating [climate] change to different audiences. I think the stripes can communicate [this] as simply and as clearly as possible.

The key thing about the ShowYourStripes website and project is that it shows every country. And for some countries, different states or different cities where we have long records. What that shows, is that, yes, the global temperatures are warming, but that means that every country is warming and that cities are warming. And so, communicating the fact that the weather and climate in your area is being affected, I think is really important message to get across, that this isn’t some remote concept but it’s affecting you here and now.

Would you agree that none of the obstacles tied to finding solutions to the climate crisis concern the climate science? Climate scientists have been studying this phenomenon for decades now, with more accurate projections each year and there’s certainty about causes and most impacts.

Yes, so as climate scientists, we don’t know everything about the climate, but we know enough to inform the very big policy questions, we know enough about the effects of rising temperatures on human society and our ecosystems to run the policymakers of the very severe consequences if temperatures keep rising.

So, the policymakers have enough information to make decisions. They know the consequences, they know what needs to be done to limit global temperature rise.

And we’ve known that for a long time, we first observed that the world was warming and that it was linked to observed increases in carbon dioxide all the way back in 1938. The IPCC concluded in 1995 that there was a discernible effect of human activity on temperatures. And we’ve understood greenhouse gases will warm the planet in the 1850s, 1860s. So, no it’s not new.

So, what are the main obstacles to climate action today?

There are other factors in how we respond. We obviously can’t shut down every single coal power station and gas power station overnight, it does take time. But obviously the faster we do that, the less bad the consequences. It’s not simple, every nation has different economies and different priorities. And so finding a way through that is immensely difficult if we want every country to be on board.

And there are vested interests from certain countries and certain companies, which are very fossil fuel dependent, who do not want to make this transition. And they’ve been denying and pumping out misinformation for decades. And that has certainly slowed state action.

Although there is a top-down process from governments making the changes, we also need a bottom-up process to motivate governments, to take the decisions faster. And I think that’s where the ShowYourStripes can come in, it can start those conversations at the local level by reaching different audiences and allowing a very simple way of communicating.

You recently wrote: “We are at a crossroads”. And you’ve also shown that through data visualization with the Stripes. What do you mean? Where are we now with climate action?

We have choices to make. It’s our fault that we’re causing the [climate] changes, so our choices determine what happens next.

We are at a crossroads.

We can choose to go down the road of immediately rapidly, large-scale reducing our emissions and end up at net zero more quickly and end up in a world where the consequences are smaller, we can choose to go straight on and make some smaller changes taking a longer time and end up in a warmer world, or we can turn the other way and ignore the consequences and just keep burning fossil fuels.

Scientists provided information about the consequences of those different choices and presented that to the public and to policymakers. And so now it is a joint decision about which road we choose.

To this point, how is Cop going? What do you think about the outcomes of Cop until now?

It’s very difficult to tell. I think there’s a lot of information being given out about various announcements and promises and pledges. But what we need is actual concrete policies and plans enacted in every country that actually see what the emissions reductions will look like.

Promises have been made before and broken. Promises have been made about deforestation for decades. And there’s another promise now, but the previous promises haven’t been kept.

Rich nations have promised to put up a hundred billion dollars in climate finance, and we’ve broken that promise by not reaching that amount by the deadline. And so there is a lack of trust I think, and we need to reestablish that trust by demonstrating that we mean what we say, and the policies are put in place to enact the pledges that are being made now. And the faster we see those actions implemented the more trust we build up and the less bad the climatic consequences will be.

What would you say, from a scientific point of view, are the main things that governments should agree on as soon as possible and implement?

The science is very clear and if the policymakers want to achieve the targets to limit global temperature rise to well below two degrees, or maybe 1.5 degrees, then we need to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by around about 2050.

It also requires very rapid action over the next decade to start things coming down, because if we just keep emitting and then make a very rapid transition later on, we’re going to have gone over the carbon budget limits. And so we would go over those thresholds. So, we have to start now and then continue with constant action.

Also because emissions are cumulative. Can you explain what this means?

Yes. Carbon dioxide emissions are cumulative. So essentially what we pump into the atmosphere will stay in the atmosphere for centuries.

Other greenhouse gases are a bit different. Methane, for example, has a much shorter lifetime. And so, by reducing emissions of methane, we will actually bring concentrations in the atmosphere down of methane. But for carbon dioxide, every bit we add will stay up there. And so the concentration will keep going up until we reached the point where we’re no longer emitting any extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

So, the warming from our carbon dioxide emissions is permanent, unless we can extract it again from the atmosphere.

So that’s also why timing is really important.

Very much. Exactly. That’s why reducing emissions quickly is important because it turns off the tap or it slows down the tap of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.

How can the issues of science communication to the general public be overcome?

I think it’s helpful that we have the IPCC process because that brings together authors from around the world, we represented maybe 90 countries, and we spend years sifting through the evidence and coming together to write consensus conclusions and it’s all reviewed by thousands of other scientists openly. I think that is a very helpful process to build trust.

And I think talking about the history of the science is also really helpful, talking about how long we’ve known about this. And the famous scientists of the past, like Fourier, Foote, Tyndall, Arrhenius and Callendar, and all of the other famous names in our science who worked this out a long time ago before any big environmental movement. And that there’s underpinning fundamental science, I think that’s a really helpful aspect to emphasize when we’re talking to the public.

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