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Ask the experts - Climate, Covid, COP26

Last month, world-renowned climate scientist and communicator Professor Katharine Hayhoe joined leading experts drawn from across the University of Edinburgh community in a special online ECCI event to discuss 'Climate, Covid and COP26'. Part of ECCI's countdown to COP26 series, the event drew an incredible global audience, with around 600 attendees signing up for the virtual session from all around the world.

Below Prof Hayhoe, panellists Prof Elizabeth Bomberg, Prof Gabi Hegerl, Dr Sarah Ivory and Dr Hannah Ritchie and Chair Prof Dave Reay answer a selection of the most popular audience questions, giving insights into the politics, business, science and communication of climate change in a post-Covid world.

Questions fell broadly into 9 themes: Covid; Government; People; Organisations; Cities and Regions; Industry; Education; Justice; COP26.


The ability to socially distance and enjoy the low-carbon 'benefits' of lockdown - like slowing down, enjoying nature etc are only available to the privileged. How do we help everyone access the benefits of a low-carbon lifestyle?

Professor Dave Reay: I think a 'just transition' must be at the heart of the recovery. Covid is accentuating inequalities that were already severe and so recovery plans must overtly address this, such as through prioritising job creation and investment in the worst hit communities and sectors. More widely, abandoning the flawed metric of GDP growth to measure recovery and instead measuring success through sustained improvements in well being.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: I completely agree with Dave and would only add that clean energy is an important part of this, to address the fact that at the turn of the century nearly a billion people did not have access to basic energy. The vast majority of fossil fuel resources belong to rich countries; yet wind, sun, and tides are available to all. Over 70% of new electricity sources installed around the world last year was clean energy, energy that will enable poor countries to develop without polluting their air and their water like we have.

What has the national and global response to Covid-19 taught you about how we - as humans - respond to risk, and what lessons does that have for our response to climate change and the need to decarbonise?

Dr Sarah Ivory: We care. The vast majority of us care, and will act with appropriate evidence, guidance, leadership, and political and social support for the transition to a different way of life. The Covid crisis requires a more temporary transition, but the climate crisis requires a more permanent one. We have the appropriate evidence, we have guidance - what we need (and what we need to champion and vote for) is leadership, and political and social support for the transition.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: I believe that the greatest lesson the pandemic has taught us is this: that when it all comes down to it, no matter who we are or where we live or what language we speak or what political party we vote for, what matters to all of us is the health and safety of our loved ones, our friends, our community, and beyond. That's what coronavirus threatens and that's exactly what climate change does, too. In this webinar I talk more specifically about the connections between how we think and act on climate change vs. coronavirus.


Arguably change has to come from the top. Mass peaceful and disruptive protest has had little to no effect on politicians. How do we force action when key leaders around the world seem opposed to radical change?

Professor Gabi Hegerl: There was an interesting parallel in the 1970s, when water and air pollution was dramatic in many places for example the US and a lot of the political answer was that it can’t be changed would be too expensive etc. but the public and environmental groups campaigned vigorously and blacklisted politicians with bad environmental records. When it started to show that those were not reelected, the issue got more attention. So voting and campaigning will eventually change things. Write to your MP about needing a green recovery, about your concerns. And vote!

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: I completely agree with Gabi and would only add here that corporations are a big part of this as well. Today, it's industry that controls the balance of power and wealth in this world, and individuals within large corporations, from Microsoft to Walmart to Amazon, are doing their best to effect change from the inside as well.

Governments seem to be listening to scientists for Covid-19, why do you think they don’t listen about the Climate Emergency? What’s the difference, what needs to change?

Prof Gabi Hegerl: I agree with Dave. Also, see my answer below: now that the pandemic is here, we are willing to act but there were many ignored warnings about the next pandemic coming for sure and we need to prepare but that was something less heeded at the time.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: People don't listen to scientists about climate change not because they truly doubt the science, but because they believe it doesn't matter to them (psychological distance) and they believe that the solutions will be worse than the impacts because they will be uncomfortable, punative, even harmful (solution aversion). I unpack these two terms and explain how they do and don't apply to both the coronavirus pandemic and climate change in this recent webinar.

Professor Dave Reay: Time and human nature. Acute risks like Covid are easier for most of us to understand and, for governments, are a direct risk for their economies (and political stability) right now. Climate change is a much bigger risk but it is easier to ignore as something for future/other governments to address.


I find many friends and family members fully understand that climate change is a crisis but somehow this still means that they can drive big cars, take any number of flights etc. How do we remove this dual reality that seems to affect all levels and not just politicians?

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: I do think that stepping on the carbon scales can be incredibly illuminating -- or having our kids do it! -- but the real problem is not that we don't think it's real, we don't think it matters to us. And that's why I've become truly convinced that the most important thing we can do is talk about it - because social science has showed that the more we talk about it, the more concerned we are; the more concerned we are, the more willing we are to act and support those who do! See my TED talk.

What are the best things everyday citizens can do to encourage and promote our work/cities/countries response to Covid-19 to encourage climate change action?

Dr Sarah Ivory: Support (explicitly) politicians who are offering solutions, support businesses who are offering products and services, support individuals (friends and family) who are making resolutions even if it is for an action we ourselves can't commit to. While our acts alone may seem insignificant, they lead to collective action which helps those taking the lead.


The University of Edinburgh is committed to being a net zero carbon University by 2040 - If you had advice for us at the University on playing our part and making the difference we need to make, what would that advice be?

Dr Sarah Ivory: One of the greatest impacts a University can have is in education and influence. Getting our own 'house in order' and taking the lead on low carbon technologies, processes, and innovations is important. But our greater opportunity is in the students, faculty, and professional services staff who spend some or all of their education or careers with us. Changing hearts, minds, and motivations to commit to the ongoing fight for solutions is more important in our focus.

Cities and regions

What advice do you have for cities and regions that have strong employment in carbon based energy industries and the post covid green recovery?

Professor Dave Reay: Lead the way to net zero. For Oil & Gas sector, lead the transition to Carbon Capture and Storage, offshore renewable generation and the hydrogen economy. Work with government to secure livelihoods and opportunities through green skills and reskilling provision that is accessible to all, and that is directly aligned with the needs of industry, to switch from carbon extraction to carbon sequestration.

Any thoughts on how municipalities could/should be properly empowered to take strident action at local level on climate action, as counter-weight to national/international inertia?

Professor Gabi Hegerl: I think municipalities could do a lot to reduce emission from transport by ensuring sustainable options being available and safe; also building standards play a role. When a new development is approved; is it well connected to public transport? Are the houses low energy use?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe: Cities are much more empowered to act in concrete, tangible ways than larger entities, and in an increasingly urbanized world, they have the ability to make a real difference. First, cities can invest in the infrastructure and accelerate the behavioural changes that reduce our carbon emissions and often our air pollution, a key problem for many cities, at the same time: from making decisions on road, rail, and air transportation to building codes to their municipal electricity provider, there are many solid actions cities can take, and many excellent organizations such as the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) that can assist with experience, information, and advice. Second, cities can do a lot to build resilience to climate impacts: re-drawing flood zones, increasing drainage, reducing the urban heat island effect, developing hazard mitigation and emergency response plans, increasing the awareness of city planners and public officials and public servants and people living in that city to impacts, etc.


There is a lot of discussion about how governments should be denying bailouts to polluting industries - what sort of action would you like to see to push businesses towards a new attitude to business?

Professor Gabi Hegerl: I fully agree with this idea! We should bail out industries with a future and a positive contribution. so it should be looked at to what extent these industries have a carbon plan and are sticking to it- as part of a health check for bailout.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: This is already happening in many places! In my home country of Canada, for example, businesses are required to disclose their climate risk in order to qualify for government stimulus loans. In France, Air France has been told they must reduce their carbon emissions 50% in order to qualify for a government bailout. I would love to see these and many more actions to help accelerate our transition to a green, sustainable future.

Geoengineering is increasingly being touted as a "solution" to climate change, despite the unknowns and risks. What are your thoughts on this?

Prof Gabi Hegerl: I am worried about it. Humans don't have a good record of anticipating the side-effects of interventions in natural systems. Approaches that capture the problem by the root (CCS for example) and reduce carbon in the atmosphere are for me less problematic than approaches that shoot particles into the stratosphere to reflect or mess with the oceans biota or cloud reflectivity. I would rather not do this personally.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: What we have to realise is that "geoengineering" covers a broad range of actions: from tree planting (yes, really!) to solar radiation management. There are geoengineering approaches that are low-tech and approaches that are high-tech. Similarly, there are methods that carry little risk, and methods that carry a great deal of risk. And there are methods that accomplish little (like here in Texas, where they are capturing carbon emissions from a power plant in order to use the CO2 to enhance oil and gas recovery from wellfields, the net result being an increase in overall carbon emissions!) and methods that have the potential to accomplish a great deal (smart agricultural techniques to draw down carbon into the soil). In terms of solar radiation management, though, it is at best only a partial solution, similar to going through all the difficulty and expense and pain of gastric bypass surgery while continuing to consume (in our case, fossil fuels) at your previous rate. Please see this Global Weirding episode for more.


What’s your advice for teachers wanting to create positive change in schools after lockdown? Where should we start? Could Universities help audit national qualifications to be more focused on the strands of Learning for Sustainability?

Prof Elizabeth Bomberg: We’ve got great programme here at the University of Edinburgh, sustainability programmes led by, inter alia, outdoor education (Pete Higgins).

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: So often people feel that climate change is an "environmental science" so that's the only type of class where it can be taught or discussed. Climate change is certainly an environmental issue - but it's als an issue of health, of basic science, of economics, of technology and engineering, and of political science, communication (both through writing and creative expression in art, film and more), and more. I would encourage teachers, regardless of their specialty, to figure out how to incorporate ways to have students tackle climate-related issues in any class!

Do we need to do more to make people carbon literate? And what could this look like?

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: Absolutely! But what does "carbon literate" mean? I believe it consists of three things: understanding that the main cause of climate change is our fossil fuel consumption (many people still believe it's plastics or the ozone hole, which means they don't understand either impacts or solutions); understanding how climate change affects here in the places where we live, now and in the future, and in ways that matter to us personally; and finally, being aware of the fact that solutions consist of reducing emissions through efficiency and clean energy and behavioural changes, adapting to build resilience to the risks we can no longer avoid, and drawing down carbon from the atmosphere through conservation and smart farming practices that benefit both human and non-human life!


Surely accepting 2 degrees rather than 1.5 degrees as our target is to condemn millions of people to unimaginable suffering?

Prof Dave Reay: That's why COP26 is so crucial - there is still a chance for us to get back on a 1.5 degree trajectory and that stakes we are playing with are indeed lives and livelihoods numbering the millions.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: 1.5 and 2C are not magic thresholds. If we end up at 1.499 versus 1.501 we will not avert all suffering; in fact, a great deal of it is already happening today. As IPCC chair Hoesung Lee concluded two years ago, "Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters. Every choice matters". We need to cut emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible, and draw as much carbon as we can down from the atmosphere as well.

We’ve seen the Scottish and UK Government’s take increasingly diverging approaches to the pandemic. How to you see the Scottish Government’s desire to maintain its distinctiveness as a sub state actor playing out in organising period before COP26?

Prof Elizabeth Bomberg: Interesting! Note different perspectives are not just about different approaches to Covid or climate crises, they are also about inter-governmental relations and political tussles they involve (see work by Bomberg and McEwen on this dynamic if you can excuse a bit of self promotion). So what to watch for is the extent to which the Scottish position emphasises ‘contrast politics’, seeking to distance itself from the Westminster model.


How can we best build the links and join the narratives around Covid Justice and Climate Justice?

Prof Katharine Hayhoe: Those most affected by poverty, hunger, lack of access to resources and more are those most affected by climate change - and the coronavirus pandemic. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals means fixing our threat multipliers: climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, and more.

Prof Dave Reay: For me, the Just Transition Commission is the model that should be replicated on this in every nation.

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