Well, this tweet didn’t age well…
A year later, I have 15,000 followers, while they have nearly a quarter of a million.
I had got into an argument with someone on Extinction Rebellion’s Twitter account in its first month of existence, while they still seemed to be a rather fringe group. They had posted a gothic image of skulls with the message “CLIMATE CHANGE = HUMAN EXTINCTION”, accompanied by a message saying it was “our moral duty to fight for life”.
My response was perhaps a little confrontational:
“Know why I hate this “Climate Change = Human Extinction” death pic? Not just [because] it’s not true or [because] fear can lead to apathy. Because it’s selfish & ignores the real issues. YOU will be ok. It is people poorer than you who will not be OK. We need empathy, not self-preservation.”
Several fellow climate scientists said they agreed with me. But the person on the XR account replied:
“[Tamsin], if you do not think or admit that #ClimateChange is an existential threat [to] life we have [to] wonder what your motives are. While it is possible that ‘fear’ can lead [to] apathy it can & does lead to cooperation & rebellion 4 #ClimateJustice. Join the #ExtinctionRebellion.”
They weren’t the first group to question my motives when talking publicly about climate science, and I’m sure they won’t be the last. Temperatures can run high on this topic.
“My motives? Surely this is about expertise/disagreement. Are you also questioning the “motives” of all the other climate scientists that endorsed my tweet?”
This is the point at which the kind supporter above had defended me.
Of course now, one year later, Extinction Rebellion have had tremendous success. Their Easter protests, along with Greta Thunberg and the BBC’s “Climate Change: The Facts” headed by David Attenborough, have persuaded a greater part of the public to care, of the media to cover, politicians to pledge.
My view of Extinction Rebellion has moved on too. As I wandered across Waterloo Bridge at Easter, I found the attitude positive and the space welcoming – a car-free, plant-filled, decorated bridge in central London seemed to me a radical but appealing claim to a better quality of life. One of their banners included the very word I’d called for: EMPATHY. I overheard a woman give an excellent explanation of the mechanism and consequences of shutdown of the Gulf Stream to two police officers, who warmly told me “I’ve learned something new today”. My friend Emily Grossman moved from curious outsider to passionate insider, and used her experience and platform as a science communicator to document the protest online. My brother Stephen Edwards, a life-long environmentalist and a sustainable housing expert, and the reason I chose a career in climate change, told me he felt more hope than he had in years.
Things do feel new, different right now.
This is the combined impact that the #ExtinctionRebellion protests, David Attenborough film and @GretaThunberg’s visit has had on the UK media over recent days
(Mentions of “climate change” in UK media over the past 3 months, according to Factiva)
It feels like the impact of Easter 2019 has lasted. Since then, and helped by the BBC’s 50:50 gender rebalancing initiative, I’m now asked once or twice a week for a national media interviews, and hear colleagues do many more. There is such demand for female climate scientists to speak that I started an email group to help share the load. (Colleagues, please let me know if you would like to join). To me, this year has felt like banging on a door for years with no answer, then it suddenly flying off its hinges into the room. So fast that we climate scientists stumble as we cross the threshold, blinking in the bright light of greater public concern. The climate is changing…
My friend Emily asked me this summer if I would help Extinction Rebellion to check the scientific accuracy of new updates they were planning for the website. I’ve helped a little when I can (still in progress), and have been humbled by their drive, hard work and enthusiasm to learn. The science What’s App group reels by with dozens of messages discussing new studies and articles every single day.
So now, as a climate scientist, I find myself advising two groups in two very different ways. In my role as an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (still in progress), I assess the strength of the evidence behind different parts of climate science for policymakers. Asking: “Are we really sure this could happen?” – how many studies back it up? What are the potential weaknesses of the science? But Extinction Rebellion see their role, I think, as asking: “Are we really sure this couldn’t happen?”. In other words, applying the precautionary principle. So a prediction they present might be based on a single study, an outlier, or even an informal quote from a scientist. My aim is to assess whether they have accurately represented that study or quote, and whether we have since ruled that prediction out. It’s a completely different approach to risk.
Some months ago I talked to my partner’s son James, 15, who had been on the school strikes. I said I was struggling with how to write publicly about Extinction Rebellion: as a human, wanting to celebrate the emotion and energy of this movement and its successes, and at the same time as a professional, wanting to correct their occasional mistakes in describing the complex science. I said that the timescale of ‘12 years’ to meet the Paris Agreement temperature target of 1.5 degrees of warming was often stated with too much certainty.
“Of course, it’s actually 12 plus or minus a few years”, I said, waving my hands.
“Or. Minus.”, he replied, emphatically.
I can’t argue with that.
Tomorrow the King’s College London Department of Geography begin our induction week for the new academic year. The MSc Climate Change program that I direct will have more than fifty postgraduate students joining: more than double last year’s numbers, and more than 50:50 women. I wonder if Greta, Extinction Rebellion, the greater media coverage, have influenced their decision. In reviewing applications, I saw cover letters that described their desire for change: not only from those who had studied geography before, but also medics, biologists, people with a career in a different area. Motivated to change the world – not next year, or in 12 years, or in 2050, but right now. With empathy, with co-operation, and perhaps a bit of rebellion too.
I can’t wait to meet them.
June and July were intensely busy and rewarding. I loved supervising my first round of masters students in their dissertations: five smart, motivated women who designed projects to model and analyse the impacts of climate change and policy decisions. I was part of a fascinating panel discussion on “The Future of Aid: International Development in 2020” at the Department for International Development, where audience members described the IPCC predictions as “terrifying” and further motivation to consider climate change across all DfID activities. I talked to lawyers at the conference “General Counsels Leading the Net Zero Carbon Transition”, which gave me hope that businesses estimating and disclosing the risks of climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy (Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures) will be a powerful tool of change.
I was privileged to be on a BBC staff training panel discussion on ‘Reporting Net Zero’ alongside Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, who provide advice to the UK government on how to reach their target of ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In other words, what it means to not only reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide, but also to suck it out of the air.
I talked about my bowel cancer of last year too: at the BlueDot festival, which I adore, and to staff at Cancer Research UK, who work hard to make cancer information more accessible to patients. (More on BlueDot in a later post). Rest and relaxation during a long August holiday have rid me of almost all my post-chemotherapy fatigue. Afterwards, I took the train to Toulouse for the third of my four IPCC author meetings, a clear mind for the first time.
I am working on a new research I am incredibly excited about – yesterday I returned from two days discussing statistical plans while walking along the beach with my academic mentor and dear friend Jonty Rougier, who is the reason I work in quantifying uncertainties for climate models and therefore write this blog.
I have been alternating between reading Chris Packham’s “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir” and Caroline Criado-Perez’s “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”. Both are extraordinary, and reveal the world in new ways. Chris Packham, like Greta Thunberg, is another line on the Asperger’s spectrum. His memoir is astonishing – full of nature’s death and childhood’s yearning to possess. I wouldn’t ever romanticise Asperger’s: I have seen how terribly challenging it can be to live with. But I have also seen how this way of thinking can shed clear light on a subject: sometimes those subjects the rest of us too comfortably glide past, such as death and injustice. Caroline’s book fills you with a creeping rage at the inequalities and dangers of a world that forgets to consider women’s needs and biology. It is also about the infuriatingly bad science that results when we do not consider the biases of our own world view.
While I was still fatigued, I slept long hazy mornings to Radio 4, and once dreamt about Greta. Wanting to share a sense of rebellion, I asked her: “Who have you been rudest to?” Greta’s a fan of black and white thinking. But in her case, I don’t mind.