talking it over

Getting the message across

1 July 2010

Whether it's the press, the public or the government, a multitude of people rely on the Met Office as a source for the latest information on climate change.

The science behind our changing climate is complex, which means that communicating in a way everyone can understand is vital. We've provided a range of predictions for government, businesses and the public using cutting-edge scientific evidence in the UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09). Developed by the Met Office Hadley Centre, UKCP09 uses probabilities when talking about climate change making it possible to take a 'risk-based' approach for the first time in planning for an unsure future.

As the Met Office's Director of Science, Julia Slingo, explains, "Through UKCP09, the Met Office has provided the world's most comprehensive regional climate projections to date. These give a unique assessment of the possible changes to our climate for the rest of this century."

Talking probabilities

Working with other research centres, the Met Office is investigating probabilities of exceeding given thresholds of global temperature rise. The AVOID programme, which researches dangerous climate change and how to avoid it, looks at possible greenhouse gas emissions pathways when emissions will peak and the rate at which they reduce to examine the likely temperature outcome.

To arrive at these projections, Met Office scientists run a number of simulations based on a range of different emissions. They may take one possibility of CO2 production peaking in, say 2016, and another that peaks in, say 2020 and see what the effects would be on the global temperature in each case.

Our talks at the Copenhagen conference pulled in our biggest audiences yet, and over the course of the conference we had coverage in many of the UK's national newspapers and across global news channels.

The programme looks at the impacts of climate change on everything from crop production to water availability, but as the Met Office Hadley Centre Communication Manager, Fiona Carroll, explains, "It's our job to work out how greenhouse gas emissions may affect climate, and how changes in climate may impact various sectors. But it's the job of policymakers to make informed decisions, based on this information how and when emission cuts should be made, and what the appropriate steps should be to adapt to change."

While scientists are certain about some areas of climate change such as the fact the world has warmed over the last century they're very confident, although some uncertainty remains, on some key aspects like whether humans are the major cause. The same applies to attributing causes to extreme weather events. That's why we're always careful to talk in terms of probability. Fiona puts it this way, "A good analogy would be smoking and its link to certain cancers. There's hard evidence connecting the two, and though we can never be 100% certain that smoking caused a particular cancer, most people would agree that smoking increases the risk. It's the same with climate change. If we pump CO2 into the atmosphere, it's likely to increase the risk of certain extreme weather events."

A global audience

Because the Met Office Hadley Centre is one of the main climate centres in the world, we play a critical role globally. At the December annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen we distributed literature and hosted talks on our latest research, presenting evidence for current and future change to inform decision-makers on the challenges of a warming world. "We communicated with all kinds of people, from the press and charities to those who are trying to set emissions targets worldwide," says Fiona. "Our talks at the conference pulled in our biggest audiences yet, and over the course of the conference we had coverage in many of the UK's national newspapers and across global news channels."

Climate change affects us all, and it's not just policymakers that we have a duty to inform but the public as well. Our Customer Centre alone gets over a quarter of a million direct queries a year, many of which relate to climate change. So to help address a growing need for public information, we produced the Warming brochure a guide to climate change with ACT ON CO2 and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), distributing over 200,000 copies of the Warming brochure alone in the Independent newspaper.

Speaking on how the Met Office aims to communicate the issues of climate change effectively, Fiona says, "It's about taking complex science and transforming it into something everyone can understand the public and policymakers alike. It's why clear communication is so vital."

Talking it over: the Met Office Conference

To start a meaningful conversation about the work of the Met Office and how this can be used, the Met Office Conference, 'The Big Conversation', was held in London to tackle the big issues. Here are some of the highlights:

Met Office Conference panel

  • Held at the Commonwealth Club in January, 'The Big Conversation' featured a range of speakers, including politicians, environmental journalists, Met Office staff and even a mountaineer.

Met Office Conference audience

  • Using presentations, panel discussions and breakout sessions, the conference focused on issues such as the best way to communicate climate science, how to harness the science to help businesses, and how the government is dealing with the reality of a warming climate.

Julia Slingo speaking at Met Office Conference

  • The event not only showcased the Met Office's world-leading science in weather and climate change, but also showed how its services could save lives and inform strategies for the future.

Met Office Conference

  • Lord Selborne, Chair of Living with Environmental Change, said, "[The Met Office] is playing a central role in the scientific community in developing climate modelling because, unless we can understand the risks involved, we can't make the right decisions or strategies for a sustainable future."
  • We hope that this will be the first in a series of similar events, to open up the discussion on weather and climate in an informed forum.

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