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How science can help shape climate change strategies

River Thames flood barrier

Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate science advice, discusses how climate science information should be used to help governments and decision-makers plan for the impacts of a globally changing climate.

Some would argue that the demand for information on how climate change will affect our future outstrips the current capability of the science and climate models.

My view is that as scientists, we can provide useful information, but we need to be clear about its limitations and strive to improve information for the future.

We need to be clear about the uncertainties in our projections while still extracting useful information for practical decision-making.

I have been involved in developing climate models for the last 15 years and despite their limitations we are now able to assess the probability of different outcomes for the first time. That means we can quantify the risk of these outcomes happening.

These projections - the UK climate projections published in 2009 - are already forming the backbone of adaptation decisions being made in the UK for 50 to 100 years ahead.

Rising water levels

A project, commissioned by the Environment Agency, to investigate the impact of climate change on the Thames estuary over the next 100 years concluded that current government predictions for sea-level rise are realistic.

A major outcome from the scientific analysis was that the worst-case scenarios for high water levels can be significantly reduced - from 4.2 m to 2.7 m - because we are able to rule out the more extreme sea-level rise. As a result, massive investment in a tide-excluding estuary barrage is unlikely to be needed this century. This will be reviewed as more information becomes available, taking a flexible approach to adaptation.


Wind farms will play a vital role

The energy industry, working with the Met Office, looked at the likely impact of climate change on its infrastructure.

The project found that very few changes in design standards are required, although it did highlight a number of issues. For instance, transformers could suffer higher failure rates and efficiency of some types of thermal power station could be markedly reduced because of increasing temperatures.

A particular concern highlighted by the report into the energy industry and reiterated in the Climate Change Committee report is that little is known about how winds will change in the future, important because of the increasing role of wind power in the UK energy mix.

How well prepared is the UK for climate change? (PDF)

Looking forward

Fortunately many people, from private industry to government, recognise the value of even incomplete information to help make decisions about the future.

Demand for climate information is increasing, particularly relating to changes in the short to medium term. More still needs to be done to refine the climate projections and make them more usable and accessible. This is especially true if we are to provide reliable projections for the next 10 to 30 years.

The necessary science and modelling tools are being developed, and the first tentative results are being produced.

Clear messages

We need particularly to look at how we communicate complex and often conflicting results. In order to explain complex science to a lay audience, scientists and journalists are prone to progressively downplay the complexity. Conversely, in striving to adopt a more scientific approach and include the full range of uncertainty, we often give sceptics an easy route to undermine the science.

All too often uncertainty in science offers a convenient excuse for delaying important decisions. However, in the case of climate change there is overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing - in part due to human activities - and that changes will accelerate if emissions continue unabated.

In examining the uncertainty in the science we must take care to not throw away what we do know.

Science has established that climate is changing. Scientists now need to press on in developing the emerging tools that will be used to underpin sensible adaptation decisions which will determine our future.


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