Prof Peter Stott: ‘Denialists question the cost of climate action … doing nothing costs far more’
The veteran scientist on Trump’s limited impact, Russia’s ruthless climate stance and on the urgency of COP26 in Glasgow
Prof Peter Stott is a forensic climate detective who examines the human fingerprint on extreme weather. A specialist in mathematics, he leads the climate monitoring and attribution team of the Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services at the Met Office in Exeter and was part of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the Nobel peace prize in 2007. Since he started in the field more than 25 years ago, Stott has often found himself on the frontline of the battle against the fossil fuel lobby, petrostates and sceptical rightwing US politicians, which he details in his new book. Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial. He is also exploring new forms of scientific expression and is co-founder, with his wife, of the Climate Stories initiative, which brings artists, scientists and members of the public together to respond to the climate emergency by creating new poems, songs and pictures.
You have spent a quarter of a century in climate science. On a personal level, how does that feel?
At times I have felt exhilarated about the progress of our science and hopeful that it will be acted on. In other moments, I felt dispirited that our warnings were ignored, such as at Copenhagen in 2009, or worried when we were attacked as in Moscow in 2004, or in the US and UK after Climategate. At those times, I felt I was uncovering an uncomfortable truth and there were people who were literally trying to stop me from saying it. Now I feel anxious that the clock is ticking on the whole issue. Another very hot year has gone by and there is no sign of action that is sufficient to change the data trends. That makes me concerned about the science I have spent 26 years doing. I hoped this work would make the world a better place, but I am increasingly anxious that this will not happen in time.
Your area of expertise, climate attribution, links the crime (climate chaos) to the criminal (human emissions, notably from fossil fuel companies). That is a technically and politically sensitive activity. How is this knowledge applied?
When I started, my field was very obscure, not just to the general public but also to my scientific colleagues. But today it is hugely in the public consciousness due to extreme weather. The fact that science is now able to show the link between greenhouse gas emissions and rapidly increasing floods and heatwaves is important. As a result, weather forecasters such as Laura Tobin are starting to bring climate change into their broadcasts on TV. I think we will see much more of that in future as we are able to make increasingly rapid and definitive statements.
That is already happening. Earlier this year, the Hadley Centre was very quick in analysing the extraordinary 49.6C temperature record in Canada and showing it would have been effectively impossible without human emissions. This kind of information is very relevant to people. It can help to save life and property in the immediate disaster and then plan what to do next. To understand how we can protect ourselves in the future, it is no longer enough to have a simple weather forecast. We need to understand how the climate is changing.
You have attended many Cop climate conferences and will be there again in Glasgow this week. What are your expectations?
Cop26 is so important. We have had a year’s delay due to Covid and the previous Cop, in Madrid in 2019, was not hugely successful, so Glasgow is a meeting where governments need to up their ambition. If they don’t, we won’t avoid warming of more than 2C. The toll of extreme weather around the world shows just how urgent the situation is. The latest IPCC report, produced in August, has the starkest conclusions that scientists have ever made. The scientific evidence is that reductions need to happen rapidly and they need to be substantial if the goals of Paris are to be met. There is a broad consensus now. The great majority of governments accept the need for change. The biggest emitter, China, is heavily engaged because its own scientists, with whom I have worked, are telling them exactly what scientists in other nations are saying: that weather is becoming more extreme and more people are being affected. The US has rejoined the Paris agreement under Biden, which is a hugely positive step since Trump left.
Your book is framed by Trump. It starts with him coming to power and ends with his defeat. How big was his impact on climate science?
I have never seen my scientific colleagues so fearful as they were on the night of the vote count for his possible re-election. We knew things could get much worse for the climate and for us if he won.
Trump regarded US scientific assessments about the climate as wrong. He put sceptics in key positions. Scott Pruit, the [former] head of the Environment Protection Agency, said warming is not connected to fossil fuels. Thankfully, Trump was only in power for four years, so there was a limited amount of damage he could do.
It increasingly feels as though there is a new dividing line in world politics. Instead of the old left v right, we are seeing a battle between those who acknowledge risk and those who deny it.
We know about risk from a scientific perspective. We are very confident about the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather and how those risks increase if we carry on emitting greenhouse gases, along with very scary risks such as the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets or the Amazon rainforest. We struggle to quantify how probable some of these things are but we know they are very significant risks and we want the world to act on them. We are very frustrated if politicians don’t get this point about risk. Just because there is a degree of scientific uncertainty, it doesn’t mean the risks aren’t very substantial.
One of your fellow climate scientists, Michael Mann, has suggested Russia is behind much of the climate denial movement. In your book, you describe a brutal meeting in Moscow that descended into a shouting match and walkouts…
Russia is a major exporter of gas and other fossil fuels and it can be ruthless in protecting that business, as I found in 2004, when I and other scientists were ambushed at a climate event in Moscow. We arrived to find that Putin’s main adviser, Andrei Illarionov, had gathered the world’s main climate deniers and given them a platform to argue climate science was corrupt and there was no link between fossil fuels and climate change, and that even if there was a link, that it would be beneficial to Russia. Illarionov even said climate change was being used to attack Russia. He even used the word “war”. The entire event was a show trial. The real Russian scientists were marginalised or silenced. All of us there were being used by Russia to gain leverage in international negotiations. I think that ruthlessness continues to this day, and makes it difficult for the scientific truth to be told there.
In the book, you describe some of the dirty tactics, particularly at the time of Climategate, when the leak and misrepresentation of hacked emails from climate scientist Philip Jones were used to stir up doubt ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. Jones and his colleagues were later fully exonerated, but what was behind this attack?
The timing was suspicious. This happened shortly before Copenhagen. Hacked data suddenly appeared on a Russian server and was then circulated rapidly among denier communities, along with frustrated questions from the source asking why more malicious work wasn’t yet being done with the information. There was clearly a group who were very keen to get hold of the material and weaponise it as effectively as possible. The UK media made things worse. The Daily Express and Daily Mail were very keen to use this material to argue global warming was a great scam. I would not say Copenhagen collapsed purely because of Climategate, but I would say the mood going into Copenhagen was bleak, and that is important.
Negotiations benefit from a good mood and are hampered by a bad mood. The hack was deployed to create that bad atmosphere.
I recall one scientist saying the community were “scared shitless” at the time. But the situation is very different now, isn’t it?
Climategate shook public confidence and caused climate scientists to be more hesitant as a community. Just when the public needed to know more, they were hearing less because of this dampening effect. Thankfully, science has moved on. The clarity of evidence is now much stronger and so is the language. With the latest IPCC report, we see that clarity coming through in a call for urgent action.
How has the stance of the media changed?
One important battle is now over. Most of the media now accept that climate change is happening and we have to engage with it, so there are fewer false-balance debates on TV between deniers and scientists. It is certainly not happening in the BBC any more. Denialism has moved now to questioning the cost of climate action. There is a risk that this debate will not be informed by science, but by putting up someone who says it is way too expensive against someone who says it is not. I hope the media will be wary once again of false balance on this. There is a whole raft of research and evidence that the costs of doing nothing are far greater.
Haven’t scientists also fallen short in the way they communicate their message – relying too much on cold hard data and not enough on storytelling that touches the emotions?
That is a fair criticism. I wish we as a community had engaged more with storytelling. Going back to the start of my career in the mid 1990s, we collectively thought that the numbers that we presented to policymakers would be enough to resonate with the public. We had not thought enough about communication strategy. At the IPCC meeting in 2007, for example, we produced a good report for policymakers, but it was dry for the public. Scientists thought that the information we generated in laboratories would carry the day. But back then we did not think enough about connecting with people’s worries and fears. Things have moved on quite a lot since then. A key aspect for me now is to engage with economists, social scientists and artists. We need to challenge each other about how we tell these stories.
How far should scientists go in the direction of activism?
My book is a kind of activism. What is important is that scientists shouldn’t hold back from the implications of what we say. Science needs to be acted on. That can only be done, in democratic nations at least, by citizens who make informed choices about how to act. There has to be a conversation between scientists, citizens and government. That is where people’s values, aspirations and hopes come in. There are a number of choices to be made – how to drive down emissions and how to make the most of the opportunities that this produces. The choices are made by citizens. But scientists should not be coy; we need to be more active and engaged about the implications. That is why I wrote this book and told this story.
Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial by Peter Stott is published by Atlantic Books (GBP18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply