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Dilemma ft. Climate Change | Rhosanna Jenkins

Last week (11-13th April), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met in Nairobi to consider the proposal made in Paris in December 2015 around producing a special report by 2018. The week before, UEA hosted the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research PhD Conference. These two events might appear completely unrelated. Sure, the chances of those at the IPCC meeting knowing (or caring) about a PhD conference are slim. But the reverse is not true.

The theme of the PhD conference was ‘Climate Dilemmas: Ideals vs Realities’. I was lucky enough to be part of the organising team for the 2016 conference so it was wonderful to watch it all come together. The best feedback I got from one of the delegates was that they left the conference clearly knowing how their research fitted into the bigger picture.

In December 2015, the world set some ambitious targets with the Paris Agreement; namely to keep global warming well below 2°C with the desire to limit to 1.5°C of warming. A current DILEMMA for the IPCC is whether they can produce a full, scientific report on the implications of 1.5°C of warming by 2018. Ideally, yes – this could strengthen the unprecedented global cooperation seen in Paris and allow countries to act on climate change. Realistically though, currently there isn’t sufficient research into the impacts of 1.5°C to support a special report.

Much research on the practicalities and impacts of staying below this threshold of warming is still needed. This point was echoed by both key speakers at the conference: Prof. Myles Allen of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and Dr Jolene Cook from the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change. They were both coming at the problem from different angles, but the message is still clear: the world needs more information.

So, it’s a great time to be a PhD student researching climate change then, right?

Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre, certainly thinks so. She stated in the conference’s closing session that we (everyone currently involved in research) have an incredible chance to conduct research in one of the most exciting times in history. Paris has provided the opportunity for academics of all levels to produce work that is very policy-relevant. The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming could be really important for future policies.

All speakers stressed the importance of effective communication of the science – at timescales that are important to decision-makers and the public. Corinne showed that the research community needs to get better at getting findings out into the world quickly. The 2018 IPCC report would be a great opportunity to practice this. It is essential that knowledge is available at the right time.

She firmly believes that every academic (at any level of research) should dedicate 20% of their time to communicating with wider audiences. This is a really interesting challenge for PhD students, who are primarily tasked with writing a thesis which, realistically, only a handful of people will ever read.

While the majority of PhD students, and even early career researchers, have vivid dreams that one day their research will change the world, when you are told that it could – you could - is a completely mind-boggling thing.

The challenge then becomes how to actually do it. Should we spend 20% of our time communicating research in ways other than thesis writing and academic publications? Would all supervisors support this? Will we be able to show what 1.5°C means for the planet? What a dilemma!


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