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Professor Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's department of global ecology.
Credit: Carbon Brief
10 July 2015 14:00

The Carbon Brief Interview: Prof Chris Field

Roz Pidcock


Roz Pidcock

10.07.2015 | 2:00pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Prof Chris Field

Chris Field is the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s department of global ecology and professor for interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University. He is the co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) working group two (WGII) and US nominee for the chair of the IPCC.

Field on whether working on the IPCC is a burden on an author’s time: “At least among the colleagues that I interact with, there’s a genuine enthusiasm about being able to contribute in a constructive way to what’s really the defining problem of our era.”

On making the language of the IPCC as clear and simple as possible: “It’s like trying to write poetry, but with hundreds of people shouting suggestions in different languages. So it’s a real challenge, but I think it’s the most important challenge we face.”

On making sure the IPCC reports reach as wide an audience as possible: “I think there really needs to be a serious investment in making sure the products are understandable and I think the delivery of those products should be ambitious, should go beyond the printed word.”

On mitigation versus adaptation: “Investments in adaptation and mitigation can actually be complementary to each other, especially if they’re part of a broader strategy of sustainable societal development.”

On the IPCC’s focus on “most likely” scenarios: “If we really want to deal with the problem of climate change as the problem of managing risk, we need to be more ambitious about exploring the entire parameter space, including low probability, high consequence outcomes – the tails.”

On where future research on impacts needs to focus: “We’re only beginning to pull together the science on the question of whether changes in climate are really contributive to changes in patterns of human migration, changes in patterns of conflict, changes in risk, so people falling into poverty fast.”

On carbon budgets: “[They] introduce the important point that no matter what the temperature target is, eventually CO2 emissions need to go to zero.”

On whether 1.5C is still feasible: “The message is already clear, that if the world does want to strive to limit warming to 1.5C or less, we don’t have very much of the carbon budget left.”

On negative emissions technologies: “I don’t have a good feeling for how far we ought to be pushing the negative emissions in our set of technology options in order to feel comfortable that we’ve explored the whole parameter space. But we ought to at least explore the range that people in negotiations will be talking about.”

On scientists as advocates: “The fact that someone has a PhD behind their name doesn’t mean that’s all they are…If I speak as a parent, I speak from my personal experience and my aspirations for my own children.”

On expressing his personal views if elected IPCC chair: “It would be irresponsible to ignore the strong identification that whenever I appear as IPCC chair, I will be identified as such, rather than as the parent of two lovely children.”

On the IPCC’s process for catching any errors: “In AR5 we were a lot more attentive to quality control than we were in the AR4.”

On whether young scientists should aim to work on the IPCC reports: “I think that climate change is probably the defining challenge of the 21st century and there’s a huge need for more expertise, especially expertise among scientists who are focused on testing and developing solutions for the climate change problem.”

On climate sceptics: “I think that having an IPCC that is visible, transparent and has high quality leadership is going to be an important part of making sure that the science isn’t marginalised in any country.”

CB: The IPCC has obviously now decided to continue producing big assessment reports every five or seven years and there will definitely be an AR6 [the sixth assessment report]. Would you have preferred to have seen smaller, more frequent reports, as some suggested?

CF: I’m not sure the IPCC has decided to do big assessment reports. They’ve decided to keep the basic structure of the three working groups, with an increased focus on the synthesis report and with a series of special reports.

CB: One of the favourite topics, if you like, for the next special report is food security. Would that be your preference, or is there something that you think is more urgently needed, such as Monaco’s suggestion for a focus on the oceans, for example?

CF: I love the special reports. They’re an opportunity to pull together the best available thinking on critical topics that are really focused, that require the expertise across the whole range of the working groups, and that are really ripe scientifically. There are whole bunch of those, a number have been discussed. Oceans are kind of a new topic, in the IPCC, and one that’s richly interdisciplinary. Food security is also richly interdisciplinary, would be a great topic for a special report. There’s been a suggestion that we do a special report on desertification, another suggestion for a special report on interactions between adaptation and mitigation. The list of compelling topics is really long, and I think it represents a genuine opportunity for the IPCC to add value to the dialogue.

CB: So is there an option to do more of them, or has it reached the limit in terms of scientists’ capacity?

CF: The capacity of the IPCC has got a number of constraints on it. They’re more about the finances than the human capacity. The way I think about it is that, we can be more efficient if we make the work focused, we can be more efficient if we don’t pile up a whole bunch of products so that they’re trying to come to conclusion at the same time. If we spread the work out, if we make the topics sufficiently focused, I think think there is an opportunity to have high quality, useful products on a wide range of issues.

CB: So, it has been noted that IPCC work does take up an awful lot of climate scientists’ time, as it rightly should, I suppose. Do you think that is fair, do you think the balance is right, or do you think the burden or perhaps the timescales on climate scientists are ever too much or too tight?

CF: The world is incredibly fortunate to have the volunteer inputs that the scientific community makes to the IPCC. That represents millions and millions of dollars worth of volunteer contributions to advance the dialogue on an important topic. Incredible value added. At least among the colleagues that I interact with, there’s a genuine enthusiasm about being able to contribute in a constructive way to what’s really the defining problem of our era. So I think the willingness and enthusiasm are not really in question. A broader issue is how much can people reasonably do, what’s new, what’s exciting, and I think we want to make we have an ongoing discussion about where the investments that the scientific community and that the governments are making in overseeing and watching the process really yield the biggest returns.

CB: And so how might you encourage early career scientists to get involved with the IPCC, and to incorporate it into, perhaps, their already quite hectic PhD schedules, for example?

CF: Well, I think that involvement in the IPCC is a great opportunity for young scientists. One of the things we did in the WGII contribution to AR5 is really reach out and try and build young scientists into the operation that was providing the technical support. So every chapter had at least one volunteer chapter scientist because we didn’t have the money to pay them, but what we found is overwhelming enthusiasm for people to be involved, and these volunteer chapter scientists helped running down hard to find papers, helped organise the literature databases, helping pull the important data points into figures, and really got a great grounding in the nature of an assessment and also contributed in a major way. More broadly at the level of the authors, it is important that we capture lots and lots of disciplines, lots and lots of regional perspectives, and also the skill sets and orientations of scientists at all different levels of seniority. So being ambitious about diversity is something that’s really important for me.

CB: The summaries for policymakers have been criticised as being a bit too hard to read. What do you think of the suggestion to seek advice from science writers and graphic designers, for example, to help make them more accessible?

CF: I think the core responsibility of the IPCC is to distribute products that are accessible to their intended audience, and with the summaries for policymakers we’re really speaking to leaders in government and people who don’t necessarily have a strong science background. We face a very important but difficult challenge to make the findings crystal clear to people with a wide range of technical backgrounds, at the same time that they’re scientifically accurate. In many ways that’s the core responsibility we have in producing an SPM, and I think that they’re several elements that go into making that effective. One is thinking from the start about who the audience is, what, how the audience will perceive different kinds of figures and different constructions in the text. I think a second really important part involves the dynamic during the approval session. Trying to understand why it is that countries aren’t understanding one particular point, and how to rephrase it in a way that makes the science clear and actionable. And then finally, I think the author team has a big responsibility to both in the core writing and in the responses during the approval session to find words that capture the messages in the simplest possible text. It’s like trying to write poetry, but with hundreds of people shouting suggestions in different languages. So it’s a real challenge, but I think it’s the most important challenge we face.

CB: But it is more than just language at the same time though, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not as simple as if the SPMs were written in an accessible way and in a way that everyone was happy with, the message would be getting through stronger?

CF: A lot of it is communication. I think that you can divide the challenges of presenting the science into two main components. There’s the component about whether the countries really embrace the science message, whether they’re comfortable that the message being being presented accurately captures what’s in the underlying literature. And then there’s the question of whether it’s understandable. In my experience, most of the difficulties come in this understandability area rather than whether the material is an accurate reflection of the underlying material.

CB: On communication then – looking back, do you think more could have been done to make the IPCC’s findings as a whole more media-friendly. And, related to that, how much of a priority will improving communication be if you got the role?

CF: Let me say that I think the core responsibility is making the findings clear. Clear isnt exactly the same as media friendly, but I do think we haven’t fulfilled our responsibilities unless our intended audience understands what it is we’re trying to say. So, I think there really needs to be a serious investment in making sure the products are understandable and I think the delivery of those products should be ambitious, should go beyond the printed word and should involve entire scientific community being enthusiastic about helping explaining them, about helping provide a local context. It should involve a range of different kinds of products that connect the messages with different audiences.

CB: Related to that then, other than via the media, how can the IPCC reach audiences other than policymakers. Is that part of the IPCC’s remit or is that for intermediaries?

CF: There actually are several avenues by which the IPCC can reach audiences and a lot of them are conversations. What I find is that the climate issue is really difficult and for many kinds of stakeholders – in governments, in communities and in the private sector – the opportunity to ask questions is in many cases more important than the opportunity to read a densely worded document. So, one of the things I think is probably our most important opportunity is to make sure every author who’s worked on the report has the opportunity to be trained to really effectively communicate its contents and feels empowered to do that.

CB: You mentioned understanding the result, framing climate change as a risk is very prominent in the IPCC reports, especially obviously in WGII, but that doesn’t always carry over to the media. Do you think that the media or the general public have a difficulty understanding risk?

CF: I think risk is intrinsic to the way people deal with their everyday lives. You know, risk comes up every time someone climbs into a car and decides whether to fasten their seatbelt. And risk comes up every time a community decides whether to build a seawall, or whether a company decides to hedge an investment. So, we have a wide range of sophisticated tools for managing risk. I’m not sure we always deploy them effectively, but I think risk is intrinsic to modern life. Well, it’s intrinsic to historical life as well, and one of the reasons I think the IPCC framing is so effective for the IPCC is it makes it clear that the climate challenge – dealing with the climate challenge – is in many ways parallel to dealing with challenges we face in everyday life. We have uncertainty about many key components, but we know a lot of useful pieces of information and the challenge is to fit together the things we know with the uncertainties to make good decisions.

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CB: Looking at the budget for AR5, WGI was actually the only one to spend all the allocated fund for communication. Does that signal a difference in priorities between the working groups?

CF: Is that true?

CB: Yes.

CF: Is there money left for WG2?

CB: Yes. I suppose it carries over as well, so it’s still in the pot.

CF: I think that, throughout the AR5 process, WG2 had a very, very ambitious approach to outreach. My own fundraising efforts independent of the IPCC raised about a million dollars for IPCC-related outreach, that we ambitiously spent in derivative products, travelling around the world, author training, a wide range of activities, and now that I know that there’s funds left we’ll capitalise on using them. [Smiles]

CB: I’ll send you the IPCC paperwork that says so.

CF: OK, great! [Smiles].

CB: It’s also been suggested that the working groups work a little bit too independently of each other. Do you think there’s an element of truth in that firstly, and then how would you go about making better connections between the working groups?

CF: Well, I think the IPCC is most effective when climate change is conceptualised as a single issue. And one of the opportunities that the chair has is to crystallise a vision of how the work is going to proceed. I think another opportunity that the chair has is to provide leadership that enhances the interactions among the working groups. So I think there are ways for the working groups to really have the independence that makes them vibrant, while still working in a way that’s coordinated and focused on a single, unified set of goals.

CB: And how about the synthesis report? How big an opportunity do you think the synthesis report is to make those connections, and how early do you need to start that scoping process?

CF: Well, I think it’s clear that countries have been asking for a synthesis report that is conceptualised from the start, as a key product of the assessment. My feeling is that we should really start with the synthesis report, and figure out how to construct working group reports that feed into that in the most useful, integrated way. One of the questions – it’s been open for discussion in past reports – is, well, do you know what the questions are for the synthesis report until you’ve done the working group reports? And I think that now we have so much knowledge, and so much sophistication about the climate change issue, and, in fact, we can go the direction of designing a synthesis report, figuring out what angles we’re going to take, what are the question that are going to be explored, and then customising the working group reports so that they contribute to that set of goals in the most effective way.

CB: How do you think the IPCC process can be made more transparent? Especially the SPM plenaries, do you think they, for example, should be open to the media?

CF: The IPCC process is actually pretty transparent. There aren’t many scientific enterprises where the whole world gets a chance to look at every preliminary draft, every comment on the draft, every set of author responses. And so the challenge that we’ve been trying to deal with in fine-tuning the transparency is the question of: how do you create an environment in which everybody feels empowered to bring forward his or her best ideas and really subject them to the crucible of intense debate without feeling self-conscious about whether those are going to be criticised. And I do think there are lot of was to be more open and more ambitious in making the process inclusive and making the process transparent.

CB: What do you think about possibility of making the process open to scientific study? So, as I understand there was a secretariat discussion in January, I think, about the prospect of having social scientists come in and observe IPCC discussion and do their own studies and assessment of how the process works.

CF: So, I’m incredibly proud of the IPCC. A really unique experiment in, kind-of -a unique partnership between the government and the scientists, and I would love more of the world to know about what eh IPCC is and how it works. Beginning early on in AR5 we had requests from social scientists to do studies of the process, in a kind of formal, social science framing, and I’ve been enthusiastic about those from the start, and we’ve been working progressively to put the pieces together to make it possible for studies like that to move forward. But there were a lot of pieces. It had to be discussed with the panel, it involved all the countries. Recently, we had a expert meeting that brought together some authors, some country representatives, and some of the social scientists who do these kind of studies to figures out, what are the guidelines going to be that are going to make everybody feel that the investment is a useful one that is going to protect the scientists, give the social scientists the information they need, and let the whole process working in an effective way. I feel really good about where we are with that. We still have a few small steps in order to bring things to closure, but I think that the opportunity to share with the world how the IPCC works is getting moved along.

CB: Talking of social scientists, do you think that there’s enough involvement of the social sciences further upstream in the actual writing process?

CF: In the writing process? Well, one the things that’s most interesting and most important about the challenge of climate change is that it impacts essentially every aspect of the way the earth’s system works, every aspect of the way human societies work, and it is a real challenge to figure out how to embrace the full range of disciplines that have something to say. I would say that my experience with the AR5 is that we would have benefitted from being even more ambitious about including human dimensions perspectives in our analysis of climate change, its impacts and the options for solutions.

CB: So, let’s talk about you a little bit. What is your own research background and how does your experience make you well suited for the job?

CF: I’m a climate scientist. I have worked with a focus on understanding impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, but my own work spans the areas that are covered by all three of the working groups. I’ve worked with physical scientists on improving the models that we use to represent climate change. I’ve worked with economists on exploring the relationship between the climate problem and the tragedies of the commons. I’ve worked a lot of sustainable energy solutions. So my expertise covers all the way from the physics end of WG1 to the economics end of WG3, but with a real focus on impacts, adaptation and vulnerable, which is, you know, really where climate makes a differences. Where real people, real economies have to deal with the issue.

CB: So it is sometimes argued that adaptation should play second fiddle, if you like, to mitigation. If you cut emissions, you erase the problem. Others would say we can adapt enough so that the impacts become manageable. Obviously, they’re both very simplistic, but what is the right balance to strike between adaptation and mitigation, and do you feel that the IPCC reports are clear enough on the fact that it’s not an either/or?

CF: I think there was a sense early on in the history of the climate issue where it sort of made sense to conceptualise the problem as, well, if we try hard enough with mitigation, we won’t really need to think that much about adaptation. But we’re really too far along for that kind of a framing to make sense. We know that we’re already seeing impacts and that those impacts need to be adapted to. And we know that no matter how ambitious we are with mitigation, there are going to be further changes in climate and further impacts that are going to require adaptation. But we also know that no matter how ambitious we are with adaptation, that if there’s no investment at all in mitigation, that there’re going to be some impacts that we simply can’t deal with. So, I think it’s increasingly clear that adaptation and mitigation need to be handled together. They both need a major emphasis, and one of the things that’s really interesting about the current understanding of the problem, is that in many cases, investments in adaptation and mitigation can actually be complementary to each other, especially if they’re part of a broader strategy of sustainable societal development.

CB: So, it does seem like the most policy-relevant areas are in WGII and WGIII. Do we still, do we need WG1? What’s the role of WGI, in your view?

CF: Well, we need the science, the impacts, adaptation, vulnerability and we need the mitigation. I think that a lot of the opportunities in the physical science area come in aspects of the problem that haven’t received a huge amount of focus in the past. One of the areas where there are lots of opportunities for more useful contributions has to do with downscaling and making sure that we understand the climate issues, at the scale where they impact people. I think another area where we really could benefit from increased investment in the physical end of the climate issue is in understanding the tails of the distributions: what happens with extremes, how do the probabilities of extremes shift, and what happens if climate sensitivity is at the extreme high end or the extreme low end. So, in the AR5 we made a real commitment to exploring the entire parameter space, all of the different possible outcomes. But there’s been this historical focus on emphasising the most likely outcomes. If we really want to deal with the problem of climate change as the problem of managing risk, we need to be more ambitious about exploring the entire parameter space, including low probability, high consequence outcomes – the tails.

CB: So, as a climate scientist, what areas of research excite you most, what remaining questions do you want to see answered more than others? You mentioned climate sensitivity there. Is that something you’d like to see pinned down?

CF: I think that the big opportunities are in better integration of all of the different components. Better integration of the climate science components, with the human dimensions components, with the technology and economic components. I think that we really need a kind of new generation of science and a new generation of scientists. One example is that it’s quite difficult to study adaptation because very few adaptation investments are really set up as experiments. But they should be because we have a responsibility to make sure that we learn from what we do. Relatively few mitigation investments are designed as experiments, and we should be ambitious to make sure that we’re not only making investments in solving the climate problem, but we’re also making investments in being able to be even more efficient with our actions in future.

CB: Where those examples of successful adaptation and resilience building and best practice examples, if you like, where they are happening, how do you make sure that you capture those in reports? Because presumably the formal literature just isn’t there in some cases.

CF: Well, I mean it partly involves developing a new understanding of the way projects should be deployed. One frustrating feature of the adaptation landscape it that relatively few adaptation projects get the level of follow-up and the level of monitoring that really allow them to be used as experiments. Relatively few adaptation projects are designed as a experiment so that as the actual adaptation investment is deployed, you’re able to benefit comparing areas that have received the treatment and areas that haven’t. And there are lots of creative ideas that are floating around in the community and where I think we are in terms of the science enterprise is really, it’s exciting, it’s creating a new discipline.

CB: Back to impacts, just for a second. Are there any impacts that, in you view, weren’t covered enough, didn’t get enough attention in WG2 of AR5, or that have just progressed so much since AR5 that there’s really a lot more since the WG2 report was published?

CF: We tried in AR5 to provide a comprehensive summary of the literature, and I’m very proud of the job we did. But the literature is rapidly advancing in lots of areas, especially in the area of implications of risk, especially risks from extremes. So this area of single event attribution which has been pioneered by climate scientists is really becoming increasingly rich, and is providing better and better opportunity to think about climate implications of climate change. Many of the areas that are going to be most important in the future are areas where the impacts of the climate change are indirect. I think of them as social and economic teleconnections, and we’re only beginning to pull together the science on the question of whether changes in climate are really contributive to changes in patterns of human migration, changes in patterns of conflict, changes in risk, so people falling into poverty fast. Those are in many ways the most compelling questions we needs to deal with, and the science of understanding how to do the analysis in a way that’s accurate, reproducible and traceable, is really just coming together.

CB: How do you think climate scientist can strike the right balance, between talking about areas of uncertainty, which the media tend to pick up on, and areas of more well established science which are perhaps more important for policy but less ‘newsy’. You’ve mentioned a few like climate sensitivity, like real-time attribution. What balance do you think scientists need to strike between those really cutting-edge areas of uncertainty and the more solid ground?

CF: Well, the essence of a risk-framing is present and accurate characterisation of the things we know and the things we don’t know. And one of the features of the AR5 that I think represents a tremendous maturation of the science is a more nuanced way to talk about risks, and to pull together the science that is explicit about the things we don’t know, but really highlights areas where the things we do know lead to concern. So I think that there’s not really an intrinsic tensions, but there really is a demand for a sophisticated enough treatment that we can handle both the topics that we know a lot about, and the topics that of really substantial concern, but with a lot of uncertainties yet to be resolved.

CB: Carbon budgets were a new concept for the last IPCC report. How effective do you think the concept of budgets is?

CF: Well, the idea that the amount of climate change is directly related to cumulative emissions is not new in the IPCC. The second report had a very clear statement that the total amount of warming is much more strongly connected with cumulative emissions than it is with the pace of emissions. And so, what I see about the AR5 framing is that it really brought the issue of cumulative carbon budgets into focus and it used it as a very effective teaching tool to help people understand that there’s a limited amount of carbon that’s available. Another really important component of thinking about cumulative carbon budgets is that it introduces the important point that no matter what the temperature target is, eventually CO2 emissions need to go to zero.

CB: A late addition to the WG1 report was a carbon budget for 1.5C, and it was calculated based on emissions data up to 2011. So, brought up to date, I think I worked out that means there are six years left of current emissions left before that budget is exhausted. Is that really feasible, in your view?

CF: Well, the community has not really had the opportunity to do a detailed analysis of the more ambitious targets. And one of the things that’s important to remember is we’ve spoken about issues of climate sensitivity and lags in the climate system is that we’re still working in a densely probabilistic mode when we talk about whether or not we have 300 tonnes, or 500 tonnes or 1,000 tonnes of carbon left to reach any given budget target. But I think that the message is already clear, that if the world does want to strive to limit warming to 1.5C or less, we don’t have very much of the carbon budget left. And one of the things that we have a real responsibility to do is clarify what the impacts are at more or less ambitious levels of mitigation.

CB: Some people have suggested recently that a 1.5C target is not a feasible target given its reliance on BECCS [biomass energy with carbon capture storage] and that actually having a scenario for 1.5C somehow damages scientists’ credibility. It sounds like you don’t agree with that?

CF: My feeling is that the scientific community has a responsibility to explore all of the options, and it also needs to do that in a responsible way. And it may turn out that the other consequences, the side effects of large commitments to biomass energy with carbon capture storage and are not acceptable and that would turn stakeholders away from deciding that the more ambitious temperature target connected with the side effects wouldn’t be a useful way to go. But I can’t imagine a nuanced, sophisticated way to answering that question if you haven’t done the studies. I think the scientific foundation needs to be in place to make the best possible decisions.

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CB: So, why stop at 1.5C, I suppose? If we’re already looking at scenarios that rely so heavily on negative emissions, why not aim for 1C, if there’s such faith in the technology? With negative emissions as an underlying assumption, where does it stop?

CF: You know, we may in 100 years have technology for removing CO2 from the air that does it in an inexpensive, efficient, non-space-requiring way. And I think there’s a decent chance that future generations are going to rue that they needed to invest in that. But you know, the issue with side effects of mitigation activities is going to be a really important one as we look at scaling up renewables, as we look at scaling up biomass for afforestation and reduced deforestation. And one of the things we want to be ambitious about is making sure we’ve characterised all the options. But I think we also want to recognise that there will be some limits beyond which the exploration is requiring extra work without acquiring a lot of extra value and I don’t have a good feeling for how far we ought to be pushing the negative emissions in our set of technology options in order to feel comfortable that we’ve explored the whole parameter space. But we ought to at least explore the range that people in negotiations will be talking about.

CB: What do you think success would look in Paris at the end of the year? And what happens if we don’t get an agreement?

CF: Well, coming from the scientific community, my idea of success is that the negotiators use the foundation from science to produce an ambitious, meaningful agreement. We have a genuine opportunity to build on the great science that’s reflected in the AR5 and I’m confident that if negotiators can find the operating space to do that, they can come up with a good agreement.

CB: Is there still a role for science to play between now and then or is the job of science done, do you think?

CF: Oh, there’s a tremendous role. The reason why we’re all here in Paris in July is that in many ways this conference and 2,000-and-some scientists are really gathered to express, more than anything else, their willingness to be part of the process and their commitment to making sure that their knowledge is available as a foundation going into the Paris COP.

CB: There is a lot of talk of building momentum in the run up to the Paris COP and from lots of different angles. So, you know, see the Papal encyclical, the divestment movement and you’re talking about mobilisation of the scientific community. That’s a lot on it’s own. How important do you think the international policy arena is – the COP process – when you’ve got all of that going on?

CF: Well, you know, the climate change problem affects everybody and the solution is going to be most effective if it involves millions of different conversations around the world. And the IPCC is an incredibly potent source as a foundation for many of those conversations. And I think that it is really important as we move towards the Paris COP that many of these conversations are building momentum. And I think it’s most important if they build momentum in a coordinated way. So, that the issues with communities of faith are really recognising the science and recognising that faith-based approaches add value. If the economists are looking at the science and recognising that there are opportunities, if the private sector is looking at the science and saying a different landscape could be one that opens new doors, new opportunities. So, across the spectrum I think there need to be conversations that are not just about the science and not just about the policymakers, but it’s really about society recognising this is a problem that deserves the focus and it deserves to be solved.

CB: So, we hear a lot that the IPCC’s role is to assess the science of climate change in a policy relevant, but policy neutral way. But with climate science a lot more political than it was 20 years ago, say, and the understanding of the impacts and climate risks a lot stronger, is it still possible for the IPCC to remain policy neutral? Or have those definitions changed at all?

CF: Absolutely. The IPCC needs to remain policy neutral and it needs to provide information that is relevant to decisions among policies. Personally, I’ve always been a bit mystified by the suggestion that the fact that the issue has got lots and lots of politics makes it difficult for the science to not be policy prescriptive. There are a huge range of policy levers that the world is experimenting with already. And understanding what those levers do, understanding which ones work and which ones don’t is really relevant to crafting good policy in future. I think that as the policy environment that surrounds climate gets to be richer and richer, the requirements for good science evaluating that policy options and evaluating the underlying science becomes more and more relevant, but not in any way prescriptive.

CB: How about on a more personal level, what do you think about climate scientists expressing their own political views? Scientists as advocates.

CF: Well, most scientists are parents, they’re teachers, they’re grandparents, they’re members of churches. The fact that someone has a PhD behind their name doesn’t mean that’s all they are. So when I speak as a representative of the IPCC, I tell the IPCC’s story. If I speak as a parent, I speak from my personal experience and my aspirations for my own children.

CB: Can the IPCC chair be free to act and comment from a personal perspective, or would you feel that you were representing the IPCC at all times?

CF: Well, we were talking about climate scientists in general a minute ago, and I think that scientists have a responsibility to speak both as citizens and as scientists, and the position of IPCC chair is a little bit special because the identification of the individual with the institution is so strong that transitioning into a phase where I say, well, I’m not speaking for the IPCC now, doesn’t have the same level of credibility as it would for me as a co-chair, me as an author, me as a researcher in the field, so I do feel that there’s a really strong responsibility to recognise that the IPCC chairmanship carries with it this very strong connection and that it would be irresponsible to ignore the strong identification that whenever I appear as IPCC chair, I will be identified as such, rather than as the parent of two lovely children.

CB: Many people will see the new chairmanship as an opportunity for a fresh start or a time or renewal – re-energising, maybe, for the IPCC. What things do you think could mark the start of a new chapter?

CF: There are some ways in which the IPCC doesn’t need a new chapter. The IPCC needs to continue to provide definitive assessments of what we know and what we don’t know about the issue of climate change. I think we have a range of wonderful opportunities to hit new topics with heightened focus and a heightened appreciation of how the information can be communicated. I think there’s an amazing amount of new knowledge out there to be integrated and I think that the IPCC for the future can be a lot more attune to the needs of the community and delivering those needs in an effective way, in a way that includes written reports, that includes conversations and includes a real commitment to making sure the science information is understood and available for utilisation.

CB: What do you think [Rajendra] Pachauri’s biggest achievements were in his 12-year stint as IPCC chair? And equally what lessons do you think have been learnt in that time?

CF: The IPCC has continued to provide high quality science products and, you know, from the start in 1988 through the most recent assessments, the enthusiasm of the scientific community, the dedication, that commitment to quality, it’s an amazing accomplishment, and I think that all the leaders all the way through the history, not only of the chair but the co-chairs and all the authors, all the representatives of the government, deserve a tremendous amount of credit.

CB: Do you think the IPCC has done enough to learn from mistakes in AR4, so Amazongate and Himalayagate raise their heads from time to time in the media, for example?

CF: The IPCC has a really ambition process for making sure that errors don’t creep in, and the most important thing to understand from the errors in the AR4 is that you really need to recognise that it’s probably not possible to eliminate all errors and what you need is a thoughtful process for correcting errors when they’re identified and I feel very comfortable that the process we have in place now allows us to fix errors, but I also feel like in the AR5 we were a lot more attentive to quality control than we were in the AR4. Partly it was because the questions were framed in a more sophisticated, nuanced way and partly it’s because we made a much bigger investment in double checking, triple checking, quadruple checking every number.

CB: You talked about the IPCC continuing with the good work, the solid work, that it’s done until now. One of Pachauri’s suggestions was the IPCC could have a role in assessing countries’ INDCs [ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions], for example. Do you think that is something the IPCC could do, or would that be a step too far?

CF: There have been many, many suggestions about things that the IPCC can do in the future, and there also is a range of different audiences where the IPCC can connect most effectively. My feeling is that we want to recognise in the whole assessment business that is the IPCC built products are primarily for decision makers, that they also have a critical role in informing the public and informing the private sector, and I see all of those roles as coming together. There are a number of technical requirements that will come into place as the world advances with an agenda to tackle the climate problem and exactly the structure of the mechanisms that could be most effective in providing that technical information remains to be worked out. There’ll be a lot of delicate decisions required in order to make sure that this technical evaluation of progress meets all the requirements that need to be in place, and some of those are closely aligned with the work the IPCC does. Some are less closely aligned and exactly where the boundary between IPCC and other work should be needs to be considered really carefully.

CB: IPCC senior positions are unpaid so whoever is elected IPCC chair will presumably need to remain an employee of their former institution…

CF: That’s correct.

CB: Can an IPCC chair give the job their full attention, if that’s the case?

CF: Yes. For any institution that employs an IPCC chair, I think that institution needs to recognise that their employee is going to be doing something a little different than most of the other employees, but I also think it adds quite a lot of value to the institution. The job of chair of the IPCC is mostly about empowering a broad community and the leadership is a subtle domain, and my feeling is being IPCC chair requires huge commitment, and it’s a commitment that I’m happy to be in a position that I might make, but I also feel like it’s important to recognise that it’s mostly about empowering a broad community, it’s mostly about starting conversations, it’s mostly about inspiring people to do better than they thought they could do, and at least for me, that’s not about who pays your salary, it’s about the quality the individual brings.

CB: Do you think there’s enough representing in the IPCC of the emerging economies and developing economies? If not, how might you go about addressing that?

CF: Increasing the engagement of the diverse communities of climate change-related sciences –  regional diversity, gender diversity, diversity of seniority – are all really, really important. We do face some profound problems with identifying, recruiting and empowering authors from areas, especially that don’t have a rich tradition of scientific research and a lot of scientific infrastructure and there a number of specific steps we could take now that would enhance the engagement of scientists from those countries. We could be more ambitious about identifying them so when we start selecting authors we’ve got a really rich list to choose from. We could be more ambitious that the authors have the resources they need in terms of access to the literature. And in terms of recognition in their own institutions that they need the time available to work on the IPCC. And I think, finally, there are a lot of things we can do to be even more ambitious about making sure the authors are empowered once they enter the system. That means training all the people in the institution, all the way from the chair and co-chairs to the TSU [technical support unit] and CLAs [contributing lead authors] and the rest of the author teams, on how to interact effectively with people from different cultures and making sure that we have procedures in place so that, if authors have concerns about their respectfulness of the environment, that those get addressed. And what we’re really talking about doing is empowering the creativity and integrity of a broad author team.

CB: You mentioned gender diversity a minute ago. But there are, as yet, no female candidates for the IPCC chair job. Does that suggest there’s a long way to go on that?

CF: I think we have a lot of opportunities to enhance gender diversity across the IPCC leadership team and the author teams, for sure. And whether…I’m not sure how to answer your question about whether we have a long way to go that there’s no candidate for chair. I hope it doesn’t mean we have a long way to go. I hope what it means is that we’re making good progress on gender diversity and that we’ll see the implications of that playing out in a positive way in the near term.

CB: A question about social media. Do you yourself use Twitter, for example, or Facebook, or other social media platforms? And if so, how do you use it or how have you noticed it being used to communicate the IPCC’s work?

CF: So, the answer is that I do use Twitter and in the run up to the AR5 release was my most active period of tweeting. And I used it primarily to highlight the scientific papers that were being written by AR5 authors, mainly just to generate a conversation around the report and a recognition that the people who were contributing to the report were also doing a wide range of other amazing things.

CB: What advice would you give to young people thinking about a career in climate science. What challenges do you think they face now that, you know, perhaps you didn’t?

CF: Well, I’ve had a lot of fun times â?¦

CB: Or what challenges did you face that they might not?

CF: Well, you know, I think that it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to work on a scientific area that has real world relevance and in my students, the thing I see most frequently is a passion to be involved with an issue that really matters. And climate science is certainly that. I think that what’s required for success in this topic is just being totally committed to having an approach that’s grounded in integrity. That understands that there’s a huge amount of science still to do and that there are wonderful opportunities for being engaged in structuring solutions that don’t jeopardise any aspect of the scientist. I think that climate change is probably the defining challenge of the 21st century and there’s a huge need for more expertise, especially expertise among scientists who are focused on testing and developing solutions for the climate change problem. I’m a strong advocate for people coming in, I can’t actually think of any reason why people shouldn’t get into a career in climate change research.

CB: If you weren’t running yourself, which of the other candidates might get your vote?

CF: Let me just say that one of the things that convinces me that the IPCC is the right idea is that a number of talented people have been willing to make a big commitment to leadership and the institution. I’d be really worried if there was only one person who was willing to step forward and be the chair, and I’d be even more worried if there was nobody. But I think the fact that there are talented people from around the world is actually a real validation that there is something of value there.

CB: You obviously call the US home so you are very aware of the political and media landscape in the US where there is a certain section that is quite hostile to climate scientists. We see it in Australia. We see it in the UK sometimes. These Anglophone countries seem to have a particular portions of the media and politicians who have an objection to climate science. What is your response to that? And do you think given some of the moments of the past five or six years, do you think we are moving away from that? Or do you still think it’s an intense as in the past? How do you respond and react to that?

CF: Well, I think that the solutions to the challenge of climate change will be the best if they are grounded on a foundation of science. One of the things that is most important in the dialogue going forward is to make sure that the science isn’t marginalised. I think that having an IPCC that is visible, transparent and has high quality leadership is going to be an important part of making sure that the science isn’t marginalised in any country.

CB: Finally, in WGII, you looked – across all of the working groups and the synthesis report, in fact – at climate modelling and also economic modelling. Both have their critics. In your view, what are the areas of improvement in both economical modelling, in terms of climate change, and climate modelling. One particular example out of WGII is around modelling the costs of inaction or the impacts of climate change. We saw the gap in the literature to model beyond, say, 2.5C and it seemed to be a kind of fog in that we don’t really know what’s beyond that. Therefore, in terms of policy relevance, it’s hard. And yet we know how much the cost of building a coal-fired power station, or a nuclear power station, is. How do you see that?

CF: Well, one thing I’d like to correct about what you just said is that we don’t actually know a lot about what it’s going to cost to deploy a lot of different kinds of mitigation options, particular the costs of PV [photovoltaics] which have come down way faster than predicted. So when you say we know, we want to recognise the history of predicting future technology breakthroughs is not really that compelling. So what I think is that there is a wide range of opportunities for improving the technical guts of the models. But I actually think there’s a bigger opportunity, and the bigger opportunity is effectively interfacing the technical components of the models, the expert judgement of the researchers who have a really sophisticated feel for what’s in the models and what’s not in the models, with an increased emphasis on decision making under uncertainty so that we can pull together the quantitative results from the models, the added value from the expert judgement that’s bringing in factors that aren’t handled by the models, or might be considered outside the boundaries along with good decision-making under uncertainty. We have a tremendous opportunities for advancing the science at that three-way interface.

CB: Thank you very much.

CF. My pleasure, thank you.

Main image: Professor Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s department of global ecology.

(The interview was conducted by Roz Pidcock on 8 July 2015 at the Our Common Future conference held at the UNESCO building in Paris.)

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