Scientists urged to step up climate warnings

Climate change negotiators urge scientific community to deliver starker warnings in attempt to close communication gap with politicians

One of the UK's leading climate change diplomats has today called on the scientific community to paint a more vivid and accessible picture of the threat posed by climate change that his grandmother would be able to understand.

Speaking at the opening of the International Alliance of Research University's (IARU) climate congress in Copenhagen, John Ashton, special envoy for climate change at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, argued that there remained a significant communication gap between the scientific and political community.

"Politicians are not very good at understanding messages from scientists," he warned, adding that some were even guilty of using the "rigour with which scientists communicate" to wilfully play down climate change threats.

Arguing that this communication gap represents an "existential crisis" for the scientific community he urged climate scientists to paint a "more vivid picture" of the potential impact of global warming.

"We need a much stronger sense of urgency," Ashton said. "We have not begun to close the gap between what we are doing and what needs to be done."

He added that politicians tended to make decisions based on risks likely to be experienced within the average lifetime and advised scientists to tailor messages accordingly.

Highlighting the worst case scenarios of one to two metre sea level rises over the next 50 years, Ashton argued that the onus was on scientists to make the threat "much more vivid than it is perceived to be".

However, he also warned against defeatism, arguing that the best way to deliver a world that is six degrees hotter is to tell politicians that the chance of delivering safer levels of two degree warming has already passed.

His comments were echoed by Danish climate change minister Connie Hedegaard, who said that climate scientists needed to "bring their best game" to the negotiating table over the coming months and make their case compelling. " Everyone must understand the scale of the problem and the fact that we must act, " she said.

Responding to their calls, professor Katherine Richardson, chair of the IARU steering committee, said that political and business leaders also had a responsibility to reframe the debate surrounding climate change science, arguing that it should be perceived as a risk, rather than a "prediction problem".

Drawing on the IPCC's most recent report, which concluded that there was a 90 per cent probability man's activity was at the root of global warming, she noted that meant there was only a 10 per cent chance mankind could not act to limit the threat.

"If you went to the airport and someone said to you there was only a 10 per cent chance the plane would make it, would you take that plane? I doubt it," she said, adding that that was the message scientists had so far failed to get across to political and business leaders.

Professor Ian Chubb, chair of IARU, said that this week's Climate Congress, which will consolidate the latest climate change science undertaken over the four years since the IPCC compiled its report, would aim to reinforce that message.

The conference will close on Thursday with the presentation of a summation of the latest science, including dire warnings on sea level rises, ocean acidification and climate change tipping points, to Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"We are looking for things to be done," said Chubb. "Not more hot air, but real action leading up to the COP15 meeting in December."

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