Secrets of the pioneers: Dr Emily Shuckburgh on the scale and urgency of the climate crisis

James Murray
clock • 11 min read

Dr Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey reveals why it is the business community that provides the main source of hope as we tackle escalating climate risks

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, OBE, is a climate scientist based at the British Antarctic Survey

Her research concerns investigating the dynamics of the atmosphere, oceans and climate using theoretical approaches, observational studies and numerical modelling.

She is also a fellow of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and works extensively with business leaders to promote understanding of climate science.

She is the co-author of the Ladybird Expert book on Climate Change alongside Tony Juniper and the Prince of Wales.

Where were you in 2007?

I was preparing to go off to the Antarctic on a research trip. At the time we had a big project to try and understand the circulation of the Southern Ocean. That's important as it absorbs a huge amount of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere. About 30 per cent of the CO2 we put into atmosphere is taken by ocean, and the Southern Ocean is a disproportionate contributor to that.  We were going down to the Drake Passage region to take all sorts of measurements.

Where do you expect to be in 2027?

I honestly don't know. Quite possibly back down in the Antarctic. Research dominates my life, so that is where the focus would be. I would most likely be thinking about the Arctic or Antarctic. There will still be big questions in 10 years about their importance in the global climate system and how they are changing.

I've been twice to each. I don't go every year, especially with children. I am on a sabbatical as you can't go on trips like that for a short period time.

Although my daughter was asked at school the other day what I did and she came home and said "next time you go to the Antarctic can you bring me back a penguin?"

What is the most important lesson you have learned over the past 10 years?

That decade has been the decade of me focusing on the polar regions. I started working there just over a decade ago and until I started studying those regions in detail I had not appreciated the scale of change and the pace at which it can happen.

For example, the Larsen C ice shelf was in the news recently, where this huge iceberg broke off. Calving is a natural phenomenon, but the iceberg that broke off was the size of Luxembourg. In the rest of the world, we just don't see things happen at that scale.

At the same time, the amount of Arctic sea ice we see at its annual minimum extent has contracted over the past decade on a scale that you can measure in terms of the size of multiple countries. The size and rapidity of the change is just huge.

If the ice is already floating then that itself does not make sea level change, but the key concern is the ice sheets that are grounded on land and if that ice goes into the water then it raises sea level. Between Greenland and West Antarctica there is some 10 metres of sea level rise that could be released. It would probably take centuries, but even on a shorter time span the impacts could be considerable.

What is your vision for the green economy in 10 years' time and what do we need to get us there?

I do a lot of work through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership with businesses. As such, I have had an outsider perspective on what the business community has been doing in this space for a decade. I have really noticed change over that decade, especially in the last couple of years. It has changed entirely.

Ten years ago it was a CSR issue at most. I think that has completely changed. Especially post-Paris there has been much greater understanding of the business community's role and their power to drive forward change. But there has also been more of a recognition - maybe driven by the Bank of England's recent work - that businesses have a vulnerability to climate change. That wasn't recognised 10 years ago - whether it is vulnerability in terms of physical risk or investment risk - that is now being engaged with as part of business risk analysis.

I get asked as a climate scientist, do I get frustrated at the lack of action. But my sense is there is a real difference now between public engagement and business engagement. Most of the people I see in the business community get it, and get it to a much greater extent than the wider public, who rely on a lot of their information from a media environment that is very mixed on this topic.

Business decisions do tend to be made on a hard assessment of the evidence and a hard assessment of the evidence unveils what a significant challenge we face that we need to respond to.

The business attitude is also driving a shift in the scientific world, as it is shifting the questions that are being asked of climate scientists. The question 10 years ago was is the climate changing and is mankind driving it, so there was a big focus on global average surface temperature as that is the key metric.

But now the question is what does it mean for specific regions, industries, sectors, and different scenarios? Global surface temperature is not as much use for that, so we have a completely different question being asked. Now people want to know more about the extremes of risk.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be that the green economy faces over the next decade?

The biggest thing is just the numbers needing to add up. Without wanting to name names of the companies I have worked with, often there is good will, but the recognition of the scale of change that is required to be consistent with the Paris Agreement mapping is still a substantial step for some businesses. There's been a recognition we need to do something, but not of the scale of the change we need to make. And there hasn't been that mind-set change of what is required.

In automotive we've seen some announcements, like Volvo saying it was moving away from pure internal combustion engine cars, which suggest there is the start of an understanding of the scale of transformation. But getting that understanding through all levels of a business, through all employees of the business, is challenging. In the automotive case getting people to understand an electric future - to get away from the love of the sound of the engine - is a real challenge and that is where leadership is required.

Some businesses are not going to survive this and some will do very well. The scale of what needs to be done is the key challenge.


Will the world be on course for two degrees by 2027?

I have always said business is key to this. If the business community responds we can do it. When businesses put their minds to things they can change things very rapidly.

In a way they have the privilege of not being democracies, they can just say we are going to do this and act quickly. We have seen with Paris how powerful the business voice is in driving change and helping to drive political change. If we are going to make it, it will be on the back of business.

If you could invest in one clean technology through to 2027 which would it be and why?

That's a really difficult question. The ultimate challenge is how do we get a population of nine billion people to live an improved lifestyle, so in terms of making a global difference, not necessarily in terms of making money, I'd look at technology that helps improve lives in the developing world and sets them on a trajectory that is cleaner than what we have been through. That means working with local partners in developing countries to develop their own solutions. It's not a precise answer, but helping the developing world embrace a clean growth future is going to be key to this.

What advice would you give to a sustainability professional starting their job today?

This is not just for people in sustainability, but the biggest lesson I have learnt is the need for optimism. It is very easy in this space to emphasise the doom and gloom, as there is plenty of grounds for that, but that is not very motivating for businesses, or for individuals.

If you are trying to convince the board to do something doom and gloom may shock, but it is not very motivating. Emphasising the opportunities is the way to go. I have seen with businesses that have set really bold sustainability targets that then everyone gets really excited with the new ideas that they can bring forward. It attracts people to the business, makes them think they can make a difference in the world.

There is a lot to be said for demonstrating the opportunities and advantages.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I waver. I can look at it through an optimistic lens, but I can look at it through a pessimistic lens when you look at some of the science.

Over the last few years we have become increasingly concerned that some of the glaciers that feed the West Antarctic ice sheet could be in irreversible retreat and if that ice sheet collapses that would eventually lead to three metres of sea level rise.

One recent study suggested it could contribute as much as a metre of sea level rise just this century, and that would come on top of the other causes of sea level rise - you could have close to two metres of sea level rise. If you look at a map of the UK you start to see large parts of the country below sea level. I live in East Anglia - you can forget East Anglia.

This has business implications as well. Pretty much all the world's mega cities are on the coast. They are all exposed to sea level rise. You don't need that much sea level rise, just tens of centimetres could cause huge devastation as the combination of sea level rise and storm surges would have a huge impact.

What's currently the biggest misconception surrounding climate science?

I think the thing most people struggle with, even the people who are fairly knowledgeable about climate change, is the scale and urgency that is required. You saw the paper that came out on the amount of time we have to meet 1.5C being a bit longer than we previously thought, but it is still saying the timescale for deep emissions cuts is at most a couple of decades. We do not have much time.

I started working on this in the early 90s - I've been working on it for a good 25 years - when you say we have a couple of decades to respond I think we have been warning people for a couple of decades already and not much has happened. This is not something we can leave until tomorrow, but that is still the easy thing to do. It is easy to focus on issues like Brexit, we are seeing the UK government do that. But if we don't act now on climate change it will come back to bite us.

There is this misconception that doing nothing is not a decision. That not reacting in the face of uncertainty is somehow not itself a reaction.

What do you expect to scientists to know about in 10 years' time that we don't know now?

I think where the really interesting research questions are is around understanding at a local level, understanding what climate impacts will be that can affect decisions now. What will the impact be on health or crops or whatever it is?

There is a real need for that information and that is combined with a real opportunity to provide more detailed information. That is coming from the explosion in the data we have, particularly from Earth observation. We now have hundreds of petabytes of information and every hour or so we are adding a football pitch worth of filing cabinets to the data repository. That observed data is going to explode over the next decade. Combine that with the AI and machine learning that we are seeing transform other parts of society and there is the opportunity to combine our climate modelling with these new technologies to provide information in a way business and individuals can use.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh will be speaking at the BusinessGreen Leaders' Summit on November 9th.

This interview is part of a series of interviews, published in association with Greenhouse PR, to mark BusinessGreen's 10th anniversary. The full series, including interviews with Christiana Figueres, Lord Stuart Rose, and Lord Stern, will be published on the day of the Summit.

You can book your place for the summit here.

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