Posted on 21 August 2008
Interview with Dr Guy Midgley, head of the climate change research group at the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
Interview with Dr Guy Midgley, head of the climate change research group at the South African National Biodiversity Institute. Dr Midgley is a member of the WWF Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.
Nigel Allan: Can you just tell us about the institution you work at and your role within the institution?
I work for the South African National Biodiversity Institute. It is tasked with doing the research that’s necessary to maximise the persistence of and the value from South Africa’s biodiversity. I am a chief specialist scientist and I’ve been doing climate change related research since the early 1990s and I now head up the Institute’s climate change research group which is looking at the medium to longer range indications of climate shifts on biodiversity and on conservation planning. So we look at biodiversity changes and how different ecosystems are responding to increased Carbon Dioxide (CO2), temperature, changes in rainfall and other drivers
NA: When and how did you first get involved with climate research?
Well, really as a teenager actually. I remember reading a National Geographic article on climate change back in the mid 1970s, which looked at climate change at a time when nuclear winter was the issue of the day. Climate scientists were running simulations of what would happen if there was a major nuclear war and how it would affect global temperatures. So the concern there was with global cooling due to nuclear winter and at that time we were at the end of a slight observed cooling going on in the atmosphere, which was attributed to pollution actually. Sulphur dioxide and various other pollutants, which were causing a bit of global dimming. So that’s when I started getting interested in long-term climate shifts.
I read this amazing article and it did have some predictions that said that if we continued to burn fossil fuels at the increasing rate that we were doing so we could see increases to up to 380 parts per million by the end of the century and a rise in temperature of about 0.6 degrees, as I remember, which was quite an amazing projection. That’s when I first got interested in the whole issue.
Then in the late 80s when James Hansen testified to US Congress on climate change, I was following those sorts of debates and I was interested in drought and water stress. I was doing a lot of synthetic work so the CO2 issue was interesting and that’s what hooked me was getting interested in CO2. So I did my PhD on rising CO2 effects on plants.
NA: Beyond “doing the science” what role do you think scientists can play to encourage policymakers to adequately address climate change?
That’s a very fine line. There’s been a lot written and talked and said about doing science versus doing advocacy.
There’s an illusion of complete cold aloofness about the scientific process which probably doesn’t really hold at all because we’re all human. So with an issue like climate change, as you see the mounting evidence it becomes difficult to maintain a complete cold aloofness, especially if one’s got kids. At the same time one has to be as careful as possible about assessing all the evidence.
Scientific findings are always contingent and it’s very, very rare to find a final scientific finding. There’s always new information and new insights to be gleaned. So it’s a tight rope and one tries to communicate the message with the uncertainties as clearly as possible. So you know we’re in an area where we need to inform that kind of debate and it’s doesn’t come naturally to people. So it’s quite difficult to actually do the science and see how clear the messages are but also to be aware of the uncertainties and to try and communicate both.
NA: What role can Climate Witness play in addressing climate change?
I think one of the biggest issues is credibility, and to be credible one needs to have credible stories, and not only credible stories of what has happened, but what might happen.
So that allows you to put a physical picture in people’s minds, rather than just a theoretical picture of what might happen. And I think that is a really important role to play. In addition to trying to be as honest as possible about all the uncertainties involved without complicating the message too much. Climate Witness can distil that knowledge and that experience and try to put it across in ways which make it easier for people who are not as familiar with the debates to get a handle on where those difficulties lie.
NA: Why did you decide to join the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel?
Well I think Climate Witness needs contributions from people who’ve been engaged in the science itself and in some of the policy debates and some of the negotiations. That gives you a perspective on where people’s concerns are from all sides.
Politicians and policymakers have to really cope with a wide range of questions and concerns and pressure groups and all sorts of issues and they’ve got to balance off against one another. It’s all too easy to point the finger and say: “That was a short-term decision”. But if you really look at how complex the issue is, you can see that they are trying to balance a wide range of interests.
So it’s important to have people to put up their hands and say: “How credible is that projection?” and: “How uncertain is it?”, “What is the level of uncertainty?”, because a policymaker would ask you that. I think that critical perspective is useful to have.