Hot Topic Session at 7th HLF

September 24, 2019

Climate crisis: facts and actions

The science of climate change and what we can do to tackle the problem


Organized and moderated by Michele Catanzaro, PhD in Physics, freelance science journalist.

How can we predict the next century’s climate if we can hardly predict this weekend’s weather? Is the latest flooding or heatwave due to climate change, or not? Why is it so hard to take action on this problem? Climate change is likely the most complex crisis humanity has ever faced. It is a convoluted scientific problem and involves complicated social, economical and psychological dynamics. This Hot Topic session tried to pin down open scientific questions on climate change and discussed what scientists can do to tackle this problem.


First Part: Facts
In the first part of the session, the fundamental laws underlying climate change were discussed; how mathematics, data, and computation enable predictions; and what are the big open questions for which mathematicians and computer scientists can make a difference.

  • Chris Budd, professor at Gresham College, professor of mathematics and director of the Institute for Mathematical Innovation at the University of Bath discussed the mathematics of climate change: how we construct mathematical climate models and how good they are at interpreting the past and predicting the future. He addressed the frontiers of research in this field and argued for the usefulness of simpler models alongside more complex ones.
  • Sonia Seneviratne, professor at ETH Zurich and IPCC coordinating lead author, explored how to speed up climate research. She argued that research is too slow for the magnitude of the problem. We don’t need better models, but quicker ones, in her opinion, and machine learning has a key role to play in achieving this objective.
  • Opha Pauline Dube, researcher at the University of Botswana and IPCC coordinating lead author, discussed the science of impacts, vulnerability, adaptation, and mitigation. She explored the frontiers of research in these areas, how mathematicians and computer scientists can help and provided a much-needed point of view from the developing world.
  • Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research professor in climate physics at the University of Oxford, addressed the role of supercomputation in climate change as an essential tool to move forward in simulating such a complex and challenging phenomenon like climate. He defended that climate change requires computational infrastructures on the same scale of ones used in space science or fundamental physics.

Second Part: Actions
In the second part, the panelists discussed what citizens – and especially scientists – can do to make the necessary changes. This included a range of lessons from psychology, communication, history, and social science that scholars can use to play an important role in addressing this problem.

  • Paul Edwards, director of the Program in Science, Technology & Society at Stanford University, explored climate knowledgeand politics from a historical and socio-political perspective. Since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, infrastructural path dependence has locked modern societies into unsustainable energy systems and lifestyles, creating a “super wicked problem” where time is running out. Climate change requires concerted action at every level: individual, social, political, and international. Scientists and modelers can contribute to identifying the most efficient and effective levers for minimizing global warming and adapting to its unavoidable impacts.
  • Manfred Milinski, founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, exposed key-findings on thepsychology of climate change, on the basis of evolutionary biology. Inherited behavioral rules make it difficult to solve the problem as is exemplified by the “tragedy of the commons.” Selfish short-term benefits undermine collective action benefitting future generations. Future benefits will be diluted and heavily discounted.
  • Jennifer Marlon, research scientist, Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), addressed the communication of climate change. Data from the US and the rest of the world show that the perception of climate change is more nuanced than what is usually assumed. This knowledge can be used to drive forms of communication that are more likely to trigger solutions.

Hot Topic: Climate crisis – Facts (Part 1)

Chris Budd: "The mathematics of climate change"
Gresham College, director of the Center of Nonlinear Mechanics (University of Bath)

Sonia I. Seneviratne: "The frontiers of climate change research"
ETH Zurich, IPCC co-author, Thomson Reuters list of highly cited scientists

Opha Pauline Dube: "The science of impacts, vulnerabilities, adaptation, and mitigation"
University of Botswana, IPCC lead author, University of Queensland alumna

Timothy Palmer: "Climate change and supercomputation"
Co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Modelling and Predicting Climate

Hot Topic: Climate crisis – Actions (Part 2)

Paul Edwards: "The history of climate change modelling"
Center for International Security and Cooperation (Stanford University), University of Michigan, author of “A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming” (MIT Press, 2010)

Manfred Milinski: "The psychology of climate change"
Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology

Jennifer Marlon: "The perception and communication of climate change"
Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC)