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We need to talk about climate

posted 19 Dec 2011, 10:13 by Jamie Condliffe

When it comes to environmental change, most people have an opinion. Few, however, have answers. But the University’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) has been trying to change that – a process that has not only involved complex natural and social science, but squaring up to the task of communicating research to the outside world, too. Twenty years on and the world’s environmental problems are far from solved, but the ECI has helped inform government policy and increase public understanding.

‘When the ECI was set up through benefaction in 1991, it was extremely innovative and ambitious,’ explains Professor Andrew Goudie, who led the Institute’s founding task force. ‘It was designed to be problem-led and therefore interdisciplinary, running big research programmes across climate change, ecosystems and energy.’ Those same research areas are just as important today, and so far some 300 research projects have been completed.

Much of the work has been carried out in collaboration with academics from across the University, working with the ECI to address the world’s most pressing environmental problems. From fine-grained social studies in the UK to long-term monitoring in tropical forests and, most recently, the world’s largest climate forecasting experiment, that variety is part of the reason the ECI has achieved such success in influencing national and international policy. Take, for instance, the UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), funded by the government since 1997. The programme began by working with individual regions of the UK to assess the impact climate change might have. ‘We worked with stakeholders around the country to help them understand how climate change could affect them and what they might want to do in response,’ explains Dr Chris West, Director of UKCIP. As well as geographical regions, UKCIP works closely with service providers like the healthcare sector and utilities companies – a process designed to engage key decision-makers with the risks of climate change. Indeed, UKCIP’s stakeholder-led approach is acknowledged worldwide as pioneering, and is regularly held up as a model for others.

If such a scheme was designed to raise awareness, then more recent work is capitalising upon it. Spearheaded by Professor Myles Allen, is the world’s biggest climate prediction experiment to date, jointly run by Oxford e-Research Centre’s Volunteer Computing, the Department of Physics and the ECI. ‘Our original experiments were focused on idealised physical science questions,’ explains Professor Allen, ‘but our latest stream of research, the Weather at Home experiment, sponsored by The Guardian, is focused on the immediate impacts of climate change and how it affects extreme weather.’