The power of a Pole position

June 8, 2007

Chris Rapley is retiring as director of the British Antarctic Survey after nine years. But, he tells Karen Gold, his mission to spread the message on global warming continues

Chris Rapley is eye-poppingly vehement about self-proclaimed climate-change sceptics. According to him, the makers of Channel 4's recent programme The Great Global Warming Swindle , which challenged the view that mankind was responsible for global warming and argued that it might all be down to the effect of cosmic radiation and solar activity, are "like the cigarette manufacturers in the 1960s, deliberately creating propaganda to cast doubt". The writer and activist George Monbiot, he says, suggested that there should be Nuremberg trials for these people when climate damage finally comes in. "They have done so much damage; they are completely reprehensible."

Such an outburst seems slightly at odds with the image of a pinstriped, level-headed scientist that Rapley so consistently projects as director of the British Antarctic Survey - an image he puts forward in evidence sessions to parliamentary committees, in TV and radio interviews, and in briefings for what he calls "gatekeepers and power brokers", such as those run recently in the UK by Al Gore, the former US Vice-President-turned-environmental campaigner.

This role was not in his job description; he created it. "I tell them climate change is real," he says. "They can make connections, challenge me.

It's all to do with dialogue." He expects to extend it, too (although he is coy about precisely how and where) as he retires, aged 60, after nine years at the helm of BAS, during which time the Cambridge-based research centre has become synonymous with the story of global warming.

It was not always thus. Rapley's take on the BAS in 1998 was that it was a big fish becalmed in a small pond. Its scientists dominated Antarctic research - they had, after all, been the first to identify the hole in the ozone layer back in 1985 - but "in a mainstream geophysics or biology meeting, where the intellectual heavyweights of the world were, if you said to them, 'Do you know what the Antarctic scientists are doing?' they would be pretty vague. And the Antarctic scientists were vague about mainstream people, too."

His first move was to bring together the world's brainiest virtual focus group - foreign scientists, Nobel prizewinners - and ask them what were the big global questions on which the BAS should concentrate, using its privileged access to the Pole. Many said astronomy. It was only by a small majority - too close to chance for comfort - that the decision was made to concentrate on climate change.

In a sense, Rapley, too, got into climate change by chance. He started out as a physicist looking at the Sun - building new X-ray detectors to study solar flares - and then, struck by a series of images from space that a colleague showed him, shifted his attention to Earth. For more than 20 years he worked at University College London on remote sensing. By the mid-Eighties, he says - there is a whiff of history as he hauls typescript international reports off his office shelf - his attention had been caught not so much by early climate-change warnings as by system theory and theorists such as James Lovelock.

If you looked at the earth as a system, he observes, then the destructive potential of the greenhouse effect was clearer sooner, even though evidence of actual global warming was still lost in the noise of normal climate variation. "Jim Lovelock did the calculations in 1980 for when the evidence would emerge for climate change beyond normal variability," he says. "He estimated it would be the mid-Nineties. He was pretty much right."

Meanwhile, Rapley's irritation with the fragmented approach of many scientists grew. In 1994, he went to Stockholm as director of the international Geosphere-Biosphere programme, where he found "75 nations who didn't get on and didn't co-ordinate. For years, the marine biologists didn't speak to the oceanographers; people studying the upper atmosphere didn't talk to people studying the sea surface". It was the same at BAS, he says; lack of systems analysis and collaboration remains the biggest brake on climate progress today.

"The trillion-dollar question is how quickly are the ice sheets going to slip-slide into the ocean, and what's going to happen when they get there?"

he says. "We need the hydrologists and the physicists and the biologists and the sea-ice people and the atmosphere people and even, God forbid, the economists and social scientists, to address these big questions together.

Even then the aggregate effort worldwide will still be pretty small, compared with what we are facing."

Once Rapley had committed the BAS research effort to climate change, anyone who was not in was out. The Poles are the Earth's super-sensitive early-warning system - "the miner's canary", Rapley calls them. He is good at catchy phrases: a reference to the Antarctic ice sheet as an "awakened giant" drew media attention from across the globe. He is also good at quoting numbers: so much carbon dioxide; so many centimetres of sea rise; so many people; so many years to play with.

It is part of his emphasis on speaking not as a campaigner but as a scientist - and it's a tricky road. "As a scientist you have two audiences: the people in front of you, and your peers behind you," he says. "It's very important that your credibility doesn't collapse. You have to add caveats; you can't just go for the killer statement. There are always people out there who will point the finger if you get things wrong."

You can look at this pragmatic caution two ways: either it gives him an entree to potentially hostile polluter-audiences or he is fiddling while Rome burns. He knows which he believes: "We've had airline people here talking about climate change, admitting they realise that in 30 years' time a postcard from Bora Bora will be as unacceptable as a tiger's head on the wall is now... The US is probably five years behind Europe, but it is catching up very fast... China gets a worse press than it deserves: its carbon emissions have not gone up in line with the rise in its gross domestic product, so it must be doing something right."

Nothing is achieved by pointing the finger, he adds. "If you tell the car industry it has to achieve 60 miles per gallon tomorrow, it will fight like crazy. But if you give it a reasonable time, then it will go with you."

Do we have a reasonable time? "If we start to do something in the next seven to ten years, in terms of technical solutions and changing behaviour, then we could accommodate the other big issue, which is achieving equity across the planet. It has to be better to do something, even if a bit late, than get into paralysis," he says.

There are no silver bullets, he adds, quoting Gore, only silver buckshot.

"You have to do everything: use biofuels, improve efficiency, find technological solutions, reduce individual energy consumption and look at population control. The difficulty is finding people who will look across the whole picture and say certain investments will reap a better result than others."

Is he one of those people? "I'm looking for leverage, just as Al Gore is, to make a historic impact. Not because I'm conceited but because I've got granddaughters." He pauses, weighing up advocate versus scientist, and, semi-apologetic, lets passion win out. "I look around, and I would like to feel I've in some way contributed to leaving them a better planet. Because if we're not careful this will be a very battered and damaged one. Sorry."

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