Too much hot air - and too little time

January 6, 2006

Climate-change funding needs a rethink, a leading researcher tells Becky McCall

One of Britain's pre-eminent climate change experts has attacked the research councils for a lack of understanding of science in his field.

Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, one of the leading centres for climate change research in the UK and internationally, told The Times Higher that although climate change was dominating the political agenda, there was a mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

Professor Hulme said that climate research had seen a dramatic transformation over the past five years - from a natural science of the Earth to an expansive, multidisciplinary topic - but that funders had not caught up.

He said: "Mechanisms for allocating research funding within Research Councils UK remain too rigid, too traditional and too discipline-based to accommodate some of the more exciting and necessary research challenges which require deep interdisciplinary collaboration."

He added: "The really needed research on climate change cannot be contained within one research council, let alone within one discipline."

Professor Hulme warned that climate change had become as much a political pawn as a scientific discipline. He said: "There's a whole pretence that an extra £20 million will deliver the answer, but it doesn't actually deliver any answers on its own."

He urged funding bodies to rethink their criteria for assessing the quality of research in his field.

Professor Hulme said: "Does a paper in Nature influence climate change negotiations more than a research-led policy workshop for government advisers and policy review?"

Myles Allen, the principal investigator on a major study known as and based at Oxford University, warned that the UK was failing to properly pool its thinking and resources on climate change.

Professor Allen, who believes that the effects of global warming could be twice as bad as previously thought, said: "If the UK pulled together to develop the best climate change forecast system, then we would do a lot more than we are at present. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the research councils are not pulling together."

But Alan Thorpe, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, said that his council recognised the interdisciplinary nature of climate change research and tried to reflect this in funding decisions.

He said: "Climate change research brings together physics, chemistry and biology. It is also highly relevant to interactions with policy.

"I admit that we need to link up areas of social science to the overall picture and this is an area where we need to increase funding. Many questions still remain unanswered here," Professor Thorpe said.

Sweating over the implications of a future full of long hot summers

* Last year's long hot summer provided a striking reminder of the link between architecture and climate change, as thousands of workers suffered from sweltering days in stuffy offices badly in need of air conditioning.

Geoff Levermore, professor of the built environment at Manchester University, has radically adapted his research into building design in the past few years to reflect growing concerns about climate change as our world warms up.

"What we build today should be around in 100 years' time, and we need to remember that using current models of prediction, our climate will be anything between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius warmer than now," he said. "Current buildings just don't accommodate for this."

Most new buildings in the UK will need air conditioning, which means a greater demand for energy and, more than likely, a higher output of carbon dioxide.

Professor Levermore explained: "Many of the buildings from the 1960s and 70s are glass castles - terrible in both the winter and the summer. We need to address our current building stock, which will be around for another 40 years or so. Undeniably aesthetics are important but we need to see beyond this with our changing climate."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has commissioned a report aimed at advising policy-makers about the far-reaching issues associated with climate change. It will contain a chapter on how building design will need to accommodate a rise in temperature over the coming decades.

* In terms of deaths due to high temperatures, the 2003 heat wave was comparable to the 1976 heat wave in the UK. The analysis of data on deaths and illness due to extreme weather events are increasing becoming part of epidemiologist Sari Kovats' working life.

Dr Kovats is lecturer in environmental epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She collects and analyses data on disease and illness due to change in climate variability and climate change.

"This subject area used to be on the fringe of research but in the past few years, scientists are beginning to take climate change and its relation to disease seriously," she said. "Attitudes have definitely changed and everyone wants to be part of it."

During the heat wave of 2003, 14,000 people died in France, and just over 2,000 died in the UK. A large number of these deaths could have been prevented if the temperatures and their devastating effects had been better predicted and the appropriate measures taken.

Dr Kovats' findings inform the Health Protection Agency in the formation of policy to help deal with similar heat waves in future.

There is also growing interest in the area of infectious disease and climate. Deaths from malaria, for example, could be greatly reduced in epidemic regions if health authorities had advance notice that the coming malaria season was likely to be particularly severe, allowing time for preventative action.

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