The Tentative Partnership between Climate Scientists and Policy-Makers

One of the hallmarks of the Falling Walls Conference is the chance to foster discussion between scientists and political leaders, bridging the gap between those making discoveries and those who have the clout and financial backing to transform research into action. The vital exchange between scientific innovation and policy is perhaps nowhere as controversial and endangered as in the field of climate change. It has only been a number of weeks since U.S. President Trump decided to pull out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the agreement among 195 countries to limit global warming, and already the international landscape of climate policy is changing. If the problem of climate change is to be addressed, new leaders need to emerge and confront the choices that need to be made. In light of the now reemphasized importance of climate science communication, we take the opportunity to revisit two Falling Walls Conference talks from climate scientists: Nathan Lewis of the California Institute of Technology in 2014 and Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen in 2016.

Nathan Lewis spoke of a wall that will inevitably fall, the wall of our energy infrastructure. While that wall makes civilization possible, building it taller by continuing to rely on fossil fuels will make the wall topple, bringing our energy capabilities and the planet’s living conditions down with it. Our only other option, Professor Lewis said, is to purposefully break through it to a global clean energy system. Transitioning to clean energy is an experiment at which humanity only has one attempt to succeed, but leaving it to future generations and allowing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to rise will render even the hope of success impossible.

As the most abundant resource for renewable energy, the sun transmits more energy to the earth in one hour than humans use in an entire year. This breathtaking discovery offers a potential path to clean energy, with one fundamental obstacle: the sun disappears locally every night. Professor Lewis summed up the problem, saying to chuckles from the audience, “He that cannot store shall not have power after 4.” Learning and adapting from nature, though, can provide a way through this second wall of solar storage. In Professor Lewis’ lab, scientists have “redesigned the machinery of photosynthesis” to create solar fuel 10 times more efficiently than the fastest plant.

Not only is solar fuel technology possible, but it already exists and awaits further improvement and commercialization. Professor Lewis emphasized the importance of learning to work with incomplete information, as anyone in the field of climate science must do. National and international leaders, he said, must adapt to the guesswork involved in climate change, rather than ignoring the problem until they feel they have all the details of global warming predictions. Full confidence in climate models might never come, but there is more than enough evidence to support funding and promoting technologies like solar fuel. Professor Lewis ended his talk with the thought that there are only two ways to think about climate change, saying, “Either this is a problem that we cannot afford to do, or it is a problem at which we as a generation cannot afford to fail.”

Two years and Falling Walls Conferences later, Professor Katherine Richardson began her talk with the similar focus on the need to manage climate change and resource consumption on a global scale. Emphasizing the communication of climate science, she spoke of the central issue plaguing the international conversation: the fact that climate change is treated as a prediction problem, as in “Will it happen or not?” rather than as a risk problem, as in “Do we take the risk that the 97% of scientists who say climate change is real are wrong?” Reimagining climate change as a risk problem will allow us to progress to the next step of the conversation and set realistic goals for reducing our carbon footprint.

In 2009, Professor Richardson was part of a study that offered a breakthrough for the intersection between climate scientists and politicians. She and the other researchers gauged the level of human impact that 9 earth systems could handle before living conditions would deteriorate, and established approximate limits to help monitor each system. Dubbed “Planetary Boundaries,” these limits to the levels of human impact on processes such as ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and chemical pollution were widely accepted as a framework for policy-making by the UN General Assembly, UN Environment Programme, and the European Commission.

Professor Richardson regards this scientific study and its subsequent application into non-scientific political deliberations as an example of researchers communicating their work in a way that can help studies to have more impact. While she maintains that policy-makers should not control how or which studies are conducted, she makes a strong case for researchers to more seriously consider their communication methods, especially in the controversial realm of climate science where time is ticking.

Both Professor Lewis and Professor Richardson’s Falling Walls Conference talks offer insight into the importance not only of climate science research, but also of the understandable communication of studies that can offer real-world solutions to these difficult problems. Many scientists have already discovered technology that make global clean energy systems possible, and the conversation amongst decision-makers needs to catch up in order to make these technologies a reality.

Falling Walls looks forward to hosting Guus Velders, a professor of “Air Quality and Climate Interactions” at Utrecht University, in the upcoming Conference. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2017, Dr Velders will present on his role as a greenhouse gas expert advisor in deals such as the 1987 Montréal protocol and 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Furthering scientific communication offers a hope that more decision-makers soon realise the urgency of climate policy commitment.


Charlotte Dillon is an intern at the Falling Walls Foundation. She studies Economics and German at the University of California, Berkeley.

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