How climate coverage can drive change

Switching to renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines, is essential to tackle climate change.Credit: Alexander Ryumin / TASS / Getty

In September, Gernot Wagner welcomed an unusual visitor to his tiny New York apartment.

“The president of Austria has dropped by” while in town for the United Nations General Assembly, said Wagner, a climate economist at New York University. And in the hand of President Alexander Van der Bellen was a print of a Nature comment Wagner had written with his colleagues earlier this year.

The article offered advice on how to calculate the social cost of carbon, a measure that estimates the future damage climate change will cause. They discussed the article for a good 15 minutes of the President’s hour-long visit – and Van der Bellen, a trained economist, was just one of the key climate policy makers who consulted Wagner on the article.

As the crucial climate meeting of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26) begins in Glasgow, UK, this week the world is focused on how to reduce carbon emissions. Nature has been publishing influential research on climate change for decades, but we’ve also covered it through journalism and expert commentary – something we’ll be continuing from the COP26 meeting.

To find out how our past coverage made a difference, our editors turned to a database we created in collaboration with London-based data science company Altmetric as part of a Digital News-supported project. Google Innovation Fund. The database records the instances in which Natureopinion and journalism have had an impact. Here’s a look at three examples where opinion pieces have been influential – and sometimes controversial.

Carbon costs

The social cost of carbon, which Wagner’s commentary addressed, is intended to capture all economic damage – including extreme weather conditions, shifting agricultural production, and changing health care costs in a world hotter – a ton of carbon dioxide emitted. It’s a key figure for climate policy, incorporated into billions of dollars in US federal policies and spending decisions. Wagner’s article gave eight recommendations on how to define this figure accurately and transparently, such as taking into account the greater impact that climate change will have on low-income people.

Since Nature article, Wagner says he has corresponded with several experts in the administration of US President Joe Biden who are currently involved in calculating the social cost of carbon, including Heather Boushey, member of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Elizabeth Kopits, senior economist at the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, Wagner was also giving “an inordinate number of television interviews in Austria”, his native country, he said. The country adopted a carbon tax in early October. Wagner hasn’t specifically argued for a carbon tax as the best tool to tackle the social cost of carbon – and he can’t say for sure how his article has affected that legislation – but he hopes he has. showed “how science guides us towards a high social cost of carbon and the need for a high carbon price”.

Conferences on decarbonization

Ever since Milan Klöwer wrote about ways to reduce carbon emissions from conference travel, his ideas have been in high demand.

Klöwer, a doctoral student in climate modeling at the University of Oxford, UK, and his coauthors calculated in a Nature opinion piece that academics attending just one major meeting – the 2019 American Geophysical Union meeting – released 80,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of Edinburgh’s average weekly emissions, in the UK. Yet before the pandemic, researchers were going to meetings all over the world.

Emissions could be reduced, Klöwer suggested, if conferences model delegate travel in advance and use that work to choose a location that minimizes the conference’s carbon footprint. After his article was published, he said, conference organizers reached out to him asking him to collaborate on such estimates for their meeting or work on implementing tools such as a carbon tracker. And the media, including The Washington Post and BBC Radio 4, interviewed Klöwer. “I found the reception quite impressive,” he says.

The article also led to a new collaboration that analyzed the contributions of the global aviation industry to climate change – and showed that they were larger than expected.

Planning a scenario

In January 2020, Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters wrote a comment in Nature claiming that experts should stop using the worst-case scenario as one of the most likely outcomes of global warming. This scenario, known as RCP8.5, models a world with nearly 5 ° C warming by 2100.

When researchers developed this scenario in 2010, it was supposed to represent the upper limit of a plausible but extreme future with high carbon emissions and zero climate mitigation. The article by Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., Indicates that this is only a remote possibility, given that global coal use appears to have peaked in 2013 and that it should no longer be used as a “business as usual” scenario.

Exaggerating the risks of extreme climate change could give the impression that climate change mitigation will be too difficult, the authors write, and more realistic scenarios – such as 3 ° C of warming by 2100, which is still catastrophic. – would constitute a better basis for policy. the decisions.

The article fueled debate among climatologists on which scenarios to use and for what purposes. The Nature Commentary has been covered extensively in the media and has been cited over 200 times in the scientific literature. It was also featured in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in August, which quotes and analyzes the article. “This has been widely discussed by the authors,” Hausfather wrote to Nature, “which ultimately decided to focus on Scenario 8.5 in the new report.”

The work led to a new fruitful collaboration for Hausfather in carbon cycle modeling. The research examines how carbon cycle feedback loops – self-reinforcing changes in the way land and oceans store carbon, such as thawing permafrost and ocean acidification – could worsen warming, even if the high emissions scenario is no longer particularly likely.


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