Wolfson Biogeochemist sheds new light on climate change debate

Published on:

5 May 2012

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A team of biogeochemists led by Wolfson Fellow Professor Ros Rickaby have developed a new method of reconstructing past climates that could have significant implications for our understanding of how the global climate has changed over the last few hundred years.

The research project used water locked inside crystals in seabed sediment to calculate the rate of Antarctic ice melt, and hence how warm the climate was, at key historical periods, revealing that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age affected more of the globe than previously believed, making it as far as Antarctica. 

‘Our work suggests that there have been recent climate oscillations on the Antarctic peninsula that seem to coincide with these well-known climate events,' Professor Rickaby said. ‘It's a further indication that these events had a footprint in the southern hemisphere.'

 Whilst further study is necessary to confirm the initial findings, if confirmed, there will be important implications for our overall understanding of climate change that may well need to be taken into account in the next report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, expected in 2014.

Professor Rickaby, a Governing Body Fellow at Wolfson, is also responsible for the Climate Connections lecture series being held this term in College, which began on the 26 April with the philosopher Professor John Broome's analysis of the public and private ethics of climate change, and continued yesterday, 3 May, when Professor Carl Wunsch addressed the particular challenges of the climate change debate question for public understanding.

In the first lecture, Broome discussed the ‘private' and ‘public' moralities that should govern responses to climate change, and the extent to which individual, societal, and governmental attitudes uphold or overlook these.  Broome defined the ‘private morality of climate change' as entirely governed by the duty of justice not to harm; hence, individuals should aim to reduce  greenhouse gas emissions wherever possible. The ‘public morality of climate change', by contrast, is partly governed by the duty of justice, but more strongly by the duty to make things better, which requires goods and harms to be weighed against each other through an economic cost-benefit analysis.

Wunsch's lecture addressed the particular features of the climate change debate that problematize both public understanding of the issue and governmental responses to it. These include the huge time spans involved, far in excess of human lifetime; the widespread confusion between weather and climate; the pressure from governments on scientists make concrete predictions for the future;  and the rise of ‘sophisticated' computer modelling to meet this demand.

The Climate Connections series continues on 10th May with a lecture from Professor Thomas Stocker on ‘Climate change: making the best use of scientific information', and is concluded with a lecture by Dr Myles Allen ‘Climate change and two concepts of liberty' on 17th May. Podcasts of the lectures will be available from Wolfson Podcasts over the coming weeks.