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Professor Mark Maslin

Climate change: engineering a solution

Following the spring floods in the south-west of England, in a rare interview, leading climatologist Professor Mark Maslin discusses the role of the engineer in the fight against global warming.

It's a bright, warm, early spring afternoon and Mark Maslin is looking out of his south-facing office window across central London. We exchange pleasantries about how the sunshine is a far cry from the previous three months of unremitting rain. But we're not just being British: Maslin is professor of climatology at University College London, and so any discussion about the weather, however cursory, is of professional interest to him.

Maslin is noted for his friendly, informal approach to summarising complex scientific issues. He is one of the most sought-after commentators and public speakers on climate change, often seen on television offering expert opinion, while his 'popular science' books on climate and global warming sell by the tens of thousands. But beneath his easy-going informality there is a seriousness of scientific approach that is borne out by the fact that not only has he been head of geography at UCL, but also director of the university's Environment Institute. He is also author of countless research papers as well as a contributor to New Scientist and broadsheet newspapers.

The public tends to get confused about the terms 'climate change' and 'global warming', using them interchangeably, assuming that they are synonymous and interchangeable. But there surely must be a difference, I ask Maslin, who has written two separate and separable introductory books on these topics for the Oxford University Press. But this is something of a misconception, because as far as Maslin is concerned they are, essentially, "one and the same".

"Climate change is just a more sophisticated and more scientifically accepted term for what everybody used to call global warming." The reason for this, he explains, is that policy makers and scientists became aware that the warming of the planet "wasn't the major concern. It's things like increased heat waves, droughts, floods and changes in rainfall patterns. And so it is the changing climate, rather than just global warming, that's actually the challenge to societies and how societies adapt to it". Within that, there are changes to the climate that are dynamic, natural processes and those which can be attributed to human agency.

The British scientist then goes on to explain that he wrote 'A Very Short Introduction: Climate' to explain how to determine if and how the weather is changing. The way engineers work with climate, says Maslin, is by looking at statistical probability. "They will be told to build flood defences for a one-in-200-year storm, for example. They will then use historic records to determine what a one-in-200-year event is. The problem is that when you have a changing baseline as with climate, the number keeps going down. You need a method for developing models for climate change to allow you to see what a one-in-200-year event will look like in 30 years." What that allows you to do, says Maslin, "is engineer for future climate change".

The recent floods on the Somerset Levels are a case in point, and I ask Maslin why he thinks it could have been acceptable to build houses on the Somerset Levels two centuries ago, when it is clearly not today. "It's never been a good idea: you can look at the historic records to see that. They are called the Somerset Levels for a reason: they are very, very flat and they flood frequently. However, political necessity requires cheap land for housing, and the cheapest land is usually flood plains. So there is this Catch-22 here."

What makes the 2014 floods so interesting for Maslin is that they have caused such an outburst of complaint about the Environment Agency that is routinely accused of "not doing a very good job. But up until now the total of homes flooded is 7,000, so far as I am aware. In the 2009 floods, more than 9,000 houses were flooded. And so even though we've had continuous rainfall for three months and we've had the worst amount of water to deal with, the Environment Agency has actually done very well".

He continues: "Of course, previous floods weren't all in Somerset and the deep south of Britain. They were in places like Hull and Gloucestershire: places that aren't close to London." This leads to a mismatch between what actually happens during a flooding event and the public perception of how successfully the government has dealt with it.

Seeing the whole picture

If we look at today's levels of atmospheric carbon pollution "about one in three additional CO2 molecules in the atmosphere was put there by the USA. A further 28 per cent is from Europe" followed by successively smaller contributions from other geographical regions. This means the historic legacy of climate change is predominantly divided between the developed nations.

Developing nations complain that the "half-a-trillion tonnes of extra carbon in the atmosphere has been put there by 'you lot'. You've developed and you have rich economies, but you want us to do something about it". This scenario gives rise to what Maslin calls "political tension, where the people who've mucked it up expect other people to clear up the mess".

Maslin reckons 80 per cent of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere come from industrialisation, with the main culprits being energy production, transport and manufacturing. "All of those processes produce CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and some smaller contribution from HFCs and CFCs. The societal revolution we have gone through, the ability to have a society that frees people up from tedious labour, that allows us to have an average life expectancy of approaching 80, is because of cheap fossil fuels."

On one level at least, Maslin is a big fan of fossil fuels, describing them as "incredible". Petrol and kerosene are particularly useful because "they don't blow up in your face at room temperature and you can move them around safely. It's only when you ignite them at high temperature that you get a good return of high energy". They are so useful, efficient and practical that "they can even fly metal tubes across the Atlantic. I think people forget how fantastic they are".

The problem is, as Maslin admits, fossil fuels have significant unintended consequences in that they are a pollutant that is changing our climate. "And so there is this balancing act between saying that we've gone through a fantastic revolution where we have changed human society for the good, and admitting we also have a problem. It's a bit like suddenly finding out that mercury causes cancer."

False assumptions

One of the biggest public misconceptions that drives our attitude to fossil fuels, says Maslin, is that they are finite, and that because they will one day run out, we need to look for alternative sources of renewable energy. But in practical terms, the fossil fuel expiry date is virtually meaningless.

"The consensus both politically and scientifically is that we should try to keep the temperature rise on the planet to less than 2°C. We perceive that everything starts to go bad for everybody after 2'C. Since the Industrial Revolution we have already raised it by 0.8°C." To keep below this highly politicised threshold we need to restrict our output to merely another half-a-trillion tonnes. "We are likely to have hit that by 2044. This is an accelerating curve caused by rapid industrialisation."

Which makes the question of running out of fossil fuels moot at best, because the oil reserves listed on the stock exchanges of the world "would on their own take us beyond that extra half-a-trillion tonnes". Predictions of coal reserves lasting a further two centuries, combined with recent discoveries in natural gas and the development of hydraulic fracturing techniques, mean that we have the potential to "if we burn everything, put three or four times the amount of carbon into the atmosphere than we have already put in". Maslin is in no doubt that we can "mess things up" long before we run out of fossils.

This being the case, I put to Maslin that we are now staring into the face of one of the most important societal responsibilities that mankind has ever had to confront. "These are the challenges: energy generation, food production and water provision. This is why people are seeing the next decades as critical.

"If you decide to produce more coal-fired power stations, then they will last for 40 or 50 years because engineers build them quite well. But if you decide to go down the wind generation route then you need a completely different approach to how your grid is structured. The major decisions we make now are very important in the engineering sense. And that's because it will be engineering that either causes more pollution, or prevents pollution, depending on what is bought and what is built."

The main cause of the immense wave of development in emerging countries is poverty alleviation. As Maslin says, we inhabit a world where the backdrop is eight million children dying every year from preventable diseases and malnutrition, 800 million people going to bed hungry and where more than a billion do not have access to clean drinking water. "The major driving force of policy makers in places like China and India is population security." But these nations have been indoctrinated into believing that the only way to approach this is through rapid neo-liberalisation, which provides 'trickle-down'... the rich get richer and as a result more crumbs fall from their plates. "The problem with this," says Maslin "is it doesn't work." By this process it would take a further century to ensure that everybody on the planet has one dollar per day to live on.

The equation is simple. In order to protect populations, countries must develop and in order to develop, countries must use technology to generate energy. The more energy produced, the greater will be the effect on climate. Emerging nations are understandably claiming their right to develop, an inevitable consequence being an increase in pollution. Maslin says: "Under the UNFCCC – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – negotiations have always mandated differentiated responsibility. It is enshrined in the international negotiation that developed nations take a lead and have additional responsibilities to cut their emissions." Certain countries take this seriously: the UK was the first to have climate change legislation, and there is the Climate Change Act that mandates a reduction in carbon of 80 per cent by 2050.

"Differentiated agreement has always been there," says Maslin. "But the one thing that doesn't help is the USA has never really signed up to any of it. It negotiates hard, but the President is one of the few heads of state that cannot agree international legislation. It has to be signed off by the Senate and the House of Representatives. President Bill Clinton agreed to the Kyoto Protocol [that set internationally binding emission reduction targets], but knew that he was going to be shot down." When the country that put a third of the anthropogenic CO2 into the atmosphere is unable to make cuts, then "why would China, India or any other developing nation want to agree to make changes?".

Treating pollution with contempt

But there is some clever politics going on in the States, says Maslin, now that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been given powers to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. "This is an interesting way of approaching the issue, because if cars were pumping out arsenic then, strangely enough, we'd immediately pass laws to say that you can't do it. How can we sensibly say, as we have done, that we don't want lead in our petrol because it's harmful to children's brain development, and not deal with the issue of CO2 causing changes in our climate? Why don't we just not do it?

"Engineers," says Maslin, "are the most reticent group I can think of when it comes to trusting scientists." He thinks that the way to sell climate change to engineers is to emulate the EPA by treating the whole issue of CO2 as pollution, "just like soot and smog, with larger-scale effects".

He is also at pains to point out that he has nothing against engineers: "I keep selling them as the answer to environmental problems. Look at the Thames Barrier. Totally over-designed. Classic British over-the-top, purely because the then Science Minister turned round and said that it was to be designed for a one-in-2,000-year event, and go for it. If engineers are given set limits for a project they can make it to those limits. I've done work on risk analysis for North Sea oil platforms, and they are built for a one-in-10,000-year event.

"If you give engineers a challenge, they can rise to it. But with global warming the scale of the challenge is huge."

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