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The pandemic has led to the steepest slowdown in human activity since the Second World War. Science Director, Roger Highfield, asks what this means for climate change.

In the run up to the milestone international COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow, the Science Museum Group is about to launch a series of climate talks with leading figures, a climate-themed Manchester Science Festival running from Friday 12 – Sunday 21 February 2021, and Our Future Planet, an exhibition about carbon capture

How has the pandemic changed thinking about the climate? I talked to Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, author of How To Save Our Planet: The Facts. His edited responses are in italics.

HOW DID THE CLIMATE CONVERSATION GO IN 2020, YEAR OF THE PANDEMIC?

Despite there being a global pandemic, the level of interest – the media interest and also the political interest – in climate change remains really high. It ramped up in 2019 with the climate strikes, the activist Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (the museum group has a variety of protest posters from the 2019 youth climate strikes in its collections, which chart the impact of the industrial revolution) with countries around the world all declaring climate emergencies.

That concern never seemed to go away in 2020 and, what’s really interesting is that some really big organizations like the International Energy Agency have started to say that,  if we’re going to build back now after the pandemic recession, we need to build back in a climate-friendly, low-carbon way.

I also think delaying COP 26 from November 2020 by a year has been a major success because the British and  Italian governments would have struggled to be ready for 2020. They had too many other internal issues, Brexit and things like that to deal with.

During that delay, we have had some amazing announcements, notably China announcing that they will hit peak emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2060. And that happened in September, in the middle of the pandemic.

WHAT EFFECT DID THE PANDEMIC HAVE ON 2020 EMISSIONS OF GREENHOUSE GASES?

For the last 50 years, our global climate has been warming at about 0.2°C each decade, due primarily to society’s dependence on coal, oil and gas. As a result of the pandemic, which led to relatively empty roads and skies, along with the sluggish economic activity, the sharpest ever fall was recorded in global greenhouse gas discharges.

However, the fall in emissions was just under 7% and the United Nations Environment Programme said the impact of the lockdown was “negligible”, equivalent to just 0.01 C difference by 2030. Overall, the global response to the COVID-19 crisis has had little impact on the continued rise in atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported last November.

The Science Museum’s Atmosphere gallery, praised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore,  has helped millions of people make sense of the climate over the past decade.

Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.
Science Museum’s Atmosphere gallery.

What I think was really important about the pandemic is that it has shown that if individuals stop doing a lot of things – stop flying, stop using cars, stop going out and so on – the world’s emissions dropped by 7%. That is all we have influence over as individuals. Organisations such as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency concluded that most emissions are due to energy production. We produce energy. We need it. We use it all the time. We need to radically change to renewable energy production because lifestyle changes can only create a 7% reduction. That realisation was also a wakeup call for governments.

We also know that we’re going to need more energy because there are so many people in the world who live in energy poverty and we need to give them more to energy to ensure better life chances. But we need to do it without the carbon consequences.

HOW DID THE 2020 CLIMATE COMPARE WITH PREVIOUS YEARS?

The latest data confirms 2020 concludes the Earth’s warmest 10-year period on record. The average for 2020 was 1.28±0.08°C above pre-industrial levels (average over 1850-1900).

World Meteorological Organization datasets all show that the previous 10 years were the warmest on record. In addition, they all place 2020 in the top three years on record.

Given the continued rise in global average temperature, the latest figures take the world closer to the limits stipulated by the Paris Agreement, which commits to holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and aiming to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.

In terms of temperatures, 2020  wasn’t an El Niño year (A natural phenomenon in the Pacific, El Niño tends to boost global temperature in the years it occurs) so it’s the warmest normal year we’ve ever had and there were lots of major climate events all around the world.

The idea that 2020 was 1.2 degrees warmer than preindustrial levels has really hit home and people around the world are actually seeing climate change happening in front of them – this is real, not just data.

WHAT 2020 CLIMATE EVENTS STAND OUT FOR YOU?

Many events of the past year sounded alarm bells about how the world is changing.  The Australian fires were unprecedented. The California files were unprecedented. These are two completely separate places, both having the biggest fires on record.

You then look at the Arctic fires, the Arctic sea ice melting, or the Atlantic having the most dynamic hurricane season ever recorded.

This is where we’re getting to: if you are lucky, you might have a year go by during which your country doesn’t break a record.

In Franklin Pierce Bay looking west
In Franklin Pierce Bay looking west. Book: Photographs of Arctic Expedition of 1875-76. Approximately 100 photographs from the Arctic Expedition under Capt. Nares. Science Museum Group Collection.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT?

A number of countries, including the UK, have made commitments to move to a net zero emissions economy. In order to meet the 1.5°C global warming target in the Paris Agreement, global carbon emissions should reach net zero mid-century.

The key thing about putting carbon into the atmosphere is that it can take up to 10 years to have an influence on the actual climate, so the problem that we have is what we’re emitting now will have a warming effect in a decade or so. Even if we suddenly stopped emitting now, we will still have climate change and this has changed geopolitics.

It used to be that all the negotiations were about ‘can we cut by X percent on 1990 levels or better?’  Now what I think is amazing is we’re now talking about is net zero carbon and how quickly we can get there as a global community. This affects how we view energy production, transport networks and every aspect of modern society. 

The quicker we actually get down to net zero, the less that we have to suck out by carbon capture in the second half of the century. This idea of capturing carbon is not that far fetched. The trillion trees movement, which promotes the idea of reforesting and rewilding vast parts of the planet, will be possible because despite the population growing to 10 billion people by 2050, people will tend to live in cities and the world is getting a wilder place perfect for returning it to nature. 

ARE WE CLOSER TO CLIMATE TIPPING POINTS?

I think there are two different types of tipping point.

There are the tipping points which climatologists talk about, which is an irreversible shift in the climate system. For example, some people think that the melting of Greenland and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet may have already gone past the tipping point (lay summary here) and ice loss will speed up over the next 100 to 200 years – we will lose major parts of those ice sheets.

British Antarctic Survey ice core drill, 1985
British Antarctic Survey ice core drill, drill head for ice core drill used in research into past climates, 1985. Science Museum Group Collection.

Other tipping points are methane being released from permafrost in the Arctic and the dieback of the Amazon, which faces multiple threats of fires and fragmenting, so it is more vulnerable to shifting climate conditions, so that even more of it burns.

I am not as concerned about climate tipping points as quite a few of my colleagues because we will be able to detect them and have some warning. And the tipping points that I’ve followed for many years, and even studied myself, such as gas hydrates, changing of the ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, melting of the Arctic ice, seem to be below the critical thresholds at the moment. 

The second type of tipping point is a societal tipping point. If, for example, the monsoon system shifts north by 100 miles that is not a climate tipping point but it could be a tipping point for societies that rely on the rainfall. Or, if you think of the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, if sea levels rise by half a metre the inhabitants will have to abandon the island and their culture, when most of the world would be able to cope.

I would say Britain itself has already gone through a societal tipping point and we now actually have moved into a Mediterranean seasonal type where farmers have to deal with warm, wet winters and hot, very dry summers, particularly in the southeast of England.

The BBC and the Met Office have analysed the UK’s changing climate and you can see how it will affect you.

HOW DID THE PANDEMIC AFFECT AIR POLLUTION IN GENERAL?

The COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions did have short-term positive impacts on Europe’s environment, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing published last November.

Aside from a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, they included temporary improvements in air quality, and lower levels of noise pollution.

Seismologists and others who study Earth’s movement reported a drop in seismic noise — the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust.

The museum has many related objects in its collection related to pollution, notably from inventor and chemist James Lovelock.

A diagram produced by Lovelock as he analysed atmospheric haze in Wiltshire.
A diagram produced by James Lovelock as he analysed atmospheric haze in Wiltshire.

One of the exciting new political insights emerging in 2020 is the idea of win-win solutions.  This means we change this to deal with climate change but they have other positive effects on our environment and society. 

For example, getting rid of coal fire power stations around the world will greatly improve air quality and save millions of lives.  The same for electric cars which reduce air pollution by half. 

Reforestation programs pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere but they are also shown to protect communities from flash flooding, reduce soil erosion, stabilise rainfall and boost local agricultural production.  Switching to a green economy has been shown to greatly increase employment while boosting the local economy. 

In 2021 we need to demand win-win solutions and in my book, I go through as many of these as I can. 

WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN CLIMATE CHANGE AND PANDEMICS?

I have had meetings with people for the last 20-30 years discussing what are the major threats to the planet and pandemics are always top of the list. The reason is that we know that diseases jump from animals into humans (they are called zoonotic diseases).  

The problem is that we are actually now pushing the boundaries and into many wild areas. Many countries are eating bushmeat and wild animals and bringing them into their wet markets. Many of the standard diseases which we have developed vaccination, smallpox, measles, typhoid – all evolved in our farm animals and transferred to us.  But we have had over 7,000 years to build up some immunity to these deadly diseases.

 But what we are doing now is living closely to wild animals and eating them and so providing more and more opportunities for new diseases to jump into a human host? The risk of zoonotic disease becomes greater and greater.

Think about it:  a disease that jumped from a host animal somewhere in China into a Chinese person is now killing millions of people in South America, North America, Europe.  We need to respect nature. We need to protect it. We need to actually regrow and reforest and eat sensibly to deal with climate change and zoonotic disease.

We need to actually rethink the importance of biodiversity and ecological security because it impacts upon millions and millions of people’s health. If we get this right, this is a win-win.

WHO SHOULD SOLVE THE CLIMATE CRISIS: BUSINESSES OR GOVERNMENTS?

If you think about the dominant economics for the last 40 years it is about neoliberalism, the idea that markets know best and we shouldn’t constrain them because they are the most efficient sort of system for providing what we want.

However, what the pandemic has taught us really is that, when the chips are down, when there’s a major crisis, it’s government supported by civil society and by scientific advice which motivates private enterprise to deal with it. It is telling that so many businesses are just going cap in hand to governments for a bailout and, when it comes to the pandemic, they are not going to help.

We also see that more authoritarian countries have done much better at dealing with this huge health crisis and I don’t necessarily mean they are actually authoritarian. Yes, the Chinese have done very well, but you also see success in Australia and New Zealand. 

So it also follows that if we’re going to deal with environmental destruction around the world and the climate change crisis, it’s actually governments that have incentives to act. I think the mindset is almost going back to the late 1940s when governments sat around the table to find out how to build a new World System that works.

HAS COVID CHANGED THE CONVERSATION ABOUT THE PLANET?

The two big public dialogues in 2021 are climate change, and how to deal with it, and biodiversity.

I think the international conversations about both are going to be radically different this year. We’re going to be talking about how do we actually get to net zero, which is, I think, geopolitical dynamite because it is such a huge challenge. We’re also going to be talking about how to protect biodiversity and protect people from biodiversity and how to prevent future pandemics.

The Prime Minister and Sir David Attenborough join pupils from Barnes Primary School and John Betts Primary School to hear more about climate science at the Science Museum

For me, it is always exciting to listen to young people, who have a very different view of the world, which is great. They seem to be always talking about the positive and show win, win optimism.

That’s where my new book comes in –  a manual of all the positive things you can do, and they all have secondary positive effects. That’s the shift in the dialogue I expect to see over the next 12 months.

HOW CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The latest picture of how far the pandemic has spread can be seen on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center or Robert Koch-Institute website.

You can check the number of UK COVID-19 lab-confirmed cases and deaths along with figures from the Office of National Statistics.

There is much more information in our Coronavirus blog series (including some in German by focusTerra, ETH Zürich, with additional information on Switzerland), from the UKRI, the EUUS Centers for Disease ControlWHO, on this COVID-19 portal and Our World in Data.

The Science Museum Group is also collecting objects and ephemera to document this health emergency for future generations.

 

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