Professor Richard Betts
Published on: 29 April 2014
Richard holds a joint position as Chair in Climate Impacts for University of Exeter and Met Office.
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The recent IPCC report has made waves across the globe; it is no longer a case of how we can prevent change but how we may need to adapt.
We spoke to leading climate scientist Professor Richard Betts about his involvement in the report, what it’s like holding a joint position with University of Exeter and Met Office and what the future holds for climate research.
If you know want to know more about Richard’s work, you can follow him on Twitter.
What is your current research about?
I’m interested in the global scale impact of climate change and land use change on ecosystems and hydrology and how they interact.
Using large scale computer models of climate, ecosystems and river systems we look into the future of climate change.
What do you think the future holds for climate research?
For me, there are two broad areas in climate research.
The first is in understanding the near-term time frame - a few months to a few years; how the natural climate cycles work and are we able to predict them.
If we can understand this we will be able to forecast things like whether the next rainy season in Africa will succeed or fail.
This will help us see where there might be droughts and where there will be the risk of famine.
The other area of research is looking at how things are changing on a timescale of many decades, a century or even further away.
This is the subject of the major new EU-funded research project, HELIX, that I am leading.
As well as the natural cycles in climate, we know we are making some changes ourselves.
We’re confident the world is going to keep getting warmer but exactly what that means – in terms of changing rainfall patterns, extreme events and the impacts on food and water, our living conditions and biodiversity - we don’t know for sure yet.
You can’t test these very long-term predictions against past data, because things we are expecting in the future haven’t happened in the past; certainly not in the time we have been making measurements of the Earth’s climate. However, you can, and must, check for physical consistency to make sure the predictions are realistic.
Have you seen a change in the way people see climate research since you began your work on it?
Yes, a lot of people are realising that if you just look at individual aspects of climate change in isolation, you’re missing the big picture.
People won’t be faced with just one thing at a time; you’ll have several things happening at once so we have to look at how these events are connected. This is part of what we’ll be doing in HELIX.
What has been your involvement with the IPCC report?
I’ve been involved in the last two IPCC reports. This time I was lead author for the chapter on Terrestrial and inland water systems in working group 2 which focuses on Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.
We looked at what climate change means for ecosystems, biodiversity, economies, human security and what to do about it in terms of living with and adapting to changes.
The first report I took part in was published in 2007 and took about three years to write, then I was in working group 1 - the physical science report; this group includes the climate modellers and the people who take the climate observations.
My move in working group mirrors my move from being purely Met Office based to being joint Met Office and University.
You get a more diverse range of expertise and understanding in the Working Group 2 area of IPCC. It’s about translating the climate model projections and observations into what it actually means on the ground.
What is your involvement with the Transformational Climate Science conference?
The conference is an opportunity for international experts to discuss the future of climate change research following the IPCC report. There will be senior figures from all three areas of the IPCC speaking so it’s a very high level event.
We’re pretty sure that Exeter is unique, not only as a University but also as a City - which is home to the Met Office, for having so many people who are involved with the IPCC from all different angles.
I hope this conference will highlight the city of Exeter as a world-leading centre of learning and understanding in the climate change area. Everyone from the University and the Met Office who was involved in the IPCC report will be at this conference
What is it like holding a joint post with the Met Office and how do you think the two organisations help one another?
It works very well; the two organisations have got different strengths and I try to tap into both of them.
The Met Office has access to big data and they’re able to develop and use big climate models – which is a real technical and organisational challenge.
The University has more diverse areas of interest and research. There are people here who are interested in climate change and climate modelling, there are researchers looking at the effect of climate change on biodiversity and water resources as well as groups looking at understanding the effect of climate change on people.
Working with teams across the disciplines helps you see the big picture.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far?
Having my keynote presentation at a conference in Oxford filmed for the BBC 10 O’clock news - although it was also one of the scariest moments.
The presentation was about when we might reach four-degree warming, which was a question people hadn’t addressed much.
It was one of the headline stories, but I was most pleased about it being the first time I’d seen a BBC news item show a graph with error bars – which are used on graphs to show the range of uncertainty.