Science fights back as climate crisis deepens - interview with Prof James Curran
Optimistic. It’s not the first trait you would expect of a man who started giving speeches about climate change 30 years ago – speeches that would deliberately “scare the hell out of people”, in his words. But Professor James Curran has never been predictable.
The former chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) feels we are at a historic turning point with public opinion on climate change. “Greta Thunberg – absolutely brilliant,” he says, delightedly. “I think she has done miracles in terms of turning world opinion, though I give credit to Extinction Rebellion too.”
Hearing him speak, there is a palpable sense of excitement that the political logjam is shifting, a bright, energetic view that feels starkly at odds with the daily drip of terrible news about the global environment.
For Curran, who is chair of the James Hutton Institute, this isn’t just professional; it’s personal. Thirteen years ago, he gave up a high-flying career in environmental management to serve tea and falafel to Glasgow punters in a shop just off Sauchiehall Street. Entrading, which Curran ran with his wife Artemis, a child psychologist, aimed to provide the most sustainable product for every household need, from clothing to toiletries to construction materials. It was a European first, which Curran dubbed “the John Lewis of the environment”.
The couple sold the shop, in the aftermath of the economic crash, and he went back to SEPA, but his belief that transformative change is possible, both at individual and state level, remains undimmed. He has recently produced a programme for the Isle of Man government on achieving its carbon reduction targets and is thrilled it was unanimously approved on January 21 by the island’s parliament, the Tynwald.
The last time we met was over excellent coffee at Entrading (a point of particular pride for Curran) and today we meet again in a café, this time in Edinburgh. Curran is through from Glasgow to attend a talk about the Cairngorm Weather Station, which, as a young research scientist 42 years ago, he built (he maintained it in all weathers, and lost the nerve use in one fingertip to frostbite)
But we’ll have to leave that story for another day. We’re here to discuss his views on society’s failure to value science and how it has damaged efforts to tackle climate change.
It’s an issue that has been on his mind, and not just because of the PR onslaught from vested interests against climate change science. He sees the undervaluing of science as a long-term problem. Even scientists who contributed to the Allied victory in World War Two were not given due recognition – scientists who included both of his late parents.
Last year was the 75th anniversary of both the D-Day landings and the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Through their scientific work, his parents were instrumental in the success of both. His mother invented Window, now known as chaff (which is still used) – bits of tin foil dropped from planes to create false radar signals – designed to trick the Germans into thinking planes or ships were approaching further along the coast. It worked. The Germans moved some divisions, making success for the Allied troops on D-Day that bit more achievable.
His father, meanwhile, invented the proximity fuse, a fuse with improved reliability which caused bombs to explode just above the ground, increasing their destructive force. The British shared the secret of the proximity fuse with the Americans (who sometimes erroneously claim it as their invention) as they had the capacity to mass produce them. They were deployed at the Bulge to significant effect, helping beat the Germans into retreat by January 1945
“It’s not a very nice topic to talk about, but my father never had any doubts in his own mind that the scientific work in World War Two was absolutely essential,” he says. “It was a race to beat the Germans in developing their science and later on the Japanese as well."
Joan (née Strothers), from Wales, and Sam Curran, from Wishaw, met at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, then the world’s leading physics research establishment. Joan was Sam’s PhD student. They were recruited into the war effort together and moved 15 times in two years with their work.
Their last wartime move was across the Atlantic to the famous Anglo-American Manhattan Project. As part of that team, they invented scintillation and proportional counters, which became the standard instruments for measuring radioactivity (superior to the Geiger counter).
How did they feel about their involvement in the project to invent the atomic bomb?
Curran believes his mother was more ambivalent, and neither talked much about it, “but my father never had doubts about the need to do it at the time”. Sam Curran, who went on to become the first principal of Strathclyde University, believed that the Japanese had had many opportunities to capitulate and that the use of the bomb in Nagasaki and Hiroshima had greatly shortened the war. His son spreads his hands, in acknowledgment that it is still a debated question.
While in California, Joan gave birth to a daughter, Sheena, who was born with severe mental disabilities. When the couple returned to Scotland, they set up the Scottish Society for Mentally Handicapped Children. That organisation is now Enable.
“Enable is very pioneering in its thinking and demands for policy change – something they were – and I think they would still be hugely proud of it.
“What I admired about both of them was that instinct to be innovative, always to be thinking how could they do things better.”
Their legacy to James and his brothers was “a natural instinct to think in a scientific way”.
The ignoring or undermining of science and the failure to resource it properly, are hugely worrying to him and he sees it all as part of a wider challenge to “the scientific way of thinking”.
He points to a worrying resistance to scientific findings that threaten people’s pre-conceived ideas: “Many years ago, I came across a story that Freud had written, about the two great outrages against mankind’s self-perception. The first was the outrage of Galileo realising that the Earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe, and the second was Darwin thinking we were descended from bacteria.
“And I thought, outrage number three is our perception that we can run the planet when it’s becoming increasingly clear
The theories of Galileo and Darwin were not accepted for generations (even now, surveys show many people do not believe the theory of evolution). “Well, we simply don’t have the time for the penny to drop with humankind that we are incapable of running the world.”
He is of course talking about climate change and sees the struggle to get the public and politicians on board with the urgency of the situation as something of a contest between two competing modes of thought: type-one thinking – intuitive decision-making based on personal experience, peer influence, stories and anecdotes; and type-two thinking, the scientific approach, which is slower, heavily evidence-based, and where assertions are qualified with degrees of risk. “Type-one thinking is in the ascendancy and type-two thinking is heavily criticised,” he notes, citing Michael Gove’s infamous remarks about experts.
Scientists are expected to be objective and technocratic – their credibility depends upon it – but the political debate is typically emotional and focused on gaining rhetorical advantage, which makes it very difficult for scientists to engage in it on equal terms. For example, no scientist will ever say they have the absolute answer, notes Curran, there is always a degree of uncertainty, so they are criticised for failing to offer clear messages.
There is a depressing recent history of sound scientific evidence taking years to be accepted, such as on the dangers of smoking, asbestos and lead in petrol, because of attempts by vested interests to play down or ignore the evidence. Even accepted scientific evidence can be subject to attack, such as on the benefits of innoculations and fluoride.
He sees social media (which he uses himself) as amplifying that way of thinking, where groups of like-minded people shore up each other’s preconceptions and prejudices, often without challenge. It’s a world away from the peer-review process.
So what can be done? Lack of investment is partly responsible for “undermining the credibility and profile of science”. The UK’s target for research and development investment is 2.4 per cent of GDP, well short of the EU target of three per cent, but in fact, the UK is only currently investing 1.7 per cent. “In Scotland, it’s even worse, 1.6 per cent, so we have a long way to go,” he says.
“Scottish Government spending on its own funded research is 0.1 per cent of GDP. That’s very low. The average for governments across Europe to create their own evidence base, is 0.22 per cent. We are simply not spending enough on research.”
So deep breath, then, what about COP26, the UN climate conference due to take place in Glasgow in November? COP25 in Madrid was decried by many. “Never have I seen such a disconnect between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. So what does Curran expect of the same cast of characters in 10 months’ time?
“I’ve got great hopes for COP26 in Glasgow,” he says, cheerfully.
“Yes, I do. I believe we are genuinely at one of those tipping points.”
Recently he began to analyse the carbon dioxide records from Mauna Loa on Hawaii, which go back to 1957, the world’s longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide. His findings, published in two peer-reviewed papers, were that the northern hemisphere summer seemed less able to suck up carbon dioxide than it once was, and he concluded that climate change has advanced now to the extent where it has damaged the ecosystem.
Australian forest fires, the destruction of coral reefs (which are carbon sinks) the drying up of peatlands – together, these sorts of events damage the Earth’s ability to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s called positive feedback, where climate changes cause planetary changes to the ecosystem that reduce the ecosystem’s ability to slow down climate change.
So remind us where this optimism is coming from again? “I do believe, with climate change, we are at that social tipping point where the arguments are becoming more settled, though the vested interests will continue to argue about the way we tackle it instead of the science itself.”
How does he rate the Scottish Government’s climate change efforts?
“I give the Scottish Government a high score. It’s been really, really progressive on renewable energy. We need more of that.
“But we need to look now at the more difficult, recalcitrant areas, which are space heating, transport and the circular economy.
“Steve Jobs said innovation distinguishes a leader from a follower. If Scotland wants to retain its position as a climate-change leader, then it needs to start innovating. And I’m afraid investing in roads doesn’t seem to me like innovation.”
He notes that during World War Two, in the space of two years, the United States turned one third of its entire economy round to its war effort (and reaped the economic rewards of innovation, high productivity and efficiency for the next 40 years), adding that it shows what can be done when there’s sufficient motivation.
How do you counter the hopelessness people can feel when they consider Scotland or the UK’s efforts compared to countries like China, the US and Brazil?
“Some of this – not all – is misinformation,” he says, calmly. “China is expected only to start reducing its emissions in some years to come. It has promised to do that and it is by far the biggest investor in renewable energy. So, there are two sides to the story around China.
“In the US, the federal government seems very antipathetic towards climate change, but most of the actions are taken at state level and some states are world-leading in their fight against climate change.
“OK, Scotland is tiny, but I remember sitting next to the technical secretary of the International Panel on Climate Change once and I asked him directly: does it matter what Scotland does? And he told me, absolutely, because Scotland taking a lead demonstrates to others what can be done and that others should emulate it.”
So back to COP26. On the agenda is the ratchet mechanism, a means to ensure nations increase the ambition of their emissions reduction targets every five years so as to ensure global temperature rises stay below two degrees. “I do, genuinely, wholeheartedly believe, that we are at a turning point in world history where nations will start stepping up and begin to do that. I don’t underestimate the difficulty of doing that. The only UN climate conference I ever attended was Copenhagen in 2009, which was massively disappointing, but Paris came shortly afterwards, so I’ve got high hopes for Glasgow.”
He smiles brightly again. “I have always been an optimist – naively so, perhaps, but it’s still there.”