Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at the University College of London, was awarded the Edinburgh Medal award in 2008 for making a significant contribution as a scientist “to the understanding and well-being of humanity”. It’s an honour he shares with former NASA climate scientist James Hansen and Gaia thorist James Lovelock, who received the award in 2006 and 2012.
In recent years, climate scientists have been venturing beyond their chosen fields to try and increase political will to act on climate change. James Hansen has been arrested in front of the White House. Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver is running to form the next government of the province of British Columbia.
Rapley chose the theatre.
Next week, Rapley is back at the Edinburgh International Science Festival to share what he has learned putting on his one-man play in 2071: The World We'll Leave Our Grandchildren. The show, which draws on a lifetime of experience and knowledge as a professional scientist, premiered in London in November 2014.
It was devised with Duncan Macmillan, playwright at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in an attempt “to draw people into a very complicated conversation” by turning climate science into a narrative.
Rapley, accustomed to communicating science his whole career in a thoroughly drama-free way, has described creating the play as a “great experience” but also “a really, really difficult process”. In a Royal Court podcast, Rapley talked about how he and Macmillan struggled with the tension between communicating the science and writing a compelling narrative for the theatre:
"Even as recently as the last week," Rapley says in the podcast recorded just before the premiere, "I've gone through major meltdowns because I've felt, ugh, no, the science is not being represented the way it needs to, because scientists expect certain things to be done in a certain order. And I just finally learned to relax and see that the story comes out anyway, and indeed far better the way Duncan has assembled it."
EdinburghGuide.com asked Rapley about the play and his hopes for the future of the planet.
EdinburghGuide.com: When you were awarded the Edinburgh Medal award in 2008, and the carbon dioxide (CO2) level was at around 385 parts per million (ppm), were you confident that the world would stay within +2°C limit?
Chris Rapley Hopeful, rather than confident. I subscribe to an outlook of "dark optimism" a term coined by Shaun Chamberlain to describe our capacity to face dark truths while believing unwaveringly in our human potential.
EG: You've praised the ambition of the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement, but humanity is still on course to warm the planet by +3-4°C, which would be catastrophic for life on Earth.
What's it going to take now that we are at 406ppm to hit this more stringent target?
Under all the International Panel on Climate Change's scenarios limiting warming to +2°C for 2100 don't we need some "alien" technology to scrub the CO2 out of the atmosphere?
Chris Rapley We need what has been called “the greatest collective action in history’: the massive deployment of green technology will make a major contribution, and the “mission innovation” initiative, signed up to by 20 nations and supported by a collection of ‘high worth’ individuals is an encouraging start.
But for it to be successful we need a parallel ‘mission conversation’ - a public discourse on what policies and actions will be supported and tolerated. Without the public ‘on side’, the necessary transformations will prove very difficult if not impossible.
My experience is that the general public do not appreciate the nature, scale and urgency of the task.
My personal view is that there is very little chance of us limiting warming to 1.5°C (not least because the current El Niño conditions have lifted us to well over 1°C already) and unless we are lucky and the climate sensitivity turns out to be lower than estimated (not a way to run a civilisation!), we will need to find ways to massively drawdown CO2 from the atmosphere to stay below the 2°C guardrail.
This would involve ‘magical’ technologies that currently do not exist and so are unlikely to be developed and deployed at sufficient scale in time.
EG: There's been a steady flow of disconcerting scientific reports lately in the news, particularly with regard to ice melt and Antarctica:
- Pollard & DeConto say Antarctica is melting faster than we thought
- Hansen et al say that sea level rise is happening much faster than we thought
- NASA says the West Antarctic ice sheet is "in an irreversible state of decline"
- 2015 was warmest year on record yet, and according to Michael Mann, temperatures have already made the +2°C mark (based on a more stringent pre-industrial baseline than the IPCC)
Yes, Feb 2016 saw 2C warmer-than-preindustrial "dangerous" warming: https://t.co/ydpf4axJlQ
— Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) March 13, 2016
What are your thoughts about the future of the Antarctic in light of the new reports coming out? For example, James Hansen has said that we should expect 18ft sea level rise by 2100 "or shortly thereafter" under a business-as-usual scenario where we keep on burning fossil fuels. Do you think we will see a sea level rise of this order if we don't act or a metre as forecast by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the latest assessment.
Chris Rapley I am skeptical of model predictions. Models are hugely valuable at providing insight into how the earth system functions, and for revealing what could happen - i.e. the limits imposed by physical laws. And that is what the new results are telling us - that there seems to be no physical mechanism that would prevent a severe acceleration of sea level rise due to ice loss from Antarctica.
Indeed, there is some evidence that it might be under way. But that doesn’t mean that it will happen.
However, strategic planners need to know the answer to ‘what is the worst that could happen’ as it influences their approach to risk management - so that they can choose what to seek to prevent, and can plan ahead on recovery preparations in the event of something worse.
EG: What do you consider the safe ceiling (ppm) for CO2 levels?
That’s not a scientific question. My personal view as an informed citizen is that we should work very hard to keep warming as close to 2°C as we can.
EG: Can you describe the show?
Chris Rapley It’s a "fireside chat": me telling the story of my involvement in climate change (starting with my work in satellite observation - especially of the polar regions), the reasons why I have concluded that climate change is real, driven by human actions, risky and partly preventable.
The narrative is backed up by a description of the IPCC conclusions and hope is created by explaining the many actions in place and under way to limit human carbon emissions - especially through the development and deployment of green energy technologies.
It ends by pointing out that the issue - although revealed by science - cannot be addressed by science alone - as it entails morals / ethics and an answer to the question “what kind of a future do we want to create?”. Hence the title. In 2071 my eldest granddaughter will be the age I was when Duncan and I wrote the play. What world will she experience? What will be our legacy?
EG: Why did you decide to do it?
Chris Rapley I was looking for new ways to connect with the general public. A narrative approach is a departure from the traditional mode of an academic - the ‘information deficit mode’ which we know is not very effective. And (director) Katie Mitchell, Duncan and the Royal Court were hugely enthusiastic and encouraging.
EG: Does the script advocate for any particular policy solutions (e.g. carbon pricing)?
Chris Rapley No.
EG: Do you have any sense that the stage show speaks to people more than a traditional talk or discussion?
Chris Rapley Yes, I've had very positive feedback from audience members (and it received excellent theatre reviews). It has created much interest - and the book is selling well (Editor's note: You can download a free copy of the script)!
EG: Are you aware of it making an impact/has it been a catalyst for action?
Chris Rapley It’s a slow burner, but every little helps.
EG: What do you hope that the audience will do (if anything) after seeing your show?
Chris Rapley Talk about it.
What the reviews said
Michael Billington in The Guardian: “I suspect even the most obdurate, climate-change denier would have to admit to the logic of the case he presents. And, if we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition, the evening succeeds on all counts.”
Dominic Cavindish in The Telegraph: “It’s more Royal Society address – or TED talk – than standard Royal Court fare, yet the data imparted has the same power to churn you up as any “in-yer-face” play.”
Andrzej Lukowski in Timeout: “there’s something very beautiful and peaceful about the theatricality of Mitchell’s production: thanks to Luke Halls’ stunning videos, Rapley appears to float in an elegant monochrome wonderland of maps and figures, luminous as the planet itself."