By Nico Lethbridge
Dr Fredi Otto is one of the world’s most important climate scientists. Named last year as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, her work continues to have a resounding impact on the public discussion about climate change. I caught up with her to talk about her career, what we can do as individuals and what it was like being ranked alongside Donald Trump, Prince Harry and Elon Musk.
Climate change is the biggest issue facing our generation. Every day there’s seemingly more terrifying evidence in the press and on social media: droughts, heatwaves, floods, and food shortages. The consequences seem so dreadful and the solutions so far beyond our control it isn’t worth contemplating. But thanks to the work of inspiring people like Dr Fredi Otto, a climate scientist from Imperial College, London, the road map for solving the crisis is slowly becoming clearer.
Almost everyone is aware that humans emitting carbon is causing the planet to heat up which in turn causes extreme weather events to be more intense and more frequent. Despite this, Dr Otto, who specialises in extreme weather, is adamant that climate change is not a physical problem. “Climate change is a social issue,” she explained over zoom. “What turns extreme weather into disaster is hugely determined by who and what is in harm’s way.” She goes on to explain that what matters therefore is that those in harm’s way have the protection they need. The resources required to prepare the most vulnerable are all there, but at the moment they are not being allocated correctly. Unfortunately, scientists don’t have power to rectify this - that belongs to the politicians.
However, so far politicians and the people that elect them haven’t been remotely effective at dealing with climate change… That’s why Dr Otto and her colleagues set up World Weather Attribution (WWA) to bring the issue to the forefront of public thought - when the devastating facts are laid bare, decisive action from the politicians will surely follow.
The work of WWA may seem like standard scientific stuff - they analyse extreme weather events to calculate the role played by global warming. In reality, its impact has been revolutionary, changing the way we understand climate change and its effects.
The crucial element is speed. No, unfortunately not the drug, but the rate at which they reach their conclusions.
Take for example the extraordinary heatwave in Vancouver last year - the one that killed 1400 people and caused $8.9bn of damage. Previously it would have taken several years to form an accurate conclusion and by the time they had the results the media and everyone else would have moved on. The heatwave lasted two weeks. WWA had an answer before it was finished. While the country was still blistering in 50 degrees, they showed the freak event was caused entirely by global warming. Suddenly climate change, previously an abstract thing, distant and futuristic, became very real - it is here already. Little wonder MIT named WWA one of the most important technological breakthroughs of recent years.
However, the extremity of these events generally doesn’t depend on the weather itself but on the preparedness of the place it hits. Canada is a wealthy nation with strong institutions and sturdy infrastructure. Though the heatwave caused a lot of damage, they had the resources to defend themselves. Poorer countries, where tragically these events are occuring much more frequently, do not have the resources to defend themselves.
“Some very intense crises are caused by not very intense weather events,” Dr Otto emphasised. In 2017, Kenya was hit by a drought. Two million people were suddenly facing starvation and the government declared a national emergency. WWA’s analysis found climate change played only a small role. What really caused the suffering was Kenya’s food insecurity; climate change merely exposed it. This trend will likely intensify with the current global food crisis, as we’ve already begun to see in India and Pakistan this spring. “Climate change is a social issue,” Dr Otto stressed once again.
WWA’s work also has a significant legal implication. By showing a causal link between global warming and the damage caused by weather events - whether that’s human lives lost or economic damage - guilty corporations and governments can be taken to court. This is an enormous breakthrough and one which will hopefully see those most responsible begin to pay for their crimes. There haven’t been any successful cases yet though. “The lawyers are still learning exactly how to do it,” Dr Otto explained, “but it’s only a matter of time.”
Given her success, you might think Dr Otto had always dreamed of being a climate scientist. Far from it. “I had a really bad diploma at high school,” she told me, “and in Germany the subjects you can study depend on your grades. Physics wasn’t popular and you could study it with really bad grades. So I did that.” It turned out she was pretty good at it and she went on to do a PHD. It was only then that she decided to specialise in climate science and extreme weather, spotting their importance in today’s world.
9 years after her PHD, Dr Otto was named in Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world. “Yeah, I think that was a lot of wishful thinking from the editors…!” She laughed, modestly deflecting back to what WWA was founded to do: “When you talk about ‘global mean temperature’ that’s completely abstract. But when you see a house underwater you can say that’s what climate change means in your area. That’s much more powerful. We really needed this kind of evidence in the discourse and at least Time Magazine thinks we’ve done that and that’s…cool.” She seemed completely unfazed by being named alongside the most powerful and influential people of our times. I agreed that it certainly is cool.
Unfortunately, most of us won’t ever set up revolutionary scientific bodies that change the global discourse on existential issues, so I asked her advice on what we can do to do our bit. “Well,” she replied, “always the most important thing to find is, what are your spheres of influence? Where are the decisions that you can actually influence? Everyone has these. They might be on a larger scale if you’re the CEO of Shell compared to a primary school teacher, but in the teacher’s case, you can influence how the school is run, what the children learn about climate change etc etc.”
As individuals she continued, “industries want us to think that our only decisions are in what we buy as consumers. But that really isn’t true. We all have other ways we can have an influence and doing this is the most personally rewarding. It’s also what makes the most difference.”
Conversations about climate change usually involve a lot of doom mongering but Dr Otto insists this isn’t how we should approach it. “We should not underestimate it, of course,” she told me, “but we should not overestimate it either.” Doing that, she explained, merely leads to hopelessness and despair, sapping the energy to work towards a solution. “It becomes this huge, abstract monster that will destroy everything. It isn’t that. We have a lot of agency to build resilience. Keeping this complexity makes for less snappy headlines and slightly more complicated narratives but it’s important that we have a realistic picture of what’s actually happening. That’s what gives us agency to address it.”
“Every bit of warming makes things worse. But it also means if we stop warming the planet, things will stop getting worse! That’s a really important message.”
“Are you hopeful for the future?” I asked.
“Hopeful is not the right word… This isn’t going to solve itself, so just hoping won’t cut it. We must all take part in the solution.” As we said goodbye she added with a smile, “But yeah, I’m an optimist. I think we’ll get there.”