There was a time in Britain when summer temperatures, like house prices, could not rise fast enough. Not anymore. The UK may be on the brink of recording its highest-ever temperature, exceeding the record of 38.7C set only in 2019. The heatwave is likely to kill hundreds. Its impact on productivity may show up in growth data. Continental Europe, meanwhile, fights droughts and wildfires.
Yet for Corinne Le Quéré, one of the world’s experts on global emissions, there is no great revelation in the records. “It is so predictable how climate change is unfolding,” she says, in her office at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, eastern England, overlooking parched lawns. “It’s like a train moving forward.” There are oddities, like when Le Quéré’s native Canada last year experienced record heat of 49.6C, “followed up with wildfires and the annihilation of a small city”. If the UK hits 40C this summer, she will “be surprised that we’re already there. But that we beat these records — this is expected, this is what a changing climate looks like.”
Climate models can now estimate how much likelier extreme weather is due to humans’ emissions: the 2019 heat in the UK and Germany was, for example, about 10 times more likely. But the answers are almost too obvious. “If you have a heatwave and you beat a heat record, do not ask many questions. This is climate change for sure.” In the 2000s, Le Quéré was a lead author of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won a Nobel Peace Prize. Today she bridges science and policy, sitting on the UK’s government advisory group, the Climate Change Committee, and chairing France’s equivalent, the High Council on Climate. Shortly after coronavirus hit, she led a study that estimated global emissions had fallen 7 per cent in 2020. The message was: “You don’t tackle climate change like this — but look at the size of the actions we’re putting in place [against coronavirus], you need to respond to climate change at that size.” It went largely unheeded. The Glasgow climate summit — just eight months ago — has given way to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its economic aftershocks. Boris Johnson, who as UK prime minister helped to energise climate talks, will soon be out of office. The candidates to replace him all seem less attached to green issues.
Le Quéré, who briefed David Cameron after he became Tory leader in 2005, with the help of a block of Antarctic ice, shakes her head. “You can never forget about climate change. You should align all your crisis responses as much as possible to climate action.” Le Quéré’s impression is that “most politicians get it. They would like to do things. But it’s always too difficult. There’s always a specific reason why they can’t do what they would like to do or they think they should do. It’s too difficult, it costs too much money, there’s no availability of something — public transport is a typical one. There’s always an excuse... The other obstacle is looking at what others are doing. This is paralysing. Everybody looks at what everybody else does, so action slows down.” Political will wilts like a pot plant in afternoon sun. Does she get frustrated? “I don’t get frustrated. If you work in this field, you have to have infinite patience . . . You have to help politicians realise their role.”
Le Quéré, 56, began her research as an oceanographer. She found that the Southern Ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide was not fixed: as the ocean became warmer, and more acidic, it took up less carbon. The Earth’s carbon sinks are projected to weaken as the climate warms. She faced obstacles in a male-dominated field: “I was a single parent for ten years . . . By the time I made it to a conference it already felt like an accomplishment.” Undeterred, she went on to look for ways to effect change. She set up the Global Carbon Budget, a yearly estimate of carbon in the atmosphere. The latest edition judges that humans emitted 36 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021. For a 50 per cent chance of limiting warming to 1.5C, the remaining budget is just 420 gigatonnes — 12 years of current behaviour. As an adviser to the UK and France, which does she think is doing better? “Both have their strengths and weaknesses. The UK has a superb strategy that gets you to net zero [carbon emissions by 2050]. It’s struggling in the implementation. There’s a lot of incoherence. One example: we’re still building houses that are operating their heat system on gas and are not prepared for adaptation to climate change. New houses! “In France, the plan is less centralised, but there’s a lot of thinking about preparing society for climate action — in part because they had the yellow jackets [gilets jaunes protests].” Le Quéré insists that infrastructure investments can only take humans so far. The UK places too little emphasis on reducing waste, through building efficiency, smaller cars and less food waste. Future technology won’t save us; much of it already exists. “What we need mostly is to use the technology.” Battery-electric cars represent 12 per cent of UK new car sales, but are too expensive and have too few charging points. “These are two things that the government can act on.”
On the spot How do you spend a heatwave? Swim in a river at the end of the day. Do universities have a free speech problem? I haven’t felt that. How to forget about climate anxiety? On a day-to-day basis, it’s just having a family. Bicycle or electric car? Both, with solar panels on both sides of the roof to charge the car. Similarly, heat pumps “are just too expensive. There’s no reason why they should be too expensive. They’re all over Sweden and Canada. They’re not expensive there. [In the UK] we don’t have a supply chain, we don’t have a market, it’s not organised, they’re not compulsory in new houses.” A big unknown is what impact Russia’s invasion will have on global emissions. “There are so many risks.” Coal power stations have been reopened, renewable projects have been accelerated, but the effect goes wider. “One of the biggest threats to tackling climate change from this crisis is the international tensions. There’s the energy crisis, a food crisis, there’s exhaustion from Covid. And there’s tension from rich countries’ [unfulfilled] commitments to tackle climate change.” This year’s climate summit in Egypt in November “will probably be difficult .
What we see now globally — 1.5C, forget it.” Stuart Kirk, HSBC’s head of responsible investment, recently argued that humans should focus on adaptation: “Who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been [two] metres underwater for ages.” HSBC disowned his view, and Kirk has now left the bank. “It’s a legitimate question, could we just adapt to climate change?” says Le Quéré. “And the answer is no. Because the warming continues. You cannot just adapt because the target keeps moving.” (Unlike Amsterdam, Miami can’t protect itself via sea walls, because water bubbles up through the porous limestone on which it’s built.) Recommended Pilita Clark HSBC saga reveals how much climate and financial risk are misunderstood Le Quéré is not an alarmist, not a zealot. “A perfect person could cut their own emissions by perhaps 25 per cent.” Emissions are embedded in the infrastructure that we use, the society in which we live. “It really needs to be a society-wide movement.”
In a TEDx Talk in 2018, she said that she believed that environmental destruction would end in her lifetime. “Before I die, we will recycle everything . . . we will no longer eat animals . . . we will breathe pure air in the heart of our cities.” Alongside her optimism sits a worry that the climate system could be less stable than forecast: there may be tipping points, like those in the Earth’s geological past. “We think at the moment that at least this century there aren’t going to be big, rapid changes, but for this I would not be completely confident that we know all the aspects of the carbon cycle. It feels now that we’re in a system that is out of equilibrium, but it’s still reasonably stable. What worries me scientifically is: do we have this right?”
She is building a model of the marine food web, incorporating the effect of marine viruses and microplastics. It involves field experiments, lab experiments, and millions of pictures of the oceans, verified with satellite data on ocean colour. But it could take “easily 20 years, maybe 30” before an IPCC-style consensus is reached. Research is “fun” and “calming”, compared with the stress of policy. I realised somewhere along my career that I’m going to do what I can and the rest is out of my hands Corinne Le Quéré Does she wonder if climate scientists were too timid in raising the alarm? “I really struggle to think about what we could have done differently.” Could she have spoken out more? “This is the one thing that I can say for sure: I do everything I can, I don’t think I can do more . . . I realised somewhere along my career that I’m going to do what I can and the rest is out of my hands. Some of the younger scientists can be really quite depressed. But I think it’s not productive to let it depress you.
If you’re a climate scientist you have a really important job to do.” When we meet, British newspapers are preparing for the heatwave with photos of people relaxing with ice cream. “If you’re able to take time off work, that’s all fine,” says Le Quéré. “[But] if you’re a construction worker, if you’re working in agriculture, physiologically your body has temperature limits that can easily reach heat exhaustion on a hot day.”
For years, she has wanted the public to see climate change for themselves. As the reality of high temperatures sets in, should people be afraid? Anxious? “I don’t think fear and anxiety are very positive as emotions. Now is not the time to be fearful, now is the time to be forceful and say: we know what to do. Let’s get rid of all that anxiety and all those doubts, and say big problem, what do we do about it? We have loads of solutions.”