Climate scientist Mark Maslin: ‘We have all the technology we need to move to a cleaner, renewable world’ – The Guardian

Climate science

The professor of Earth system science on the hottest year on record, using humour – with a little help from Jo Brand – to get his message across, and why there are reasons to be positive

Sun 28 Jan 2024 15.00 CET

Prof Mark Maslin studies climate change and human impacts as professor of Earth system science at University College London (UCL) and the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. He recently partnered with the comedian Jo Brand in an online film to “translate” climate science for a wider audience. He is the lead organiser of Love Your Planet with Al Gore’s charity, the Climate Reality Project, and the Climate Cafe at UCL on 14 February.

We’ve just heard officially that 2023 was the world’s hottest year, and that we are likely to breach the temperature rise limit of 1.5C warming above pre-industrial levels in the next 12 months. What are your thoughts on that?
Last year being the hottest on record was something we knew was going to happen at the end of 2023. Two hundred of the 365 days last year were the hottest ever recorded for that particular day, which gives some idea of how huge this was. The temperature is 1.48C above the pre-industrial – close to the 1.5C limit [for this century] that was set up by the Paris agreement in 2016 – so we are worryingly close to it. We also know that El Niño [a natural weather pattern] is starting in the Pacific Ocean and always adds some warming. So in 2024, we could break the 1.5C limit temporarily.

Last year we saw many extreme weather events: heatwaves, wildfires and floods – can we expect more of the same in 2024?
In 2023, there were over 220 extreme climate events. There was a 30% increase in fatalities caused by climate events on the previous year. We saw massive heatwaves in North America, southern Europe, China and Asia. We also saw wildfires. And lots of underreported events. For example, east Africa had huge long droughts and catastrophic flooding. There was no continent that was not affected by extreme weather events – and our ability to cope with them is getting less. A lot of people have said to me: “Oh it was a rubbish summer in the UK.” We had the hottest July on record. We had a slightly warmer than average August, and it was the second hottest year ever recorded in the UK. But because people are now expecting southern England to be like the French Riviera, if we don’t have 30C weather in August they go: “Ooh it’s not a good summer.” No. We shouldn’t be having summers like that. Ever. Two years ago we had a 40C heatwave in London, which had us climatologists with our jaws on the ground. We were predicting [40C] for the 2040s… The expectation of many climatologists, including myself, is that 2024 could be hotter than 2023, and with more extreme weather events as El Niño really takes hold.

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire burning in Saronida, near Athens, Greece, 17 July 2023. Photograph: Stelios Misinas/Reuters

You’re a professor of Earth system science at UCL – tell me about your main research?
I study climate change in the past, present and future. My research is incredibly wide ranging: I study early human evolution in east Africa, the evolution of the Anthropocene and how human impact has changed through history, and the impacts of climate change on society now and in the future. I also look at resource crises in the future.

You and your colleagues released a study on private jet flights and the carbon footprint estimates of travel to the Cop climate meetings just before Cop28 in Dubai last month. What were your findings?
We looked at all private jet flights to Cop26 and 27. We are working on Cop28 now and will be releasing that at the end of this year. What we’re not trying to say is world leaders have to go on commercial jets – because we want them to turn up to Cop meetings – but what we are saying is maybe all 100,000 people at Cop28 didn’t need to be there. Please don’t get me wrong: Cops are really important. This is a place where 198 countries come together as equals. So when you have a statement that says we are going to transition away from fossil fuels – which is signed by everybody – it has real weight.

You recently featured in a short online film for Climate Science Breakthrough with comedian Jo Brand – who translated your words to get the message across. For example, her interpretation of governments giving subsidies to fossil fuel companies was: “Even the dinosaurs didn’t subsidise their own extinctions; who’s the stupid species now?”
Jo Brand is an amazing person. We have very similar views and backgrounds. She worked for the NHS; most of my family work in the NHS… We have similar political views. When my mother was alive she loved telling the story of when she was pregnant with me and she had to drag the coal home because they couldn’t afford to have it delivered. That tells you, one: that we were poor. And two: we had a coal fire, not central heating. So growing up in that sort of austerity means that Jo and I have a connection. There’s one point in the film where we’d been chatting about how we could make Britain better and Jo turned and said: “Oh Mark, I really think you should be prime minister.” And I said: “Jo, do I really want that job?” And she went: “Yeah, maybe not.” I said: “How about we do it together?” And she said: “Oh that’s a good idea!” And it was that comedy gold, that lovely rapport, which I think comes over.

Might you be looking at a career in comedy?
No, I’m very happy to be the straight man! This communication of climate change, human impact on the world etc is incredibly depressing and can make people feel powerless. So there is always a little bit of humour running through everything I do. Also I try to talk about positives. Because in climate change there are so many solutions: things that we should be doing anyway. So renewable energy, guess what? We get much cleaner air, which means that we have less loss of life due to things like asthma and chest infections. Yes, tick, tick, tick. We have energy security because it’s our own energy so we don’t have all these incredible price rises. Fossil fuels are 19th- and 20th-century technologies. We have incredible technology now. Therefore, why don’t we move into the 21st century and make things better?

Is there room for climate optimism then?
We have all the technology we need to move to a cleaner, renewable world. All the stats are showing incredible growth: we have exponential growth in solar, wind, EV batteries, which is all fantastic. We also have politics – 90% of the world’s economy says it will be net zero some time this century. That’s huge. We are transitioning away from fossil fuels. It should have been 30 years ago, but it’s now. The signalling is great, but we have to do it faster.

You’re organising a “Love Your Planet” event at UCL next month. What does it involve?
The Climate Reality Project has got together with UCL to produce a day of panels, talks and networking on the green transition. How do we get business, politicians, academics and activists all working together to make this happen quicker? We also have hopefully a few positive words from Al Gore himself, in a short video introduction. It’s on Valentine’s Day. If you have a loved one and you’ve forgotten, I will be reminding you that you should at least text – even without Jo Brand, I’m using humour to try to engage people, and to think about their relationship with their loved ones, but also with their planet, which is their home. And it’s the only one we have. Just like we nurture our relationships with other people, we really should be nurturing our relationship with our own planet.