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Extreme Weather
4th February 2022 • Climate Conversations • Bespoken Media
00:00:00 00:20:45

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How can we predict extreme weather events, and measure the impact they have on life on this planet? Hosted by Dragon's Den investor and business expert Deborah Meaden, and featuring Dr Cornelia Klein and Steve Trent, this episode combines the science of storm patterns with the very real effects of extreme weather events on communities across the world. And, as the climate crisis develops, how well placed is the UK to deal with extreme weather events as they become increasingly likely? These conversations are the opinions of the contributors and not necessarily the views of NERC. 


Deborah Meaden: Hello, this is Deborah Meaden, probably best known for being an investor on Dragon’s Den but probably less known as someone who has long been concerned about human impact on the climate and the consequences of both human and wildlife on the planet. Indeed, over 40 years ago, my Business Studies’ thesis was on climate change and I’ve been keeping a watchful and rather worried eye on it ever since. These Climate Conversations bring people together to share perspectives on a particular issue and climate change. This time, we look at how climate change is making our weather increasingly unpredictable and extreme and I’ve got two excellent guests with me as our panellists. To get us started, would you like to both introduce yourselves?

Dr Cornelia Klein: I’m Conny Klein, a meteorologist and climate researcher at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. I’m really interested in the factors that produce intense rainfall over land and how that will change with global warming in the future. There, I’m really focusing on very intense rainfall from large thunderstorm clusters. Such storms are quite common actually across the Tropics and monsoon regions particularly but we do also get them in the UK in spring and summer. Although they are not as frequent here, let’s say, when they occur, even in the UK, they usually produce quite extreme weather.

Steve Trent: Hi, Deborah. My name is Steve Trent and I’m one of the co-founders and the current CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation. I’ve been working in the area of environmental security, wildlife conservation and human rights for about 35 years now and I’m feeling my age but I have a passionate interest in this. I feel about climate that we’re still not gripping the fundamentals of it because if I can be so bold as to say failure on climate will bring failure everywhere and what I want is success. I want us to achieve our goals and to create a fairer, safer and more secure world. That’s my interest in life.

Deborah Meaden: I think most of us have noticed a change in the weather patterns, whether it’s in the changing patterns in the back garden being affected by some of the more frequent extreme weather incidents directly or been watching with horror the wildfires, floods and hurricanes across the world. Personally, I am all of the above but specifically, I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effects of drought and flood in Africa through my work as a trustee for an African wildlife charity. So for me, an understanding of where we are, what we can expect and I guess most importantly, what we can do to reduce the impacts of climate change are hugely important. So maybe first off, Conny, if I come to you, what is the difference between climate and weather and what is climate modelling?

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Deborah Meaden: You see, I find that really interesting because I think it’s quite difficult sometimes to get your mind wrapped around climate change because of the timescales but, of course, when you start seeing the weather, which we are currently seeing and we’re seeing the impacts of that climate change, that’s the moment people realise and really get involved with what’s going on. Weather is kind of the way of delivering the message, I guess, about climate change.

Steve, you founded the Environmental Justice Foundation. Could you tell us a bit about it and, of course, the impact that weather and the climate has on the people that you help?

Steve Trent: We go out there and we work with local communities in countries across the world documenting the problems and challenges that they face and then try to articulate the solutions to them. That can be in Glasgow at COP26. It can be with their national governments or regional bodies but it’s basically taking the voices of the poorest and the most vulnerable and trying to take them to the centres of power around the world so they have a seat at the table and they are heard. When filming these people in their homes, that can be on the coasts of Bangladesh where I’ve seen homes and livelihoods washed away, farms disappearing, nut trees gone and livestock swept out to sea. It can be in some of the sub-Saharan African countries where we work where you see what’s called ‘slow onset climate events’ like desertification and drought where things literally dry up over months or even years and your ability to feed yourself or your family disappears over time. I’ve seen those people and those families and all too often, sadly, they’re the most vulnerable and often, women and children who are on the real frontline of this. Climate change has a human face. It’s someone I know, someone you know and someone you care about. This is happening. It’s with us now and so there’s not a minute to be lost. We need to take the steps that we have within our power to roll back our heating planet and do the things that will ultimately, if I can say, benefit us all. It’s not about just that person over there in Africa or Asia. It is about us in our homes here in safe, secure Western Europe and North America. That’s been my experience of it.

Deborah Meaden: What are the main causes and the difficulties faced by climate refugees when they’re forced to leave their homes? I mean are we at the tip of an iceberg already? What’s going to happen if we don’t do anything?

tal Myanmar and Bangladesh in:

Deborah Meaden: Oh, absolutely hear, hear! Do you know sometimes I try to imagine what I would feel like if I was forced to leave my home, my family, my animals and my community and then I think... I literally cannot imagine it.

Steve Trent: Something else, Deborah. You mentioned animals. I’m a dog owner and I’m an animal lover. Take, for example, some of the floods that happened recently and you see animals being washed away. This thing that we are doing to our planet is hurting everyone in some ways but also everything. Actually, I think once you start to connect with that, it’s quite an important emotional, intellectual and economic aspect to this. We need to look after that wildlife and those natural systems because, at the final end of this all, they are the things that keep us alive.

Deborah Meaden: I absolutely agree with you.

Conny, your work at the moment is specific to West Africa and you’ve seen the power of the storms where you are but at what point do these extreme weather events directly affect us closer to home or are they already?

Dr Cornelia Klein: It’s a region with quite an extreme climate that somehow oscillates between quite extreme storms and then drought periods in between and so people have to live with that. My research now specifically focuses on those periods where we get extreme rainfalls, particularly in the Sahel just south of the Sahara. You get those storms during the West African monsoon and those storms are extremely frequent. They really create the West African monsoon and those storms are some of the most explosive and most intense storms that we get on the planet. That sounds quite scary but actually, it’s those storms that people rely on at the same time for the rainfall because as we heard, there is a lot of agriculture. Actually, most of the agriculture is rain-fed and people need the water but at the same time, those storms can partly be extreme by threatening people’s livestock and infrastructure as well. That’s why there is, of course, a very strong interest in better forecasting these storms. On the other hand, we are also using climate models for trying to understand how such storm behaviour might change in the future; so trying to predict certain storm characteristics decades ahead now. There are some things that we know for sure. For example, we know that those storms will be getting more intense as the world is warming due to there simply being more water vapour that warm air can hold and that will really increase with every fraction of a degree that the planet is warming. There will be more water that will rain out and will increase the intensity of those extreme events. How does this knowledge really help us? The hope is, of course, that with some knowledge on how certain weather extremes are going to change in the different scenarios in the future, we can better estimate future risks and that adaptation can be planned accordingly. For example, that may involve the planning of a dam for a hydro-power project or flood protection in cities. These are structures that should stand their ground really for the next decades. This is really a long learning process for everybody on all sides. I would say it’s about translating the theoretical knowledge that we have on everything into practical and useful information that will help people to better cope with the weather extremes.

Deborah Meaden: Okay, so we’ve talked a lot about the world and what’s going on around the world but let’s bring this home because actually, most people really identify with what’s going on with themselves and what’s going on with their neighbours. How is the UK doing? How well equipped are we to deal with the consequences of climate change?

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Steve Trent: As I mentioned earlier that so many people see it as over there and in the future, my often repeated message is it’s not, it’s here with us now. We can see in the UK the impact of that. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the floods in the Somerset Levels. We’ve seen houses underwater. We’ve seen livestock washed away. We’ve seen damage and harm with lives ruined because climate change is with us now. I think if you look at the here and now, it’s pretty obvious for many different communities across the UK. These extreme weather events are costing them a lot; emotionally, financially and in every other way. But if you look to the future, I’m a parent and I’m sure many people that will listen to this have kids or want to have kids at some point, think about them because really, this is the world they’re going to inherit. We live here and we don’t want to be forced to leave our homes in the UK, whether it’s within the UK or, dare I say, even being forced to move abroad because of this. It’s not inconceivable. Those kinds of movement patterns will happen if we don’t take action today. My appeal to you all is to look after your future and let’s do something about it right now.

Deborah Meaden: Just so you know, I am actually on the edge of the Somerset Levels, so I see it. I think that’s why I’m so interested in it. This is the thing; people have got to see it. They can’t imagine it. They’ve got to see the consequences. I guess listening to all of this, it could be very depressing and very worrying but I think I’d like to finish up with questions to both of you really and maybe Steve first. What gives you hope that we will be able to deal with these very obvious threats?

Steve Trent: There are several things and I’ll start with the small ones. I was at the conference in Glasgow for Climate COP26 but I’m an old white guy in a bad suit. Most of the people there looked like me and sounded like me but what we did is we took some of the local community activists that we work with from around the world. We took people from Bangladesh, from Papua New Guinea and from Uganda and we sponsored them. We got them into the conference and those young people were inspiring. They give me hope. They were passionate, committed, engaged, intelligent and thoughtful and they want to create their own better future. They give me hope. I think one of the areas on our planet that’s so often ignored and it’s because we don’t really see it every day (well most of us don’t) is our ocean and that’s 70% of the Earth’s surface. It contains 70% of all animal biomass. It has this huge utility to it and it gives us our every second breath. People think about the forests as being the lungs of the Earth but actually, it’s the ocean. That’s the blue beating heart of our planet. I’m now seeing more and more action being taken to protect both the wildlife in the ocean and the security of the ocean ecosystems. So my appeal to politicians, businesses and to all of us is let’s get serious. Let’s look at the benefits. There are jobs and livelihoods, income and economic benefits to be had from taking this action as I said before. If we work together as a global community and within our local communities, we can do it. We can roll back the worst of this. We can restore nature and use those nature-based solutions.

Deborah Meaden: So you have hope. I have hope. We have to have hope. Conny, how do you feel about this?

Dr Cornelia Klein: I would agree with many points that Steve just mentioned. I think just the evidently overall increased awareness of these issues of climate change and its risks. In that sense, I really hope that a critical mass has been reached somehow where it becomes impossible to not act through clear mitigation and adaptation strategies which we saw again at COP26. I just wanted to say when thinking about African farmers and rural areas, they too are more aware of what is at stake and they demand of the world to not destroy their livelihoods and to help them adapt. The same is true, I think, for so many other strongly affected and vulnerable communities that they finally have a stronger voice on the world stage. I think that really gives me some hope.

Deborah Meaden: Well, it’s been absolutely fascinating for me to listen to the whole thing. So starting from the science which can, at times, feel blinding, you have unpeeled it brilliantly for me. I understand a lot more today than I did before I started this conversation. To follow that through to the actual human impact from you Steve has done the thing that I think is so often missing which is the whole piece. We often deal with these in bite-sized chunks and don’t try and put the whole thing together and that has been absolutely fascinating for me and hopefully, fascinating for anybody else who’s listening to the podcast. I can’t thank you enough. I have thoroughly enjoyed it and, as I say, I know a lot more today than I did and I’ve got a lot more opinions now than I had yesterday [laughter], so thank you so much.

Steve Trent: Thank you [laughter].

Deborah Meaden: Huge thanks, of course, to Steve Trent and Dr Cornelia Klein. My name is Deborah Meaden. It’s been a pleasure to be part of this Climate Conversation. Other conversations in this series are about climate justice, how the Arctic is changing due to warming weather and how finance can be made greener. You’ll find them by searching ‘Climate Conversations’ wherever you get your podcasts. The series is from Natural Environment Research Council and the Glasgow Science Centre. They’re produced by Bespoken Media.