Scientists Acquitted: Examining the Role of Consent in Climate Activism 

James Fallon – 

Ecosystem collapse and climate change threaten all of our futures. What power do scientists have to avoid this looming catastrophe? 

Last week, a jury at Southwark Crown Court heard statements from two scientists facing charges of criminal damage. They had taken action by calling on members of the Royal Society and the wider scientific community to engage in civil disobedience and non-violent direct action: to act as if the science is real, demonstrating a response commensurate with the catastrophic effects being predicted. 

Figure 1: In September 2020, Scientist Rebellion co-founders Mike and Tim took non-violent direct action at the UK’s most prominent scientific body, The Royal Society – source

The defence rested on legal “consent”: that those working at the institute would, when confronted with the facts, consent to their actions. Had the Royal Society realised the potential of scientists to drive political change through activism, they would have agreed that the damage to their building was justified in pursuit of averting climate and ecological collapse. Dr. Tim Hewlett, astrophysicist, and Mike Lynch-White, former theoretical physicist, were unanimously acquitted on Friday.

Despite new bills being introduced to criminalise protests [1], and available legal defences being constrained, many court juries are in fact still finding climate activists not guilty for non-violent direct action .

In this blog post, I want to introduce some key ideas which explain the power and impact these types of protest can have when used by climate activists today.

Radical Intervention: What needs to happen?

According to Morrison et al. 2020, “meaningful climate action requires interventions that are preventative, effective, and systemic – interventions that are radical rather than conventional” [2]. The term “radical” can assume different definitions, categorised in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Debates about radical intervention invoke at least six different interpretations of ‘radical’. These different interpretations can be viewed as a typology, with each type reflecting the extent to which the intervention disrupts the status quo to address the root drivers of climate change. – Morrison et al. 2022

Current approaches to address climate change focus on what may be considered category “1” and “2” interventions: avoiding systemic changes and focusing on “techno fixes” and soft economic changes (such as carbon accounting). To businesses and politicians, these approaches are often desirable and successful , because they can be rapidly implemented and offer hope. But many of these approaches can suffer from a lack of follow-up, loopholes, or may even inadvertently generate new environmental or social problems.

More radical intervention is challenging, because root drivers of climate and ecological breakdown are “deeply embedded in existing societal structures, practices and values at multiple scales, and manifest in diverse ways; including as constraints on women’s reproductive rights, through irresponsible practices of technological innovation and overconsumption, and via political obsessions with ‘small’ government”.

What might a “deep” (5 and 6) radical intervention look like? Changing our future course from one of climate collapse, to a resilient world will “require disruption of [overlooked drivers including] capitalism, colonialism and global inequality”. We should be actively questioning whether economic systems reliant on infinite growth are sustainable on a planet of finite resources, and then propose new systems that prioritise wellbeing and sustainable development within our planetary boundaries [3].

Legal Consent in Activism

Actions like throwing soup on Van Goghs, gluing a hand to a window, daubing institutions in paint may all seem disconnected from the issues protestors wish to highlight. But these actions put the focus on the absurdity of a system that has greater contempt for property damage than the knowing and wilful destruction of nature. A system where economic inequality is rising whilst the wealthiest individuals are the leading driver of emissions [4].

As Greta Thunberg says, “Our house is on fire”. Defending non-violent actions at the Royal Society and Shell’s London Offices, Dr. Hewlett used this metaphor in his closing statement:

“If I smashed a window to drag you from a burning building, most would consent to that damage; Shell has set our house on fire, and when people understand the full extent of their crimes they do not generally object to a splash of paint, they object to the crime of arson. And when scientists come to appreciate our potential to raise the fire alarm, they generally do not object to the non-violent means used to bring them to that understanding, in fact they are often grateful for having their eyes opened. In order to find us guilty, you must be sure that we did not honestly believe they might consent. If we did not honestly believe in consent, why would we even try to mobilise our community?”

Figure 3: Dr. Tim Hewlett after being acquitted from the Royal Society Case – source: Scientist Rebellion

Although the argument of “consent” was successfully used to reach an acquittal in the case of the Royal Society, during the same trial and facing the same jury, Tim was found guilty of a similar protest at Shell [5]. The deliberations of a jury are known only to the jury members, so we cannot know for sure why this conclusion was reached. Tim is currently seeking legal advice. Out of 45 pieces of evidence against Shell only 2 were accepted by the judge (the rest were hidden from the jury). Expert witnesses were denied the opportunity to talk about Shell’s human rights abuses and the company’s failure to align with the Paris agreement.

Had Tim been allowed to make arguments relevant to his protest in the Shell case, it is likely that he would have been found innocent in this case as well.

“From Publications to Public Actions”: How do we accelerate systemic changes?

Given the urgency of climate and ecological emergency, Gardner et al. 2021 suggest that universities must “expand their conception of how they contribute to the public good, and explicitly recognise engagement with advocacy as part of the work mandate of their academic staff”, and outline how work models should be adapted to support this [6].

In the most read Social Metwork blog post of 2021 [7], Gabriel Perez wrote about how our own ways of thinking are influenced by external factors, and therefore there is a need for us to be aware of our roles as scientists across all levels of politics and society. By supporting and even taking part in different forms of protest, scientists can make uniquely important contributions.

It is possible to lend additional credibility to the demands of climate activists by supporting and engaging with movements. This can range from simply signing a letter, to joining in with “low-risk” activities such as talking about these movements with friends and colleagues, joining in with marches, or engaging in outreach activities. We can even join in provocative non-violent direct actions which may pose risk to our liberty (although not everyone is as equally comfortable to do this, with potential visa issues, childcare commitment, and financial struggles being some of the barriers activists may face).

Figure 4: Una rebelión necesaria: Aprill 2022, Scientists take non-violent direct action at the Spanish congress asking for recommendations of the scientific community to become legally binding objectives with institutional mechanisms that guarantee the real participation of citizens – source:

As scientists, we each have a powerful toolkit to use in activism: we are trained in statistics and comprehension of complicated reports; we present our findings to different audiences; we might have experience publishing, maintaining websites, communicating across sectors, teaching. These are all valuable skills for activists to have, and we have many of them at once!

Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. (António Guterres, UN Secretary-General)

Closing thoughts

Climate and ecological collapse pose existential risks to humanity. If we are to avert the worst effects, and place ourselves in a position best able to support the most impacted, then we need to rethink the purpose of our societies.

Taking non-violent direct action sparks controversy, and is shocking. But as a disruptive tactic, it is successful at initiating debate.

[1] Anita Mureithi 2023 “Scrap plans to give cops more power, say women as David Carrick jailed for life” OpenDemocracy news

[2] Morrison, T.H., Adger, W.N., Agrawal, A. et al. Radical interventions for climate-impacted systems. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 1100–1106 (2022).

[3] Doughnut Economics Action Lab – About

[4] Oxfam “Survival Of The Richest: How We Must Tax The Super-Rich Now To Fight Inequality” 2023

[5] Rikki Blue, “Listen to the science. Civil disobedience by 1000 scientists.”, Real Media

[6] Gardner, C.J, Thierry, A., Rowlandson, W., Steinberger, J.K. From Publications to Public Actions: The Role of Universities in Facilitating Academic Advocacy and Activism in the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Frontiers in Sustainability. 2, 2022.

[7] Gabriel Perez, Climate Science and Power, The Social Metwork

AGU 2022 in the Windy City

Lauren James –

AGU Fall Meeting 2022 was held in Chicago, Illinois from 12th – 16th December, and I was fortunate to attend the conference in person to present a poster on my PhD research. At the post-pandemic event, 18,000 attendees were expected to be present throughout the week and more attended online. To date, this was going to be the largest audience to view my research.

No matter how many people tell you how huge the AGU meeting is, it is not until you walk into the venue you understand the extent of this conference. Rows upon rows of poster boards, a sizeable exhibition hall, an AGU centre and relaxation zone, and endless hallways to the seminar rooms. I went by the venue on Sunday afternoon to register and work out the main routes to and around the conference centre. I would recommend this to anyone attending as come Monday morning the registration queue was extraordinarily long, looping across bridges and down staircases. You would have missed any early morning talks you wanted to attend.

Tuesday morning was my allocated time to showcase my work. The poster sessions were 3.5 hours long, but the posters could be kept up on the board for the full day. Whilst there was no requirement to stand next to your poster for the full duration, I did just that as time flew by very quickly. Fellow scientists were eager to discuss the work, learn about new ideas, and find overlaps with their work. I brought along A4 printed versions of the poster (an idea I had picked up from another conference) and it was beneficial to either let attendees take away your work for reference or for allowing people at the back of a crowd to read the poster. For the online attendees, presenters could make an interactive poster (a.k.a iPosters) which was published on the online gallery. This platform allowed videos, gifs, and audio clips as well as no-limit to text in expandable text boxes. Whilst still being mindful of not overcrowding a poster, these additional features made the poster more accessible. For some fortunate presenters, digital poster rows at the conference allowed their iPosters to be viewable in person too. Thus, presenters could use the movies and audio to support their work as well as attendees could easily interact with their displays whilst unmanned. Further, there was no organisation for printing and travelling with a poster and produced no waste. Could this be the future of poster sessions?

Figure 1: An overlooking view of a section of the poster hall on the final day of the conference. The digital poster row can be seen on the closest row.
Figure 2: A picture of myself in front of my poster.

There were so many oral presentations throughout the week that are suitable for your field of research. With the help of the AGU app, I was able to make a schedule for the space physics sessions I wanted to attend and optimise my time at the conference by finding other sessions I would find interesting. This year, for the first time, there was a session on ‘Raising Awareness on Mental Health in the Earth and Space Sciences’. In the last few years, such sessions have become more widely available and I am happy to see that AGU has also taken the opportunity to discuss the importance of healthy work. Of the oral presentation sessions I attended, this one instigated a very engaged audience and highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary discussions. All the oral presentation sessions catered for in-person and online audiences, and have continued to allow online speakers to present and participate in the Q&A. These sessions are also still available to re-watch for all the attendees for a few weeks.

A walk amongst the exhibition hall filled some of the free time between sessions and allowed attendees to discuss careers with academic institutes and businesses working with instrumentation, programming, data accessibility, fieldwork and more. As a postgraduate student in space physics, it was initially overwhelming to see many stands that were advertising topics alien to me. But before you knew it, I had heard about a new state-of-the-art instrument that will rapidly transmit terabytes of data; learnt about ground aquifers by making an Oreo Ice Cream float; and collected a renowned NASA 2023 calendar.

From my understanding, there have been a few changes to the AGU meeting since pre-pandemic times. The colours of your lanyard corresponded to your comfort level of COVID-19 safety, spanning from ‘I need distance’ to ‘Air high fives approved’. Alcoholic refreshments during poster sessions were not provided as a conscious decision to improve attendee well-being and ensure the code of conduct is upheld. And the host city of the meeting will change annually within the US to improve the accessibility of the conference (although for a UK attendee, a long-haul flight is unavoidable regardless of this).

Figure 3: A few memories from my visit to Chicago, including the Oreo ice cream float, the cloud gate (a.k.a., The Bean), and the NHL Ice Hockey game at the Union Center.

Chicago was a lovely city to host this year. The conference centre was easily accessible by train and bus from the downtown area, and even walkable on a good weather day. We were fortunate to have rather pleasant weather throughout the visit, although some rain, snow, and a bitterly cold wind were experienced. Exploring the city was extra special this close to Christmas and aided the glory of city lights after sunset. In the evenings, there was ample time and things to do with early career scientists I’ve met throughout my time as a PhD student and newly made contacts from the US. Watching an NHL ice hockey match, visiting Navy Pier, a competitive evening at the bowling alley, and trying the famous deep dish pizza were just some of the things squeezed into the busy week.

There is no doubt that attending the AGU Fall Meeting has been a highlight in my PhD experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to visit in the future. Even if you’re travelling alone, which I did, there were ample opportunities to meet fellow attendees and experience a very enjoyable week in the city. I thank the University of Reading Graduate School for giving me a student travel bursary to help fund this international trip. Next year, this conference is being held in San Francisco, California from the 11th – 15th of December 2023.

Science Stand-up: Putting those Met Panto Skills to Good Use 

Max Coleman –  

A stage and red curtain

I’ve been keen to ‘do my bit’ for climate science communication for a while now. While I do like attending a good public lecture or seminar, I wanted to try something a bit different, particularly something I could bring my love of comedy into. So, when a science stand-up comedy event was pointed out to me (thanks to Tara Bryer of Climate Outreach!) I thought I’d give it a go. 

The event in question is ‘Science Showoff’, an event designed to communicate science via comedy. It’s held on the last Wednesday every month in London, currently held at The Harrison near Kings Cross station, and has been running for over 10 years. And it’s open to absolutely anyone to perform – no comedic credentials required. The only rules are it’s 9-minute sets, must be about something STEM related, and should (hopefully) be funny!  

I performed in the August event and decided to base my set broadly on my research field of modelling the effects of aerosols on climate. Basing the set on my research made it slightly easier as I knew the science content already and just needed to write the comedy – though one can definitely go for more adventurous topics. While to a non-scientist that might sound a bit dry, it’s actually not too difficult to come up with jokes about climate science – as anyone who’s helped write a Met Panto script will surely know.  

For example, framing it as an explanation of my hatred of something as innocuous as deodorant (which as it turns out, makes a decent low-effort physical demonstration of aerosols) seemed a good way to make content easier to understand and line up some more relatable jokes. Having a physical prop, even as simple as a deodorant can, also turned out to be an easy way to ‘wow’ the audience (they set a very low bar indeed for being impressed by my ‘live science’). There’s also a wealth of jokes from being a climate ‘modeller’ – you’ve just got to work it 😉 

On the day, while I was very nervous before the event and into the first minute or two of my set, after that it was great fun. The audience, of about 30 people, were incredibly friendly and the host, Steve, was very supportive. After all, while you’re there for comedy, there’s not much pressure as many of the acts (myself included) have never performed stand-up comedy before. The set mostly went to plan, though I did add a little improvisation in response to audience reactions when they liked a joke more than I’d expected, and when audience members were reluctant to participate – who’d have thought leading one of them into a joke at their expense would make the others so reluctant? It was also a lot of fun going from being an audience member worried about being picked on, to the one who gets to pick on people – the audience engagement was definitely the most enjoyable part.  

It was also huge fun just writing the set. I didn’t set myself loads of pressure, just occasionally thinking of jokes while walking or on the train and making a note of it, and then put it all together the weekend before and rehearsed the evening before. Again, if you’re ever helped write the Panto script or Sappo email, you’ll know how much fun this all can be (although I’m now regretting not getting pizza in while I wrote it).  

And as a bonus, I got to listen to the other five acts perform, sometimes riffing off my jokes too! We had everything from penguins in the Antarctic to the most embarrassing lab accidents you could imagine. The acts were by people from a range of scientific disciplines and backgrounds including PhD students, a lecturer, and a professional science communicator. 

I can’t say much more to describe the experience itself, but if you want an idea of what it’s like, you can check out some recorded previous sets (while there is some rather questionable footage of my own act, there is not a chance I’m sharing it here – I’m not that confident :P). Or of course, go attend the next Science Showoff or a similar science comedy event. 

What I would say though is if you also want to do climate science communication (or try a different format for it) and are a fan of comedy (looking at any and all Met Panto-ers especially here) then you should consider giving this a go! Yes, even if you’ve never done stand-up comedy before… I mean it can’t be more embarrassing than acting out a lecturer in Panto while they watch! 

Any questions about the experience or want to be persuaded to give it a try??? Feel free to comment or email me 🙂 

COP Climate Action Studio 2021 and a visit to the Green Zone, Glasgow  

Helen Hooker 


SCENARIO DTP and the Walker Academy offered PhD students the opportunity to take part in the annual COP Climate Action Studio (COPCAS) 2021. COPCAS began with workshops on the background of COP, communication and interviewing skills and an understanding of the COP26 themes and the (massive!) schedule. James Fallon and Kerry Smith were ‘on the ground’ in the Blue Zone, Glasgow in week 1 of COP26, followed by Gwyn Matthews and Jo Herschan during week 2. Interviews were arranged between COP26 observers, and COPCAS participants back in Reading who were following COP26 events in small groups through livestream. Students summarised the varied and interesting findings by writing blog posts and engaging with social media.

Figure 1: COPCAS in action.   

Motivation, training and week 1 

Personally, I wanted to learn more about the COP process and to understand climate policy implementation and action (or lack thereof). I was also interested to learn more about anticipatory action and forecast based financing, which relate to my research. After spending 18 months working remotely in my kitchen, I wanted to meet other students and improve formulating and asking questions! I found the initial training reassuring in many ways, especially finding out that so many people have dedicated themselves to drive change and find solutions. During the first week of COP26 we heard about so many positive efforts to combat the climate crisis from personal actions to community schemes, and even country wide ambitious projects such as reforestation in Costa Rica. A momentum seemed to be building with pledges to stop deforestation and to reduce methane emissions.

Green Zone visit 

Figure 2: Green Zone visit included a weekend full of exhibitors, talks, films and panel discussions plus a giant inflatable extracting COvia bouncing!

During the middle weekend of COP26, some of us visited the Green Zone in Glasgow. This was a mini version of the Blue Zone open to the public and offered a wide variety of talks and panel discussions. Stand out moments for me: a photograph of indigenous children wearing bamboo raincoats, measuring the length of Judy Dench’s tree, the emotive youth speakers from Act4Food Act4Change and the climate research documentary Arctic Drift where hundreds of scientists onboard a ship carried out research whilst locked into the polar winter ice-flow.  


During COPCAS I wrote blogs about: a Green Zone event from Space4climate, an interview by Kerry Smith with SEAChange (a community-based project in Aberdeenshire aiming to decarbonise old stone buildings) and Sports for climate action. I also carried out an interview arranged by Jo with WWF on a food systems approach to tackling climate change.

Ultimately though, the elephant in the large COP26 Blue Zone room had been there all along…

Interview with Anne Olhoff, Emissions Gap Report (EGR) 2021 Chief scientific editor and Head of Strategy, Climate Planning and Policy, UNEP DTU Partnership.

Figure 3: Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2021 updated midway through week two of COP26 accounting for new pledges. 

Time is running out, midway through the second week of COP26, the United Nations Environmental Partnership (UNEP) presented its assessment on the change to global temperature projections based on the updated pledges so far agreed in Glasgow.  

Pledges made prior to COP26 via Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) put the world on track to reach a temperature increase of 2.7C by the end of the century. To keep the Paris Agreement of keeping warming below 1.5C this century, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 55% in the next eight years. At this point in COP26, updated pledges now account for just an 8% reduction – this is 7 times too small to keep to 1.5C and 4 times too small to keep to 2C. Updated projections based on COP26 so far now estimate a temperature rise of 2.4C by 2100. Net-zero pledges could reduce this by a further 0.5C, however plans are sketchy and not included in NDCs. So far just five of the G20 countries are on a pathway to net-zero.

Anne’s response regarding policy implementation in law: 

“Countries pledge targets for example for 2030 under the UN framework for climate change and there’s no international law to enforce them, at least not yet. Some countries have put net-zero policies into law, which has a much bigger impact as the government can be held accountable for the implementation of their pledges.” 

Following my own shock at the size of the emissions gap, I asked Anne if she feels there has been any positive changes in recent years: 

“I do think we have seen a lot of change, actually…the thing is, things are not moving as fast as they should. We have seen change in terms of the commitment of countries and the policy development and development in new technology needed to achieve the goals, these are all positive developments and here now, changing the whole narrative, just 2 years ago no one would have thought we’d have 70 countries setting net-zero emission targets…we are also seeing greater divergence between countries, between those making the effort to assist the green transition such as the UK, EU and others, and those further behind the curve such as China, Brazil and India. It’s important to help these countries transition very soon, peaking emissions and rapidly declining after that.”   

I asked Anne how countries on track can support others: 

“A lot of the great things here (at COP) is to strengthen that international collaboration and sharing of experiences, it’s an important function of the COP meeting, but we need to have the political will and leadership in the countries to drive this forward.” 


The momentum that was apparent during the first week of COP26 seemed to have stalled with this update. Despite the monumental effort of so many scientists, NGOs, individuals and those seeking solutions from every conceivable angle, the pledges made on fossil fuel reduction are still so far from what is needed. And at the final hour (plus a day), the ambition to ‘phaseout’ burning coal was changed to ‘phasedown’ and the financial contributions from developed nations pledged to cover loss and damage to countries not responsible for, but impacted now by climate change, have not been realised. I think this is the first time I have really felt the true meaning of ‘climate justice’. Perhaps we do need a planet law, as it seems our political leaders, do not have the will.

Overall, the COPCAS experience has been enjoyable, slightly overwhelming and emotional! It has been great to work together and to share the experiences of those in the Blue zone. It was also an amazing learning experience; I think I have barely touched the surface of the entire COP process and I would still like to understand more.

Main challenges for extreme heat risk communication

Chloe Brimicombe –, @ChloBrim

For my PhD, I research heatwaves and heat stress, with a focus on the African continent. Here I show what the main challenges are for communicating heatwave impacts inspired by a presentation given by Roop Singh of the Red Cross Climate Center at Understanding Risk Forum 2020.  

There is no universal definition of heatwaves 

Having no agreed definition of a heatwave (also known as extreme heat events) is a huge challenge in communicating risk. However, there is a guideline definition by the World Meteorological Organisation and for the UK an agreed definition as of 2019. In simple terms a heatwave is: 

“A period of above average temperatures of 3 or more days in a region’s warm season (i.e. all year in the tropics and in the summer season elsewhere)”  

We then have heat stress which is an impact of heatwaves, and is the killer aspect of heat. Heat stress is: 

“Build-up of body heat as a result of exertion or external environment”(McGregor, 2018) 

Attention Deficit 

Heatwaves receive low attention in comparison to other natural hazards I.e., Flooding, one of the easiest ways to appreciate this attention deficit is through Google search trends. If we compare ‘heat wave’ to ‘flood’ both designated as disaster search types, you can see that a larger proportion of searches over time are for ‘flood’ in comparison to ‘heat wave’.  

Figure 1: Showing ‘Heat waves’ (blue)  vs ‘Flood’ (red) Disaster Search Types interest over time taken from:,%2Fm%2F0dbtv 

On average flood has 28% search interest which is over 10 times the amount of interest for heat wave. And this is despite Heatwaves being named the deadliest hydro-meteorological hazard from 2015-2019 by the World Meteorological Organization. Attention is important if someone can remember an event and its impacts easily, they can associate this with the likelihood of it happening. This is known as the availability bias and plays a key role in risk perception. 

Lack of Research and Funding 

One impact of the attention deficit on extreme heat risk, is there is not ample research and funding on the topic – it’s very patchy. Let’s consider a keyword search of academic papers for ‘heatwave*’ and ‘flood*’ from Scopus an academic database.  

Figure 2: Number of ‘heatwave*’ vs number of ‘flood*’ academic papers from Scopus. 

Research on floods is over 100 times bigger in quantity than heatwaves. This is like what we find for google searches and the attention deficit, and reveals a research bias amongst these hydro-meteorological hazards. And is mirrored by what my research finds for the UK, much more research on floods in comparison to heatwaves ( Our paper is the first for the UK to assess the barriers, causes and solutions for providing adequate research and policy for heatwaves. The motivation behind the paper came from an assignment I did during my masters focusing on UK heatwave policy, where I began to realise how little we in the UK are prepared for these events, which links up nicely with my PhD. For more information you can see my article and press release on the same topic. 

Heat is an invisible risk 

Figure 3: Meme that sums up not perceiving heat as a risk, in comparison, to storms and flooding.

Heatwaves are not something we can touch and like Climate Change, they are not ‘lickable’ or visible. This makes it incredibly difficult for us to perceive them as a risk. And this is compounded by the attention deficit; in the UK most people see heatwaves as a ‘BBQ summer’ or an opportunity to go wild swimming or go to the beach.  

And that’s really nice, but someone’s granny could be experiencing hospitalising heat stress in a top floor flat as a result of overheating that could result in their death. Or for example signal failures on your railway line as a result of heat could prevent you from getting into work, meaning you lose out on pay. I even know someone who got air lifted from the Lake District in their youth as a result of heat stress.  

 A quote from a BBC one program on wild weather in 2020 sums up overheating in homes nicely:

“It is illegal to leave your dog in a car to overheat in these temperatures in the UK, why is it legal for people to overheat in homes at these temperatures

For Africa the perception amongst many is ‘Africa is hot’ so heatwaves are not a risk, because they are ‘used to exposure’ to high temperatures. First, not all of Africa is always hot, that is in the same realm of thinking as the lyrics of the 1984 Band Aid Single. Second, there is not a lot of evidence, with many global papers missing out Africa due to a lack of data. But, there is research on heatwaves and we have evidence they do raise death rates in Africa (research mostly for the West Sahel, for example Burkina Faso) amongst other impacts including decreased crop yields.  

What’s the solution? 

Talk about heatwaves and their impacts. This sounds really simple, but I’ve noticed a tendency of a proportion of climate scientists to talk about record breaking temperatures and never mention land heatwaves (For example the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures 2020). Some even make a wild leap from temperature straight to flooding, which is just painful for me as a heatwave researcher. 

Figure 4: A schematic of heatwaves researchers and other climate scientists talking about climate change. 

So let’s start by talking about heatwaves, heat stress and their impacts.  

Organising a virtual conference

Gwyneth Matthews –

A Doctoral Training Programme (DTP) provides funding, training, and opportunities for many PhD students in our department. Every year three environmentally focused DTPs: the SCENARIO NERC DTP, the London NERC DTP, and the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) DTP, combine forces to hold a conference bringing together hundreds of PhD students to present their work and to network. As for many conferences in 2020, COVID19 disrupted our plans for the Joint DTP conference.  Usually the conference is hosted at one of the universities involved with a DTP however, this year it was held virtually using a mixture of Zoom and Slack. 

The decision to go virtual was difficult. We had to decide early in the pandemic when we didn’t know how long the lockdown would last nor what restrictions would be in place in September. If possible, we wanted to keep the conference in-person so that attendees got the full experience as it’s often the first time the new cohort meet and one of the few chances for the DTPs to mingle. However, as meeting and mingling was, and is, very much discouraged, making the decision to go virtual early on meant we had time to re-organise.  

Figure 1 – It was initially planned to hold the conference at the University of Surrey campus, which is located in Guildford, Surrey and hosts some students from the SCENARIO NERC DTP. The conference was instead held on Slack, an online communication platform that allows content to be divided into channels, and presentation sessions were hosted on Zoom.

When we thought we were organising a conference to be held at the University of Surrey, the main theme was “Engaging Sustainability” with the aim of making the conference as sustainable as possible. Since one of the often-made criticisms of conferences, especially those within the environmental fields, is the impact of large numbers of people travelling to one place, a virtual conference has obvious environmental benefits. An additional benefit was that we could invite guest speakers, such as Mya-Rose Craig (aka Bird Girl @birdgirluk), who may not have been able to attend if the event was held in person. It was also easier for some participants who had other commitments, such as childcare, to attend, although poor internet connection was an issue for others. 

The pandemic exposed, and often enhanced, many issues within academia and society in general. A questionnaire sent out before the event showed that most attendees were finding working from home and all other pandemic induced changes exhausting and mentally challenging. The recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world and the disproportionate impact of COVID on ethnic minority communities highlighted both the overt and systemic racism that is still prevalent in society. The UK Research and Innovation COVID funding controversy, and an increased focus on the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ researchers emphasised the inequalities and poor representation specifically experienced in academia. Scientists working at the forefront of the pandemic response faced the challenge of providing clear information to enable people and policy makers to take life-disrupting actions before they are directly impacted; a challenge familiar to climate and environmental scientists. These issues gave us our topics for the external sessions which focused on wellbeing, inclusivity and diversity in academia, and communicating research.  

Barring technical difficulties, oral presentations are easy to replicate online, however, virtual conferences held earlier this year often had issues with recreating the poster sessions. Attempting to learn from these snags, instead of replicating an in-person poster session and possibly producing a poor-quality knock-off, participants were asked to create an animated “Twitter poster”. These were required to describe the key points of their research in a simple format that could be shared on social media and that was accessible to a non-expert. The posters were available for comments and questions throughout the two days in one easy-to-find location. Many of the participants shared their posters on Twitter after the conference using the conference hashtag #JointDTPCon.  

Another issue we faced was how to run a social and networking event. We kept the social event simple. A quiz. A pandemic classic with a fantastic double act as hosts. Randomly assigned teams meant that new connections could be made. However, the quiz was held online and after a full day of video calls most people didn’t want to spend their evenings also starring at a screen.  

Fig 2 – Jo Herschan and Lucinda King, members of the SCENARIO DTP and on the conference organising committee, hosted an entertaining quiz on the first night of the conference. An ethical objects photo round linked the quiz to the conference’s main theme.

With everyone having stayed at home and everything being conducted virtually for a few months by the time of our conference, Zoom fatigue was an issue we were aware could occur and tried to counter as much as possible during the day without losing any of the exciting new research being presented. In the weeks running up to the conference we had several discussions about how to encourage people to move throughout the two days without missing any of the sessions they wanted to attend. We decided on two ideas: a yoga session and a walking challenge. The yoga session was a success and not only gave participants an opportunity to stretch in the middle of the day but also linked strongly to our theme of researcher wellbeing. The walking challenge was not as successful. The aim was that collectively the conference participants would walk the distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We did not make it that far; but we did make it out of Cornwall. 

Fig 3 – Using World Walking to track the distance, we intended to collectively walk the 1576km (or 2,299,172 steps) from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This may have been an optimistic endeavour as we only achieved 235km (343, 311 steps).  

Helping to organise a virtual conference as part of an enthusiastic committee was a lot of fun and attending the conference and learning about the research being undertaken (from fungi in Kew Gardens to tigers in North Korea) was even more fun. There is still enormous room for improvement in virtual conferences, but since they aren’t as well established as traditional in-person conferences there’s also a lot of flexibility for each conference to be designed differently. Once we’re through the pandemic and in-person conferences return it’d be nice for some of these benefits to be maintained as hybrid conferences are designed.   

APPLICATE General Assembly and Early Career Science event


On 28th January to 1st February I attended the APPLICATE (Advanced Prediction in Polar regions and beyond: modelling, observing system design and LInkages associated with a Changing Arctic climaTE (bold choice)) General Assembly and Early Career Science event at ECMWF in Reading. APPLICATE is one of the EU Horizon 2020 projects with the aim of improving weather and climate prediction in the polar regions. The Arctic is a region of rapid change, with decreases in sea ice extent (Stroeve et al., 2012) and changes to ecosystems (Post et al., 2009). These changes are leading to increased interest in the Arctic for business opportunities such as the opening of shipping routes (Aksenov et al., 2017). There is also a lot of current work being done on the link between changes in the Arctic and mid-latitude weather (Cohen et al., 2014), however there is still much uncertainty. These changes could have large impacts on human life, therefore there needs to be a concerted scientific effort to develop our understanding of Arctic processes and how this links to the mid-latitudes. This is the gap that APPLICATE aims to fill.

The overarching goal of APPLICATE is to develop enhanced predictive capacity for weather and climate in the Arctic and beyond, and to determine the influence of Arctic climate change on Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, for the benefit of policy makers, businesses and society.

APPLICATE Goals & Objectives

Attending the General Assembly was a great opportunity to get an insight into how large scientific projects work. The project is made up of different work packages each with a different focus. Within these work packages there are then a set of specific tasks and deliverables spread out throughout the project. At the GA there were a number of breakout sessions where the progress of the working groups was discussed. It was interesting to see how these discussions worked and how issues, such as the delay in CMIP6 experiments, are handled. The General Assembly also allows the different work packages to communicate with each other to plan ahead, and for results to be shared.

An overview of APPLICATE’s management structure take from:

One of the big questions APPLICATE is trying to address is the link between Arctic sea-ice and the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes. Many of the presentations covered different aspects of this, such as how including Arctic observations in forecasts affects their skill over Eurasia. There were also initial results from some of the Polar Amplification (PA)MIP experiments, a project that APPLICATE has helped coordinate.

Attendees of the Early Career Science event co-organised with APECS

At the end of the week there was the Early Career Science Event which consisted of a number of talks on more soft skills. One of the most interesting activities was based around engaging with stakeholders. To try and understand the different needs of a variety of stakeholders in the Arctic (from local communities to shipping companies) we had to try and lobby for different policies on their behalf. This was also a great chance to meet other early career scientists working in the field and get to know each other a bit more.

What a difference a day makes, heavy snow getting the ECMWF’s ducks in the polar spirit.



Aksenov, Y. et al., 2017. On the future navigability of Arctic sea routes: High-resolution projections of the Arctic Ocean and sea ice. Marine Policy, 75, pp.300–317.

Cohen, J. et al., 2014. Recent Arctic amplification and extreme mid-latitude weather. Nature Geoscience, 7(9), pp.627–637.

Post, E. & Others, 24, 2009. Ecological Dynamics Across the Arctic Associated with Recent Climate Change. Science, 325(September), pp.1355–1358.

Stroeve, J.C. et al., 2012. Trends in Arctic sea ice extent from CMIP5, CMIP3 and observations. Geophysical Research Letters, 39(16), pp.1–7.

Night at the Museum!

On Friday November 30th, Prof. Paul Williams and I ran a ‘pop-up science’ station at the Natural History Museum’s “Lates” event (these are held on the last Friday of each month; the museum is open for all until 10pm, with additional events and activities). Our station was entitled “Turbulence Ahead”, and focused on communicating research under two themes:

  1.  Improving the predictability of clear-air turbulence (CAT) for aviation
  2.  The impact of climate change on aviation, particularly in terms of increasing CAT

There were several other stations, all run by NERC-funded researchers. Our stall went ‘live’ at 6 PM, and from that point on we were speaking almost constantly for the next 3.5 hours – with hundreds (not an exaggeration!) of people coming to our stall to find out more. Neither of us were able to take much of a break, and I’ve never had quite such a sore voice!

Turbulence ahead? Not on this Friday evening!

Our discussions covered:

  • What is clear-air turbulence (CAT) and why is it hazardous to aviation?
  • How do we predict CAT? How has Paul’s work improved this?
  • How is CAT predicted to change in the future? Why?
  • What other ways does climate change affect aviation?

Those who came to our stall asked some very intelligent questions, and neither of us encountered a ‘climate denier’ – since we were speaking about a very applied impact of climate change, this was heartening. This impact of climate change is not often considered – it’s not as obvious as heatwaves or melting ice, but is a very real threat as shown in recent studies (e.g. Storer et al. 2017). It was a challenge to explain some of these concepts to the general public – some had heard of the jet stream, others had not, whilst some were physicists… and even the director of the British Geological Survey, John Ludden, turned up! It was interesting to hear from so many people who were self-titled “nervous flyers” and deeply concerned about the future potential for more unpleasant journeys.

I found the evening very rewarding; it was interesting to gauge a perspective of how the public perceive a scientist and their work, and it was amazing to see so many curious minds wanting to find out more about subjects with which they are not so familiar.

My involvement with this event stems from my MMet dissertation work with Paul and Tom Frame looking at the North Atlantic jet stream. Changes in the jet stream have large impacts on transatlantic flights (Williams 2016) and the frequency and intensity of CAT. Meanwhile, Paul was a finalist for the 2018 NERC Impact Awards in the Societal Impact category for his work on improving turbulence forecasts – he finished as runner-up in the ceremony which was held on Monday December 3rd.

So, yes, there may indeed be turbulent times ahead – but this Friday evening certainly went smoothly!


Twitter: @SimonLeeWx


Storer, L. N., P. D. Williams, and M. M. Joshi, 2017: Global Response of Clear-Air Turbulence to Climate Change. Geophys. Res. Lett., 44, 9979-9984,

Williams, P. D., 2016: Transatlantic flight times and climate change. Environ. Res. Lett., 11, 024008,