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Interview: Will Steffen on climate change science

The latest science on climate change and what to do

 Jenny Goldie of Climate Action Monaro interviews Will Steffen [pictured below] of the Climate Council (formerly the science-based Climate Commission which the Abbott government disbanded). Steffen is also Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University.  For six years from 1998 he led the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, based in Stockholm. His research interests span a broad range within the fields of climate and earth system science.



 JG: The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on what countries can do in response to gathering climate change came out a week or so ago. It stressed urgency. Can you comment?

WS: The three new IPCC reports together are giving us a really comprehensive and clear picture. The science is more solid than ever on the basics of climate change. Also, we have a much, much better understanding of the risks associated with the changing climate. And when you go to the response work, there’s a lot more detail on technologies, economics, processes and so on.

The picture is that this is indeed a serious problem but, more importantly, it’s solvable and I think that’s one of the big steps forward in this particular IPCC report. The window is closing, however, in terms of opportunities to really get on top of the climate problem. Every year we delay means the task becomes more difficult in terms of getting emissions down to what we need.

 JG: What are the best means for mitigation (i.e. lowering emissions) that’s relevant to our regional area?

 WS:  There’s a lot of emphasis on sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and this is of particular interest to the people of the southern tablelands. Storing carbon in land systems, in trees and soil, is a good thing for a number of reasons and it does address part of the climate issue in that a fraction of the carbon in the atmosphere has come from land use change, from tillage practices, deforestation, and so on.

It’s a good thing to get that carbon back down into ecosystems for a number of reasons, not just for the climate but also for improving land productivity, improving the resilience of landscapes, biodiversity and so on.

But it does not substitute for or offset greenhouse emissions from fossil fuel burning. And that’s a conceptual mistake that a lot of people and a lot of politicians make.  The only true way to get fossil carbon out of the atmosphere is to actually store it back down where it came from, lock it away for millions of years, not put it into a fast cycling land system.

So, that’s one bit of policy advice coming from the science itself:  keeping fossil carbon in the ground is the critical point at this juncture.

JG: What should be the balance between putting our resources into mitigation as against adapting to the inevitable?

 WS:  I wouldn’t look at it as either/or, rather, we should look for synergistic approaches. But I think the number one priority has to be on mitigation; it has to be on stabilising the climate system. If we don’t do that we’re fairly certain to find ourselves in situations where we simply can’t adapt.

Adaptation research is ongoing, but it can’t substitute for solving the fundamental problem, which is stabilising the climate by bringing emissions down very close to zero.

 Solar energy works both to lower emissions and to adapt to changing climate.

Solar energy systems work very well in hot, sunny weather, in peak periods. People want to adapt to hot weather, to heatwaves, by turning on air conditioners. If they are sourcing that electricity from solar rather than fossil fuel, that’s a synergistic approach rather than just an adaptation approach.

 JG: How has the demise of the Climate Commission (but replaced by the crowd-funded Climate Council) affected your work?

 WS:  In terms of basic operations, we’re fine. We still have the original councillors – Tim Flannery, Lesley Hughes and so on. In terms of funding, we’re moving up towards having financial stability. That’s one of our big goals in the coming months to make sure we achieve that. Yes, I think it’s been a very successful transition.

 JG: And if people wanted to donate, do they go to the website?

 WS: Absolutely. They just go to


 Jenny Goldie of Climate Action Monaro interviews Will Steffen of the Climate Council (formerly the science-based Climate Commission which the Abbott government disbanded). Steffen is also Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University.  For six years from 1998 he led the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, based in Stockholm. His research interests span a broad range within the fields of climate and earth system science.

 JG: One of the means of keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the ‘divestment’ campaign which seems to be gaining ground in Australia. Recently Desmond Tutu from South Africa endorsed it. Do you think this is an effective campaign and should people support it?

 WS: If you want to stabilise the climate to two degrees and have a reasonable probability – more than just 50/50 probability of doing so – we have to leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground. That’s a simple scientific fact. How you do that is a matter for policy, which I cannot comment on.

But obviously, one of the ways to do that is through a divestment campaign. Other ways of doing it is simply putting a price on carbon, whatever people prefer, but the scientific fact remains, if we want to stabilise the climate, it means the vast majority of known reserves of carbon in the ground must stay in the ground and can’t be burnt. That’s a very simple clear message.

 JG: Are you optimistic that the world can come together at the end of next year – at the next climate summit – and come up with a binding agreement?

 WS:  No, I’m not terribly optimistic on that but what I’m more optimistic about is all sorts of other actions occurring, whether it be within countries or jurisdictions like states, either in Australia or the United States. The Nordic countries are doing quite a bit. There’s a lot of action going on; it’s fragmented but it’s part of a learning curve, part of a confidence building process.

Once countries see they can get on top of this problem and do it in an economically feasible way, then they will be more willing to undergo binding international agreements. So we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. But as more action is taken, we’re building momentum eventually for a binding agreement. Whether we get that in Paris in 2015, I’m rather doubtful, but the momentum is starting to go in the right direction now.

 What can state or local governments do?

 JG: If you say it can be done at all levels, what would you suggest local councils do?

 WS: The ACT is a good example of that. Another good example is what’s happening in various places in South Australia where they have large amounts of renewable energy.

The ACT hopes to have 90 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and they are doing that by a combination of building or purchasing solar and wind power. It shows that relatively small jurisdictions – the ACT has only 370,000 people so it’s not a big jurisdiction – by taking action you can actually make a difference.

Unlike fossil fuel power generation which requires very large, very expensive power plants that take years to build, the two most common renewable sources, solar and wind, can be put out in very small units and put out very quickly so they can respond to changes in demand very fast.

And the prices of them are coming down; in fact, by 2020 they will be the cheapest energy sources in Australia. Those are quite amenable to small jurisdictions and communities to start taking action on their own. It doesn’t take nearly the amount of resources that a very large fossil fuel plant will take.

 JG: One of the complaints about wind and solar is the intermittency problem. What progress is there on batteries, on storage?

 WS: Two things that are going on in that regard. One is better grid, or smart grid technology. The other thing is storage.  There is a very, very big research campaign in the United States now on storage systems. A lot of it is targeted towards electric vehicles but the principles are the same: that if you can get concentrated storage systems it would allow people to put them in their homes if they have solar PV and smooth that out.

On a larger scale, pumped hydro is one known way of storing power and you don’t need to dam rivers to do that. You just need two pondages of differing elevations and a pipe between them and a pump and a turbine at the bottom. You pump water up when you have excess energy – when you have a stretch of very sunny or very windy weather – and then when you need the energy you let it back down through the turbine.

And that’s a known system that’s used already. It’s used in Tasmania. It’s used somewhat in the Snowy Mountains Scheme but it can be used more generally. There are both known technologies and very promising technologies on storage.

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