Professor Ed Hawkins works at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading in the U.K. He created the warming stripes to simply communicate the fact that the planet is warming.
“I work on trying to understand how our climate has changed over the last 200 years or so and how it might change in the future”
How did you come up with the idea of the warming stripes?
I wanted a way of representing the changes in climate as simply and as visually as possible, recognizing that, not everyone would have a scientific interest or background and therefore wouldn’t necessarily want to see traditional graphs and axes and numbers. And I chose to make the stripes using the simplest way that I could think of as representing changes in temperature, using blues to reds, to reflect on that natural feeling of what cold and hot is.
I think most people have an understanding of what’s going on about the climate change. You see it on the news all of the time, but it isn’t always made very local and relevant. Now we’re starting to experience the consequences more and more. And I think that’s making it more real for people because they are individually feeling the effects. We’re getting more heavy rainfall events. We’re seeing more intense hurricanes. Higher sea levels mean that places get flooded more than they would have otherwise done. We are experiencing climate change through the changes in extreme weather – that’s how we’re going to feel it.
Why is a visual representation of global warming a good idea?
We need to communicate to everybody that the world is changing, the world is warming, and that there are consequences of that change. But the changes are occurring over decades. And that’s very difficult sometimes for people to appreciate that things have changed on a relatively slow basis in terms of their lifetimes. So by highlighting and using visualizations and data to bring the message home that, yes, over your lifetime, things have changed. And I do remember having more snow as a child, and that is because the climate has warmed.
So we have a sense that things have changed. But to highlight that visually is really important to make people understand. If we are to meet the global targets that have been set, people are going to need to change their lifestyles and societies will need to change in a multitude of different ways. We have to bring everyone along with those changes.
We need to talk more about the opportunities of the changes, because we want to not just highlight that changes are needed, but actually we will end up in a better place. For example, by switching to electric vehicles and bikes and walking, first of all, we’ll be healthier and also there’ll be less air pollution, which will save millions of lives around the world and enable us to breathe properly again when we’re outside, improve our health, and therefore be less of a burden on the national health services around the world, but also allow us to connect more with nature as well.
How will Earth change in the future, if we do nothing about global warming?
It is a big question. I think we are at a crossroads and we can either choose to turn left or turn right.
If we continue to burn fossil fuels and chop down the world’s rainforests, then global temperatures are going to continue to increase. The consequences we’ve already seen will just continue to get worse and worse.
Heatwaves will continue to get hotter. The extreme rainfall events will continue to get more intense. The coral reefs around the world will continue to struggle and end up dying. We will lose the ice around the Arctic in the summertime. All of these have consequences that we will face if we fail to act. And what’s really important, I think, to highlight is that if we don’t reduce our emissions, basically, to reach net zero emissions, the world will continue to warm and those consequences will continue to get worse. It’s not something just for our children and grandchildren’s to tackle. It’s here and now.
By getting to net zero emissions, we stabilize global temperatures, but they don’t cool down. To cool the global temperatures down we need to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. And that’s not something we know how to do on a very large scale. So until we invent a way of extracting large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, we can’t go back to the climate we’ve had in the past.
What are your hopes for the coming years?
I hope that we can, as a global society, come together and work together to address these challenges. Turn right instead of left and start reducing our emissions on a global scale, so that we can see our emissions coming down and global temperature rise slowing down and stopping over the next decades.
There are enormous opportunities for any people to invent new technologies, to build new companies based on sustainable ways of living and solve the problems that we face. It can spark a new green industrial revolution to ensure that we can provide society with the tools that they need, to live in a different way.
What role do companies play in climate change?
Companies have an enormous responsibility and they can realize enormous opportunities by inventing solutions. I think companies are also beginning to realize that consumers will choose companies that match their values. So if they’re acting in a sustainable way, then that will be an attractive company for people to look at buying products from and to work for.
At the same time we also need to ensure that the companies are given appropriate policy directions to ensure that they can change course. For example, the car industry has a very clear understanding that within a decade they will not be able to sell any petrol or diesel cars, certainly in the UK and probably over most of Europe and in other countries as well. So necessarily they are investing their money in designing electric cars because they recognise that there’s no point investing in any more petrol or diesel cars, because they won’t be able to sell any of them. So being given that direction by the policymakers means that they have to change their business and act differently.
What is important in your own private life?
I have a three years old son. And, obviously, we think about his future and the world that he’ll end up living in. I want to try and ensure that the world that him and all children grow up in is a world in which we have a more stable climate and that we are living in a better place.
Are you living a sustainable life and in what way?
I certainly do in many ways. I cycle to work. I cycle with my child to his nursery. I am almost entirely vegetarian. But I think it’s also very difficult to live an entirely sustainable life because the infrastructure is not necessarily there.
It is actually impossible or extremely difficult to be perfect. We can all improve, but I don’t think we should set perfect as the goal. We should all do better instead of aiming for a few of us to be perfect.
Do you have a goal for something you want to achieve in your life?
It’s a hard question. I would like to think that I have made a small contribution to changing minds and persuading people that these changes are happening and that we need to make some pretty serious changes to society to tackle it.