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How this Norwich scientist is empowering the public to tackle climate change

PUBLISHED: 12:00 18 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:24 20 April 2020

Asher Minns, executive director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich Research Park with his daughter Myrtle     Picture: Asher Minns

Asher Minns, executive director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich Research Park with his daughter Myrtle Picture: Asher Minns

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Global warming is an existential crisis felt globally and locally. Asher Minns, executive director at the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), on Norwich Research Park, explains why it is important to get the message out about global warming, and what climate change means for Norfolk.

In his spare time, Asher likes sailing his vintage dinghy on the River Yare at Coldham Hall Sailing Club   Picture: Asher MinnsIn his spare time, Asher likes sailing his vintage dinghy on the River Yare at Coldham Hall Sailing Club Picture: Asher Minns

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

You work in science communications – what does that mean?

My job is to engage non-experts and people outside of academia with knowledge and information about climate change.

That includes everyone from members of the public to community groups, policy makers, business people, environmental groups, farmers and school children.

I try to understand public values surrounding climate change – what people are concerned about – and open a dialogue so that it is a two-way interaction, rather than just broadcasting information. It’s no good if the knowledge stays within the ivory tower of academia in papers written in rarefied technical language.

If we engage the public on climate change, we can stop people feeling powerless about it and develop ways to respond positively. I want to empower people.

How did you end up in this job?

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, so I have an affinity with the coast and the sea.

I remember reading a book on Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer who sailed across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. He wrote about pollution and plastics floating in the ocean and I thought: hang on – why in the 1960s are there oil and plastic islands in the middle of the Atlantic as well as my local beach?

I was a radar engineer but changed my career path to get a different message out. There is a perception of environmentalists as activist types telling people what to do and wagging their finger. That is not me. I am an advocate of the environment – with evidence-based research behind it.

Right now, my work includes a project for the UK government to inform international climate change negotiations, international development engaging people with child nutrition, healthier food, literacy, microplastics, communicating the latest generation of earth system mathematical models for improved climate projections, and calculating the pathways for UEA to help Norwich and the UK achieve its fair share of zero CO2 emissions.

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What does this mean for Norfolk?

While climate change is a global problem, it is also felt at local level and the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads is a good example. By 2080, we expect to see more overtopping where the sea floods the land because of coastal erosion and rise in sea level, increasing summer droughts – this region is already very short of water, warmer winters, and more influx of salt water, which changes the flora and fauna.

The swallowtail butterfly, which is rare in the UK, living only in the Broads, is very unlikely to persist.

To cut UK emissions we will also see a very different landscape with fuel crops growing, more solar panels on fields and buildings, wind turbines, clean cars and public transport.

What can we learn from the Covid-19 crisis about climate systems breakdown?

It shows that society can be organised differently in no time at all for the benefit of others. We will certainly see a massive drop in global carbon emissions this year and local air quality has improved enormously. Norwich typically has very bad air pollution – but right now the air quality is probably better than it has been in living memory!

The big question is this: When the lockdown is over and the economic regeneration begins, do we bounce right back into high-polluting traffic noised anti-environment lifestyles, or do we now do things differently for the benefit of everyone?

What are some of the best things about working at Norwich Research Park?

I’ve worked for Oxford University and Imperial College London, which are world-famous, but the UEA and Norwich Research Park are really amazing places to be and are world-leading. They are incredibly collaborative and interesting places to work.

Most people are not aware of how big Norwich Research Park is and the economic benefits that it brings to the region. And because Norwich is small enough, I can cycle to work, which is lovely.

When you’re not tackling climate change, what do you do in your spare time?

I recently got an allotment from the local authority, which is nice to escape to. I enjoy visiting the coast and the Norfolk Broads as I like to dinghy sail, though I’m not very good. I also like making and sailing radio-controlled speed boats!

Asher Minns is executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the UEA, Norwich Research Park.

Find out more about the science of climate change communication on Twitter @AsherMinns and www.asherminns.com


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