There’s no doubt about it, the time to act is now. Our climate is changing at an accelerated pace and the Earth’s biodiversity is at risk, as evidenced by numerous studies. Winning the fight against climate change will require pooling together experts from an array of fields. To that end, scientists from the University of Lausanne and EPFL teamed up to create the Center for Climate Impact and Action (CLIMACT). Recently inaugurated, this cross-disciplinary research center will serve as a focal point for climate-change experts and an effective interface between science and society.
Executive director Nicolas Tétreault and the two academic co-directors, Julia Steinberger (UNIL) and Michael Lehning (EPFL). ©A.Herzog/2021EPFL
Yet another stark warning on climate change came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this summer, when it issued its Sixth Assessment Report highlighting the faster pace of shifting weather patterns and the growing frequency of extreme weather events – such as heat waves, record-breaking temperatures, floods and huge forest fires – occurring all over the world.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” says Nicolas Tétreault, the executive director of CLIMACT. “Scientists from different fields need to work together and develop holistic solutions to this challenge.” He points out that the problem goes beyond simply cutting emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most prevalent greenhouse gas whose build-up in the atmosphere has already caused global temperatures to rise by over 1°C in the past 150 years. “The problem has numerous dimensions, and must be addressed as such,” says Tétreault. That means we need to rethink not just our systems and infrastructure but also our very lifestyles.
A center with its work cut out for it
The multifaceted nature of climate change is what prompted CLIMACT’s founders to draw on a broad panel of experts from not only core science and engineering fields like climatology, biology, physics and chemistry, but also softer subjects like economics, sociology and psychology. The center supports cross-disciplinary research that spans both universities and addresses societal, scientific and technological challenges through innovative, systemic approaches and close collaboration with business leaders and policymakers. It has formed working groups to examine specific topics such as how to better incorporate climate issues into curricula, what new degree programs can be offered and what pilot projects can be set up with students and associations from both universities.
The center’s communications extend beyond the academic circle and include materials targeted to non-profit organizations, citizen movements, journalists and the general public. The idea is to give them the tools and resources they need to find the right experts, understand the many issues involved in climate change and grasp key environmental processes. CLIMACT will also help them navigate through the mass of information available on the issue and better identify attempts at greenwashing. Through their expansive contact networks, the center’s employees will seek to recast the climate discourse with a focus on the benefits and positive aspects of the shifts that society will inevitably need to make.
CLIMACT works in tandem with decision-makers from the political and business arenas. “There are many people in the corporate world who are concerned about climate change and want to do something about it,” says Tétreault. “So our idea is to show them how, such as by working with them to carry out pilot projects.”
The center also holds interactive online seminars open to the general public. Here, experts present key climate and environmental data and discuss various issues, including the role that citizens and policymakers can play. Around 30 experts gave seminars last year; the recordings are available on the Climact Suisse channel on YouTube. A new series of seminars kicked off this fall with the start of the new school year. The next one will be held on 1 November, from 12pm to 1pm.
“We aim to foster proactive dialogue among all stakeholders”
Julia Steinberger is a professor in ecological economics at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and the academic co-director of CLIMACT, the new joint EPFL-UNIL research center on climate change. Her research looks specifically at the environmental consequences of social and economic activity. She spoke with us about her hopes for the new center.
What need does CLIMACT respond to?
Meeting the challenge of climate change will require a cross-disciplinary approach. Both UNIL and EPFL have world-class scientists addressing this issue, but until now there was no cross-cutting research center where they could meet, share ideas and design projects together. Good ideas rarely occur in isolation; they are most often the result of healthy debate and productive interaction. With CLIMACT, we want to promote higher quality, more innovative and more impactful research and teaching at both universities.
What tangible impacts do you hope to achieve?
As scientists, we sometimes think that things will move forward automatically – that policymakers will read our studies, understand the importance of our findings and take action. But that’s not how it works. CLIMACT will therefore play a catalyzing role by fostering more proactive dialogue among all stakeholders, including from both the public and private sectors. We hope that this will help translate more of our research findings into concrete measures, and that in return, we’ll have a better idea of the constraints and practical considerations that society is facing and what can feasibly be done. This kind of feedback will enable us to better target our research. The idea is to drive a genuine concerted effort that will consequently be more effective.
Do scientists need to get more involved, too?
Scientists have already made great strides. For example, when Swiss citizens were asked to vote on an act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists were very active in defending their point of view and dispelling misinformation. And during the pandemic, healthcare experts protested against government policies that were based on skewed information. This shows how important it is for scientists to come forward publicly and reiterate the facts – and therefore save lives. More and more studies are showing that scientists are not discredited by speaking in the public sphere. The question people are now asking is whether scientists actually lose credibility when they discover that a certain situation is posing a grave threat yet they don’t speak out or act on their own science. That’s another of our goals at CLIMACT – to put these issues on the public agenda.
What about education?
That’s a crucial part of the equation. Climate-related subjects need to be a bigger part of students’ curricula, because climate change will affect all industries – from construction and health care to psychology and the psychological disorders that will inevitably result from the societal shifts. Students must be trained and equipped for the new paradigm we are entering. Through CLIMACT, we hope to give them – and everyone else interested in the climate issue – the trusted resources they need.
“The easy part is done, now we need to tackle the hard part”
Michael Lehning, an expert in snow processes and the head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences (CRYOS), is academic co-director of CLIMACT. He spoke with us about the essential role his center can play in helping to stem the effects of global warming.
How does university research contribute to the fight against climate change?
Universities are called on to lead the way and put forth solutions. Climate scientists have been very effective in analyzing the physical changes our planet is undergoing and proving that they are the result of anthropogenic emissions. We now need to focus on implementing solutions and preparing for the consequences of climate change. This will require a concerted, cross-disciplinary effort that ranges from developing new technology to adopting new policies, transforming our economies and shifting the way society perceives the problem. That’s why it is a good fit for both EPFL and UNIL.
What are your center’s main goals?
We aim to bring together scientists from a variety of disciplines. We can achieve much more together than we could separately. We also hope to boost our region’s visibility in climate science R&D. We will give our researchers an opportunity to put their findings to work and contribute on a larger scale to a bigger picture. This could include, for example, implementing more efficient renewable energy facilities, cutting agriculture emissions or developing new technology for carbon capture and storage.
Is the aim also to get people more involved in climate action?
That’s right. We hope CLIMACT will make people realize that they too can contribute to climate action on a broader scale. Our scientists will put their research to work by meeting with other experts, participating in workshops and getting involved in joint R&D projects. They will also forge ties with other stakeholders – in both business and government – in the fight against climate change. I think today’s business leaders and politicians are more aware and more willing to act, and more likely to involve scientists in the decision-making process. That said, politicians still need to be more courageous and stop hiding behind the excuse that nothing can be done. If we at CLIMACT can develop new systems and show that they work in pilot tests, we can win over policymakers and push for more radical solutions, which we really need right now.
What is the biggest challenge facing CLIMACT?
We must make a measurable impact. We need to be able to operate for not just one or two years, but at least 15 or 20, with major projects that involve businesses, policymakers and communities. This is a new, challenging role for us as scientists within society. We need to step out of our comfort zone. As far as climate action is concerned, the easy part is done, now we need to tackle the hard part.