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Speeches launch Priestley International Centre for Climate

Centre news

Two hundred people – University of Leeds staff, PhD students and stakeholders – attended the launch of the Priestley International Centre for Climate on Tuesday 14 June at Leeds University Business School. The event saw the presentation of the first international prize for a world-leading contribution to solution focused climate research as well as the formalising of an international research partnership with Oslo-based climate centre CICERO.

The launch was introduced by Priestley Centre director Piers Forster, who spoke of the need for urgency in addressing climate change, emphasising the centre’s mission of delivering research to underpin robust and timely climate solutions. New ideas, he said, “come from challenging orthodoxy and trying to break down the barriers across disciplines”, which is what the interdisciplinary Priestley Centre would be doing.

The Vice Chancellor, Sir Alan Langlands, developed the theme, stating that the Priestley Centre was a natural extension of the world leading climate research conducted currently at Leeds, representing an investment of nearly £7 million by the University over five years. “The aim is to promote interdisciplinary research of the highest standard on climate and to be considering always its impact on nature and society.”  He also pointed out the “huge educational dividends with our students” who would be able to take part in the Priestley Centre’s training and educational activities.

Leeds already does  more world leading climate research than any other UK institution said  Sir Alan, and the University’s aim to be recognised as an international authority in this area through the work of the Priestley Centre was endorsed by famous  Leeds alumnus Piers Sellers, NASA astronaut and renowned climate scientist. Dr Sellers, who is deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate and Acting Director of the Earth Sciences Division at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, gave his speech by video, explaining that “a doctor with a baseball bat” was off camera, enforcing a strict no-travel policy for him (he has written about having life-limiting cancer and continuing his climate research).

“I am confident that Leeds will be a strong player in the climate science business in the critical decades before us,” Piers Sellers said. “This place has the base depth and the drive to excel in this field, as it has in so many others before now, and the new, well-named Priestley Centre will be at the heart of this effort. I am sure that great things will come of this.”

Piers Sellers has given his name to a new annual prize awarded by the Priestley Centre, funded by alumni donations: one for exceptional PhD research by a Leeds student to better understand and address climate change and an international prize for a world leading contribution to solution-focused climate research.  He was “absolutely tickled”, he said, to have a climate prize named after him: “I hope these prizes will help to take this research to the next level and I will always be ready to support this research in any way I can.”

The Piers Sellers prize for  PhD research was awarded to Kate Scott for her PhD entitled, “Integration of embodied emissions into climate mitigation policy” which is oriented towards integrative policy design solutions for climate change. Kate has already published six papers and her research has been presented to the Committee on Climate Change and government departments including DECC and Defra, changing government perceptions by identifying the role of resource consumption.

Professor John Plane, deputy director of the Priestley Centre, made the announcement, stating, “It’s really very rare for a PhD student to produce this significant body of high quality academic research and also to have a high impact.”

The international prize, which is awarded on the basis of recent contributions to solution-focused climate research, was presented  to Dr Joeri Rogelj from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria. Dr Rogelj, who has a PhD in climate science and has spent several years working on engineering and water systems projects in Rwanda and Columbia, conducts research on the uncertainties of emissions scenarios and their connection to technology and society. He studies workable mitigation solutions and the effect of staying between different global temperature targets and he was the only researcher before the UN climate conference in Paris in 2015 to be actively publishing on how to achieve the 1.5⁰C target, which then became enshrined in agreement.

“Joeri played a central role in informing the evidence base for that agreement,” Professor Plane said. “He was the go-to person both for policymakers and for journalists … and now the rest of the world are trying to catch up with him. So he is currently one of the world’s most influential climate researchers.”

In his speech accepting the prize, Dr Rogelj warned that the future we want “should not be taken for granted” and was “severely at odds with our fascination with more and bigger instead of enough and better, or current tendencies of many old democracies to become more inward looking. ”

He contrasted this with the developing countries in which he had worked: “For these countries, climate change is not just an inconvenience. For many it is a threat to their basic development and in some cases their existence.”  The Paris Agreement’s decision to keep warming to well below 2⁰C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5⁰C  reflected the higher risk to vulnerable countries, he said.

Emphasising that the path to reaching this is through science-policy interactions, he gave examples of transformations consistent with the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement, stressing that “The changes needed require a radical rethink of the ways in which our societies work. Tinkering with small incremental changes as we have been doing for the past decades will not suffice.”

Returning to the theme of solutions, Dr Rogelj concluded that scientists need to engage with society, “not just by lecturing it, but mainly by listening to it.” Solutions, he said, will not be provided by a single community, but “will only be found if we dare to face the problem, together, and in its entirety” which is where the Priestley Centre could play an important role by deepening interdisciplinary research.

Following the prize presentations, Piers Forster and Sir Alan Langlands signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Kristin Halvorsen, Director of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO), cementing existing research links between the two interdisciplinary climate research centres and increasing the international reach of the Priestley Centre. Ms Halvorsen, who is former deputy prime minister of Norway, attended the ceremony with CICERO’s research director, Jan Fuglestvedt.