Comment: Editorial Physics World  October 2021

Climate matters

As the COP26 climate summit nears, how are physicists addressing the climate crisis?

(Courtesy: iStock/mariusFM77)

“A code red for humanity” is how António Guterres, the United Nations’ secretary general, described the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Published in August, it summarizes our current scientific understanding of the Earth’s climate and the potential impact that changes to it could have on the planet. Without steep cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, the report reminds us, the world will warm by over 2 °C this century – triggering more frequent heat waves, greater flooding, higher sea levels and more extreme heavy rainfall and droughts. 

It’s easy to ignore such warnings as distant, vague and alarmist, something only of concern to policymakers and politicians at gatherings like next month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. But as one Physics World reader reminded me following our news story about the IPCC report (“Climate ‘code red’ for humanity”, September 2021), the challenges of climate change shouldn’t be “other people’s problems”; they concern all of us. Thankfully, plenty of physicists are already doing their bit to tackle the climate crisis.

The physicist who wrote to me, for example, works on climate mitigation and adaptation in the aviation sector. Others – see this month’s Graduate Careers section (“Green jobs for physics graduates”) – do everything from studying the carbon impact of big infrastructure projects to analysing prices on the energy market or developing solar cells and fusion power. One physics graduate we talked to works for a luxury fashion retailer, finding ways to make its handbags more sustainable.

Lots of physicists, of course, are involved in basic research. This month’s cover feature tackles four specific areas where their numeracy, technical knowledge and problem-solving skills are particularly relevant: establishing the world’s future hotspots; determining carbon use in buildings; studying the role of clouds in the climate; and storing carbon underground (see “Getting physical with the climate crisis”). And physicists are central to the debate over nuclear power’s role in our energy mix (“The nuclear fight” and “Why ‘net zero’ needs nuclear”).

Given the prominence that so many physicists are playing in climate adaptation and mitigation, it’s perhaps appropriate that Alok Sharma MP, who is a physicist by training, is chairing the COP26 summit. Having served previously as business secretary in the UK government, he should know all too well that businesses will be crucial in driving practical solutions to climate change (see “The challenge of change”). Whether we’ll see new policies at COP26 on making businesses pay for carbon emissions remains to be seen, but unleashing private finance to trigger changes will be vital.

The Physics World Weekly podcasts of 28 October and 4 November will feature interviews with climate scientists, including several speaking at IOP Publishing’s Environmental Research 2021 online conference. The Institute of Physics is also hosting a week-long series of events on physics and the green economy on 22–26 November.