The case for an International Climate Year

by Michael Angus, Gregor C. Leckebusch, Kelvin Ng, Lisa Degenhardt and Gabi Hegerl

Climate Change is the overarching challenge for generations to come, but currently the world’s efforts are lacking impetus, steering and cohesion. Looking to the past for inspiration, our scientific ancestors brought together institutions from around the globe to address specific problems and achieve the cohesion we now need on numerous occasions.

One such example is the 1957/1958 International Geophysical Year. Together, they made significant breakthroughs in the fields of geology, oceanography and meteorology through a massive collaborative effort to improve observation networks and share data. Today, it is not a unified observation network we lack, but rather a unified sense of direction. In this spirit, we propose to proclaim and conduct an International Climate Year to foster international collaboration, further our understanding of the climate system, and perhaps most importantly, reframe climate change not as an inevitable disaster we cannot avoid, but rather as a challenge that humanity has accepted.

In 1992, the World’s Scientists delivered a warning to humanity. If our behaviour did not change, we would put at risk our ability to sustain life in the manner that we know. Two years earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had delivered their first report, outlining the potential impacts of climate change on humanity and the natural world, and recommending a comprehensive global response. We have not merely procrastinated on addressing this problem, but far worsened it, as the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in the 25th anniversary of the first warning to humanity. With the exception of ozone depletion which was addressed through the banning of ozone detrimental substances, every environmental problem identified by the first warning has since been exacerbated. Since 1990, CO2 emissions have continued to increase and in response the global temperature has warmed by over half a degree Celsius. The impact of this warming has already been felt globally through increased frequency of heatwaves, decreased crop yields, ecosystem loss amongst many other devastating consequences. The 1992 warning to humanity has gone unheeded, leaving our home under serious threat.          

How did that last paragraph make you feel? Fearful for the future maybe? Worried about what we’re leaving for the next generation? Angry at the lack of Government co-ordination? Or guilty because you aren’t doing enough? Maybe you just have a sense of déjà vu, having read and heard it all before. I know this. We all know this. Or maybe it just left you feeling helpless. How many more times can we say “we must act now!” and then not act? Anyway, what can I do? Maybe it’s already too late. Maybe there’s no point doing anything. Maybe it won’t be that bad.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you had any or all of those thoughts, because we know that doom-laden messaging often results in a lack of action or behavioural change as people switch off to avoid the associated negative feelings. This is particularly true for an issue like climate change, where both the problem itself and the solution feel far away and difficult to conceive. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more difficult policy issue than climate change; the impacts occur slowly over many years and it can only be resolved through global co-ordination. Doing your part will not isolate you from the consequences. Perhaps this explains why the environment lags behind issues such as immigration, the economy and regional issues (e.g., Brexit) in the UK’s public concerns. The urgency of the warnings has not inspired a similar urgency in the general public, at least compared to the issues which feel more local and immediate.

As an alternative to doom-laden messaging, evoking hope is most associated with supportive attitudes and policy advocacy. It is not enough to simply list all the problems we face with climate change, scare people, and then tell them they must act now. Continuing to do so will lead only to avoidance, feelings of anger and helplessness. What we need is a focussed solution that an individual can act upon, with leadership, direction and a message of success. What we need is an International Climate Year.    

An International Climate Year would evoke hope rather than despair for a number of reasons. First, it provides a sense of immediacy by removing the issue of “some time in the future” that is predominant in the current climate change discussion. It is not a target of what we can do by 2035 or 2050, but rather “what can we achieve now?”. Second, it reframes climate change as a challenge humanity is seeking to resolve, rather than as an impending crisis. Finally, by evoking the achievements of the past, it offers a tangible example of what can be achieved through a spirit of global co-operation in science. In making the case for the International Climate Year, we must first make the case for the importance of the International Geophysical Year, the historical collaboration of scientists which began the Space Race and changed the way we see the Earth forever.

Running from July 1st 1957 to December 31st 1958, the International Geophysical Year included scientists and observations from every continent and 67 countries. Conceived by leading geophysicists Sydney Chapman and Lloyd Berkner, it was, at the time, the largest set of coordinated experiments and field expeditions ever undertaken. Even the United States and the Soviet Union shared data, with weather and seismology stations all reporting to central data bodies in a successful effort to create global data networks for the first time.

Although tensions remained between scientists of the two superpowers, particularly over data from the first artificial satellite launches (the Soviet Sputnik 1 in October 1957, and the American Explorer 1 in January 1958), the overall mood of global scientific collaboration held. The Antarctic Treaty, signed to protect resources and to promote research in the region, was a substantial achievement of the International Geophysical Year and still holds to this day.

Some examples from the many scientific advancements include:

  • The discovery of Mid-ocean ridges through echo sounding from American and Soviet Research vessels, providing supporting evidence for the theory of continental drift for the first time.
  • The discovery of the Van Allen belts, zones of high solar radiation surrounding the Earth. A hazard to humans passing through them, this was an essential piece of information for future space missions.
  • The first record of CO2 levels in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which still records to this day as a key component of the climate observing system.

However, the International Geophysical Year was important not only because of the scientific achievements. It proved scientists could cross political boundaries and work together for the shared benefit of all. This is all the more impressive for having occurred during the Cold War. The weapons of war were turned instead to science: rockets were used to observe stratospheric temperatures by recording the fluctuations in sound made when grenades, fired from the rocket mid-flight, exploded at high altitudes. Nuclear weapons were also used to test the seismology network, both for improvements in earthquake measurements and so that seismologists could monitor nuclear tests around the world in future. Even Walter Sullivan’s first-hand account documenting the achievements was entitled “Assault on the Unknown”. The International Geophysical Year is pockmarked with the violence and problems of its time, yet brightened by scientists’ attempt to solve them.

The challenges we face now are not the same as those early geoscientists, of course. However, to combat climate change we require the same spirit of global co-ordination and unity of purpose. Evoking the spirit of that time is a fine start, but what activities would an International Climate Year actually involve? We discuss here three broad categories within the scope of the hope themed message: Public encouragement, Public engagement, and Public advocacy.

To encourage the public that climate change is being addressed, we would promote a wide range of international projects on the theme of tackling climate change from the world’s scientists. This would include researching new energy technologies, applying mitigation and adaption proposals, geoengineering projects and further research into key climate uncertainties. By bringing together these currently ongoing research activities, we present the public with a united message whilst furthering research in these key areas.

To engage the public with climate change research, we propose a range of citizen science projects dedicated to bringing the public together to participate in science directly. This was also an essential element of the International Geophysical Year, with initial tracking of artificial satellites performed by volunteer astronomers engaging in Operation Moonwatch. Projects like Zooniverse offer that opportunity today, furthering research goals through volunteer contributions that allows everyone to contribute to tackling climate change. Similar messaging has been employed recently during the COVID pandemic, where the UK Government encouraged us to #DoYourBit to protect the NHS.

To promote public advocacy for climate change, we would encourage the International Climate Year as a year to change behaviour, both at a personal and government scale. Research projects that study gaps in the current understanding and discussion would be encouraged, with a focus on more transparency in the process of policy mechanisms such as the IPCC and UN Climate Change Conference. The public must feel engaged in the policy discussion, so that the solution does not feel like something foisted onto us undemocratically. Education is also vital, with science communication activities that go beyond the “knowledge deficit model”, educating climate scientists and the public alike so that we can better communicate with one another.

None of these proposed activities involve radical change, and a large number of them are happening already. An International Climate Year would simply provide a focal point for these activities, while simultaneously providing an example from history of scientists coming together to address a major issue of their time.   

The success of the International Climate Year would be measured by its legacy. The legacy of the International Geophysical Year is vast and undeniable; a new way of perceiving the Earth through global observations, better understanding of the physical processes that shaped the land beneath our feet and global policies which are still in place today. If we are to strive to match that level of achievement, the International Climate Year will require real commitment from scientific institutes and governments, and be international in more than just its name. Yet, we must think on this scale if we are to make real progress on climate change.

While climate change may be an invisible problem, the impact on our environment is not. The global nature of the issue provides a unique opportunity for engagement at local level everywhere, with direct access to climate change projects, adaption and mitigation strategies making climate science directly applicable to people’s lives. We hope to get the public excited about climate science by demonstrating that this is something we can participate in together while achieving something truly great.      

Ultimately, the International Climate Year will be a success if the global perception of the climate change problem can be permanently altered. For at least thirty years, the message of climate change has been one of fear and helplessness. The global community, both politically through events like COP26 and scientifically through organisations such as the IPCC, can address this issue by inspiring hope and encouragement while engaging the public. We here propose the International Climate Year as a means to achieve this and announce to the world that from this moment, humanity will fight to maintain our home.