Changing Climates: Dr Bob Baxter

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Luca Pittalis, Head Producer at Purple Radio, continues the Videotape series speaking to senior Ecology lecturer at Durham University, Dr Bob Baxter, about the impact of the COVID-19 on environmental research. Pittalis and Baxter also discuss the importance of our collective responsibility to promote environmental consciousness emerging from research findings. Additionally, Baxter advises students on how to approach the online university experience. You can find the interview in full on Spotify by searching ‘Purple Radio on Demand, Videotape: Bob Baxter’.

Our lives are changing. There is a disconnect between us and the outside world; lockdown restrictions often hinder activities deemed normal. Despite this, the restraint shown by most amid lockdown slightly improves the stark environmental conditions confronting different societies. We have glimpses of clearer skies, crude oil is near worthless, and goats walked the streets of Llandudno.

However, we cannot be complacent. Our temporary withdrawal from the world is not climate change’s denouement, but is instead a clarification of the damage to be fixed; or as the former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, puts it, ‘This is just a disaster that pointed out the underlying challenges we face. It’s not something to celebrate.’ Baxter explains the long-term implications of ‘business as usual’ and urges us to repurpose optimism surrounding recent improvements into an attitudinal shift; it is time to realise our environmental consciousness. How, then, does Baxter suggest COVID–19 has affected research into, and the public’s perception of, climate change? Moreover, how should students respond both to the changing ecological and academic climates?

As someone involved in climate change research, how is the COVID–19 outbreak affecting you now and how will it affect future planning in terms of how research is conducted?

Baxter specialises in the altering levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and soil nutrient conditions affecting rates of photosynthesis, particularly in Arctic settings. But research into climate change is limited without visiting the locations affected. Therefore, travel restrictions prevent researchers like Baxter from investigating sites bearing the scars of climate change. He has “work planned in northern Canada this coming summer, supposedly, and also with colleagues in northern Siberia”. Yet Baxter admits that this “summer is a bit of a bust.”

Baxter remains optimistic, offering solutions to these research obstructions. He mentions that technology permits virtual meetings discussing the best approaches to research. Since several of his colleagues are in Russia and Canada, “they may be able to get people on the ground.” Lockdown restrictions appear unlikely to relax as a second wave of COVID–19 looms; he anticipates an extended reliance on Zoom. But Baxter persists, “we’re working at the moment to see how we can meet some of our goals.” Ultimately, the lockdown test is “to see how much of this we can do online.” Halting climate research is not an option because the industrial hiatus will not last.

Hong Kong skyline.

With economic fears comes the resumption of ‘business as usual’. Our fleeting glimpse of a cleaner future often distracts us from the work that needs doing. That is, we need to realise that our current unsustainability is a long-term issue. Baxter says that in “the region of 390,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide” will not pollute the atmosphere because of industrial decline. Despite this, he stresses that “we are reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere temporarily.” Baxter, like McCarthy, urges us not to celebrate prematurely. For this carbon dioxide “remains in the atmosphere anywhere between 20 (on a really good turnover) to 200 years”; the damage of our unsustainability is inescapable despite recent improvements. He recognises “it’s good people are getting wonderfully excited”, adding, almost as an afterthought, that this “is a blip.”

“We are reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere temporarily

Paradoxically, this period of confusion will further clarify environmental issues. “It’s as complex as it ever was”, Baxter says. It remains a complex issue, yet Baxter, and researchers, understand this lockdown period is an opportunity to enrich our knowledge of climate change and “highlight” the underlying issues of current conditions. He insists that this period will help bring this “sort of thinking into peoples’ psyches.” In this sense, our lockdown experience permits more consideration of climate change simply because “people have time to think about it, it’s all in the news and it has engendered discussion.” Perhaps this period is a turning point; it might awaken our environmental consciousness. Baxter remains “hopeful” this discussion “won’t be lost”.

Do you think that the public’s environmental awareness is improving, but there remains a general trivialisation of climate change as just temperature and sea-level rise, whereas somewhere like Siberia it is far more complex?

Baxter acknowledges the complexity of climate change in Siberia, but quickly returns to the wider environmental consciousness. “The message has to be, and I mean this in the best possible way…simplified”, he says. The reality of climate change, in broader terms, needs communicating before circulating complex findings. Awareness precedes public action. Baxter adds, “it’s not about being pejorative towards the way people think…it’s about pulling out the major issues.” As such, reporting must highlight the key facts of climate change as they emerge, so the wider public can sustainably adapt. Baxter does not mean that the complexities of climate change should be overlooked, but instead wants to embed awareness into public discourse.

“it’s not about being pejorative towards the way people think…it’s about pulling out the major issues”

The lockdown hiatus should highlight urgent climate concerns and mark progress towards wider environmental awareness. But climate change’s impacts are not uniform; they differ depending on location. Baxter mentions that the arctic is warming quicker than most places. He stresses that the rate of change differs between regions, and yet “global pictures are so important”. Implementing a “global average below 1.5°C”, set out in the Paris Agreement, “is something that the whole world can identify with.” In this way, our experience of climate change in Durham is different to that of Siberia, but both locations can share this sentiment. Baxter’s research during COVID–19 restrictions remains indispensable for creating global initiatives to combat climate change. After all, research “is what helps bring governments together to make really difficult decisions.”

In addition to your research, you are a lecturer. What would you say to students stuck at home? Should we be using this time to get stuck into our studies?

“It is very difficult circumstances for both students and staff alike”, Baxter says. We all need to adapt to online learning, including communicating with staff. Lockdown restrictions mean that “virtual communication is our only way of working”. Baxter recognises that “student learning is very much guided learning” driven by “self-learning”. But we must remember that staff guidance remains available to students. Moreover, staff are sensitive to COVID–19’s impact on academic work; as Baxter puts it, “we’ll take care to acknowledge all these factors in examiner board meetings.”

Baxter’s academic advice harks back to our opportunity to consider climate change. “It’s about…taking the time at home to…contact those that do teach you”, he says. Comparably, lockdown permits us time to grasp the impacts of climate change and, therefore, become environmentally aware. We are encouraged to explore climate change, but also to communicate with others. Baxter concludes, “overall, stay focussed. Don’t get too stressed if you possibly can and if you do, get in touch with us.”

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