Four researchers from the University of Helsinki appointed members of the Finnish Climate Change Panel: Research-based knowledge on the atmosphere, adaptation and nudging

The Finnish Climate Change Panel commenced its new four-year term in the beginning of 2020 with a partial reshuffle. Professor of Environmental Economics Markku Ollikainen from the University of Helsinki will continue chairing the body, while new members for the new term from the University of Helsinki are Sirkku Juhola, professor of urban environmental policy; Timo Vesala, professor of meteorology; and Annukka Vainio, associate professor of behavioural change toward sustainability transformations. What are the strengths they are bringing to the operations of the panel?

Who are the winners and losers of climate change? 

According to Professor Sirkku Juhola, adapting to climate change should receive the same attention as mitigation in climate policy.

“Even if Finland’s policy for mitigating climate change is successful right now, the climate system is loaded with so much warming that change will come in any case. There has been no broad national discourse on how to promote adaptation and what should be changed,” Juhola notes.

“It may not be common knowledge that the state no longer insures farmers for crop failure. Of course, such insurance is available from private companies. Furthermore, we should be talking about indirect effects, or how change taking place elsewhere affects us.” 

Finland has a network of governmental experts specialised in adaptation, headed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, interested in the utilisation of research-based knowledge. Juhola thinks sharing information more broadly and coordinating adaptation measures, for example, between Nordic countries would be beneficial in the future. 

“Sweden and the United Kingdom have invested significantly in adaptation in organisations resembling our climate change panel. All in all, adaptation is a globally important issue, since climate change will have an impact on societies everywhere on the planet,” Juhola says. 

Juhola's research group Urban Environmental Policy investigates how societies can adapt to climate change and, on the other hand, how and which societal actions expose them to climate change. Among other things, the group has examined the potential for using geoinformation to examine regional vulnerabilities and exposure. Areas in Helsinki susceptible to heatwaves, something affected by the building stock and local residents, have been surveyed in cooperation with the city.

Juhola is also contributing to Health, risk and climate change: understanding links between exposure, hazards and vulnerability across spatial and temporal scales (HERCULES), a project in its initial stages that examines the climate and health risks of six Finnish cities. The project is part of the new Climate Change and Health (CLIHE) Academy Programme, which is based on the notion that climate change may be one of the biggest global threats to health in this century.

“In the project, researchers specialised in public health from the University of Turku are investigating how different living conditions impact human health. To this, my group brings the perspective of urban policy, looking into the effect of urban policy on health,” Juhola says.

The scientists of the Finnish Meteorological Institute contributing to the project are looking into how climate change alters urban environments through either long-term change or extreme phenomena. 

The government of Russia has published a programme on how to profit from climate change. What does Juhola think about this? 

“Benefits have already been examined in various scenario studies, but according to current scientific estimates, the risks greatly override the benefits,” Juhola notes. 

“Some are saying that Nordic agriculture would be among the winners of climate change, but then again alien species and plant pests may turn out to be a problem, should winters become permanently milder in Finland, with the soil never freezing. Individual farmers must adopt adaptation measures, which requires information and other resources.” 

This is also in the focus of the International Year of Plant Health declared by the United Nations, geared towards highlighting a global concern for plant diseases and pests, the diminishing diversity of production plants, as well as the food security of Earth’s population. 

“Acute adaptation measures that cause harm in the long run may be needed in agriculture,” Juhola states. 

Is preparing for climate change part of adapting to it? 

“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, adaptation includes not only acute preparations for extreme weather phenomena but also long-term adaptation, which entails improving the capacity for adaptation. With regard to this, a doctoral thesis is currently being written in our group on how private individuals in Finland can prepare for storm damage, and how society can facilitate this,” Juhola says. 

Communication is at the core of interaction between humanity and climate change

Annukka Vainio, associate professor of behavioural change toward sustainability transformations, has a background in social psychology and behavioural science.

“Climate change is not something you always see for yourself, which is why citizens depend on what is communicated and how,” Vainio says.

Take this example: Is communication concerning climate change distressing, or does it explain what people can do in their everyday lives? Who gets more attention in the media: experts of climate change or its deniers? People’s beliefs, values and attitudes strongly affect how receptive they are and what action they will take, if any.

“I have personally investigated specifically communication and the ways in which people receive messages. It’s difficult to change values, but attitudes can be changed. Then again, there are other ways to change human behaviour than influencing attitudes. I believe in what is known as ‘nudging’ based on the nudge theory. By modifying the environment, people can be guided to behave in a desired manner, for example, in support of climate-friendly decisions, by making their everyday lives easier,” Vainio explains. 

Among other things, the nudging method can be used in relation to food, energy and mobility. According to Vainio, group dining has proven to be an effective way to familiarise people with new food choices. Vegetarian food can be prominently placed and made to look attractive. 

Vainio also finds compensating for climate emissions, as well as how that is made possible, a promising and interesting factor. As an example, Vainio offers the student cafeteria chain UniCafe where customers have the opportunity to compensate for their emissions when paying for food and where lunch options no longer include beef. 

Changing people’s behaviour by nudging them towards new choices requires thorough knowledge of their everyday lives and routines. At times, people adapt their behaviour unconsciously, for example, due to social pressure, also changing their personal attitudes in the process. This aligns beliefs and attitudes.

The mission of the climate change panel is to take part in the drafting of bills and provide statements. Vainio believes that the Climate Change Act needs to be widely accepted for it to function properly in people’s lives. In other words, people should feel that the law promotes the mitigation of climate change and adaption to it in a fair and reliable manner, making everyday life easier in rural areas and cities, as well as among various age groups and income levels. 

There are a range of ways to promote the application of law in society. An example of such activity is the Behavioural Insights Team established in the United Kingdom, which operates in the intersection of legislators, local authorities and citizens to facilitate the application of law in society so that people change their behaviour.

Vainio herself has contributed to the establishment of a new climate communication association (ILVIES), whose members are considering how to communicate on matters pertaining to climate change so as to make the impact as extensive as possible and to reach the goals set. The association includes both researchers and organisations specialised in communication.

“We Finns have the tough goal of reaching carbon neutrality in 15 years, and the clock is ticking like never before. We cannot focus solely on a single issue, which is why I hope the Finnish parliament makes clear and bold decisions on measures to fight climate change,” Vainio says.

Carbon neutral Finland in 2035 – Where is the plan?

Professor Timo Vesala, a previous member of the climate change panel, is now returning to the body. Among his other contributions, Vesala took part in drawing up the Climate effects of forest use and development of carbon sinks report published in 2015. 

Vesala conducts research at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR) as well as at the Department of Forest Sciences, focusing particularly on the lowest hundreds of meters of the atmosphere above ground, which are associated with energy and material cycles, such as carbon and water cycles, between the atmosphere, Earth’s surface and the biosphere. This also includes carbon sinks and greenhouse gases. 

Vesala’s micrometeorology research group operates in the measurement tower network of the European ICOS organisation (Integrated Carbon Observation System), which helps monitor the concentration, sources and sinks of greenhouse gases. 

“In general, I’m interested in land use and its effects on the climate,” says Vesala. 

“Finland aims to become carbon neutral by 2035, but that doesn't happen just like that. For the time being, there is no clear plan guiding us to the destination. Two things need to happen simultaneously: emissions must be reduced, and carbon sinks must be maintained. Plans significantly supporting this goal are yet to be drawn up,” Vesala says.

Forests are close to Vesala’s heart. 

“Forests have always been on the panel’s agenda, and I want to take part in discussing and advancing forest-related matters. Peatlands are an emerging topic. What I'm particularly interested in are the benefits and potential disadvantages of wetland restoration in terms of greenhouse gas balances. I hope this is something we can delve into in the panel as part of the bigger picture.” 

Forests have been a topic of discussion in Finland for a long time – for too long, Vesala believes. 

“Already in 2015, the Climate Change Panel clearly stated in its forest report that it would benefit the climate to maintain forest utilisation at the current level. And yet, this has not happened. Many parties from politicians to representatives of the forest industry and interest groups have claimed that we can afford to use our forests. Now it’s been found that carbon sinks seem to be diminishing at a considerable rate,” Vesala points out.

Vesala offers the reduction of peat use as a good way to influence emissions.

“It remains to be seen how the current government sees it.”

Vesala is part of VERIFY, an EU project that aims to produce an independent research-based verification of greenhouse gas sources and sinks on the basis of the best expertise and knowledge currently available. This entails modelling and measuring, and Vesala's group is contributing a model of the methane emissions of European peatlands.

Finnish Climate Change Panel 

The Finnish Climate Change Panel is an independent scientific body that promotes dialogue between science and policy-making in the preparation of environmental and energy policy. According to its statutory duty, the panel operates in support of climate policy planning and related decision-making. An opinion must be requested from the panel for plans complying with the Climate Change Act. As the act is currently being amended, the panel’s duties may be further specified. The panel consists of 15 members representing different fields of science, as well as higher education institutions and research institutes.