Timo Vesala: Climate change can no longer be stopped – but science can help to curb it

Carbon sinks slow down climate change but global warming can cause unpredictable changes in the way they function. Understanding these mechanisms requires research – and the preservation of the Earth requires political decision-making based on research, says Professor of Meteorology Timo Vesala.

“The world has 11 years left.”

This message was repeated in news headlines all over the world in October 2018. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its most recent report according to which we are facing an unprecedented environmental catastrophe if we do not change our way of living very quickly.

According to IPCC, the increase of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, should be decreased by 45% by 2030. Zero emissions should be reached in 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Large-scale and permanent damage to the environment, animals and people are likely even if this extremely ambitious – and unlikely – goal was met.

“The report was major news but we researchers have given the same warning many times before,” says Timo Vesala, Academy of Finland professor of meteorology at the University of Helsinki.

Vesala believes that the worst destruction caused by climate change can be avoided but it requires supporting science and listening to scientists – even when the answers provided by them are uncomfortable.

Carbon sinks slow down climate change

Vesala is the principal investigator of a researcher group comprising 15 researchers located at the Department of Physics in Kumpula, which studies the circulation of carbon, gases and water between the atmosphere and various ecosystems. The study focuses on carbon sinks, which absorb carbon dioxide and simultaneously remove it from the atmosphere. Carbon sinks include oceans, forests and swamps.

More carbon sinks are also needed to attain the objectives proposed by the IPCC.

“However, climate change transforms carbon sinks in such a way that they produce feedback to the climate, that is to say, they also generate consequences affecting climate change which may either warm or cool the climate. Knowing the nature of these carbon feedbacks is crucial to climate change,” says Vesala.

For example, oceans are carbon sinks but, on the other hand, there is a great deal of methane, a greenhouse gas, stored in places at the bottom of the oceans, which may be released as the temperature rises. These kinds of unexpected findings and studying them are critical to saving human lives and even the entire planet.

“The majority of what we know about climate change is based on scientific research. Without it, we wouldn’t know what we are doing wrong and what kinds of changes to various emissions reductions must be made,” says Vesala.

Climate research greatly benefits corporations and the general public alike

Vesala’s office is located right next to the headquarters of ICOS (Integrated Carbon Observation System), which started its operations in Finland in 2013. ICOS is a network producing scientific data on the prevalence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as well as the exchange of greenhouse gases between the atmosphere, land and oceans. Vesala is the director of ICOS Finland.

The ICOS network comprises over 140 research stations in 12 European countries. ICOS plays a key role in verifying and monitoring emission reductions.

“Getting the ICOS headquarters in Finland is largely due to the work I have conducted with my research group for over 20 years,” says Vesala when asked about the background of ICOS.

The Europe-wide ICOS infrastructure promotes high-quality research and efficient flow of information, while helping to keep the Finnish greenhouse-gas research in a leading position in the world. It also provides new business opportunities to Finnish companies to develop, for example, new measuring devices.

In addition to research, Vesala works to popularise climate science. This is necessary in order to get large masses of people behind measures curbing climate change.

“We have, for example, published numerous reports and statements in Finnish and English through the Finnish Climate Change Panel aimed at both decision-makers and the general public. Even though these publications are simplified, they are always based on research we have conducted.”

A message to decision-makers: Operating models derived from the corporate world do not suit universities

Even though Vesala is deeply embedded in climate change research, he is not – strictly speaking – a climate scientist, since he does not work with physico-chemical atmospheric models. He is largely engaged in basic research that does not primarily aim at producing practical applications, such as technical methods to reduce emissions, even though that is often the end point of his work.

Nevertheless, basic research is far from useless. On the contrary, it is critical to climate research. However, it is increasingly difficult to raise funding for basic research.

“Funding for basic research has been run down in Finland, and it has been replaced by financing mechanisms, which are not as comprehensive as before from the perspective of basic research. This endangers research activities.”

Researchers’ work is also hindered by new practices, which are based on the 2009 university reform that greatly transformed university structures.

“Bureaucracy has increased and it takes time away from research and teaching as well as public engagement. Uncertainty related to employment has also increased,” says Vesala

Climate change is an extremely politicised and polarised subject all over the world. What is it like to be a researcher in Finland in this kind of a field? Do politicians listen to researchers?

“It does often feel like tilting at windmills. The refrain is that decisions must be based on research, but we researchers are routinely bypassed. There is time to listen to researchers only when it serves the politician’s own objectives.”

Text: Sebastian Koskinen
Photos: Karoliina Niemenkari