Speaking to members of the public, and particularly school children, there are a lot of questions that people have about the climate. These include the science of climate change, what are the impacts, and is there anything we can do about it. We have taken these questions and provided some answers, but if you would like to know more then please contact us on the contact page and we would be happy to help if we can.

Q. What is climate change?

Climate change is a large-scale, long-term shift in the planet’s weather patterns and average temperatures. These changes have always happened and will continue to happen, what we call ‘natural variation’. Recently, the term climate change has begun to be used for the way that human’s have had an effect on the planet’s climate, in addition to any natural changes that might happen.

There are several good web sites which explain the basic science of climate change, as well the causes and the impacts of climate change.
UK Met Office
Climate Kids – by NASA, the American Space Agency
World Wildlife Fund
UK’s The Royal Society, [Includes a YouTube video ‘Climate Change in 60 seconds’]

Q. Is the climate really changing?

Answer by Tina Fawcett, ECI:
Yes, the climate is really changing, and this is due to human actions. As the United Nations’ scientific advisors have said “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” IPCC 5th Assessment Report

Q. What about chemtrails?

Answer by Tina Fawcett, ECI:
‘Chemtrails’ refers to a myth that planes are spraying toxins into the atmosphere. There is no evidence that this is true. Along with other conspiracy theories, the chemtrails myth is debunked in ‘How it Works’ magazine, issue 108. https://www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/how-it-works-print-back-issues/how-it-works-print-issue-108/
For more information about other common myths or false arguments about climate change, and the evidence that disproves them, see: Skeptical Science

Q. How do I persuade somebody it isn’t El Nino which is causing climate change?

Answer by James King, School of Geography:
El Niño refers to natural warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean. It’s part of a cycle called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) which has been happening for thousands of years and which also includes La Niña, which results in cooling of the tropical Pacific. On average, El Niño tends to cause warmer temperatures and La Niña tends to cause cooler temperatures. Some more information can be found here >>

ENSO is one of the most important features of Earth’s climate and affects weather patterns around the world, but it is not the cause of global warming. This is shown by the fact that if you remove the effects caused by ENSO from recent temperature records, global warming is still there. The ENSO cycle is an example of what scientists call ‘internal variability’ – over periods of a few years ENSO does affect temperature, but the amount of warming and cooling brought by El Niño and La Niña evens out because both are just moving heat energy around – no heat energy is added to the climate system by internal factors. That would be like arguing that the water in a bath heats itself, rather than being warmed by an external heat source (a boiler). Climate change is likely to affect the ENSO system and change its impacts across the world, but exactly how is still a question scientists are trying to answer. More information can be found here >>

Q. When will climate change be stopped?

Answer by Tina Fawcett, ECI:
This question was asked by a young child. I found it very moving. I don’t have a good answer – it would be easy to say the climate is always changing – but I think questioner meant ‘when will the climate go back to how it was before human activities changed it?’ I’m not sure it ever will.
A better answer was given by one of our students, who said that the more people protest, and take action, and demand change, the sooner (further) climate change can be stopped.

Q. How quickly would the earth recover if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today?

Answer by James King, School of Geography:
Humans have been putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and warming the planet for over 100 years now. Because those gases stay there for a long time, climate change would continue even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today – the gases we have already emitted would still be there causing the climate to change. If we stopped now, the Earth would most likely continue to warm for another 40 or so years before reaching a stable point about 0.6°C warmer than average. To keep warming to below 1.5°C below average (an ambitious target of the Paris Agreement), we would need to stop emitting by the middle of the 21st century. more information can be found here >> and at Skeptical Science.

Q. How fast is climate change going to happen?

Answer by James King, School of Geography:
Climate change is already happening, and fast – the last 5 years were the 5 hottest years on record around the world, and Arctic sea ice reached its lowest recorded point in 2012. Since the late 1970s the rate of global warming increased significantly, and is currently between 0.15-0.2°C per decade. At this rate of warming, we could pass 1.5°C by 2030, when our aim is to keep temperatures below that by 2100. More information can be found at:
IPCC summary for policy makers

Q. If the absorptive potential of CO2 doesn’t change with increased concentration, why does it cause the planet to heat up?

Answer by James King, School of Geography:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant greenhouse gas. It warms the atmosphere by absorbing heat from Earth’s surface and preventing it from escaping into space (the greenhouse effect). While it is true that increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (as humans are doing) doesn’t change its chemical properties, including what wavelengths it absorbs, it does increase the range of wavelengths absorbed. Therefore, the planet heats up because the CO2 can trap more heat in the atmosphere if it is at a greater concentration.

Contributions to climate change

Answers from Monica Zurek, ECI

Q. Do you do anything to support or research veganism?

A number of projects at ECI research changes in consumer behaviour around meat eating. A good resource on the discussion on food and climate change is the Food and Climate Research Network (FCRN) and its Food Source section: https://fcrn.org.uk/ and https://www.foodsource.org.uk/
Here are links to some projects the university is involved in that work on meat eating behaviour:
Livestock, Environment and People

SUSFANS (Metrics, Models and Foresight for European SUStainable Food And Nutrition Security), Work package 2

Q. What is the contribution of methane and animal food production to climate change? How accurate is the ‘Cowspiracy’ documentary (claimed 50% of climate change produced by animal farming)?

Currently it is estimated that livestock contributes 14.5% of human-made GHG emissions. Carbon sequestration has been posited by pro-livestock stakeholders to offset these emissions, but the evidence is that this potential is limited, and very dependent on circumstance. (www.foodsource.org.uk). In terms of overall contributions of the food system to GHG emissions, it is estimated that between 25-30% of GHG emissions are related to the way how we feed ourselves – so this includes transporting, storing, preparing and cooking food, as well as growing it. More information can be found here >>
Also see www.foodsource.org.uk for more information.


Q. FutureLearn has a few climate related courses (free!) but needs more. Can you make a free online climate science course?

We are planning to make more climate related material for the general public available on the web, although not as a FutureLearn course. It should be available soon. We will update this answer once it has gone live.
In the meantime – you might like to have a look at our Climateprediction.net site – the world’s largest climate modelling experiment for the 21st century.
The Open University offers a free course on climate change >>

Q. Are there climate modules for school children KS1 / 2 / 3 / 4?

Answer from Heather Waller, ECI:
A variety of organisations offer some climate teaching resources for children of various ages, and information aimed directly at children and young people. Please note, we have not read all the material on these websites – so can’t guarantee how accurate or useful it is.
This site has information for pupils from Year 7 to GCSE level >>

This is a website aimed at Geography teachers >>

This site links to lots of educational resources, although it is a little dated >>

Q. What subjects should my daughter study to be a climate scientist?

Answer from Tina Fawcett, ECI:
The most relevant subjects are physics, maths and geography. However, many of our climate scientists didn’t study all of these for their A levels, and have learnt what they need at university or through workplace training.

Answer from James King, School of Geography:
Climate change is the biggest problem we face, and everyone has something to contribute to it. As well as understanding the science, we need to understand how people can respond and act, and how to communicate the problem better. No matter what subjects you do at school, if you’re interested in climate change, you’ll find something to say about it through the lens of those subjects. Not everyone studying climate change is a scientist!

About Oxford University

Q. Can I join the Oxford Climate Network?

The Oxford Climate Research Network is an internal network of more than 170 Oxford University scientists focused on the challenge of managing climate change in a complex and uncertain world.
A short film introduces the network >>

You can find out more about our research activity here >>
However, the network is for senior Oxford researchers and academics only, it does not produce newsletters, and can’t be joined by those outside the research community
There are many talks at Oxford about climate and other environmental issues, most of which are open to the public, you can find then here >>

Q. What green student initiatives are there at Oxford University?

Answer from Ian Curtis, ECI:
In March 2019 Oxford students were clearing plastic garbage from Aldebra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, home to the world’s largest group of giant tortoises. Just one of many initiatives for dark blue students keen on being green – from joining the world’s largest climate modelling experiment, going veggie in November to teaching local school pupils.

Many initiatives are student-led but others are organised by, for example, the Environmental Change Institute and the Environmental Sustainability Team at Estate Services. Some are very new but others are “ancient” – like the Exploration Club founded in 1927!
Below is a short selection from the dynamic array of “planet savers” that Oxford students are constantly creating. If you know of any others, let us know please!