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Alaa explaining what climate change is for the IPCC at COP27

Alaa explaining what climate change is for the IPCC at COP27

Episode 10

13 Oct 2023

53 min 🎧

28 min 📖

Alaa on Working with the IPCC and Life as a Researcher on Climate Change Topics

What is it like to be on the frontline of climate change research? It’s certainly demanding, but it can get addictive, according to Dr. Alaa Al Khourdajie.

In this episode, Alaa shares with us his personal experience with the IPCC, as well as giving a mini-explainer about the organisation. Beyond his current research on the application of Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) and the roles of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Alaa also shows up on social media with his limited free time. He tries to bring as many people on board as possible to tackle climate change by communicating scientific messages in a clear and accessible way, as he believes ‘social consensus building is as key as scientific consensus building.’

Dr. Alaa Al Khourdajie is a Research Fellow at the Centre of Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. He was a Senior Scientist and Contributing Author in the Working Group III of IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is also a lead author at the UNEP 7th Global Environmental Outlook assessment and a guest researcher at the International Institute of Applied System Analysis in Austria, University of Utrecht and the Netherland Environmental Assessment Agency.

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.

Greensider: Would you mind giving us a short introduction to what the IPCC does? What is the Working Group III?

Alaa: The IPCC, as you said, is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was founded over 30 years ago. Its primary role is to undertake a scientific assessment of the latest literature on science on climate change. It’s a key policy-science interface that engages very closely, not only with scientists, but also with policymakers in understanding and assessing this latest science in this area.

The structure of the IPCC is split into three working groups: Working Group I, II and III. Each of these working groups focus on a specific area. Working Group I focuses on the physical science, trying to understand the carbon cycle and the climate system. Working Group II focuses on impact adaptation and vulnerabilities. Based on the changes in the climate system that are assessed in Working Group I, Working Group II looks at how these changes impact us, what changes we are vulnerable to, what changes we can adapt to and under what conditions. Working Group III is about climate change mitigation where I worked over the past few years. What the group tries to do is, if we want to stabilise warming to 1.5 degree by the end of the century, what we need to do in each of these separate sectors, such as building, transport, energy and so on. It's been more or less like this throughout its work.

As I said, the IPCC was founded more than 30 years ago. It works in assessment cycles. During each cycle, each one of these working groups produces a major report. Sometimes we also produce special reports. For instance, there was a report on renewable energy, one on CCS (Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage), one on extremes. Most recently, in this latest Sixth Assessment Cycle (AR6), there was a report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, which is a very popular report given it's closely aligned to the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is how the IPCC is structured and how it works over time.

We’ve finished the AR6 and we’re starting the AR7. The elections of the Bureau and the Chair of the IPCC took place about two months ago. Now they're setting up the scene for the next assessment cycle, which will take a few years to run. The average assessment cycle takes about four to six years.

It's really important to understand two things. IPCC does an assessment of the literature. It does not review the literature only - but you've got a large number of experts; for instance, in AR6, we've got about 800 experts - not only reviewing the literature, but also assessing it in the sense where the consensus is and what the robustness of these scientific findings are that we can feed into to policymakers and the public. That's the first aspect.

The second aspect. It's a policy-science interface. While the assessment process is purely scientific and the production of the report also reflects the latest scientific findings, in each report there is a small document called Summary for Policymakers. In this Summary for Policymakers, we elevate the key messages that come out of the report. For instance, the Working Group III report is over 2000 pages. It's summarised for around 60 pages. So we elevate the key messages and the key findings that we would like the policymakers to know about. Then we negotiate - we go into an approval session where these key messages are discussed with policymakers line by line, and word by word.

But that doesn't mean the scientific integrity of these key messages are undermined. It's rather ensuring this document, which is for policymakers, is understood and accessible by policymakers, focuses on the topics that are most relevant to them and reflect all the other aspects that they would like to know about. So it's a scientific production process. It's an assessment. It's also a close interaction with policymakers.

Once policymakers approve these Summary for Policymakers and accept the underlying reports, it means that they are bound by these scientific findings in international negotiations, such as the Conference of Parties that takes place more or less late November every year. There is also a process called Global Stocktake, which reflects what countries around the world are pledging to do on climate change. Part of this Global Stocktake process is: okay, this is what we're doing, or this is what we're pledging to do. How does that measure against science? The measurement against the science comes from the IPCC. Knowing that the IPCC reports have been approved by governments, it means that it already has this strong weight into this process. I think that's a fair overview of the IPCC.

Greensider: How was your experience working at the Technical Support Unit (TSU) in the Working Group III and as a contributing author to the report?

Alaa: Inherently the IPCC has three working groups, which was the case for most of the time. To facilitate the work of the working group and the authors, there is a TSU. The key role of the TSU is basically to drive the entire process forwards. For instance, ensuring consistent assessment across all chapters on the scientific side, ensuring that we stick into the timeline, and facilitating the process of external reviews. Each report gets drafted multiple times throughout the cycle, and each draft of the reports goes out for review by experts and policymakers - so we facilitate this process. The TSU takes a very integral role in the production of these reports in pulling things together and supporting the lead authors of the report itself.

As for my personal experience, I joined the TSU of the Working Group III about four years ago. I was part of the science team, and I was primarily focused on topics that were closest to my expertise and skill set. I was looking mostly into the contribution of long-term climate mitigation pathways. These are the pathways and the scenarios that tell us if we continue to do what we're doing now, what's the likely level of warming by the end of the century; or if we do something different, or what we need to do to stabilise warming at 1.5 degrees. This line of evidence is based on one of the tools called Integrated Assessment Modelling (IAM).

Of course, an integral part of that course is the limitation of IAM. This methodology informs a very important decision that we undertake in terms of mitigation, such as the timing of net zero and what we need to do in the short, mid and long term to limit warming to 1.5 or two degrees. Therefore, understanding these limitations and the fact that they cannot capture all aspects of the different sectors in a granular detail is a very important part to understand the policy advice that they provide.

This is my area of focus, and this is where I was working closely with the authors. The way that the authors’ structure is split is that each chapter in the report has two leads called coordinating lead authors. There are lead authors as well that produce a chapter. These are all nominated by governments and approved by the IPCC Bureau.

But you may become a contributing author if you support and contribute sufficiently to a specific chapter or chapters. This is how I became a contributing author by supporting the work of the long-term mitigation pathways. I also worked in a bunch of other chapters.

The experience has been really great, very insightful. I learnt a lot. It’s an absolute honour to be part of the process and to contribute to the report. You can learn a lot from the process. The assessment of the literature is really not an easy process, but a very complex one.

Also being part of the TSU meant that you'd also be part of the negotiation of the summary for policymakers, which is, I'm trying to use my words carefully here, a very extensive process. The fact that you were sitting with over 190 government delegations in a big auditorium, reviewing the summary line by line and making sure that any changes to the text are faithful to the underlying science, is very important. There is a responsibility for the delegates, who are called the IPCC Focal Points, to make sure this text is accessible to their policymakers. But also there is responsibility for these scientists, the lead authors and the support team from the TSU to ensure that any changes remain faithful to the underlying science.

The negotiations can last for one to two weeks. During COVID, we did these negotiations online, which was for two weeks. Toward the end of that period, you ended up having sleeping rotas because it got to 24 hours nonstop. In my experience, I had one in-person approval session for the synthesis report recently in April which lasted for a week, but was equally intense. It's a great experience on the science side, but also on the policy-science interface.

Greensider: That sounds really intense on the physical and your psychology as well.

Alaa: It was actually a very intense process. Your life turns into one thing, which is the IPCC production, especially in the peak periods.

Greensider: But maybe we'll get to that part later in one of the following questions. So before joining the IPCC, what did you do and how did you get to work with them?

Alaa: I'm gonna go back as far as my PhD. About 13 years ago, I did my Master's in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics because I was very much interested in and focusing on climate change. I was fortunate to do that at the University of Birmingham. Then I worked a little bit with the private sector, and bounced back again into academia.

I did my PhD in climate change economics, more specifically applied game theory to climate change cooperation. It's not economics in the standard sense of macroeconomics per se. At that point, I was also looking into how we can get into a more granular level of modelling beyond game theory, to better understand the trade-offs, the synergies, opportunities within the different sectors and the interlinked systems related to the transition.

Then I moved to Edinburgh to do a teaching fellowship in Climate Change Economics and Environmental Economics. I was mostly focused on that during my time there. If my former students recall, I geared my courses, when they got into the advanced stage, towards focusing on IAM, because this is an interesting area of research where you're trying to understand the complexity of the energy, climate, land, and other sectors and how they interlink together in relation to decarbonization. So this was how I geared towards IAM, which is related to the work of WG III. This is not the only line of evidence at WGIII, but one of the main lines of evidence.

The job with the TSU came out. I was fortunate enough to have the skill set that matches what the job required, which is someone who has some background in this area. I applied for the job and I got a job. My boss, Jim Skea, who's now the Chair of the IPCC, also has an interest in someone who focuses on this area. So this is how I ended up working with IPCC.

Greensider: Did you need to do interviews with them when you applied for the job?

Alaa: Yes, there are interviews and presentations. You really needed to reflect on the science-policy interface aspect of it, which is something I was not taught before. There are so many nuances and so much more complexity than just producing a report or producing a paper.

Greensider: Did they mention how intense the job was gonna be?

Alaa: I don’t think you can prepare for the level of the intensity. It got more intense due to COVID, and obviously no one knew. There were six months or even longer before we even heard about a thing called COVID. At least those outside that field, like myself, had never heard about it before.

The job in its own right is very intense, but I don't think you can reflect how intense it is all the time. It also relies on multiple factors when it comes to the negotiation and to the time that we're living in. For instance, now we're seeing a lot more climate impacts. I suspect this will somehow feed into the processes and the negotiation process for the next IPCC report AR7. There are dynamics beyond the day-to-day work that's outside your control. One of which during my time was COVID.

But it's addictive in a way. So now - I know we'll talk about my current work - my current work seems a lot more mild than before, and sometimes I miss that one.

Greensider: So let's talk about what you are currently working on since the AR6 has finished.

Alaa: The WG III published its AR6 contribution on April, 2022. As you said, I'm a research fellow at Imperial College, so I tried to pick up my research agenda because it was almost impossible to focus on that during the assessment being part of the TSU.

I visited the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) in Austria to work using their IAM in relation to the financial sector transition. I've also been involved in various papers related to understanding the role of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), for instance how we can analyse these large databases that the IPCC assess to understand the transition or the mitigation side of climate change. So for example, the process of this database collection and production, the underlying scenarios that are collected for the database, the production of the insights and the tools that we can use to produce more robust findings from that database.

Most recently this summer - so that's a year later - I visited the University of Utrecht and the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency, where we looked at how we can use tools like machine learning and AI to help us assess, understand and extract insights from these large databases.

I primarily focus on research now since the IPCC assessment finished. Mostly in the area of IAM, but also in the area of how we can extract useful and meaningful insights from these large databases, not only by looking at the underlying processes that produce these databases, but also looking at advanced tools with AI. So principle component analysis for instance and machine learning tools that could help us extract insights from there. So that's the sphere I'm in at the moment.

Greensider: It's good to hear that AI is actually being put in actual work, not just chatting with people or playing chess, those kinds of leisure activities that humans actually wanna do.

But from a career perspective, was your experience with the IPCC helpful with your later projects?

Alaa: Absolutely. My professional network has blown up beyond belief for someone who finished their PhD three years before joining the TSU. I'm very fortunate and honoured to work with one of the leading scientists around the world. There is hardly a continent within which I don't work with someone, which is tricky in organising meeting times, but otherwise, it's such a fortunate thing. And also it expanded my horizon in terms of getting closer to the integrated system modelling community. But also, I worked very closely with WG I which focuses on the physical science and how we can use their simple climate models, climate emulators which are physical models focusing on the physics only. How can we use these models to assess the mitigation or the warming impact of mitigation scenarios?

I was very fortunate to learn a lot about the physical science of climate change through this process. In fact, I ended up recently publishing a paper with one of the leads on these simple climate models where we couple physical processes with economic processes and understanding uncertainty of climate change. So it's expanded my knowledge and expertise horizon. It expanded my professional network. It’s certainly helpful in that sense.

It is not helpful in the sense that personally I got addicted to the intensity, which I can't match at the moment with any other job. So let's see how that works. Although that's better for my personal life as people around me tell me.

I ended up as part of another international assessment called Global Environmental Outlook where we don't only look at climate change, but we also look at land degradation and air pollution and material waste. I brought in my expertise of being part of an intergovernmental assessment and experience in working with diverse teams and perspectives. Because when you look at the mitigation reports of the IPCC, there are not only these global top-down methodologies, but also bottom-up perspectives for sectoral modelling and sustainable development goals. You have behavioural scientists and all sorts of interdisciplinary scientists working on these reports. So one of the key skills here is to actually know how to speak to each other as part of this process for a good assessment.

Greensider: What I learned from what you just said is maybe not just with researchers, like with all kinds of jobs, it's very important, especially for in the early career stage, to expand your network and grab the opportunities whenever you can to, to learn, to, to study. 'cause What you learn at school is never enough to go into the real world to work.

Alaa: Absolutely. Your network is key. Your connections and network are key for you to always expand your horizon and continue to do interesting work.

Greensider: Especially for people who want to change their career into green jobs, if it's a completely new field, then I guess these two things that they need to work on: networking and knowledge.

Alaa: Absolutely. If I may jump here, during my undergrad, I did nothing related to climate change or the environment. I did economics and business in Syria, Damascus, where I'm from. And I did it online with Greenwich University in London.

Towards the end of my undergrad, I read an article in the Economist about climate change, and it really hit me. It was like, okay, I would like to do something about that. So I geared my last few courses towards just focusing all my projects on climate change. I did my dissertation in a climate change related area and focused all my efforts on that front. Things got rolling from there.

Greensider: So is that what inspired you to work on that climate change, I guess?

Alaa: Yeah. I don't recall the article in The Economist. It was insightful enough for me to realise this is an issue that I would like to dedicate my time and career to. In that sense, it gave me that motivation.

Greensider: Did you always think that you wanna be in academia to work on climate change? Or did you have other thoughts, but choose academia eventually?

Alaa: Before I focused on this, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. When I started focusing on climate change, I thought, at least I know one piece of the puzzle, which is climate change. Then when I did my master’s and worked in the private sector back to back, I got the other piece of the puzzle, which is I wanna work in research.

And then as I progressed from teaching to working with the IPCC, I got a third piece of the puzzle. I'm just coming up with this analogy as we speak. A third piece of the puzzle is that I would like to understand the interlinkages between the socioeconomic future developments, but also with the physical science. Part of the puzzle is the limitations of integrated assessment modelling. Maybe one day I'll expand the puzzle and add one more piece related to a different methodology that brings in a different line of evidence that captures aspects that IAMs are unable to capture. And now most recently with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In some sense, it's a discovery journey that keeps growing. Sometimes I feel like I should just calm down and focus on one area, which would make things easier. But I wouldn't say I'm focusing on multiple areas because there are a lot of interlinkages, but I keep expanding my horizon all the time which means that the learning never stops. Sometimes I feel stupid, like why am I doing this again? That’s a recurring feeling. But it's growing at least in my head. It's something I keep expanding to. So far, I never shied away from embarking on a new area. Circumstances in my life and my personal life have allowed me to continue to do that, which is extremely fortunate.

Greensider: I suppose this is what many philosophers mentioned about knowing yourself. Through a better understanding of yourself, you can better contribute to issues that you care about. It's important, I believe.

Alaa: That's right. It's indeed very important. It's self-empowerment in the sense that, okay, this is what I can do, the most interesting things. This is what I continue to be passionate about. This is what I continue to have fire behind me to keep going forward. It's fortunate to be able to discover these things all the time and keep going forward. I never knew that I would go into a PhD, but I found my tribe in research and among scientists who work on different things and who all work on entirely things that are not close to what I learned. And it was, oh, God, I need to sit down with a pen and paper again, and take notes and learn and to be able to contribute to this piece of work, which is extremely useful.

Greensider: Now, let's talk about something that's not part of your job, about your presence on social media. To quote from the New York Times, ‘you are one of some scientists who are not faceless of loof terrible communicators, and absent from social media’. Why do you do it?

Alaa: I think it's important to join different platforms and forums to try to communicate the key messages from science, but also communicate them in an accessible way that contributes to ongoing debates where you bring insights from the science. Here, I'm not talking about just copy paste from a research paper, dry language that only scientists in this specific field will understand. No, try to act as an intermediary and translator to help communicate this message in a clear and accessible way. Climate change requires individual and system change to deal with the problem. Every single person, every single sector and every single country needs to be brought on board to deal with that.

In a sense, I'm one of the many people out there. There are so many other people who are much better than me in doing this. You can see sometimes, a bunch of scientists pickering with each other on Twitter or X try to debate things. But you also see people contributing to discussions with the people who work in the media or individuals who work in influential organisations or just, you know, anyone really.

So the New York Times, that was Global Environmental Day (Earth Day) two, three years ago. They published a list of ten climate scientists, and I was extremely fortunate to be one of them because those guys are big. So they published a list and they were talking about climate change. One of the things is access to people who work in the area. They put a list out there, and I was one of these people. It was in the afternoon in the UK. I kept getting followed by more and more people from the US. I had no idea what's going on until someone retweeted and tagged me from those ten. I was like, okay, gobsmacked. So that was hilarious and overwhelming.

It's actually funny enough some of these people visit London every once in a while, so Ihang out with them sometimes when they visit. We go for a beer or for a meal. Thanks New York Times for linking us together. But yeah, it's important to be active on many platforms to help communicate the message.

Greensider: I think if you care about a certain topic, you put your message out there, somebody's gonna read it. To quote the example of yourself, you came to research on climate change because of an article in The Economist. So who knows who’s going to read this message and get inspired.

But getting on social media probably puts you under extra pressure, with criticism and misinformation.  How do you find resilience through all of these?

Alaa: It's very easy to ignore all that and hide away and continue doing what you're doing. But you're right. It's sometimes like: nope, that's bad science; or that's not in line with the latest assessed science. I think it's a balance of responsibility whenever you see these things and think I can contribute here and help to correct that related to what the underlying science says. It also requires additional energy or, as you said, resilience to deal with the criticism, misinformation, and sometimes being dismissed in what you're trying to say.

It's still very helpful for people who are willing and able to do that, to continue to do so - I put my hand out there. I've been quiet for a while but I’m planning to pick up my level of activity soon.

I think we should all contribute, but as long as we make sure, and I think this is very important, that we are presenting the accurate and correct message. I've seen a lot of well-meaning people who do not present the accurate message, or something that is not coming from a bad place at all. But it's part of the debate and it's always part of like, okay, in fact, it's not like this, it's like that and explain why. And here, there is the other's perspective. Hopefully that would lead to a social consensus building, which is beyond what the IPCC is trying to do. I just came up with this analogy now, so there you go. Social consensus building is as key as scientific consensus building.

Greensider: Well said! I used to feel that going on social media, what if I say something stupid or if I get trolls? Not that I get that many followers to get trolls.

Alaa: Trolls aside, (when dealing with) people who come up with the opposite argument or people who say something not in line with underlying science, it's also an important skill to bring them on board. You can attack and you can say I know the science and you don't know anything. That won't bring them on board. Or you could try to reason, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. And if it doesn't, you did what you can. You can't bring everyone on board.

Greensider: I think we already touched upon this a little bit before about how your work can get very intense. What do you think of your life quality in general as a researcher? Do you think you get the work-life balance?

Alaa: I'd say no, gathering from the inputs of people around me. But actually I do enjoy what I do, which is a problem, because you keep doing it more and more. I do get tired, but I wouldn't mind working on a weekend, which is just not the healthiest. So work-life balance, I'd say it's more geared toward work. For quality of life, it depends. I would find that I really enjoy the intellectual process of what I'm doing. That helps with the quality of life aspect for me. In a way, the people I work with and I connect with through the IPCC process and beyond, are people I like to hang out with, even if we're talking about work.

Recently there was a meeting in London about the next assessment cycle AR7. I hung out with a lot of people who work in this area. We had a wonderful time in the pub, even though we were talking about work most of the time. I think it's a very subjective thing for the quality of life and the level of work being part of your life. Even then, I think I do a lot more work than an average person should. The work forces that upon me sometimes it gets too intense even for me. But there is also a pull factor. There is a push factor from the work side, but there is a pull factor for me, which I should recognize as well.

Greensider: Well, I suppose as long as you enjoy what you are doing. I mean, I enjoy swimming, but you can't call it work.

Alaa: I do enjoy going to the gym almost every day. I do exercises a lot. I do enjoy hanging out with my partner all the time as well, not as much as I should be doing. But she's generous enough to let me get away with some more work. I do like theatre, movies and music, but I don't do them as much as I used to do before.

Greensider: We only have 24 hours. Before we wrap up, Greensider recently launched a community book club. We encourage people to read books about sustainability, but not necessarily. It can be a book, for example, about human nature where we can learn how to communicate our messages about climate change better to people on social media. So would you have any recommendations for us?

Alaa: Again, this reflects the fact that work is dominating my life… I could recommend two that are work related and two that are not, or they're indirectly work related. Let's put them that way.

I think the Climate Book, which was created by Greta Thunberg. It came out about two years ago. It's a really good collection of articles from top scientists that work on the physical science, on the impact and on the adaptation and mitigation. This is a really nice book for anyone who would like to understand the different aspects of climate change science and in all its different fields. So that's one book.

Another book, or not a book, actually the IPCC. One thing that not a lot of people are aware of is that each IPCC report has a, what we call Technical Summary. Technical Summary is an expanded summary of all chapters, about 120, 150 pages that brings out the most key technical or not necessarily technical, but you know, most contributions and messages from the report that hasn't undergone a negotiation line by line negotiation discussion. It has more material and very useful insight. If anyone would ask me tomorrow, I want to work on climate change mitigation, I'd be like, just pick up the Technical Summary of the WGIII report and read it. Or if you wanna do adaptation, do the same for WG II. Or if you do physical science, do the same for WG I.

These are two books that are work related. For the other two that I'm reading at the moment, one of them is the Age of AI. It’s really a useful book to understand how the current chatbots and large language models came about and how they work, how they're trained. I generally think that everyone needs to expand their horizon on understanding this new trend in technology and how it's created and how it might affect work and how we can integrate it in a very useful and meaningful way in our daily life.

Another book related to communication and that's the last book, which came out very recently. It’s the Art of Explanation by a BBC journalist called Ros Atkins. I haven't read it fully yet. I'm just kind of browsing and I started reading it. But it's a wonderful book. It tries to decompose in such a way: you have a message, you would like to communicate it, how do you communicate this message and explain it in a very useful and accessible way. I really think anyone who works in climate change and beyond should give this book a go. It's a really nice guide to communication and explanation. There you go. These are four books.

Greensider: Thank you very much. We are currently reading the Ministry for the Future. Have you heard of it?

Alaa: Excellent. I have more bleak books, but I'm not gonna mention them.

Greensider: I am reading it as well. It's very engaging for me because I was also in Switzerland a few weeks ago. The fact that it told me so much about Switzerland, not just climate change, is uncanny for me. Thank you very much for sharing your insights and your thoughts.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the mentioned organisations. Greensider Foundation does not accept sponsorship for the production of this content. The above interview transcript has been edited.