Deborah Bronnert

As part of its Science in Public Life programme, the Royal Society hosted a discussion between senior UK diplomats and Fellows and other scientists to discuss ways to respond to extreme weather.  

We are sharing the in-house blog Foreign & Commonwealth Office Director General, Deborah Bronnert, published to staff across the UK’s global diplomatic network, raising awareness of weather and climate issues, and of science in general.

Talking about the weather

Last month, several senior colleagues and I were privileged to dine at the Royal Society, the UK and Commonwealth’s scientific academy, formed in 1660, once led by diarist and top civil servant Samuel Pepys, boasting Newton, Wren, Darwin, Einstein and Hawking among former members and with around 80 Nobel Laureates in its ranks today. We talked about the weather!  To be more precise, we talked about extreme weather and diplomacy.

We will be confronting many more weather issues in future.  Hurricane season in the Caribbean is already big for the Foreign Office. The UK has responsibility for ensuring security and safety for inhabitants of the Overseas Territories and we provide information and support to British Nationals elsewhere in the Caribbean. We spend significant resources on preparedness and both this year and last went into crisis mode to respond to hurricanes. Hurricane Irma saw 80 of us plus over 2,000 military, aid, police and prison officers deployed to the region. For the Caribbean the economic impact can be vast: Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $1.3 bn in damages to Dominica, around 225% of its annual GDP.

Climate change is driving more frequent and more extreme weather. Beyond the Caribbean it is poorer parts of the world, particularly weak and failing states, that are most dramatically affected. We can expect increased drought, food and water crises, mass migration, conflict and other threats, making it much harder to achieve our foreign and security policy goals, and the global Sustainable Development Goals.  October’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on 1.5 degrees warming revealed the scale of the problem.

Science will never give us 100% foresight of the landfall of any particular hurricane but predictive modelling of near term and seasonal weather events has advanced hugely, as has the engineering which can help mitigate some impacts. This hard scientific expertise is vital and we learned that  the softer sciences and humanities need closer weaving into the frame to help us understand why and when people and governments do, don’t or can’t  take action to  prepare, adapt, evacuate, re-build better or transition to low carbon. Better understanding of behavioural and cultural dimensions can also help us decide where to focus resource as we seek to galvanise global action, including at the UN Climate Summit in September 2019 where the UK will lead work on resilience.

Naval administrator Pepys understood the importance of science writ large and strove to grasp its many avenues, once ruefully lamenting ‘I do lacke philosophy enough to understand’. Today we need to strive. The UK’s broad science community with its global network must be a core part of a collective effort to tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities of our age.   It’s a fantastic resource for us and we all need to consider how scientific advice can contribute to policy making and implementation.