Leading climate change scientist: ‘We are in the driver’s seat’


Fresh from being named on Forbes’ 30 under 30 Europe list, VUB scientist Wim Thiery is optimistic that if we all take the right steps now, we can do something about climate change

Decision time

Super-storms, rising sea levels, disastrous flooding: They’re all on the cards and regularly seized on by the media as examples of the doom-and-gloom scenarios we can expect as global temperatures continue their steady rise. But climate scientist Wim Thiery is optimistic: It’s not too late for us all to do something about it.

“What I think is key to emphasise is that we have a choice. What we emit will determine how much the world is going to warm up,” says Thiery (pictured), who works for the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and was recently named one of Europe’s “top 30 under 30” by Forbes magazine, for his pioneering work on climate-change modelling.

“As a society, we need to set ourselves targets and decide which road we want to take,” he continues. “How we will organise our economies, for example, is important. I wouldn’t say everything is lost. I would say that we are in the driver’s seat. We are choosing, and to choose not to do anything is also a choice.”

Thiery’s rise to global recognition is thanks to his work on the human effects on climate change, notably the use of irrigation. His work has focused on climate change in the region of Lake Victoria in East Africa, using a modelling system that he operates on a supercomputer. More recently, he has used this in a global approach.

It’s a choice

For Belgium, for example, there will be no escape from the effects of climate change. “What I can tell you is that there will be consequences,” he says. “There will be a rise in sea levels. It might be a bit of a rise or a bigger rise. We will see more intense precipitation in the summer, like the thunderstorms you often see after a hot, sunny day. There will be a higher flood risk and a loss of biodiversity.”

But Thiery is keen to emphasise again that it’s a choice humans have to make. “It’s very important that when we make projections about climate change, we understand that they depend on CO2 emissions.”

Even so, he adds that even if were to stop all the cars in the world and the factories chugging out greenhouse gases today, “we will still have some rise in sea levels”.

As an individual, you can make a difference. Look at how you live yourself. Your consumption of meat. How you transport your family

- Wim Thiery

Speaking shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump – famed for his climate change scepticism – as US president, Thiery doesn’t want to comment on any one politician, but says that climate change is a global problem, requiring a global solution. “It’s very important that everyone collaborates.”

And the climate sceptics? “The arguments climate sceptics use can be easily rebutted.”

But it’s not just politicians who he wants to call to arms. “If we are going to combat the consequences of climate change, all actors in society need to take measures: politicians, companies and individuals. As an individual, you can make a difference. Look at how you live yourself. Your consumption of meat. How you transport your family.”

Another way citizens can take action is to persuade organisations – their employer or university, for example – to divest their interests in fossil fuel producers. The universities of Leuven and Ghent are starting to follow in the footsteps of Harvard and Oxford in doing this. 

Close to home

“You can question where you work. Ask ‘are we making investments in these unsustainable energies?’ Divesting stocks in these industries is a powerful signal that if we want to do research into sustainability, then we do not sustain the oil industry,” says Thiery.

While he works on his own diet and transport – avoiding air travel where possible, for example – Thiery is now planning to further his research on irrigation, notably how some of the world’s 45,000 manmade dams are affecting hydrological cycle. “Most of these were built during the 20th century and are changing the redistribution and flow of water. We want to check if they also influence the local climate.”

As for the recognition from Forbes, Thiery says: “I don’t care so much personally. For me, it’s a way to get a message across. Many scientists are trying to communicate about climate change, and I hope that this recognition brings some attention to climate science and helps take our message to society.”

And what is that message? “We have a choice.”