Q&A: Mark Symes + Ilan Gur – managing our climate and weather through responsible engineering
Programme Director Mark Symes has defined his opportunity space: ‘managing our climate and weather through responsible engineering’. He sits down with ARIA CEO Ilan Gur to dig into why, in parallel with a critical global drive to net zero, we see it as imperative to better understand the science behind active climate intervention.
Your opportunity space sets out how exploring a new scientific framework for responsible climate management could help us prepare for and prevent future disasters. Can you talk us through how you got here?
Mark: I originally applied to ARIA to do a programme in robotics, but my approach changed after catching a flight back up to Scotland shortly before I started. It was a hot summer’s day and the plane was sitting on the tarmac dumping out fumes. I looked out the window, saw the engine, the fumes and the heat haze gathering behind and I thought, “if the job of ARIA is to create new capabilities for humanity, there is nothing more important than preventing the worst effects of climate change.”
I went home thinking about the world heating up by 2-3 °C by the end of the century, and what we could do to fix that. We can pull carbon dioxide (CO₂) out of the atmosphere but it’s going to take many years to build that capacity at scale. What if we don’t have that kind of time? Are there technologies that could allow us to intervene in the shorter term, both to avoid catastrophic tipping points and to mitigate against extreme weather events like floods or hurricanes, which are only getting worse as global temperatures rise?
Where does this work sit in relation to global efforts on decarbonisation?
Mark: The drive to net zero is imperative. I’ve spent the last 15 years developing sustainable fuels and I still focus on clean hydrogen in my university research. But even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow and no more CO₂ from human activity entered the atmosphere, the world would continue to warm due to the CO₂ that is already in the atmosphere. As a consequence, things like the melting of large ice sheets or significant rises in sea levels are not out of the question. Even if the chances of such events are small, we have a moral imperative to understand how they could be prevented.
Ilan: Decarbonisation is the most important action to address climate change. Full stop. Thanks to herculean efforts by scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, activists, governments, and many others, enormous progress has been made; a viable path to decarbonisation is far clearer than it was when I started working on climate innovation 20 years ago. We now have a global imperative to mature and scale net zero technologies massively and equitably. But as we look at the science, and consider what remains sorely uncertain and underexplored relative to its importance, understanding how we might responsibly and directly manage our weather and climate sits at the top of the list.
Why is this the right opportunity space for ARIA?
Ilan: This space fits squarely within our mandate to develop technological options that are currently intractable but could transformatively benefit society. There was a time when meteorology was poorly understood from a scientific perspective. Thanks to advances in research, we can now predict with some accuracy that a storm is in development, and map scenarios of how it might unfold and who will be affected. Without question, science and technology can reduce our uncertainty further, offering not only more confident predictions of weather and climate, but an understanding of how we might responsibly intervene to prevent suffering, economic damage, and loss of life. Given the risks of climate change, one could argue there are few things more important than reducing that uncertainty.
We should also recognise that the technological ability and desire to intervene in climate and weather systems is increasing across the globe. There is the risk that climate engineering experiments will be carried out, but without the fundamental science to underpin them. The UK is uniquely positioned to advance our understanding of these approaches, towards a framework for approaching their development and use responsibly.
What engagement have you done to inform this opportunity space?
Mark: We want to open a dialogue with different stakeholders across this field. So far, we’ve engaged scientists, engineers and technologists, covering everything from maths, climate modelling, physics, chemistry, and engineering – both chemical and civil. We’ve also spoken with social scientists, ecologists, people who look at how the public perceives these issues, and at how science policy comes into being, as well as charities, research organisations, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs.
Ilan: Exploring capabilities that seem impossible today but may be critical in the future is a big part of our job. It also means not everyone is going to agree on how to proceed. That’s why it’s so important for us to shape these opportunity spaces in public and invite feedback from engineers and social scientists alike. We will take that feedback and share how it’s informed our approach and methodologies as we develop the thesis for what a funding programme should look like.
How are you thinking about the ethical risks of this technology, and ensuring you’re developing solutions in a responsible manner?
Mark: As well as the deep consultation with experts focused on social science and ethics to date, should this evolve into a programme, one of my priorities would be to include social science expertise in all funded project teams to ensure that questions of ethics and governance are baked in from the start.
How should people engage with you, and is there a particular group of people you want to hear from?
Mark: Read my opportunity space document on the ARIA website here – there’s a space for you to upload comments and feedback. All feedback is valuable, but I’d particularly love to hear from scientists and engineers who have ideas for how we might intervene responsibly in climate and weather systems, and who can outline the main research questions that need to be answered to properly evaluate their ideas.
What does success look like?
Ilan: Success is all about reducing risk and uncertainty. Our hope is that through this research, we can equip policymakers and society with a better understanding of the potential impacts of climate and weather interventions, allowing them to make more informed decisions in the future about if and how these are developed and implemented.