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Postgraduate Study

A world of extreme weather solutions

With the increase in natural disasters, climate change degrees are in hot demand. By Stephen Hoare

The tsunami that sparked a meltdown in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant demonstrated the threat posed by natural disasters to the world’s developed economies.

Once considered rare events, catastrophic floods, tornadoes and forest fires are a symptom of climate volatility, much of which – Japan’s tsunami excepted – can be attributed to man-made global warming.

Damage caused by these freak catastrophes adds up to many billions of pounds; they destroy lives, devastate economies and lead to corporate bankruptcies and huge insurance payouts.

Little wonder Masters degrees in climate change are attracting serious attention. “In the early 2000s I was knocking on doors in the City of London saying, ‘You’ve got to take climate change seriously’,” says Professor Stephan Harrison leader of Exeter University’s MSc in climate change and risk management. Lloyd’s of London now sponsors a PhD in climate change at Exeter, and insurance companies regularly send experts to lecture MSc students on risk management and actuarial calculations.

Based in Exeter, the Met Office – another influential partner – is helping the university design a new suite of Masters programmes to run from 2012 and be taught by a mix of Met Office and university faculty. These programmes embrace not just science but politics, economics and social policy.

Exeter has two Masters degrees in climate change. Besides Professor Harrison’s MSc, an MA in climate change has been running for two years that, together with a new research centre, the Environmental Sustainability Institute, is run from the university’s Penrhyn campus near Falmouth.

Exeter is one of the top five most respected research-based postgraduate institutions specialising in climate change in the United Kingdom. The other front-runners are UEA, Oxford, Leeds and UCL. Professor Harrison describes himself as a paleoclimatologist.

He studies geological strata and sedimentary rock formation for evidence of past climate change.

That evidence is sometimes shocking, such as the tsunami that hit the east coast of Britain 8,000 years ago when it was still joined to continental Europe by a land corridor. “We call it the Storegga Slide,” says Harrison. “Melting glaciers caused a submarine landslide of sedimentary deposits off the Norwegian coast, sending an 11m wave crashing into Britain, Iceland, Greenland and North America.”

The nuclear power plants that are now being considered for the UK may not face tsunamis, but construction plans need to take into account the effect of rising sea levels and the fact that the south-east of England is slowly tilting towards the sea.

So, back to the risk assessment. Exeter postgraduate students are mainly destined for jobs as specialist risk managers working for big insurance companies, or as environmental consultants working for government agencies or private practices. Recent graduates come to Exeter from geography or humanities degrees, and half of the student cohort of 20 are early career professionals working for local authorities, banks or insurance companies.

Exeter’s MSc is split into three parts: in the first term, students are taught theory, including understanding the methodology and statistics of the carbon cycle, flood risk and global weather patterns such as the North Atlantic oscillation and the Gulf Stream. Term two focuses on risk management and how the insurance industry and private companies are addressing climate change through impact assessments.

The third term is devoted to student dissertations. Ian Cable, 30, is doing his on how sea defences and biodiversity will be affected by climate change and has been studying local harbour works near the university.

The Masters is a chance to move up the career ladder in a specialised field: “When companies undertake a major building project such as a new factory they must do due diligence, in which the effect of climate change is now an acknowledged risk,” explains Harrison.

This involves researching the likely effect of extreme weather – the causes and frequency of flooding, for example – and then designing measures to mitigate the effect.

With a first degree in geology, Cable used to work for the Environment Agency as a facilities manager before applying to Exeter. “I applied there because it offered a career-specific discipline that isn’t widely available. Most related Masters degrees are about sustainable development or sustainable energy. I think there are better employment prospects from this course.”

Cable likes the focus of the taught Masters and has come to realise that the phenomenon of climate change is unlikely to be affected by short-term policies such as eco-taxes or carbon trading. “Climate change is driven primarily by carbon dioxide related solely to the generation of energy. Climate change isn’t an environmental issue, it’s an energy issue,” says Cable.

Luci Isaacson came to the MSc programme from a first degree in geography, also at Exeter. She plans to set up a risk management consultancy with two other students from the course. “The need to reduce your carbon footprint is well established nowadays. I’m writing a dissertation on what organisations and charities can do to inspire people to cut their use of energy and prepare for a new way of living. I’m looking at ways of persuading people that even small changes in behaviour can make a big difference,” she says.

There’s a lot that governments and private companies can do to reduce energy consumption and protect themselves from the impact of climate change. The insurance industry is starting to incentivise clients to conduct risk assessments of climate change by offering reduced premiums if they can prove they are managing risk. “It’s not just the reputational risk from failing to plan for a climate-related disaster, there’s also the potential for litigation,” says Harrison, possibly thinking of Heathrow’s five-day closure due to unanticipated heavy snow last winter and the ensuing travel chaos.

Harrison warns that governments have been slow to respond. “The rise of global temperatures is unprecedented: the rate of increase over the past century would normally have taken place over tens of thousands of years.

We have carbon dioxide levels this earth has not seen for at least 700,000 years; there’s absolutely no doubt man’s activities are to blame,” he says.