This article was originally published by the University of East Anglia.
Pictured above: Asher Minns, Executive Director of UEA’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who will be at the heart of the action as public engagement lead for all UK universities at COP 26 in Glasgow.
Climate change science wasn’t the original career choice for Asher Minns. He left school at 15 and qualified and worked as a radar engineer for five years. He spent time on a kibbutz in Israel and travelled around the Middle East before deciding that a career in music might be his thing instead. But it wasn’t to be.
“I applied for music and entertainment management, but I didn’t get in. It probably would have helped if I had played an instrument. Conservation management was my second choice,” he says.
“As part of my Kibbutz work I learnt a lot about farming, crops, irrigation systems, and how water, or lack of it, is so critical to our planet and livelihoods. It made me think and reflect.
“Back then, it was all about the rainforests and how to protect them. Nobody was talking very much about climate change, it was still very academic, and fairly unknown, but interest was emerging. Personally I wasn’t thinking about my habits then either. I’m an engineer at heart. From the 1980s and 90s, I built powerful motorbikes and cruised around in vintage cars.”
Today he has renewable electric, rides a cargo bike, uses ethical banks, invests in wind and solar cooperatives, and has “greened” his pension.
Ecology was a good decision. After gaining a degree at Royal Holloway University of London he got a job with Imperial College’s Silwood Park campus – a leading centre for ecology, evolution and conservation. He worked as a technician on one of the first landmark biodiversity field experiments investigating how plant species affect the productivity of ecosystems.
“As I got more involved in the research, I discovered I wanted to talk to more people about it. It was a case of – if I think this is interesting, everyone else should too.”
So he passed on doing a PhD and becoming a specialist academic and instead did a Master’s in science communication, which enabled him to become the public affairs officer at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.
In 2003 he joined UEA as communications manager for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Today he’s the Executive Director. The Tyndall Centre is the place “that starts where UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) data finishes,” he says.
“CRU does the science observation and the projections. Our focus is – what do we do across all of society about climate change. How do we respond, how do we influence behaviour change and system change, how does society, biodiversity managers, cities and urban infrastructure deal with its effects?”.
Asher has done many COPs in his time. “My first was the Hague in 2000, but I don’t go to the ones that involve flying thousands of miles.” He’s “sort of met” Greta Thunburg, just before she became famous, at the Katowicke COP (Poland) in 2018. “I was waiting to start our UEA press conference and the room was already packed with journalists listening to a young woman. Brilliant I thought this is going to be an excellent press conference. Of course, the press room emptied as soon as Greta finished.”
It’s in this leading position that he volunteered as the public engagement lead for all UK universities at COP 26 this month. He will spend 12 days in the all-important UK Government ‘Green Zone’ at Glasgow’s Science Centre, wearing his blue sky and cloud suit, putting UEA and the Tyndall Centre at the heart of all the action.
But it’s not the climate specialists he’s interested in. It’s the hard to reach audiences that he’s really after. “Yes, we can be in the Guardian and talk to other climate influencers. But I want to get to the people who should be thinking about this stuff, but aren’t. We know the general public are concerned and worried, we know they know climate change is human made, but they don’t know what to do about it. It’s no good creating worry and anxiety without giving people a solution. You can talk about big business or policy makers, but they are also people and in the end it’s about all of us and our values.”
Success at COP, on a basic level, will be the number of people who interact, who are influenced, and start conversations with him on the exhibition stand and follow-up.
“Some of the best conversations are on the public transport to COPs. I’ve connected with many senior people in politics, government, business, research, just by chatting to the person next to me.”
For UEA it will enhance and solidify the university’s reputation as a global leader in this field. “It’s one we rightly deserve,” he says. And globally? “We need to stop burning stinky fossil fuels into the atmosphere. It’s not that complicated.
“People want this, but collectively they don’t know how. It’s about social and policy responses. It’s about incentivising differently and the willingness of politicians, which stems from public support. Ultimately, we have to be hopeful. Most people in the world hope that tomorrow is better than today, even though today was good. Everyone wants a better future. The Tyndall Centre and UEA can help with the how.”