“It’s perfectly possible to remove CO2 from the atmosphere “
Professor Myles Allen is such a powerful advocate for the environment that he was dubbed ‘the physicist behind Net Zero’ by the BBC and is regularly asked for comment on all things related to climate and weather. But Oxford’s Professor for Geosystem Science is a scientist, not an activist – despite more than two decades of work on climate change. And, he says, he was nearly not a scientist at all.
Professor Allen won a place at Oxford to study Physics and Philosophy, although English was his favourite subject at school. But he took the science route 'because it was there’ (as Mallory said about Everest). A self-confessed ‘nerdy teenager’, he smiles, there were no climate-related courses available to him in those days, and he would not have been interested anyway. But, he says, ‘Chris Llewellyn-Smith (one of his undergraduate tutors, and Director of CERN and recently-retired Director of Energy Studies in Oxford) made it very clear to me that I wasn’t clever enough for a career in theoretical or particle physics...’
That appeared to be the end of an academic career. So how did he end up as an internationally-renowned scientist, government adviser, sought-after commentator with a media nickname?
‘It was a roundabout route. After graduation, he went to Kenya to work for the United Nations Environment Programme. At the time, climate change was just emerging as an issue. But the young graduate was much more engaged with his work in East Africa. He says, ‘I was really fortunate to be in Kenya at that time.’
But two interventions sent him back to Oxford – inadvertently onto the climate science path. The first came from his boss in Kenya, who suggested he take a doctorate, for the sake of his UN career. He returned to the university, to join David Anderson’s oceanography group. It was not the easiest transition, ‘it’s hard to get back into Physics after even a couple of years out’. A rainy Oxford, where he returned after just one term, did not compare with East Africa. But a chance encounter, saw him return to his studies.
‘I had gone back to Kenya over the vacation and they wanted me to take my old job back, when some friends and I climbed Mt Kenya. On the way down, we met a very fit, albeit middle-aged man with a stick and a beard. He appeared out of nowhere and asked what we were all doing. He went round the group.
‘When he came to me, I said I was doing a doctorate at Oxford in oceanography. He immediately asked ‘which ocean?’ The Indian. And then, like the scene from Monty Python, he said, "Does your model have a closed or open eastern boundary?" At the time, it was closed, which was clearly the wrong answer. He said it should be open.’
The bearded man turned out to be Stefan Hastenrath, a world expert on tropical climatology on his way to study the retreat of the glaciers of Mount Kenya. So the DPhil student went back to Oxford to fix his model – and has left only briefly in the intervening 30+ years. Initially, he was working on natural, chaotic, climate variability, but over time, the science of human-driven climate change attracted the young postgrad.
‘The physics was understood [in terms of CO2’s potential impact on warming],‘ he says. ‘But when I started in 1989 it was still a prediction. We didn’t see significant warming at that point, for reasons we understand well enough now, but were still obscure back then.’
Within a few years, though, evidence was beginning to emerge and Professor Allen has worked on the scientific problem ever since – hence the Net Zero soubriquet. The key to preventing climate change, is reducing carbon dioxide emissions to net zero, insists Professor Allen. It is a scientific fact he and others established in the late 2000s. And he has been talking about the implications ever since.
Doesn’t he get sick of saying the same thing? (in 2012, he jokingly referred to climate change as ‘so last decade’). Not really, he insists, ‘The debate has moved on. Most people no longer question if climate change is happening.’
But, talking on the hottest day of the year so far, does he get tired of the media asking if every weather event is evidence of climate change.
‘We don’t get as many calls as we used to,’ he smiles. Climate change is not a matter of faith for the Physicist. He is not likely to glue himself to the baking hot road outside – or to anything else. He knows climate change is real, because of the science, and knows as well, for the same reasons, that there are real (and relatively straightforward) solutions to the climate crisis. Professor Allen is very much the Physicist, trying to simplify things, come up with solutions to problems.
‘Some subjects seem to be about making things complicated,’ he laughs. ‘Physics is about making things simple.’
He has clearly adopted this scientific approach in other aspects of life. Professor Allen explains, he and his wife, Professor Irene Tracey, [yes, the future Vice Chancellor] have adopted this methodical approach to work. They agreed at the outset that he would follow her, from Oxford to roles in the US and back again to roles in Oxford - since it is much more difficult to secure experimental research positions (‘she needs a multi-million pound scanner – I just need a desk and a laptop’). Professor Tracey is professor of anaesthetic neuroscience and researches pain. If they were to work in the same town, it made sense for her secure a place, and him to follow.
It also made sense, he says, that he took extended paternity leave when their youngest child Jim was born, since Professor Tracey had just been appointed to take over the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain. At that time, shared parental leave did not exist, ‘but my Head of Department, Roger Davies, was incredibly supportive: still not quite sure how – best not ask!’ He took a year off from work and mostly stayed at home, although, he says, ‘Jim did have to sit through more statistics lectures in his first year than is probably healthy.'
‘It was a really nice year,’ he remembers. He is under no illusions that the novelty of a father taking parental leave in the early 2000s meant there was no damage to his career.
‘In many ways it helped being a bloke, people didn’t think about it…but it was easier for me to take time off. Plus, Oxford and the department have been really supportive.’
His experience may not be typical, but it helps highlight that it is possible to have a really outstanding academic career and a family. He and Professor Tracey are proof positive.
He now sits in both Physics and Geography, as Professor of Geosystem Science in the Environmental Change Institute and Director of the University’s new Oxford Net Zero initiative. Nevertheless, he was always able to do the school run, and was going to watch a sports competition that afternoon. But how does he feel about being the first, or is that second, gentleman in the university, once Professor Tracey takes office? Typically, he laughs.
What does he do, when not at work?
‘Walk the dog,’ he replies simply. ‘We’ve got a lockdown puppy, who has his own Twitter account – not that I am responsible for it. But I like to walk the dog… He’s called Geoffrey, with a G...Geoffrey Biscuit.'