Imperial College London

Q&A: Christmas Lecturer talks geoscience, climate change, and diversity

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Professor Chris Jackson smiling among greenery in the park

"I'm very excited to discuss the importance of geoscience in understanding and tackling climate change."

Professor Chris Jackson discusses the Christmas Lecture ‘Planet Earth: A User’s Guide’, and the importance of role models in diversifying science.

Chris Jackson is Professor of Basin Analysis at Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering.

An accomplished academic and science communicator, he will give one of three Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on climate change – including its history, and the natural and human processes that drive it.

Caroline Brogan caught up with him to find out more.

Firstly, how did it feel to be asked to give the world-renowned Christmas Lectures?

I was shocked, honoured, and scared, in that order! It was certainly a surprise, but I'm very excited to discuss the importance of geoscience in understanding and tackling climate change.

It’s also a chance to highlight the merits of geoscience at a time when the field is struggling with student numbers and public perceptions. Although the field is linked to fossil fuel exploitation, which demonstrably drives climate change, geoscientists have huge and important roles to play in the conversation around climate change, and they will be invaluable in helping us meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Jackson smiling in a lecture theatre
"It's important to look at the Earth’s geological history to put our own influence on the climate into context."

So what's the link between rocks and climate change?

A far more expansive record (of climate change) is preserved in the rocks around us and beneath our feet. Professor Chris Jackson Department of Earth Science and Engineering

The climate, which has always been driven by natural forces like ocean dynamics, volcanic eruptions, and the Earth’s position in the solar system, has been fluctuating for billions of years – but within a relatively short timeframe, humans have essentially become their own geological force.

It's important to look at the Earth’s geological history to put our own influence on the climate into context. Although humans have continued to record ongoing climate fluctuations on their timescale, a far more expansive record is preserved in the rocks around us and beneath our feet. My lecture will focus on what studying rocks teaches us about climate change since the Earth first came to be – including in the current period, known to some as the Anthropocene.

Using natural climate fluctuations as a baseline means we can pinpoint and understand our influence, by measuring both the speed of change and the extremes it brings. For example, we can look at the chemistry of rocks to tell us how the climate and temperatures have changed over geological time.

How might the COVID-19 pandemic affect climate change?

The pandemic has ground many human processes and systems to a halt – a ‘pause effect’ that saw reduced urban air pollution and even reductions in global Earth vibrations. While this, as well as the health implications, are devastating for many, the pandemic could present new opportunities to take action as countries make drastic changes to infrastructure, jobs, travel, and investment.

You’re an accomplished academic and science communicator, as well as the first Black scientist to give a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. How important is racial and gender diversity in science and outreach?

Improving diversity in science, and more generally in positions of power, will underpin a much better society. Professor Chris Jackson Department of Earth Science and Engineering

Hugely - I think it’s the most important thing to be talking about right now. In the UK there are 22,000 professors. Of these, 25 are Black women and 265 are Black men. There are two Black geoscience professors, both men; one of those is me.

The reasons for this imbalance are varied, but it undoubtedly includes the fact that white men have historically been in charge, and have therefore dictated who has power and influence in our society.

Improving diversity in science, and more generally in positions of power, will underpin a much better society – one where we measure success by based on a far broader set of metrics than simply money, power, or prizes, all of which often reflect access to opportunity and privilege.

So how can more Black people and women have a seat at this table?

The extremes (climate change) brings will overwhelmingly affect the most disadvantaged among us globally. Professor Chris Jackson Department of Earth Science and Engineering

Essentially, if we want to improve socioeconomic conditions for lots of people globally, we should empower them and help them realise that they can change the world. They need to know that their views and concerns are valid.

This is especially important in the context of climate change, as the extremes it brings will overwhelmingly affect the most disadvantaged among us globally. This is a time where empowering these people is vitally important.

Role models who positively inspire and support people play a big role in empowerment. For example, it’s important for children to be exposed to positive role models who look like them and are from similar backgrounds. If Black children don’t see Black scientists in the news or in documentaries, in a similar way to how children are exposed to white scientists, it’s easy for them to feel that the scientific space isn’t for them.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m really interested in the evolution of the Earth and how this is reflected in mountains, volcanoes, tectonic plates, and even in the sediment found in rivers, beaches, deserts – areas known as sedimentary basins.

Our group looks at the changing dynamics of these basins, which are affected by, and provide clues about, past tectonic activity. To do this we use seismic reflection data to essentially x-ray the earth deep beneath us, even in areas currently under several kilometres of water.

I am also continuing my science communication work, which largely involves riding my bike to schools to teach kids about rocks, or climbing into volcanoes for BBC documentaries!


The 2020 Christmas Lectures, given by Professor Jackson, oceanographer Dr Helen Czerski, and environmental scientist Dr Tara Shine, will be filmed at the Royal Institution on 15, 17 and 19 December 2020 and broadcast on BBC Four between Christmas and New Year.

(L-R) Dr Czerki, Professor Jackson, and Dr Shine standing behind a large model of planet Earth
(L-R) Dr Czerki, Professor Jackson, and Dr Shine

Tickets to the live filming of the Christmas Lectures are usually available via a ballot in September open exclusively to Ri Members and Patrons and UK registered schools. Due to the necessary Covid-19 restrictions this year, the Ri is currently evaluating whether a live audience will be possible and is due to make a decision shortly. Find out how to become a member of the Royal Institution and apply for tickets.

Follow Professor Jackson on Twitter.

All images credited to Paul Wilkinson Photography.

See the press release of this article

Reporter

Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications and Public Affairs

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415
Email: caroline.brogan@imperial.ac.uk

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