Climate champion Jo Haigh retires after 35 years at Imperial


Jo Haigh in front of the Grantham Institute

Co-Director of the Grantham Institute and former Head of Physics Professor Haigh leaves behind a legacy of science advocacy and academic leadership.

Following an early interest in the weather, including making her own weather station in her back garden as a teenager, Professor Haigh’s first contact with Imperial was in 1976 when she completed a Masters in Meteorology. After a DPhil at Oxford, she joined Imperial staff as a lecturer in 1984 in the Department of Physics and has been with the College ever since.

Black and white class photo
Masters in Meteorology, class of '77. Professor Haigh is back row, fourth from right

Her career has seen her accumulate numerous accolades – including becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and being appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) "for services to physics", both in 2013.

She has also been an academic leader, becoming the first female Head of the Department of Physics in 2009 and Co-Directing the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment since 2014. The Grantham Institute has also led her in a new direction, where she has become a voice for climate change science, often commenting on the latest science and politics in the media.

She says: “The Grantham Institute has been an absolutely wonderful thing to have had the opportunity to be involved in because it has a wonderful sense of direction and clarity of purpose.

“Being head of the Grantham Institute involves a lot of talking to people. Not just talking to the media – that’s part of it – but also talking to people around society who are interested in what climate change is doing to their businesses, their homes, their hobbies and all the rest of it, and why they need to know and what they need to do about it.”

We interviewed Professor Haigh about her research, the future of climate change, her time at Imperial and her plans for retirement. You can listen to the whole interview here or to individual highlights below.

To hear Professor Haigh talk more about her career, from amateur weather-watcher to top climate change commenter, listen to the audio clip below:

On her science (and communicating its subtleties)

Professor Haigh studies the physics of the atmosphere, particularly the stratosphere and all the things that can affect the way it acts, including ozone, carbon dioxide, and solar radiation from the sun.

To hear her explain her journey around the stratosphere, including early research into ozone and CFCs (which were eventually implicated in the ozone hole over the Antarctic) and explorations of sunspots, listen to the audio clip below:

Many of the processes she studied in the stratosphere also affect the lower atmosphere, the part that influences the weather we experience on the surface and so is most implicated in climate change. This, and her work looking at what effect the sun has on surface climate, drew her into the world of communicating climate change.

She appears regularly on TV, radio and in print media, and as a result, gets a lot of emails – many from people who do not believe that humans are causing climate change. She tries to reply to them all unless they are directly offensive, but admits she has about a “two percent success rate” in positive responses to her explaining the science.

To hear Professor Haigh talk about her early experiences with climate change deniers and how she handles them now, listen to the audio clip below:

On the future of climate change (and whether governments are doing enough)

Although she is leaving the day-to-day life of a scientist behind, Professor Haigh says she will still keep an eye on the progress of fighting climate change. While sometimes hopeful – noting that the implementation of renewable energies like solar panels and wind turbines is faster than anyone predicted – she says its imperative that governments act now to ensure enough is being done.

I think it is possible to get the carbon dioxide emissions down and to get the temperature increase slowed down. It just requires everybody to work together to do it.

She says: “At the moment we have a minister for environment and energy talking about how Britain’s going to get to zero carbon by 2050, which of course is an excellent aim, but if at the same time there’s nothing being done about getting there, I’m afraid it’s just talk but no walk.”

“I think it is possible to get the carbon dioxide emissions down and to get the temperature increase slowed down. It just requires everybody to work together to do it.

“That involves a lot of action around the way we are at the moment in terms of energy efficiency and using less and adapting transport and diet and all the rest of it, but also the wonderful innovative ideas that have come out of places like Imperial that are doing all sorts of new and exciting thing that can help to solve the problem.”

To hear Professor Haigh talk more about her hopes and fears for the future of climate change, and what her role at the Grantham Institute has taught her about the bigger picture, listen to the audio clip below:

On Imperial (and leaving it behind)

When she first came to the College in 1976, Professor Haigh faced an interesting new environment. Although she says the Masters in Meteorology was “definitely the best in the country at that time”, when she tried to get a drink in the Union bar she discovered it was men only.

That had changed by the time she returned as a lecturer in 1984, and Professor Haigh has witnessed many other changes during her time at Imperial, including herself becoming the first female Head of the Department of Physics.

Jo Haigh and Michele Dougherty holding wine glasses in front of a painting of themselves
Professor Haigh (left) and current Head of Physics Professor Michele Dougherty were honoured in a new painting in 2018 along with physics' Professor Jenny Nelson

She says: “In Physics I’ve always felt incredibly well supported. When I was younger and I had my lectureship and there weren’t many female lecturers round, the support I was getting was wonderful and I never had any reason to worry about that.

“It has changed now – if we look in the Space and Atmospheric Physics group I think we’re 50 percent female, which is the way of course it should be, because why would you want to lose half the intelligent people in the country in a subject area?”

In her retirement Professor Haigh plans to spend more time travelling with her husband and picking her bassoon playing back up, as well as volunteering with local green groups. She says, however, that she will miss the “lovely, bright, enthusiastic” undergraduate students she taught, the postgraduate students she has worked with (“the brains behind the research projects”), and the companionship of her colleagues.

She says: “It will be different not talking to people about climate, atmosphere and physics every day. It’s been a great pleasure working here.”

To hear Professor Haigh talk more about her time at Imperial, including dealing with three children in nursery at the same time and further plans for her retirement, listen to the audio clip below:

Do you have a great memory of Professor Haigh? Leave a comment below and let us know.


Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications Division

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