Science Direct: Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers

Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers holds an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship in the Department of Environment and Geography at Macquarie University and is an international leader in climate science. She is one of our featured experts on Climate Change.

Until 2007, the Director of the United Nations' World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) based in Geneva at the headquarters of the World Meteorological Organisation, Ann Henderson-Sellers is an international leader in climate science. She has championed the scientific need for action to mitigate and adapt to climate change for over 35 years. Professor Henderson-Sellers now holds an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship in the Department of Environment and Geography at Macquarie University in Sydney.

General/personal questions:

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up? An astronomer: I was seriously 'star struck'- so much so that I studied Black Holes as an undergraduate mathematician (they were really new then) and paid to go on a ocean trip (I'm very sea-sick) to witness and take observations during the longest solar eclipse in the twentieth century. Although my research has turned my telescope on the Earth, I still enjoy reading A.C Clarke and Isaac Asimov and watching Star Trek re-runs.
  2. The idea/s that changed my life was/were...I can't remember too many but when the idea of continental drift was 'news' I cut out the major continents from our family encyclopaedia to see if they could really be fitted parents' reaction was memorable! I have also always been a bit cross that women are seen as 'less scientific' than men. Related article.
  3. I'm always being asked about...Whether I really 'believe' in climate change - I do! Related article.
  4. My worst job has been....I really haven't had any bad jobs but I have often found myself at the front of science ideas. This is exciting but also means working hard to get new concepts accepted. For example when I worked at ANSTO people used to wonder if I was in favour of nuclear power for Australia (I'm not!) while I found it hard to get across simply the strength of some nuclear techniques for environmental sensing and detailed analysis. Related article.
  5. I often wonder... Whether the climate change 'deniers' and parts of the mass media really believe some of the stuff they say and write. I believe science is important enough to be expressed not only as facts but also in terms of policy changes and I honestly think we should, as scientists, try to tell the whole truth. Related article.
  6. I hope that...Our grandchildren will think we did the right thing by them, and that they will have enough education and leisure to contemplate our actions. Related article.
  7. The best thing about my job is.... Two things: (1) explaining complicated science to regular people. For example, we wrote "The Climate Modelling Primer" (now in its third edition) to set out a simple explanation of how climate models work, what they can do and what they cannot and (2) gaining consensus - getting top people to agree on a set of straightforward recommendations -- e.g. related article.
  8. The hardest thing about my job is...In the UN, employed as an international civil servant, I was not allowed to express any political opinion. This was quite a challenge for me and one that I failed in a few times as I led the World Climate Research Programme through the IPCC Fourth Assessment and into the Bali COP-13 negotiations. Related article. Oh - and -- the 3.5 km walk to work and home each day.

Climate change specific questions:

  1. What climate change means for me personally is...The nexus between my life-long research and current critical global crises: climate change and economic meltdown, I fear it will become necessary to apply selectivity to resource allocation. Triage is applied in an emergency to allow the most globally beneficial use of inadequate resources. Related article. There will be severe climate disruptions, which will be left untreated because they will be recognized as able to recover autonomously. Selected climatically-induced emergencies where tax-payers' money can reduce suffering will be funded. Last, and most sadly, there may be even situations where unlimited funds cannot reverse impacts and the limited funds are deemed better deployed on other projects. Related article.
  2. Climate change affects my work by... Challenging me every day to be clearer in my communications. Related article.
  3. My work may affect how we respond to climate change by...My preparedness to speak out even though many climate scientists feel uncomfortable doing so. Related article.
  4. What I would say to climate change skeptics is...This is hard to answer because there are all sorts of different aspects of scepticism on this issue and, still harder, because folks' reasons for being sceptical change over time. I find the IPCC's assessments very powerful and persuasive so for people who want to understand why so many scientists are demanding action I try to get sceptics to read the IPCC documents (they're free). A good place to start is with the Summary for Policy Makers of the Synthesis Report of the Fourth Assessment. There is one set of sceptics who say "because YOU cannot prove a particular event (say Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the terrible Victorian bushfires in February 2009) was due to, or made worse by, climate change then MY view that greenhouse is unimportant is right". But this is a false conclusion. Just because there is not yet enough evidence to prove something is true does NOT mean it is not true. The Precautionary Principle is useful here. Rupert Murdoch so aptly paraphrased it when he finally got the global warming message, "you've got to give the planet the benefit of the doubt".
  5. What I would say to you about what you can do about climate change is...Change - change now - mean it, as Nike says "just do it!": green jobs; zero carbon economies; cool biz clothes code; neighbourhood walking buses. Become 'ordinary heroes today! What part of 'unequivocal' do we not understand? Related article.
  6. What I think Australia can do is...Stop funding and doing the "Three Bad Cs": Coal, Cars and Clearing land and move quickly to an economy that exploits that we are the 'land of the cloudless skies'. Australia should send Prime Minister Rudd to Copenhagen in December to the COP-15 with the following brief based on the letters of the word CHANGE":
    C- Crisis: The longer we wait, the worse it gets. Recent observations confirm that we are moving beyond the worst-case IPCC scenario with accelerating climate trends.
    H - Heroes: Business as usual is dead. Low carbon societies must be our goal. We can't all be superheroes but heroic behaviour is occurring where benefits are understood.
    A - Action: Energy efficiency is not a choice but our urgent obligation. Market based solutions (putting a price on carbon) may not be best in a recession. Government action to decarbonise quickly has been likened to national installation of electricity, nation-wide railways and in World War II workforce creation and direction.
    N - Now: There very serious consequences of delaying action. The European Union has committed to 30% reductions by 2020 as part of a global agreement. Other industrialized countries are still to commit to comparable effort. [Tim Flannery has calculated Australia's current offer of a 4% reduction in emissions as being really a 34% increase].
    G - Governance: The world needs better governance overcoming the political, economic and social constraints that prevent the right decisions.
    E - Equity: The rich must help the poor. We foresee the worst outcomes happening in the most vulnerable societies - here and abroad. Limiting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius means striving for 80% reductions in 2050 compared to 1990.

More about Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers

Dr Henderson-Sellers has been an Earth Systems scientist all her life spearheading the description and prediction of the influence of land-cover and land-use change on climate and human systems. She has a BSc in mathematics, undertook her PhD in collaboration with the U.K. Meteorological Office and earned a D.Sc. in climate science in 1999. She is an elected Fellow of Australia's Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and was awarded the Centenary Medal of Australia for Service to Australian Society in Meteorology in 2003.

Ann is an ISI "most highly cited" author of over 500 publications, including 14 books and an elected Fellow of America's Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society. In the 1990s she served as a Council member of the International Council of Science's International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and, as a Convening Lead Author for the Second IPCC Assessment Report, was proud to be part of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 jointly to IPCC. Ann chaired a national investigation into Women in Science, Engineering and Technology in the 1990s and contributed to many Academy of Sciences' National Committees. She was a member of Australia's Science and Technology Council, chaired the Australian National Committee for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and served as a member of the Greenhouse Science Advisory Committee.

Dr Henderson-Sellers served as the President of International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences' International Commission for Climate between 1991 and 1995 and has led the WCRP Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment's Project for the Intercomparison of Land-surface Parameterisation Schemes since 1992. Prior to leading the WCRP Ann was the Founding Director of the Climatic Impacts Centre at Macquarie University, headed the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's Institute for Nuclear Geophysiology and was the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University.

Professor Henderson-Sellers participates in Macquarie's Climate Risk Concentration of Research Excellence (CORE). This CORE has the aims of focusing on the risks associated with climate change in an environment of increasing vulnerability. The Climate Risk CORE is premised on the fact that the science of climate change is now well established: governments, business and much of industry now accept the scientific evidence that climate is already changing due to human activity. Through the establishment of this CORE, and its participation in the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), the University has accepted the challenge of how to quantify and assess climate change-associated risks for key sectors such as economies, financial markets and national security as well as more traditional impact areas including water, food and biodiversity,

Professor Henderson-Sellers' research builds on the Climate Risk CORE strategy to use science and impact assessment infused by and packaged within a framework of economic, social, and governance risk, policy and regulation. Her expertise in climate change predictions, downscaling and probability forecasting are now being directly applied to: (i) Identifying activities that have potential to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to climate change within various sectors of Australian society; (ii) Estimating the financial impact and contribution of actions to mitigation or adaptation; (iii) Developing models for governments (national, regional/state and local) to assist in guiding capital and recurrent cost and the return on investment; and (vi) Structuring such models so the results may be incorporated into ongoing analyses addressing social, environmental, economic and governance factors.

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