It’s so easy to be cynical about Extreme E’s oh-so-worthy mission to tackle global climate change by racing in some of the world’s most remote and ecologically vulnerable areas. Motorsport to save the world? C’mon. Surely that’s an irreconcilable contradiction.
But speak to Oxford University academic Professor Richard Washington, who has dedicated his life to understanding our changing climate and how humanity has influenced it, and the penny begins to drop, in a manner that echoes the increasing acceptance that global warming is a real thing for which we all share a collective responsibility.
“When I received the email approaching me to join Extreme E as a scientific advisor, it was a very quick decision to accept — it took 30 seconds,” says the soft-spoken academic. “I’ve spent the past 35 years working in climate science and climate change, and it’s a great joy to work out how the atmosphere works and how it moves. But when I started I had no idea it would take me into such dreadful waters in terms of where the climate system is going.
“It probably seems odd for me to have anything to do with motorsport, but as an academic you then have to connect what to do to solve the problems you’ve identified. If scientists just talk to scientists it’s never really going to get solved. You have to take a lot of people with you and sport is such a unifier. It’s also something that stretches people and humans need to be stretched in all sorts of ways to try and solve the problem we have. So yes, climate scientist and motorsport is probably not a natural marriage at face value, but if you dig a little deeper it’s exactly the means we need to get people on to the trajectory to see things differently.”
Little about Washington meets the stereotype of what a climate scientist is supposed to be. At home, he tends to a much-loved 1969 Series II Land Rover and recalls a trip to the British Grand Prix back in the 1990s, where he was enthralled to be a part of the crowd’s enthusiasm for Damon Hill. He admits his colleagues in Oxford frown at his embrace of motorsport, but adds: “I don’t care.”
“I understand the appeal of racing. And I get the tension that could plausibly exist between climate scientists and someone who is passionate about motorsport. But we don’t expect everyone to be carbon neutral tomorrow, There is a process and it’s started. Anything we can do to get along that line is good.”
To those who struggle to listen and accept scientists’ gloomy forecasts for our world’s future, Professor Washington offers a measured perspective with a grain of hope. “I go through phases where I think nothing is changing, then I’m overwhelmed by how quickly things change — and I think that’s probably a close reflection on how things are,” he says. “It’s bit like dragging a brick behind you over rough ground with an elastic band. That’s how change does occur, it’s not just a smooth trajectory.”
He speaks with passion about the “beautiful physics” of the complex modeling he and his students have developed to predict where we are headed, and reports that an alarmingly steep “business as usual trajectory” appears to have eased in the past few years. And he’s taking pleasure from the attention his work is gaining through Extreme E.
“We do watch the citations on our academic papers quite closely and celebrate when the number of people who read and use them get into double figures… That’s the size of it. Here, I’ve spoken to more journalists in the last couple of days than I have for years. Sitting on Extreme E’s transport ship on the Red Sea isn’t where I thought it would happen, but it has.”
Speaking of which, what about that glaring contradiction of preaching climate change in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest producer and exporter of oil? Extreme E founder Alejandro Agag attempts to shut the argument down by saying sports and politics shouldn’t be mixed, but Professor Washington offers a much more engaging response.
“Why Saudi? Well, I guess it’s well resourced,” he says. “And it’s resourced by the profits of fuel sales on which they have paid no atmospheric tax. So what do we do next? We can say to Saudi you can keep all that money that we should have taxed and didn’t, or we can work together and use some of that resource to move things forward. Some of my colleagues say do not get involved in ‘green-washing’ and so on and I say this country has the resource and that resource needs to be plowed back. Let’s do it.
“We are running out of time to fix things and we’ve burnt a lot of that time. The experiments that linked carbon emissions to climate change were published in the 1990s and there are still slides in my lectures now that date from then because that’s when the proof happened. We’ve sat on our hands. There’s almost a lack of trust in science sometimes, which is interesting. We live a lot of our lives by it, but not all of it. When it comes to uncomfortable decisions we are able to shun it for quite some time.”
Extreme E and its admirable ecological “legacy” missions for each of its five events this year are a drop in the ocean, of course. But as Professor Washington says, what matters is to do something, anything, to contribute to the future. When you listen to his conviction, the cynicism quickly begins to fade away.