cCycling over London Bridge as dry heat pushed temperatures above 40C and a hot breeze swept down the River Thames, Friedrich Otto paused to look at the monument to the great fire of the city more than 350 years ago.
“The heat was intense, the humidity was so low and there was this wind. You can almost feel if there’s a spark now, London will ignite again,” he said.
For Otto, who spent his working life witnessing the ravages of extreme weather, the homes it destroys, the lives it takes, the children it orphans, he found himself in a study of his own.
Otto, known as Freddy, and a small team of researchers are the world’s only rapid response force of climate scientists. They track extreme weather around the world almost as it happens, reach out to local people on the ground, and analyze deep, hard statistics that change our understanding of how human-caused global warming is affecting the planet and our lives.
Until now, scientists have disagreed on whether a single weather event is linked to global warming. Otto’s work makes the connection between the world’s string of disasters and global warming even clearer. His work was recognized internationally in 2021 when he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Otto cuts a striking figure in a striped blazer, leggings and pink sparkly Converse trainers on the campus of Imperial College London, where he is a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment. A physics graduate, with a PhD in philosophy of science, he moved to London with his son just a year ago from Oxford University, where he held a post-doctoral position at the Environmental Change Institute with Professor Miles Allen.
It was Allen who gave him a rare gift, which helped unlock his future – an untapped treasure trove of climate data. “He said to me: ‘Look, we have this huge piece of climate model here, do something with it.’
“So I was handed this huge assemblage of data, and what it allows you to do is make statistics about rare and extreme events.”
Otto was armed with data that led him a few years later, with his late colleague Geert Jan van Oldenburg, to create the world’s first Climate Attribution Unit, to examine the extent to which human-driven climate change is responsible for extreme heat waves, droughts and floods. .
Journey from creation World Weather Attribution The unit, in its current iteration, began with a paper Otto and Oldenberg wrote in 2010 on a heatwave in Russia. It was a classical academic paper, peer reviewed and published long after the event.
But when Heidi Cullen, one-time chief scientist at the NGO Climate Central, suggested that the work would be stronger if it could be done faster, it was a breakthrough moment. “There was no reason we couldn’t do it faster,” Otto said. “Our approach was that technically it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to run, so we can do it.”
Otto’s conclusions are now rushed, but still written within the framework of scientific rigor and available evidence. A big part of the job is communicating the dangers of extreme weather to the wider public and politicians and the message, most importantly, that it is being created by us.
In 2022, Otto was busier than ever, peering into the dark center of many disasters: tropical cyclones in Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique, Heat wave in India and PakistanDrought in West and East Africa, Floods in Brazil, Floods in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, The last heat wave in the UKDrought in Western Europe, Floods in Germanyfloods in Pakistan, and more recently severe floods in Nigeria, Niger and Chad.
This last study was shortchanged by the severity of its findings. “The biggest scientific surprise for me this year was the flooding in Nigeria because there was a huge impact of climate change,” Otto said. “They were 80 times more likely to be caused by climate change. It made me think: ‘Oh wow, there really is a lot in Africa that we don’t understand’.
It’s the vulnerability of a population and a region, Otto said, that is crucial to whether an extreme weather event becomes a human disaster.
“For example, the drought in West Africa was not very extreme but the population is so dependent on regular rain, which rarely occurs, that any change is catastrophic.
“Another example is the flood in Germany in 2022. Because there was no early warning system, people died – because of that vulnerability.”
After the German floods, the country set up an early warning system. “It’s a source of hope that how much impact each of these events will really drive population vulnerability, because that’s one thing where we have the agency to change things,” he said.
Otto says he tries to avoid being overwhelmed by the overwhelming nature of the impacts of the climate crisis.
“I am an optimistic person. It makes me want to do more to make an impact, to spread the message, so that the changes we need can happen.”
Otto can be compared to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dr. Randall Mindy in the film Don’t Look Up. Mindy warns that an asteroid will hit the planet in six months, but no one wants to listen to her message.
But Otto disliked the metaphor of the film. “I felt the analogy was wrong—that there’s this big physical threat, which would be fine if we could invest in the technology to fix it.
“Climate change is not like that. This is a social problem that we will only be able to tackle if we invest in social systems, make our societies more resilient, less vulnerable and change our economic system away from burning fossil fuels.”
In the coming years he would like to see climate properties used more widely by forecasters to gain a broader understanding of the role of climate change.
“My team can then focus on the really complex interplay between social drivers of things like population vulnerability and the climate system, as well as doing a lot more work to find out where we really have the levers to make change.”