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Discoverer of the Year Paul Behrens: ‘We’re running out of time’

Earlier this year, the public voted environmental scientist Paul Behrens Discoverer of the Year 2018. Behrens is an interdisciplinary scientist who wants to understand our impact on the planet. ‘Unfortunately, we are not doing enough. Huge changes are underway and we’re running out of time to avoid the worst.’

Physicist becomes environmental scientist

When studying Physics and Astronomy in the UK, Behrens observed the night sky with large telescopes on the Canary Islands. Although he found this very exciting, he decided to come back down to earth and did his PhD in collaboration with a wind energy company in New Zealand. Behrens studied atmospheric flow in mountainous terrain, ultimately finding ways to generate more energy from the wind. It was from then on he was drawn further into environmental science.

Time’s up

‘It’s quite clear that we’re in a lot of trouble,’ Behrens says. ‘We need to drastically change the way we act. Can we find ways to live on the planet for the long term? In my opinion, that’s the single biggest question for humanity.’ That urgency forms a big motivation for Behrens. ‘I’m trying to understand the interactions between humans and the environment, and ways in which we can alter production and consumption to ease our impacts.’ To do so, Behrens works with big environment-economy models, such as EXIOBASE which traces the environmental impacts of products through to consumers around the world.

Water and energy

Behrens’ work is interdisciplinary, covering energy, water, food, and climate systems. In one study he investigated the increasing vulnerability of the European electricity sector to changes in water resources. The work, published in Nature Energy, found that since power plants need significant amounts of fresh water for cooling purposes, climate change and drought threaten to increase water stress. ‘It is sometimes strange to watch how the modelling work in this 2017 publication is playing out today. In 2019, French power plants had to cut power output during the summer due to a lack of fresh water.’ According to Behrens, a faster transition to renewable energy significantly decrease problems on the Mediterranean coast and elsewhere. ‘But coordination and investment is crucial for this solution.’

‘I’m very grateful’

His scientific work and societal impact earned him a nomination for the Discoverer of the Year 2018. ‘I was proud to even be nominated, let alone win this award! I didn’t expect to win, and I’m very grateful for all the people who voted for me,’ he says. Behrens thinks this prize can help him in his scientific career. ‘I’m almost done with writing a popular science book, and it’s great to mention that I’ve won a popular science prize on the cover.’

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Paul Behrens is working on a riveting popular science book with alternating Pessimism / Hope chapters on each aspect of our future – energy, food, climate, economics, population and progress – which guides readers through the two wildly different futures we are racing towards. The Pessimism chapters reveal the existential consequences of our current behavioural trends, without diluting the brutal truth to shelter readers. The Hope chapters shed light on the epic, vital and worthy effort demanded by a brighter future; considering what optimism really means, and how it could bring about a long-overdue reconciliation between our ethics and our actions. A Sapiens for the environment, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times? is a book about our future, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. ‘With uncompromising honesty and lucid, accessible prose Behrens addresses the most important issue of our time and challenges us to a better future,’ publishing director at The Indigo Press Ellah Wakatama Allfrey says about the book.

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