Professor Charles (Charlie) Kennel, Fellow Commoner of Christ’s College, is passionate about the role of universities to spearhead multi-disciplinary approaches to the big questions facing society around climate change.

The ninth Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) from 1998 to 2006, Professor Kennel was the founding director of the UCSD Environment and Sustainability Initiative.

He is the originator of the annual Christ’s Climate Change Seminars which began in 2014. The UCSD had already committed to a university-wide multi-disciplinary program on climate change under the leadership of Professor Veerabhadran ‘Ram‘ Ramanathan and Professor Kennel said that he had hoped that the Christ's series would play a small part in persuading the University of Cambridge to make its own commitment. 

The tenth seminar series took place in January and February 2023 run in collaboration with the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).

Prof Charlie Kennel
Professor Charlie Kennel speaking at the Climate Change Seminar 2018. Photo: CSaP

Professor Kennel is not afraid to ask difficult questions to stimulate debate. His 2014 article with David G Victor in the journal Nature argued that the two degree goal for global warming should be replaced by a broader range of indicators of planetary health.

His focus is on adaptation as well as mitigation by encouraging people to think about how societies respond to climate change rather than solely on the action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This means that the Climate Change series has concentrated not just on the science, but on a range of topics including urban planning, digital technology and public health. Past speakers have included Professor Ramanathan, economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees.

Dr Rob Doubleday, Christ’s bye-Fellow and Director of CSaP, which was set up at the University of Cambridge in 2009 to work to make better connections between the research and expertise of the University and the Government, said of Professor Kennel:

“Charlie is realistic about the scale of the problem, but he is also very optimistic about human capacity to rise to these challenges, even in ways that we can't quite imagine at the moment.”

Professor Kennel said:

“This will be the century that humanity learned how to deal with climate change.”

Professor Kennel appreciates the ways in which the College environment might encourage conversation and debate. He says that the advantage it offers is to bring together students and academics from different disciplines as well as people from the city and outside the University.

Dr Doubleday said:

“People really seem to appreciate the community that’s grown up around these seminars as they have evolved and as the issues have evolved.”

For Professor Kennel the importance of local knowledge and input in dialogue with decision-makers at national and international level is crucial.

The past ten years has also seen the establishment of Cambridge Zero, to maximise the University of Cambridge’s contribution towards achieving a resilient and sustainable zero-carbon world and Trinity College, Cambridge has developed a complementary series of lectures.

Climate change panel 2023
Simon, Lord McDonald of Salford, Professor Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero and Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK’s Climate Change Committee at the 2023 Climate Change Seminar. Photo: CSaP

Professor Kennel’s relationship with Christ’s began back in 2007. He describes his first visit to Cambridge at the invitation of engineer Professor Bill Fitzgerald in his memoirs published in 2023:

“Christ’s took me in at a moment when life seemed without direction, made me its C P Snow Lecturer in 2007 and kept on finding a place for me until I felt I actually belonged.”

He believes that CSaP and the Christ’s community - headed by new the Master Simon, Lord McDonald of Salford - is well placed to take the seminar series forward over the next ten years:

“There is a special relationship between the College and my own University and I would like to see that continue. I don't know how it might develop but the lectures are now in the hands of others. It's up to the to the College and the University.”

You can listen to the Climate Change Lectures on the CSaP website.

Nature, Vol. 514, Issue 7520

Professor Kennel’s Memoirs: From Cold War to Global Warming: A Scientific Odyssey