Reflections on Climate Emergency Declarations, Climate Nihilism, Action and Inaction

Universities, Businesses, City Councils and Nations are finally – finally – declaring Climate Emergencies.  I have been by many to reflect on these and a few of these are attached.  (Spoiler: We do face an emergency; it is an emergency not just because anthropogenic climate change is catastrophic but also because solving it will be very hard, contentious and take time; and we all have an obligation to act)


A Message to the Alumni of the University of Bristol

On the 17th of April, the University of Bristol became the first University in world to declare a Climate Emergency.  It enshrines our institutional obligation to address the climatic, ecological and wider environmental threats posed to our planet and our society.

The University has been at the forefront of exploring and solving these challenges for decades, both through our world-leading research exemplified by the Cabot Institute for the Environment and our education via the Sustainable Futures theme.  Some of our environmentally-focused Schools, including Earth Sciences, Civil Engineering and Geographical Sciences, are ranked amongst the very best in the world. Many of us contribute to the IPCC reports, including the most recent report that highlighted the dire consequences of failing to limit warming to 1.5C.

We must do more. Just like our pledges in 2015 when Bristol was the European Green Capital, the Climate Emergency Declaration recognises that our University’s impact on our city and planet transcends its research and educational mission. We are an employer, a procurer and a consumer; our academics fly across the world and our students fly to us; we consume food, energy, water and minerals.  We are part of the problem and we must be part of the solution.

In particular, the Declaration renewed our commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030.  But what does that mean?  How will we do that?  We know it will be messy and complex, just as our decision to divest from fossil fuels was. Not all fossil fuel companies are the same; in fact, many are critically involved with obtaining the resources needed for a post-fossil fuel electrical future.  Similarly, we must ensure that our own efforts for carbon neutrality do not simply shift the environmental burdens to other countries nor hinder their own development.

We do not have all of those answers yet.

Consequently, I consider the Declaration to be a call for a renewed, self-critical, demanding and collaborative conversation about the future of our University. It is an opportunity for dialogue between all of us – staff, students, alumni, partners and stakeholders across our institution, city and the world.  It will embrace every aspect of our organisation and it will lean on our own world-leading expertise and potential for innovation.

This article]is part of that conversation.  It contains reflections from some of our strongest leaders on this topic but it also serves as an invitation for you to share yours.


Article for One Earth

Neither the UK’s Commitment to net zero carbon by 2050 nor the preceding Climate Emergency Declaration represents a significant change in policy – our previous target of an 80% reduction by 2050 already was an implicit stop on a trajectory to net zero, albeit at a later date.

However, they could be critical in changing the underlying narrative around climate change by centering attention on the catastrophic emergency that climate change poses as well as the profound challenge of addressing it.  Both statements declare what has for too long been implicit – the challenge is great, and the need to act is urgent.

I hope that enshrining net zero carbon in law finally forces us to consider policies that go beyond incremental chipping away at emissions. We need a plan for a social, technological and infrastructure transformation that puts us on a path to a decarbonised future.  All of 21st century civilisation was founded on and still is intrinsically based on fossil fuels, the energy they can generate but also the heat and power. To wean ourselves off of this incredibly powerful source of energy, we have to move beyond the easy wins of energy efficiency and a modest increase in renewable energy. We have to decide how we will completely transform our homes and businesses, our transport systems, our food production and our food supply chains.

As a geologist, I particularly recognise the challenge that an electrical society poses in terms of the metal resources we will need.  Electrifying agriculture, transport and heat will require more lithium, neodymium, cobalt and many more metals; it will particularly require more copper.  As such, we need to consider the balance of behaviour change, technological investment and potential environmental trade-offs elsewhere.  I am particularly concerned about green colonialism and the impact of our own renewable revolution on the nations from which we will extract these resources. Of course, tackling climate change also creates opportunities in innovation, creativity and leadership; but it will not be easy and the solutions will be contested.

And that is why this is an emergency.

It is not just because climate change is already causing extreme weather, flooding and heat waves,  and that future climate change will cause even greater harm.  It is because addressing this challenge will be incredibly difficult, and arguably we have not even had the conversations necessary to identify an environmentally and socially just path forward.  We certainly have not had an inclusive conversation that recognises a range of concerns about climate change and putative solutions.

The time for talk should be over, but arguably the real talk has yet to start.

Our political leaders have made some useful political gestures; now they have to agree on actions, ensure their feasibility and legitimacy, and deliver them with the urgency that this unprecedented emergency demands.


Reflections on a Tweet – Similarities between climate denialism and climate nihilism.

A lot of us are concerned about the emerging ‘climate doom’ narrative, that climate change beyond X degrees is inevitable or that a given magnitude of global warming could directly cause human extinction.  I share many of the concerns of those anxious about climate change as an existential threat and many seem keen to have an engaged conversation about the likelihood of this happening.  However, for many, their concerns seem based less on evidence and more on a belief system that rejects climate science, expertise and institutions with some similarities to the climate denier community.  And challenging those statements can result in virulent responses. Some thoughts:

“I suppose there are multiple dimensions to my tweet.  The first is that there is little evidence that climate change will lead to human extinction. Life has thrived on far warmer worlds.  And although the rate of climate change now is profoundly worrying, extinction at even elevated degrees of warming seems unlikely.  Many species and ecosystems will likely go extinct, and our civilisation might be profoundly transformed, but that is different than ‘human extinction’, a ‘barren planet’, an ‘unihabitable Earth’. When probed, many argue that climate change will cause extinction through a cascade of conflicts and ultimately nuclear war; I certainly worry about that, but that is a very different message with very different assumptions than ‘we will all go extinct if we do not limit warming to 2C’.

Second, when scientists try to clarify this, climate nihilists often use the same language, rhetoric and arguments to dismiss climate scientists as denialists.  Both claim that IPCC is a ‘UN report’ and therefore a political rather than scientific document (it IS a scientific report and it is written and peer reviewed by scientists).  Doomists talk about an overly cautious scientific community, whereas denialists talk about an overly alarmist one.  Both, when confronted, can resort to links to blogs, non-experts and ad hominem attacks.  And anecdotally, both can be misogynistic (women scientists always get nastier replies).  So at its heart, I think both groups are embracing a belief system that inherently mistrusts experts, institutions and knowledge, and that concerns me.

Many are arguing about the psychological impact of this – do those worrying about a true climate apocalypse and global extinction create such despair as to cause inaction??  I cannot say.  Renee Lertzmann has been exploring a lot of the psychology of climate despair.   But I think it is certainly fair to say that our past efforts to mobilise meaningful action have failed, so I am not going to critique these tactics.

Instead, my main concern is that climate change will affect all of us but it will MOST affect the poor and vulnerable, those from the global south and marginalised groups in the UK.  The language of extinction can impose an ‘All lives matter’ narrative on a movement that must centre social justice. But you do not have to look hard to see many using the extinction framing to argue that other issues (indigenous rights, social justice) are secondary. Social media abounds with rebuttals like: ‘you cannot have social justice on a lifeless planet.’

Having said all of that, there is a critical need to have a wider conversation that includes the very low probability but very high risk outcomes of climate change. Some of these catastrophes could happen.  But there is a huge amount of difference between those arguing that this could happen and those claiming that it will happen.”