The Weirdness of Biomolecules in the Geological Record

In the 1930s, Alfred E. Treibs characterised the structure of metalloporphyrins in rocks and oil, revealing their similarities to and ultimately proving their origin from chlorophyll molecules in plants.  From that the field of biomarker geochemistry was born, a discipline based on reconstructing Earth’s history using the molecular fossils of the organisms that once lived in those ancient lakes, soils and oceans.

Most biomarkers are lipids – or fats – although there are exceptions such as the porphyrins. Lipids are ideal biomarkers because they have marvelous structural variability, recording in their own way the tree of life and the adaptation of that life to the environments in which they live(d). And they are also ideal, because they are preserved, in sediments for thousands of years and in rocks for millions, often hundreds of millions and in some cases billions of years.

The classical way in which we use these biomarkers is to exploit those subtle structural changes as a record of environmental conditions – using the number of rings or branches or double bonds as a microbiological record of ancient temperatures or pH. We also use them to identify the sources of organic matter to ancient settings, helping us to characterise an ancient lake or sea or documenting the biotic response to a mass extinction.

They can even record the evolution of life. The rise and diversification of eukaryotes, the Palaeozoic colonisation of land by plants, the Cretaceous emergence of the angiosperms, the Mesozoic rise of red algae and the Cenozoic rise of certain coccolithophorids are all documented in the molecular record.

But that record also documents moments of profound weirdness in ancient oceans, transient events in which some ancient organism appeared, dominated the seas and thus the sedimentary record, and then disappeared, taking with them a suite of biosynthetic machinery.

The Jurassic Ocean

Take for example, the ancient Kimmeridge Sea, which covered much of the UK during the Jurassic about 155 million years ago and within which many North Sea oils were deposited as well as the magnificent sedimentary sequences of Kimmeridge Bay.

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A core cutting from Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation, collected from the @NERCscience-funded Kimmeridge Drilling Project. The slight colour changes reflect changes in lithology, with darker colours reflecting more organic-rich horizons.

 

The Blackstone, oil shale, east of Clavell's Hard, Kimmeridge, Dorset
Ian West has some great photos and descriptions of Kimmeridge Bay black shales at https://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/gif/kimblack.htm

Within the archived sediments of this ancient basin, we observe many of the biomarkers for common life that we’d find in any sediment from the past 600 million years: eukaryotic-derived steranes (from sterols, such as cholesterol, which occur in every plant and animal) and bacterially-derived hopanes (from compounds similar to sterols but present only in Bacteria).  But we also find very odd compounds, unusually-branched linear isoprenoids.  The isoprenoids, compounds constructed of the five-carbon atom unit isoprene, are not odd; in fact, steranes and hopanes are just linear isoprenoids folded into rings, and the membrane lipids of the third domain of life, the Archaea, predominantly comprise linear isoprenoids. More on them below.

But the isoprenoids from some sedimentary horizons deposited in the ancient Kimmeridge Sea have extra branches or missing branches, revealing an assembly from smaller molecules in a manner unlike any organism on Earth today.

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A gas chromatogram from the KCF (you can view this like a bar chart – each peak is a compound and its area reflects its concentration). It shows the distribution of the unusual isoprenoids (letters and letter combinations), which in some parts of the KCF such as this particular sample dominate the entire assemblage.

In those horizons, they eclipse all other biomarkers in abundance, indicating that these ancient organisms did not just persist at the fringes of life, an idiosyncrasy in a complex ecosystem, but were one of the dominant organisms.

And then they disappeared, taking these peculiar lipids with them.

An Archaeal Event in the Cretaceous

Deep in the Cretaceous, near the boundary between the Aptian and Albian Ages, about 110 million years ago, organic-rich sediments were deposited across the North Atlantic Ocean.  The event is called Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE) 1b. Such events are not uncommon, especially in the Cretaceous when combinations of algal blooms, restriction of ocean circulation and depletion of deep ocean oxygen facilitated the burial of the organic matter (that in many cases became the oil and gas that fuels the Anthropocene). But unlike earlier and later organic burial events, this event was not an algal event; it was not a plant event.

This was an Archaea event.

Archaea are ubiquitous on the planet, but rarely do they dominate, instead ceding the modern Earth to the plants and Bacteria. Their hardy physiology allows them to dominate in very high temperature geothermal settings and they are uniquely adapted to a handful of ecosystems. Some Archaea, those involved with the oxidation of ammonia, also appear to dominate in parts of the ocean, but only in scarce abundances, representing a significant proportion of the biomass only because other organisms find it even more challenging to eke out an existence in that sunlight-starved realm.

But 110 million years ago not only did they dominate, they dominated in a way that led to the deposition of thick layers of archaea-derived organic matter on the seafloor.  We know this because nearly all of the organic matter – analysed through the lens of multiple analytical techniques probing the various pools of sedimentary organic matter, with names like bitumen and kerogen, maltenes an asphaltenes, saturates, aromatics and polars – are all dominated by compounds diagnostic for the Archaea.

Amorphous organic matter from OAE1b – structureless with no evidence of plant or algal cell walls. In many ways, this is a mundane image, similar to much organic matter in sediments, and keeping the secrets of its origin to itself. But its chemical composition is less opaque, revealing its unique archaeal origin.

But OAE1b was evidently not merely a brief explosion of the same Archaea that thrived at much lower abundances prior to and after it, and thrive at low abundances even today. No, this event included Archaea that biosynthesised subtle variations of classical Archaeal lipids, variations restricted -as far as we know – to this single event in all of Earth history.

A library of compounds found in OAE1b sediments. The archaeal isoprenoids I-V and XI to XIV dominate. And in the kerogen, similar fragments (XVII and beyond) dominate, indicating that the archaea dominate the production of all OM. But of all of these compound I is particularly unique, similar to the others but apparently confined to this one event in all of Earth history.

Compound I from the figure above might not look that special; it takes a keen eye to distinguish it from Compound II below it.  But like the unusual lipids of the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, it is apparently restricted to (and abundant during) only this one event.

 

These are weird biomarkers and that is why we love them. They prompt us to ponder the organisms that made them – and how and why?  And this prompts further questions that are perhaps more fascinating and profound, and not just the interest of organic geochemists.

Why have no other organisms chosen to make them?  Are these lipid simply an accident of phylogeny? Or are these a specific adaptation to the environmental and ecological needs of a particular moment in time, in a particular ocean basin? And that is both enigmatic and beautiful.  It speaks to the rapid emergence and then the casual discarding of a biosynthetic pathway and the associated enzymatic machinery.

And surely that must say something of the organisms that have produced them. Because these weird and unique biomarkers also reveal the expansion and disappearance of the microorganisms that made them, organisms comprising not just a truncated branch on the tree of life but a branch that what was, for a brief while, thick and thriving.  And now gone.

 

But as fascinating as these microbiological events are I am even more curious about those that we have we missed? Most life does not make such weird and singular lipids, relying on similar biomolecular solutions to similar ecological needs. Consequently, I suspect that there are many cryptic microbiological evolutionary events, invisible to the molecular fossil record. And by extension, are these simple organisms – the single-celled bacteria, archaea and microalgae – as primitive and eternal as we assume?  Or is Earth history replete with exotic microbiological events – a multitude of failed experiments or singular innovations appropriate only for a moment in time – and then rendered invisible even to organic geochemists because they have not been signposted by a peculiar lipid?

The Origin of the Uncertain World Art

Everyone, gather round! I want to tell you how the marvelous @LucasAntics Park Row artwork came to pass!
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In 2014, Bristol was preparing to be the European Green Capital in 2015. Many great projects were envisioned, including collaborations with Bristol’s outstanding artists, like @lukejerram who created Withdrawn: lukejerram.com/withdrawn/ and many curated by @FestivalofIdeas.
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It had been about 50 years since the publication of J.G. Ballard’s iconic disaster novels, The Drowned World, The Burning World and my favourite, the surreal and biologically disturbing The Crystal World. Consequently, ideas were brainstormed around these.Image
These did not happen. That was probably for the best as no matter how brilliant and perceptive Ballard is, these novels have a very white, male, colonial perspective. Not ideal for our diverse city. But it simulated conversations. As @cabotinstitute Director, I was asked: “What will be the nature of our future world, under climate change?” And my answer was ‘An Uncertain World.’ We can predict warming & rainfall, but we are creating a world beyond all human experience. This was informed by our work on past climates. It has been about 3 million years since the Earth last had so much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. And the rate of increase is nearly unprecedented in Earth history. For more on these, see other Uncertain World blog pages:

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/08/17/evi…

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/08/17/an-…

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Reconstruction of climate over the past 60 million years. The d18O values show the long-term cooling of the Earth, compared to the lower figure showing the similar long-term decline of PCO2 to levels of 270 ppm… Before the Anthropocene increase to 417 ppm.

And hence the Uncertain World.

And to visualise that, we thought it would be fascinating to juxtapose our city – specifically St Werburgh’s – with it’s ancient Mesozoic past. Flooded and thriving with plesiosaurs, ammonites and icthyosaurs. And who better than @LucasAntics?Image

And so Alex created these! Thanks to @ERC_Research and @NERCscience for helping to fund it!Image
And we all loved them so much, that we got permission to paint them on the side of the @BristolUni Drama Building!
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Learn more about Alex’s great work at her website: Visit. It. Now. And be filled with joy.

lucasantics.com

To read about what we learned about the challenges of living with Uncertainty, more relevant now than ever, go here:

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2020/01/11/the… 

Fun fact: @DrHeatherBuss and I have all of the original artwork in our house! Including these drawings of a soon to be flooded St Werburgh’s. Views toward St Werburgh’s City Farm and Graffiti Tunnel!
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AND…. all* of the original drawings of the menagerie of critters, not all of whom made it into the art!

*All but one that we gave away to a young fan of Mary Anning!Image

Thank you for listening. I thank Alex and others for inspiring me to use some quirkiness, wonder and silliness as a gateway to the very serious conversations we must have about climate change and biodiversity loss. 💚 

Postscript: The Green Capital Year was amazing. I loved it our collaborations with artists, engaged citizen movements and innovators. But it was not as inclusive as it should have been. And from that lesson arose the Green and Black Ambassadors!

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Eradicating Inequity is How We Will Thrive in an Uncertain World

To thrive or even survive in our Uncertain World requires creativity, empowerment and collaboration – but most of all equity. We learned this in developing Bristol’s Resilience Strategy and is strikingly evident now as we grapple with global pandemic.

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In Bristol, a Plesiosaur and other prehistoric creatures cavort on the weathered side of an Edwardian building, the wall flooded with blue, the animals hovering over the traffic-crowded roads.  In the corner of the artwork by Alex Lucas are the words ‘The Uncertain World’ in a font torn from a 60s disaster novel. The prehistoric creatures, from a time when the world was hotter, sea levels higher and the life much different, have been juxtaposed with modern buildings and cars and are meant to be a starting point for conversations about climate change, our past and our future.

It was painted in 2015, when Bristol was the European Green Capital and a focus for dialogue co-curated by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, which had long sought to build diverse communities to understand ‘Living with Uncertainty.’

The Uncertain World mural at the University of Bristol, Painted by Alex Lucas and Sponsored by The Cabot Institute for the Environment

An Uncertain World is an apt description for today, as we face not only the long-term chronic uncertainty of climate change and wider environmental degradation but the acute uncertainty of a global pandemic and economic chaos.

But the issues and maybe the solutions – as many have already noted – are remarkably similar.

From Coronavirus we will learn what we are capable of to stop a global disaster. We will rethink what we are capable of achieving – as individuals, businesses, communities and nations.

We can also learn how to live with the challenging uncertainty that will come with even modest climate change.

In 2015, we aspired to use past climate research to create a more reflective consideration of action, resilience and adaptation. Such research explores the climate and life associated with ancient hot climates, potential analogues for our future. Those long-ancient climates contribute to our understanding of an uncertain future by reinforcing what we do know: when CO2 goes up, so does temperature.

It also shows the limitations of our own personal experiences and understanding.  It reveals, for example, that that pCO2 levels have not exceeded 400ppm for ~3 million years; that the current rate of climate change is nearly without precedent; and that ancient rapid warming has dramatic but complex consequences.

In short, it shows us just how unprecedented the world we are creating is.

But perhaps most importantly, it provides for us the otherwise absent personal and societal narratives of climate change.  None of us have experienced this Uncertain World.  Nor has our civilisation. Not even our species. Therefore, the geological past creates a space for considering what unprecedented really means, for considering living with not a statistical uncertainty but a deep uncertainty, an uncertainty that is not informed by our individual, familial, societal or even civilisation experiences.

So perhaps it is not surprising that our conversations entirely predicted the debates we are now having daily about how to address the Covid-19 emergency, and in particular the lack of consensus about how to act when we have no shared experience on which to draw.

Unlike the current passionate debate about pandemic (and climate) action, however, the Uncertain World also allowed us to relocate discussion away from modern divisive politics to the ancient past and unknown futures, thereby creating a place of reflection. Through this, we collaboratively explored what we know or do not about our past and future, renewing motivation for climate action. But perhaps most importantly, by focusing on the uncertainty in the Earth system, we explored the creative forms of resilience that will be required in the coming century (Cabot Institute Report on Living with Environmental Uncertainty.pdf).  And all of this contributed to the creation of Bristol’s Resilience Strategy (Bristol Resilience Strategy-2n5wmn3) and then its One City Plan.

And the findings from those discussions are identical to what we are learning today: equity must be at the centre of any society that hopes to withstand the shocks of uncertainty.

In our conversations, we as a City identified five principles that must shape our resilience. Society must be liveable, agile, sustainable and connected. And most of all, fair.  Although we might choose different words in the fire of a pandemic, the principles are fundamentally the same as those we debate right now. Of course, we aspire to live – and not just to live but to enjoy life and have a high quality of life.  But to do so, we must live and act sustainably and within the means of ourselves, our families, our society and our planet. The Covd-19 crisis is acutely showing what we really value to enjoy life, the differences between what we think we need and what we really need; and in doing so, it is showing us new pathways to sustainability.

To thrive in an uncertain world, we must also be agile. And that means that we must be flexible and creative and have the power to act on those creative impulses and innovative ideas. Some agility can come from centralised government and sometimes it must, such as the decisions to close some businesses and financially support their vulnerable employees; build new hospitals; and repurpose factories to make ventilators. However, the agility that is often the most effective for dealing with the specifics of a crisis arise from our communities and individuals. That requires a benevolent sharing of power – not just political but economic. Communities need the resources to decide how to manage floods and food shortages locally – and the decision-making political power to act on those. Likewise, we need the power and resources to support our vulnerable neighbours during a pandemic, and to support the local businesses and their employees struggling to survive an economic shutdown.

The counterpoint to agility – of an individual, community or nation – is connectivity. We cannot adapt and thrive and survive on our own. The individual who builds a fortress will soon run out of food. Or medicine. Or entertainment. The nation that disconnects from others will find itself in bidding wars for ventilators and vaccines. And perhaps eventually resources and food,

Inevitably though, every single resilience or adaptation or preparedness conversation leads to fairness; to equity and inclusion. The wealthy have power, agency and agility.  The wealthy have the means to build a fortress while remaining connected. The wealthy can stockpile food. They can hire equipment to build flood walls around their estates. They can flee famines and cross borders.

They can flee pandemic.

They can choose how they work. Or whether to work.

They can access virus tests long before the rest of us.

The bitter irony is that we have learned from the Covid-19 crisis what we always knew: that those who are often the least respected, the least paid, the most vulnerable are the most essential.  They are the ones who harvest our food and get it to our stores and homes. They work the front lines of the health services. They are the ones who keep the electricity and water operating. And the internet that allows University Professors to work while self-isolating.

And the poorest in our societies will die because of it.

The same will be true of the looming climate change disaster – but more slowly and likely far worse. It will come first through heat waves that in some parts of the world make it impossible to work; through extreme climate events that devastate especially the most vulnerable infrastructure. And then it will devastate food production and global food supply chains. It will displace millions, at least tens of millions due to (the most optimistic estimates) of sea level rise alone, and then potentially hundreds of millions more due to drought and famine.

Who will suffer?  Those who must labour in the outdoor heat of fields and cities. Those who are already suffering food poverty.  Those who cannot flee across increasingly rigid borders from a rising sea or a famine. Climate change is classist and it is racist. It is genocide by indifference.

And unlike a pandemic, the wealthy cannot simply wait out climate change. They will either succumb to the same crumbling structures as the rest of us; or they will be forced to entrench their power via ever more extreme means. There is a reason why nearly every dystopian story is ultimately a story about class struggle.

But we can address that if we are learn the lessons of today and elevate the values of equity and community that make us stronger together. And if we build societies that embody those values – societies that recognise that prosperity is not a zero sum game. We can horde or we can share food on a world where less is produced.  We can leave everyone to themselves or guarantee people a home and an income. We can put up walls or tear them down.  We can sink boats carrying refugees or we can build them. Coronavirus has exposed the inequities in our society, but it has also shown that we can end them if the desire is great enough. And in that, there is hope.

A resilient world, a strong world, a world that will survive this pandemic and that will survive the coming climate catastrophes must more than anything be an equitable world. There is no reason for it not to be.

Mya-Rose Craig is Bristol’s Youngest Recipient of an Honorary Degree for Championing Equity in the Conservation Sector

On 20 February, the University of Bristol gave Mya-Rose Craig, Birdgirl, an honorary degree.  It was a pleasure to nominate her with Amy Walsh and an honour to give her oration – shared below so that all can understand why she is so very deserving of this accolade.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor:

It is my great pleasure to introduce Mya-Rose Shanti Craig, a birder, naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, racial equality activist, writer and speaker; the youngest person on whom the University of Bristol has ever bestowed an honorary doctorate degree; and one of the youngest to receive this honour from any UK institution.

You have all worked so hard to earn your place here today, 3 to 4 years for those of you receiving BSc, MSci and MSc degrees and a lot longer for those of you receiving PhDs. We are so proud of all of you and honouring your achievement is a privilege and it is an obligation.

To bestow a comparable honour on someone who is only 17 years old is not a decision we take lightly. It is reserved for those who are leading truly special projects. Courageous projects. Transformative projects. Mya-Rose is doing exactly that.

I have known Mya-Rose for five years, ever since she served as an Ambassador during Bristol’s Year as the UK’s first – and still the only – European Green Capital. If you drove here, you know that Bristol did not receive that accolade for its lack of cars and congestion. It was awarded largely because of its people and their thriving, grassroots initiatives that have made Bristol a centre of environmental and sustainability innovation and leadership.

Even at 13, Mya-Rose was one of those people. She had already achieved international acclaim as one of the world’s youngest birders (and in fact, this past year, she became the youngest person to ever see 5,369 birds, half the world’s species). And at 13, she was leveraging that acclaim to advocate for a variety of environmental, conservation and climate change causes.

Those are impressive achievements, but they are not why we honour Mya-Rose today.

We do so because of how she has used her platform to campaign for diversity and inclusion – and because she resolutely and bravely continues to do so, despite numerous racial attacks.

It is not uncommon now to highlight the lack of diversity in the environmental movement. Mya-Rose, in 2016 at an age of 14, was one of the first to raise this issue as the one major failure of an otherwise lauded Green Capital year. She used her various platforms – from talks to festivals to social media – to draw attention to this lack of diversity in the conservation movement, especially the dearth of visible minority ethnic members.

Many applauded her for calling attention to it.

But some dismissed it as imagined or irrelevant.

Others told her to be quiet.

Some told her that she was undermining her own beloved conservation causes by pointing out these concerns.

Some blamed it on the marginalised communities themselves.

Some went further, hurling vitriol at her, attacking her ethnicity and perceived faith, her family, her citizenship and her ‘Britishness.’

Mya-Rose met these attacks with bravery and fierce resistance. She continued to highlight those issues; she called out esteemed institutions including our wildlife trusts, the wildlife media and universities. She called out this University. She called out me as Director of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment.  She asked what we were doing or not doing; what implicit or explicit barriers had we erected; how were we going to tear them down?

But not only did she challenge, she created. She created fora where these issues could be shared, explored and debated. In 2016, she organised the Race Equality in Nature conference, to look at the barriers to VME people going out into nature, at what can be done to overcome those barriers and at our shared responsibility to create and provide platforms for role models. Including speakers such as Bill Oddie and MP Kerry McCarthy, it was one of the critical post-Green Capital conversations to explore the challenges of equity in environmental movements.

She hosted a second conference featuring Chris Packham, Bristol Deputy Mayor Cllr Asher Craig, and RSPB CEO Beccy Speight, in 2019. And she is now developing a third aimed at the Wildlife Media sector, focusing on how the conservation community is portrayed in magazines and on television.

Mya-Rose is not going to stop challenging institutions, but she does recognise that the lack of VME engagement is complex. And so, she has also organised nine nature camps, Camp Avalon for urban teenagers and Camp Chew for children, bringing more than 100 young people into our forests, wilderness and nature – often for the first time. She is organising more this year, even as she prepares for her A-levels.

Mya-Rose has formalised these efforts by creating Black2Nature, through which she has spoken on television and at numerous festivals. She speaks powerfully, directly and eloquently with intelligence and with wisdom. She does not hide behind social media but engages with groups and people directly. I am proud to know her.

Because of the unusual nature of Mya-Rose’s Honorary Degree, we’ve been asked a lot of questions. Does the University endorse everything she says? I’m not sure that can be answered unequivocally ‘yes’ for any Honouree, but the answer in her case is: ‘No. Of course not.’ The whole point is that she is provocative, challenging and bold.

We’ve been asked, ‘Is she just a symbol?’ Without doubt, she is symbolic of the need to tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency, the vital importance that this effort be globally diverse, equitable and united, and the central role that youth have taken in demanding action. But no, we do not give awards for symbols. We give degrees to outstanding people like you who have earned them. We give honorary degrees to outstanding people like Mya-Rose, who have made great contributions to society.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Mya-Rose Shanti Craig as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

 

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At the party afterwards! More official photos to come!

NOTE: This speech rightfully focuses on and celebrates Mya-Rose.  But her family has been a great part of her journey and all deserve to share in this celebration!

The Uncertain World Project – Engagement to build Action

The ERC-funded Greenhouse Earth System (TGRES) explored the climate, ecology and biogeochemical processes associated with ancient hot climates, potential analogues for our future. Ancient climate research contributes to public dialogue by reinforcing our understanding (or lack thereof) of contemporary processes and change. It is particularly powerful because it conveys such knowledge via narratives of past events that complement forecasts for the future (Pancost, Nature Geoscience 2017). Aspects of TGRES research that are critical to understanding our future include: (i) determining that pCO2 levels have not exceeded 400ppm for ~3 million years; (ii) further evidence that the current rate of climate change is nearly without precedent; and (iii) showing that rapid warming has dramatic but complex hydrological and biogeochemical consequences.

The goal of TGRES public engagement was to use past climate change research to curate a space for dialogue, thereby building public ambition for bolder climate action and more creative approaches to resilience.  Central to our engagement strategy was relocating discussion away from the current policy debate to ancient worlds, thereby creating a place of reflection – what we called the Uncertain World.  We collaboratively explored what we know or do not about our past and future, renewing motivation for climate action. Moreover, by focusing on the uncertainty in the Earth system, we explored the creative forms of resilience that will be required in the coming century.

It gained a large platform when Bristol became the European Green Capital, and TGRES PI Pancost became its Scientific Advisor. We co-curated the Uncertain World by writing Bristol 2015’s opening call for action and hosting one of the flagship Summits – a two-day forum with city, national and international stakeholders, informed by public contributions gathered through the year. The Summit’s conclusions were further explored with the public, including via a discussion with the Mayor. We also collaborated on ~30 other events, including contributions to 3 Festivals, 2 other Summits and the Green Capital Arts Program (with Pancost writing its Introduction, co-hosting talks with the Festival of Ideas, co-curating the Fog Bridge Installation, advising on @Bristol’s Blue Marvel movie and co-sponsoring Withdrawn with the National Trust). The Uncertain World’s images of Mesozoic sea animals swimming through the streets of Bristol are now a fixture of Bristol’s street art.

Collectively, these events reached >100,000 people; combined with the final report (Cabot Institute Report on Living with Environmental Uncertainty.pdf), they were a major part of Bristol’s public dialogue in 2015-2016 to build political action. Pancost attended COP21 with Mayor G Ferguson (the official UK City Delegation) and supported his commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050, a pledge repeated by his successor Marvin Rees and then enshrined in the One City Plan (on which Pancost was an official advisor and which was a 2019 finalist for the EU Capital of Innovation). Bristol’s decarbonisation target was accelerated to 2030, when we became the first UK city to declare a Climate Emergency. The Uncertain World was also central to Bristol’s Resilience Strategy (one of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities); Pancost was invited to join the Resilience Sounding Board where TGRES research created a space of constructive uncertainty, contributing to the co-creation of shared resilience principles. Perhaps most importantly, the Uncertain World program changed scope to refocus on inclusion and equity in the environmental movement, leading to the Green and Black Conversation and Ambassadors Program.

This is adapted from the ERC report (ERC TGRES Engagement Report – Uncertain World and Green & Black) on engagement as part of the TGRES Project.

 

 

Youth, Extinction and Power; the Present and the Future.

It always starts the same.  Whether by tweet, e-mail or after a talk about climate change.  It is always a young person, always apologetic, almost always anxious.  And then the question comes:

“Are we going to go extinct?”

[Aside from anything else that follows in this blog, the leaders of this world need to understand how horrific their negligence has been that so many young people feel compelled to ask this.]

And my answer is always long and contextual. What actions will we take to check the harm we are doing to our planet? What poorly constrained feedbacks might lurk in the system, and will they amplify or mitigate human action?  How will we respond to the environmental change that we fail to stop?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that neither the collapse of civilisation nor the extinction of humanity nor an uninhabitable Earth is predestined under any future warming scenario.  In the worst warming scenarios, what will happen is that:

Species will go extinct, are already going extinct.

Cultures will go extinct, their lifestyles obliterated by a rapidly changing planet.

Nations will go extinct, buried by rising seas.

But humanity? Even if we fail to limit warming to 1.5C or 2C or even 4C, that hardly means we are doomed.  The Earth is habitable at far higher temperatures, including at temperatures far exceeding any we are likely to achieve due to human activity. It will be devastating and catastrophic.  Rising sea level will lead to inundated cities; food production will be stressed and could collapse; extreme weather events will become even more common, devastating more lives; infrastructure designed for a different world will break or become obsolete; health services will be stressed to their limit by heat waves and infectious diseases but also the mental health challenges of displacement. And all of these will most devastate the poor and vulnerable – globally and in our own countries.  It will be racist, classist, oppressive…. And tens to hundreds of millions could die.

But the magnitude of that crisis, for any future warming scenario, will be dictated less by physics and biology and more by the the all-too-fickle human response to the stress that rapid climate change will impose on civilisation.  It will lead to drought and that could lead to famine, starvation and refugee crises.  Regional conflicts.  War.  Even global war.

All of that – even catastrophic nuclear war – is possible.  But it is not inevitable.

If climate change is an existential threat it is because of our doubts about our own ability to fairly and justly navigate its terrible outcomes.

So why parse this catastrophe?  Why split hairs between the deaths of millions or billions?

Because the “extinction of all us” narrative destroys hope and because it removes the social justice dimensions of this crisis. Extinction is a looming threat, but that threat is far greater for some than for others.  And for many – for indigenous peoples and for the global south and for marginalised groups in all countries – it is not the first existential threat.  And it will not be the last. If we ‘all lives matter’ the climate crisis, there is a great risk that we justify exploitative solutions that replicate the injustices of the current world.  As a geologist, I can assure you that there are versions of a fossil free world that are just as damaging to nature and the environment, just as exploitative of labour and dismissive of human rights, and just as great a threat to human life as the one we live in now.

But as more and more young people have come to me with these questions, I realised that there was a deeper reason to draw this distinction between catastrophe and extinction. The fear of extinction motivates action during this moment of critical urgency – and do not stop demanding that urgency – but it also undermines the power and agency of the youth who are so bravely and assuredly seizing power from the leaders too cowardly to use it themselves.

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Photo of UK University students attending the LCOYUK Conference in Manchester.

This is what I tell the youth striking around the world and who come to me with questions about extinction and the survival of humanity:

Everything you do matters. Climate change is not a binary challenge, in which the world wins or loses.  It is complex and gradational and every achievement that limits warming or environmental degradation should be celebrated.

Every failure matters.  Do not yield the stage or concede the fight or sacrifice urgency.  Because if every action saves lives, every failure to do so costs them.

In short, your power is not conditional on a specific outcome. It thrives in every protest, march and strike; every action taken; every person engaged.

But most importantly, it is you who will be shaping the future, the world of our success or failure.  You will have the power to decide how we respond to the climate change that has occurred.

I imagine a world in 20 to 30 years, where we are sitting together, a world 1.7 C warmer or 2C warmer or 2.6C warmer.  And in all, we will rue what we failed to achieve while acknowledging our success at preventing worse.  But I will be old and retired and you will be leaders of industry and government; and you will the ones with the power to shape that world.  You will decide how to equitably manage food shortages.  You will decide whether to embrace climate refugees or build walls.  You will decide whether it is a just and fair world or nativist and divided one.  You decide if climate change leads to conflict leads to war.  Those are not inevitabilities; they are decisions that will be made by you.

You are seizing power now and using it to demand action and hold governments to account. Hold on to that power and use it for good.  It is not my place to dictate how you use that power; I do not have that right and one might argue that it is my and previous generation’s failure to exercise power for good that has gotten us into this mess.  But I do have four suggestions.

Although symbolic power can reside in individuals, the power that actually delivers change resides in communities.

You are not allowed to ever give up, but you are allowed to rest.

You can be heroes, but you are not saviours.

And most importantly, because many of you come from a position of privilege, you must do what almost all who have come before you have failed to do. You must learn how to share your power.

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Deep Sea – and the discovery of a new methane sink

I grew up in Ohio, far from the Ocean; and growing up on a dairy farm left no opportunity for vacations to visit it either. We had the muddy freshness and summer warmth of lakes and reservoirs, ponds and rivers, but no salty air, no sense of unfathomable expanse and depth. But one of the joys of geology is that your lab is global, and my work has taken me across the Ocean and into its depths and deep into its history. It  has taken me to the ancient shallow carbonate platform seas of the Ordovician teeming with crinoids, brachipods and exotic microbial mats, the continent-bisecting Western Interior Seaway of the Cretaceous, and sediment-choked marginal seas of Cenozoic Tanazania. And to understand these ancient seas, my work has taken me across those of the world today.

My first research expedition was in 1999, during my postdoctoral fellowship at the Netherlands Institute of Sea Research. One day, my supervisor Jaap came into the office and asked me if I’d be interested in participating in a research expedition in the Mediterranean Sea, accompanied by submersible dives to the seafloor. I nearly knocked over my chair jumping up to say yes, before recovering my ‘cool’ an hour later to find him and soberly and professionally ask what important scientific questions we were going to address.

The Medinaut expedition was a joint Dutch-French expedition on the L’Atalante to explore mud volcanoes, methane cycling, microbial cold seeps and their associated ecoystems in the Mediterranean Sea.

Target areas for the MediNaut expedition: mud volcano regions in the Mediterranean Sea, formed in part by the tectonic stress of Africa and Europe colliding.

Led by great colleagues, including John Woodside, Catherine Pierre and Gert de Lange and including lifelong friends such as Vanni Aloisi, we explored stress and fracture zones that allow ancient, fluid-drenched sediments to burst onto the seafloor as 1 to 2 km wide cones of ancient mud.  These are beautiful places, especially where the fluids are saturated with Messinian-infused salt brines, resulting in ultra-saline rivers, ponds and lakes sitting serene and toxic on the Mediterranean seafloor.

What was of greatest interest to myself and a few colleagues was the biogeochemistry fuelled by these escaping fluids.  In particular, methane bubbled or seeped from the seafloor, and methane is as magnificent a fuel for microorganisms life as it is for heating your home – the reaction of oxygen with methane produces a great amount of energy (what we chemically refer to as redox energy).  However, in the preceding years, evidence had hinted that methane in the seafloor was oxidised to carbon dioxide long before it reached the oxygen near the seafloor and instead was oxidised at greater depths by sulfate.  Sulfate is very abundant in seawater, one of six major ions alongside sodium and chlorine, contributing to its saltiness; but compared to oxygen it is a poor oxidant of methane and yields far less energy. In fact, despite hints to the otherwise, it was debated whether the reaction – termed anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) due to the lack of oxygen – could even support life.

(A compilation of images from the MediNaut expedition, best viewed in Internet Explorer)

Our mission was to explore which reactions were dominant and which microorganisms mediated them and exploited them for energy.

The rubbery black mats formed by these organisms are spread across the seafloor of the Napoli mud volcano; you can see them in the video above and the image below, where they sit at the top of seeps, at the sources of the thin brine streams running down the flanks of Napoli.  It was exhilarating when we first recovered one of these mats, a challenge due to the soft, fluid-soaked sediment that resisted core recovery, and I remember working tirelessly at the lab bench to carefully partition our first small, thin piece of mat and the underlying sediment.  It reeked of hydrogen sulfide, the product of sulfate reduction and the putative AOM reaction: hydrogen sulfide is normally the disgusting smell of rotting eggs but in this case it was the exciting smell of discovery, evidence that we had uncovered a mat of these mysterious organisms.

Black microbial mats on the surface of the Napoli Mud Volcano. The white halos are salt precipitates, leftovers from the saline brine that flowed from the seeps.

Allow me to digress.  Research expeditions are fraught with tales of adventure and misadventure; the sequel to Medinaut – MediNeth on the R/V Logachev – certainly was, with Libyan helicopters, broken winches, a twice-becalmed ship, and a bit of boredom, vodka and poor nutrition-fueled madness.  There are fewer tales from Medinaut.  However, L’Atalante had its own perils.  The canteen, unfortunately, was at the prow of the ship which of course experiences the greatest pitch on stormy seas. After sampling those first mats – bent over, with no horizon in site, the fumes of hydrogen sulfide in my nostrils – we were called to dinner.  After five minutes it hit me.  It gave me 30 seconds.  I stood up; stepped onto the table as I had been pressed along the bench against the ship wall; walked across the table, across my colleagues’ meals, not saying a word; strode into the nearest WC, purposely, without undue haste; and proceeded to ‘decorate’ every cm of that WC.  I was sea sick for the rest of the trip, my only reprieve coming on my own submersible dive as the yellow submarine Nautile, slipped into the twilight zone, below the swish and turn of the waves. I could not eat strong French cheese for at least five years after.

And aside from an amusing anecdote, that is a story of chemistry.  Because that foul stench of hydrogen sulfide is also the food and fuel of vast seafloor ecosystems.  You can see the scattered black mats of the AOM microorganisms in the video but equally widespread are fluffy white filamentous strands of sulfide-oxidising bacteria. They also thrive on chemical energy, the energy from chemical systems out of balance and striving to reach a new equilibrium in an oxygen-rich ocean.  And that chemical energy, alongside that of AOM and converted into organic compounds, is the basis for entire deep seafloor ecosystems.  The otherwise barren Mediterranean seafloor thrives with life – tubeworms sprout and grow, mollusks sprinkle the seafloor, and fish and crabs swim and skittle amongst them.  Here, however, the episodic nature of this chemical fuel means that we find not only isolated colonies of organisms but also their graveyards, from feast to famine as dictated by these ephemeral streams.

Sights and smells, while visceral and providing pointed clues, are insufficient to resolve the questions with which we embarked. Those were resolved in the lab, by genetic profiling of the mats and mapping of methane isotope signatures into diagnostic lipid biomarkers.  We found in these sediments surprisingly high concentrations of archaeal lipids – surprising because 20 years ago Archaea were predominantly known for their role in methanogenesis, producing rather than consuming methane.  However, methane has a unique isotopic composition having relatively more of the dominant 12C (carbon with 6 neutrons and 6 protons and comprising about 99% of all carbon on Earth) than 13C.  And we were able to trace that specific isotope signature into these archaeal lipids, confirming their ecology as methane-utilising organisms.

But also into bacterial lipids.  And so our work revealed that it was not a single microorganism mediating this reaction but rather syntrophic organisms acting in tandem. This explained why it had been so difficult to culture them, but it also created a new enigma because this syntrophy required that the sparse energy yield of the AOM reaction be divided even further.

Of course, we were not the only ones investigating this – in fact, we were pipped to the first publication –  and certainly not the last. Kai-Uwe Hinrichs first discovered these novel Archaea and Marcus Elvert, Volker Thiel and others were simultaneously discovering other lipid signatures.  Many many others, including Antje Boetius and Vicky Orphan, drove the work forward, using increasingly innovative methods and always at the cutting edge of the environmental genomic revolution that continues to this day.

But perhaps one of my favorite follow on findings was that of my colleague Vanni, who was on the expedition as a PhD student, studying the massive calcium carbonate crusts that had also formed on the Mediterranean seafloor.  Their presence at methane seeps had been an enigma.  The oxidation of methane forms carbon dioxide, which is an acid in seawater and dissolves calcium carbonate – analogous to the ocean acidification problem caused by fossil fuel burning.  However, Vanni, colleagues and I showed that the carbonate crusts of the Mediterranean mud volcanoes were packed with biomarkers for methane-oxidising organisms.  But not the old oxygen-utilising organisms; the new anaerobic ones.  And these organisms do not form carbon dioxide but bicarbonate, not the acid but the base, not something that dissolves calcium carbonate but precipitates it.

Thick carbonate crusts formed by AOM. Between them are mounds of dead tube worms, animals that host chemical energy harvesting chemosymbionts. Also note the piece of plastic – evidence even twenty years that the plastic detritus of our civilisation is ubiquitous.

And that is a marvelous example of a negative feedback in the Earth system.  As our oceans warm and methane hydrates dissolve and methane begins to seep from the seafloor in other parts of the world, there are organisms that can adapt, colonise, thrive and consume that methane.  Not only with oxygen but with sulfate.  And not only converting methane to carbon dioxide, but locking that carbon back up as thick carbonate crusts. These organisms grow slowly, and there is no guarantee that they prevent the release of methane due to global warming. But it is a useful reminder that the Earth system contains not just positive feedbacks of thawing permafrost and melting ice but also negative feedbacks that on long enough timescales help keep our planet’s climate in balance.

And that is probably the main lesson of marine-based research.  The sense of balance, of slowness and adaptation.  That life thrives on a balanced Earth.  And it helps preserve that balance, such that when the balance is disrupted, some organisms can thrive – like the ecosystems that thrive in the chemical imbalance of reduced chemical species injected into an oxidising ocean. And yet that balance is fragile; just as entire ecosystems thrive on that chemical energy, they perish when the source of energy is removed; just as microorganisms can act as sinks to methane emissions caused by global warming, they could grow too slowly for that sink to be effective.

Humanity, in contrast, is fast and urgent, and within a geological blink we have transformed our planet. Perhaps we need to rediscover the pace and balance of the ocean.  Its slowness and persistence.  Its peace and equilibrium. Perhaps we need to slow down to once again experience the feelings the ocean inspires in us as we watch waves crash on the beach, or float upon its surface or dive into its depths.

For the chemists! A gas chromatogram showing the major lipids present in cold seep sediment. The compounds are biomarkers for Bacteria and Archaea, as well as phytoplankton detritus. And the numbers are the carbon isotopic compositions of those compounds, with the lowest, most negative values indicating consumption of methane.

The Machine’s Scar on Humanity and the History of Life

We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.

It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change.  But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.

A scar in the history of life

Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment?  The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky.  Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.

But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.

Related image
The End Cretaceous Boundary, from New Zealand (GNS)

It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse.  The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts.  We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.

Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal.  We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives.  And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.

We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm.  The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.

I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope.  Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.

We have failed to prevent extinction and loss.  But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.

But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves

The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.

The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change.  But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency.  It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.

Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  Far more.

This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice.  Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality.  It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest.  And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity.  My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide.  And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.

So we will struggle.  With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.

But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future.  They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it.  But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts.  They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.

I have hope that they will not choose the latter path.  The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms.  And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege.  A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.

And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices.  The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature.  We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.

Bristol Youth Councillors March for Climate Justice in advance of the Paris COP21 negotiations

A response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

The decision by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change puts the United States at odds with both science and global geopolitical norms.  The fundamentals of climate change remain unambiguous: greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, they are increasing because of human action, the increase will cause warming, and that warming creates risks of extreme weather, food crises and sea level rise. That does not mean that scientists can predict all of the consequences of global warming, much work needs to be done, but the risks are both profound and clear. Nor do we know what the best solutions will be – there is need for a robust debate about the nature, fairness and efficacy of different decarbonisation policies and technologies as well as the balance of responsibility; the Paris Agreement, despite its faults with respect to obligation and enforcement, allowed great flexibility in that regard, which is why nearly every nation on Earth is a signatory.

Moreover, although climate change affects us all, it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most. They, despite being least responsible, bear the greatest risks and the greatest burdens. For the President of the world’s second largest carbon polluter to blatantly disregard such evidence and injustice, to refuse to even acknowledge the consequences of its actions and to disengage with this relatively modest and non-binding agreement puts it odds with the norms of global partnership and human rights. This abrogation of responsibility is particularly profound because President Trump has also withdrawn the United States from the Green Climate Fund, which helps the poorest of the world adapt to the climate change that his actions make more likely.

And to what end?  Other nations will now assume global leadership, politically, morally and technologically.  It will likely cost American businesses money, hinder innovation in one of the world’s most dynamic sectors, and ultimately cost jobs. It will likely undermine the United States’ global stature and diplomatic reach. It is hard to imagine a decision so blatantly motivated by self-interest while being so profoundly self-harming.

The crucial question now is how we respond.  China and the EU have stepped forward, increasing their voluntary commitments, repudiating President Trump’s decision and assuming the mantle of leadership.  Nations around the world are following suit, as are cities and states across the United States.  Businesses have re-stated their commitment to decarbonisation – ironically, the day before Trump’s decision, shareholders voted that Exxon develop plans compliant with the Paris Agreement’s targets.  In the UK, in the midst of a general election, parties from across the political spectrum have responded to Trump’s decision with reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage. The UK has always provided leadership in this arena, recognising that climate change is a non-partisan issue, and it is one of the few nations with a cross party Climate Change Act.  It is vital for both the planet and the UK that these initial comments are followed by bolder actions and stronger leadership.

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We will not be stopped.

Across the world and in the University of Bristol, we are frustrated with the symbolism of Trump’s actions, his speech’s misrepresentation of facts, and his decision’s potential to slow climate action.  But we also recognise that these actions will not stop climate action. The responses of local, national and international leaders, in politics, community groups and businesses, across sectors and across society show that no person, regardless of his position or his nation, can stop the energy revolution. It is too deeply embedded in our politics, economy and ambitions, borne of out of multiple necessities.

Here, in the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, we remain committed to this challenge.  Our University is committed to carbon neutrality, ethical and low-carbon procurement and divestment from fossil fuel-intensive businesses. We have foregrounded Sustainable Futures in our undergraduate teaching.  And in our research, we are investigating improved energy efficiency in everything from computer software, to our homes and our cities.  We are exploring how smart technology enables new forms of transport, community energy and individual action. We are converting nuclear waste into diamond batteries with 5000-year lifetimes, we are leading one of the projects under the Natural Environment Research Council’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction programme and we have just launched new initiatives in wind, tidal, solar and nuclear energy.

Our ambitions are at all scales, from the local to the global.  We continue to work with our Green Capital partners, with a focus on building an informed, diverse, inclusive and powerful movement to become a more sustainable city and region, exemplified by the Green and Black Ambassadors Initiative.  Globally, our projects have been exploring the impact of conflict, climate change and geological hazards on development and the environment; the potential for micro-grids to deliver electricity to isolated communities; new forms of parasite resistance for subsistence farmers; and how geothermal energy can be harnessed in Ethiopia.

This commitment to sustainability builds on five decades of research on our environmental challenges and how to manage them.  The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group makes among the world’s most accurate measurements of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and they have shown how rapidly these compounds are accumulating. They are committed to refining those measurements and the modelling methods that allow us to understand why global emissions change. The Bristol Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment reconstructs past climates and uses those insights to better understand our future; recent projects are building global collaborations to explore the controls on Earth’s temperature and monsoons.  Our glaciologists study sea level rise; our hydrologists study floods and drought; our social scientists study the injustice of climate change and its impact on migration and conflict; and our vets and life scientists are exploring how to improve animal welfare and crop yields on a climate disrupted planet.

Our commitment includes appointing the best and the brightest at understanding these challenges, including Dr Dann Mitchell who joined the University in November.  As co-ordinator of the largest dedicated project in the world on the climate impacts of the Paris Agreement (www.happimip.org), he sums up the Cabot Institute’s collective commitment: “The news of Trump wanting to pull out is incredibly frustrating. Our results are already suggesting more extreme events, such as droughts and heat waves, and serious impacts on society, such as increased human and animal health issues, failures in global crop distributions and bleaching of our coral reefs. I am frustrated that Trump continues to ignore the scientific evidence that has been recognised by his global peers, but that will not dissuade us from doing all we can to understand climate risks… and prevent them.’