CERES (Climate, Energy and Carbon in the Earth System) PhD Opportunities

We have two exciting PhD Opportunities (starting Oct 2023 but flexible) as part of CERES!!

(Note that these are UKRI funded and therefore primarily aimed at UK applicants, but exceptional international applicants can be considered)

CERES Project Background

Microbial processes in terrestrial settings are critical to governing greenhouse gas emissions. The modern carbon soil reservoir exceeds that of terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere combined, and soil microorganisms annually cycle 1/3 of the carbon photosynthesised and account for the largest natural methane flux to the atmosphere. In doing so, they govern the chemical and climatic state of our planet. And yet these processes remain poorly understood as they are mediated by a range of environmental factors. Insight can be derived from geological archives that document the responses of biogeochemical systems to past environmental perturbations across a range of timescales from 1000s to millions of years. Our previous studies on peat and lignites provide tantalising insights into climate-driven disruption of the carbon cycle, but the underlying mechanisms remain unresolved. This PhD, as part of the wider CERES project, will address that by exploring the organic geochemistry of peatlands that have undergone radical transformation – from drying and degradation to restoration to flooding.


PROJECT TITLE: Fates of peatland carbon under different nutrient regimes

Lead Institution: University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences and School of Chemistry

Lead Supervisor: Dr Casey Bryce, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

Co-Supervisor: Professor Rich Pancost, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

Other Co-Supervisors: Professor Angela Gallego-Sala; Geography, University of Exeter; Dr David Naafs, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol; Dr Heather Buss, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

Project Enquiries: or

Everglades peat (with alligator)

Sunset over Dartmoor ombrotrophic bog
Sub-tropical peat and temperate peat from Dartmoor. How do different nutrient regimes drive different microbiology and different biomarker signatures?

Project Aims and Methods:

Peatlands are sensitive responders to and recorders of climate and environmental change. They play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle via the burial of organic carbon and the production of methane. Most work has focused on temperate and subarctic peatland, but recent work including our own pilot analyses suggests that tropical peatland carbon cycling and the associated bacterial and archaeal communities could be markedly different. Higher temperatures, higher nutrient concentrations and more woody (and lignin-rich) biomass will all impact the pathways by which organic matter is recycled and degraded.

We will explore and compare environmental and biogeochemical disruptions in Welsh, English, Swedish, Panamanian and Colombian peatlands (and potentially peatlands from Uganda, the DRC and Papua New Guinea). The specific sites and time intervals will be developed in collaboration with the PhD student and the supervisory team, but we are particularly interested in comparing and contrasting the microbial pathways of organic matter preservation/decomposition under different nutrient regimes. Under some nutrient replete conditions, for example, nitrate and Fe could serve as electron acceptors – contributing to anaerobic organic matter degradation, mitigating methanogenesis and serving as oxidants in the anaerobic oxidation of methane. We will determine how different nutrient conditions and different climatic regimes give rise to different microbial communities, organic matter preservation and organic matter composition. This knowledge will vastly improve our understanding of how microorganisms dictate the climatic impacts of peatland perturbations now and in Earth’s history.

Background reading and references

Ritson JP, Alderson DM, Robinson CH, Burkitt AE, Heinemeyer A, Stimson AG et al. Towards a microbial process-based understanding of the resilience of peatland ecosystem service provisioning – A research agenda. Science of the Total Environment. 2021 Mar 10;759. 143467.

Patzner, M.S., Logan, M., McKenna, A.M. et al. Microbial iron cycling during palsa hillslope collapse promotes greenhouse gas emissions before complete permafrost thaw. Commun Earth Environ 3, 76 (2022).

Pancost, R.D., Sinninghe Damsté, J.S., 2003, Carbon isotopic compositions of prokaryotic lipids as tracers of carbon cycling in diverse settings.  Chem Geol 195: 29-58.


PROJECT TITLE: The Organic Geochemistry of Peat in Transition

Lead Institution: University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences and School of Chemistry

Lead Supervisor: Professor Rich Pancost, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

Co-Supervisor: Dr David Naafs, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol

Other Co-Supervisors: Dr Casey Bryce, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol; Professor Angela Gallego-Sala; Geography, University of Exeter

Project Enquiries:

A degraded upland blanket bog (Brecon Beacons) currently being restored. How does degradation and restoration impact microbial metabolism and carbon flow?


Project Aims and Methods:

Peat and lignite deposits have long been used to explore past changes in climate, especially changes in temperature and precipitation. However, peat deposits can also document the biogeochemical responses to those environmental changes.  To explore these, a wide range of approaches have been developed based on changes in the bulk composition of peat, transformations in specific environmentally sensitive biomolecules and tracers for specific microbial communities. However, they have been developed and applied to a relatively narrow range of relatively unaltered temperate and subarctic peatlands.  This project will focus on a range of peatlands that have experienced dramatic transformations, including drainage, drying and restoration and from a range of climate regimes from the Arctic to the Tropics.

We will explore and compare environmental and biogeochemical disruptions in Welsh, English, Swedish, Panamanian and Colombian peatlands (and potentially peatlands from Uganda, the DRC and Papua New Guinea). The specific sites and time intervals will be developed in collaboration with the PhD student and the supervisory team, but we are particularly interested in documenting sites that have experienced drying, drainage and restoration, allowing us to explore the biomolecular signature of disruption as well as its persistence. We will determine how these disruptions affected rates of carbon accumulation and the overall chemical composition of the peat, as well as the associated microbial communities that are involved with its stepwise degradation to simpler substrates and eventually CO2 and methane. Working with the wider CERES team, the PhD student will apply new lipidomic techniques, especially those arising from the distribution of unusual archaeal and bacterial membrane lipids, to ascertain the relationships between past changes in peatland hydrology, microbial metabolism, and carbon cycling.

Background reading and references

Huang, X. et al., 2018, Response of carbon cycle to drier conditions in the mid-Holocene in central China. Nature communications 9, 1369.

Inglis, G.N. et al., 2019, d13C values of bacterial hopanoids and leaf waxes as tracers for methanotrophy in peatlands. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 260, 244-256.

Pancost, R.D., Sinninghe Damsté, J.S., 2003, Carbon isotopic compositions of prokaryotic lipids as tracers of carbon cycling in diverse settings.  Chem Geol 195: 29-58.


Information for both posts

Candidate requirements

The Organic Geochemistry Unit (OGU) and the Biogeochemistry Group in earthhas a long history of interdisciplinary research; as such, we host intellectually diverse applicants, welcoming your new perspectives into our lab and our obligation to train you in the methods you will use. Similarly, we welcome and encourage student applications from minoritized and marginalised and value a diverse research environment.  Funding is available for UK students, but exceptional international students can also be considered.

Project partners

This project builds on a long-standing Bristol-Exeter collaboration in which we have developed and applied new approaches to understanding peatland processes.  We also have collaborations in Wales, Sweden, Colombia and Panama, ensuring access to samples and sites

Training Opportunities

As part of CERES, there will be outstanding opportunities for field work and associated training. We recognise the constraints field work imposes on applicants from some backgrounds, however, and field work is not mandatory (with samples provided by partners). The PhD focuses on geochemical and microbiological investigation of peat, including characterisation of microbial communities, bioavailable nutrients, organic matter composition and greenhouse gas fluxes. The Earth Sciences Biogeochemistry and Geomicrobiology labs have fantastic facilities and opportunities for training in both culture-dependent and culture-independent microbiology and geochemistry whilst  the OGU has a long track record of providing training in organic geochemistry to diverse students from all backgrounds. Successful applicants will also be able to access the extensive transferable skill training associated with the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership, as well as those of Bristol’s Doctoral College.

Useful links

To apply:

For information on the OGU:

For information on CERES:


How to apply to the University of Bristol:


The application deadline is 3 MARCH; Interviews will take place during the period 13 to 23 March, 2023. The preferred start date will be Oct 2023 but the funding of the project allows flexibility

Funding is available for 3.5 years at standard UKRI rates.

Acknowledging Your Privilege is an Act of Community

So many failures of leadership and perpetuation of inequity arise from failures to acknowledge privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. Class privilege. Power privilege. This thread is not to explain privilege. It should be self- evident to anyone who observes society with open and unpolluted eyes. It permeates health, work, education, and our homes.  But it is useful to understand why many (not all) who understand and acknowledge inequities in society cannot openly acknowledge their own privilege and its contribution to their success.  It challenges their own self myths. All of us – and I think particularly men – have embraced some version of the heroic journey, the lone warrior, the self-made man. Our entire identity is wrapped up in real and perceived obstacles we have overcome… or held us back.
So I wrote this, drawing on some of my own emotions, to reach out and tell you that there is something better than this isolated narrative disconnected from the good and bad in society. And I hope that this persuades at least some leaders to acknowledge their privilege(s). And from that become more effective decision makers and more powerful advocates for action.


I get asked by a lot of other white men where to start with equity.

I’m not the one to ask.  Ask those who have been marginalised, minoritised and racilialised.  Read their books; follow and learn from their social media posts. If you are close, ask those who are in your life, your family or friendships, but if you do, understand that they are under no obligation to devote their time to your education.

Learn from them not me.

But when I am asked, I tell them what most of my own marginalised colleagues told me – acknowledge and understand your privilege. It might not be the step that brings about immediate positive action or policy change, but it is the process by which you build a foundation of empathy, community and allyship.

Acknowledge your privilege.  White privilege. Class privilege.  Male privilege. Acknowledge it and understand it.  And understand its intersectionality.  I am mainly speaking to other white men, as we have benefitted from the most accumulated privilege, but privilege is not reserved to us.


I understand how hard it is to acknowledge privilege.  I have white, male, cishet privilege.  Those are not easy words to write or to say.  Partially, that is because I feel guilty saying them, but it is  also because it challenges the story I tell about myself. I did not grow up with class privilege. I grew up poor.  My wider family still is very poor.  And I had to fight for everything.  I lived in fear of fucking up my grades, my life, my scholarships; I had part-time jobs to pay for my education; I worked absurd hours through High School and College to get the best test scores and grades to grab the few proffered opportunities for class mobility.  Debt and finances shaped my life choices, and so I worked hard to make the most of every one of those choices; I moved far from home, moved countries twice to advance my career; I compromised – and in some cases sacrificed – relationships.

That is a common story for many of us.  It is a particularly common story in academia when every opportunity is absurdly competitive, becoming moreso at every stage of your career, from University, to PhD, to postodoc to permanent job. I earned it.  You earned it.

And so I understand how acknowledging your privilege feels like giving some of that away.  I understand how hard that is when you have had to fight for everything; fighting for things teaches you not to give them away casually.  I understand that when you are told by society, the elite and your employers to be grateful for the few scraps you have, it becomes hard to concede that any of your achievements were anyone’s but your own.

I understand how hard it is to say that part of your success is due to luck or privilege, to say that it is partially due to a broken society and at the expense of someone else.

It feels like you are undermining the story of your self.  And for some of us, it feels like theft.


But it need not be.

But let’s pause for a moment.  Although this commentary is focused on our feelings and our identity, facts care for neither of those, and white male privilege in western society is a fact. I am tempted to direct you to any one of hundreds of studies explaining the facts of privilege.  The studies of unconscious bias and structural inequities; the clear factual evidence showing the glaring disparity in wages, opportunity, housing, education and health – and the structural racism that created those; the individual, institutional, and societal structural obstacles faced by women, by racialised and minoritised groups, by disabled or LGBT+ people; the consequential lack of diversity in politics and leadership, media, research and education; the evidence for inequities in our own discipline and the lack of progress for decades. But if you are reading this, I suspect you have read those studies (or at least know where to find them). They are true across nations.  They are true in the higher education sector in which I work.  They are true in the discipline I love, the Earth Sciences.  They are true in yours.

And in many cases, they are related to white supremacy – from which, through privilege, many of us have benefited:

“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.” From Black Reconstruction in America, 1935

But convincing the reader that white or male or abled or class privilege is real is not the goal of this essay. Those of us who have benefited from our privilege need to accept those facts.

Instead I want to explore the widespread reluctance and fear of acknowledging privilege. Not the reluctance from the racists or those who knowingly use their privilege to cling to power but by those who are committed to EDI and fairness and justice but seem unable to use the phrase white privilege.


By almost any definition, I am a fairly successful Earth Scientist, and I achieved that by being smart, working hard and leaning on my working class toughness when faced with obstacles.  That is my story.

But my achievements are also due to being white and being a man. They are due to the fact that I speak English and work in an international sector where English has hegemonic influence.  They are due to luck – in winning grants, in getting jobs in well-funded labs.

These privileges complicate my story but they do not erase it.

In my 30 years of being an academic, I have read a lot of acknowledgements.  I have read the acknowledgments in dissertations and those in papers.  I have heard so many speeches filled with thanks and gratitude.  We are obliged (rightly) to acknowledge our funders.  We freely acknowledge our students, collaborators, colleagues and technicians.  We acknowledge our mentors and our inspirations.

We acknowledge our families – those we are born with and those we find; and our friends and loved ones.  Parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles; wives and husbands; children; our friends back home and our those who endured our PhDs or postdocs or tenure with us.

We acknowledge a musician whose album was played on an endless loop while we finished off our PhD dissertation.  We acknowledge a poet whose words healed us through difficult patches. We acknowledge the club where we went dancing with friends to let off steam or the cafe where we hid with a coffee to clear our thoughts.  We acknowledge parks, forests, and museums; directors and actors and writers and painters.

And yet so many refuse to acknowledge our privilege.

Are we giving something away when we acknowledge these other influences and connections and support networks?  I suppose that in some sense we are.  We are yielding only a small bit of our story of individual success, but we are yielding it nonetheless, and yielding something that has been hard won.  But we are getting something in return.  We are giving away a sliver of the myth that we succeeded all on our own, due to individual brilliance, determination or grit.  But we are gaining community by recognising that we are part of something greater and we are acknowledging that we are not alone.

It is wonderful to acknowledge those we love.

And it is wonderful to acknowledge the music or poetry or comedy to which we connected when needed.  I think there is something beautiful in the idea that Miles Davis helped a self-doubting microbiologist discover a new form of metabolism or that a local cafe and its friendly staff were the safe havens for a social scientist exploring the effectiveness of a new education policy.  I envision Master’s students re-watching a favourite film or maybe just re-watching that video of Tom Holland Lip-Synching to Rhianna’s Umbrella and using that joyous dopamine hit to carry them through another paragraph of their thesis.

Acknowledging the things that help us reinforces our connection to the world; and so does acknowledging our privilege.

Of course, acknowledging our privilege means acknowledging a sinister rather than joyous aspect of our world.  It requires us to acknowledge that we have not only benefitted from loving family or friends, but from racial prejudices and sexist biases, that we have benefitted at the expense of others.

If we are intellectually honest, we interrogate this through an intersectional lens. There are facts.  I overcame the obstacles of my class and lack of wealth, while benefitting from the privileges of my gender and colour of my skin.
But emotionally, it is challenging to attribute some of what we achieved, some of what we value about ourselves, to something that is so abhorrent and from which we asked no help.  It complicates and darkens our story.

But it does not erase it.  It does not erase what we achieved and our associated personal narratives any more than any other acknowledgement. It contextualises, elaborates and contests, but it does not take it away; and by contextualising our achievements it insists that we understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Acknowledging our privilege insists that we are part of a community and a society, and it insists that we accept the associated obligations to understand and rectify the harms that our society inflicts; but in doing so, it also affirms that we are not alone.


I know that these arguments will not persuade all.

Some are too indentured to their own myth of greatness and achievement.  Their self-story is too much of ego and rugged individualism to allow for collectivism. For them, it is likely that their acknowledgments of family and friends are performative and said through gritted teeth.  You know these men.  Some of them have built tiny homes on this myth, while others have built vast empires; but all are built on a foundation of fragile ego and all can become dangerous if that is threatened. Others are unwilling to accept the responsibility that such a realisation imposes.  Acknowledging privilege inevitably leads to reflection, engagement and learning; and that must inevitably lead to change, both within ourselves and within our sphere of influence. That requires work, and consequently many hide away from the concept of privilege not because it seems wrong to them but because they are unwilling to change.

I have little sympathy for either.   I do not trust such people to have empathy and so I do not trust them to lead.  I do not trust such people to change and so I do not trust them to get out of our way.  I certainly do not trust them to place a community – any community – above themselves; their generosity is contingent, their service obligatory, their altruism self-serving.

However, I truly believe that they are in the minority.  I truly believe that most of us can look at ourselves and recognise that we have been shaped not only by the struggles we have faced and obstacles overcome, but also the friends and family, luck and privileges that have aided us.  I believe that most of us can look out at the world and see others who have shared our privileges and others who have been cruelly and viciously denied them.

Acknowledging your privilege – verbally, publicly, honestly – is an act of empathy and love.  It will not tell you what policies are effective, train you to be a strong, active and interventionist ally, or bestow the resources necessary for structural reform; alone, it will often mislead you into white saviourism, motivating you to speak out when instead you should step back; it alone will not make your workplace or community more diverse or equitable. But it will be the foundation for reflection and learning how to do all of those things; it will be the motivation for action; and most of all it will provide the empathy and humility to cede to others the opportunities and platforms that they have been denied.


Further reading the origins of the term ‘White Privilege’.  Finally, although Dr Peggy McIntosh is credited for giving enhanced prominence to the term, the intellectual foundations are widely attributed to W.E.B. DuBois, and so I leave you with this final provocation from him:

“There is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know.”
― W.E.B. DuBois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept

CERES: Climate, Energy and Carbon in Ancient Earth Systems

Ceres is the Roman Goddess of agriculture, crops and Earth’s fertility; Ceres is also a dwarf planet between Mars and Jupiter, whose existence was predicted by proxy long before its actual observation and discovery.

CERES, an ERC (now UKRI) Advanced Research Grant aims to develop new biochemical and isotopic understanding of modern, past and future microbial processes in peatland, among the most important stores of organic carbon on Earth.  In doing so, it will explore three major, inter-related questions about life and our planet.

How and why organic matter is made and how that governs its fate.

How Earth’s climate, environment and life co-evolved, especially during times of rapid change.

How systems respond to perturbations and how that response is dependent on the rate of change.

These disparate questions are held together by the central role of organic matter in life, the environment, energy and the Earth.  It is what all life is made of, and its composition can be used to reconstruct the history of life.  Its production through photosynthesis produces oxygen, its burial removes carbon dioxide, and its degradation governs the fate of numerous elements on the Earth’s surface, from sulfur and nitrogen to iron, mercury and arsenic.

Despite the study of organic matter in the environment being an over 50-year old discipline, peatlands remain understudied, and those studies have focused on temperate and polar peatlands, with tropical peatlands being long neglected.  Consequently, their investigation will not only be exciting and novel, with initial work already providing tantalizing insights into unique microorganisms and biogeochemistry, but will be a platform for understanding the formation, diversity and persistence of organic matter, with a focus on the bacteria and archaea that govern either its preservation or its degradation into the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.  Furthermore, by focusing on sites that have experienced disruption – recently, on millenial timesclaes and through Earth history – we will gain new insights on how systems respond to change across multiple timescales.  When is balance maintained and when is it catastrophically broken?  And when broken, what are the consequences of that period of chemical and biological disequilibrium and how long does it take for balance to be restored.

High Latitude peatland (photo courtesy of Anne Eberle) – how will the biogeochemistry and microbiology of woody, hot, tropical peatlands differ? At one point do acidic (pH <4.5) and hot (seasonal temps >30C) begin to look like extreme environments?


CERES is about the past and the future.  It is about exploring new environmental settings.  It is about new methods to interrogate the adaptations of microorganisms to their environment.  And it is about new isotope approaches to unlock past and future microbial metabolism.  We will build a diverse, inclusive and international team to collaboratively co-create a research plan that explores all of these aspects of organic geochemistry and Earth systems.

We will integrate analytical innovation, biogeochemistry in modern contexts, and geological archives to holistically evaluate how climate change affects peatland carbon cycling across multiple timescales. Greenhouse gases shaped Earth history, impacting both climate and ecosystems; ongoing anthropogenic emissions are doing the same. These include impacts on the microbially mediated processes that govern the chemical state of our planet and act as climate feedbacks. Soil microorganisms, for example, account for the largest natural methane flux, and yet these processes remain poorly understood, mediated by multiple environmental factors. Insight can be derived from geological archives that document the timescale-dependent responses of biogeochemical systems to environmental perturbations. Such studies on peat and lignites provide tantalising insights into climate-driven disruption of the carbon cycle, but the underlying mechanisms remain unresolved. This critical knowledge gap arises from our inability to determine the isotopic signatures of the most diagnostic biomarkers. Therefore, we will:

1) Develop new instrumentation for the isotopic determination of large bacterial and archaeal biomolecules. This is a transformative expansion of our biomarker toolkit as our analytical window expands from low to highly diagnostic compounds.

2) Learn from and share with international colleagues new approaches in lipidomics to understand the nature of archaeal and bacterial adaptation.

3) Refine existing methods in peatland organic matter composition, adapting them for the investigation of both highly degraded peats and tropical peats.

3) Apply these new methods to modern peatlands, examining biomarker isotopic compositions in the field as well as in experiments in response to manipulation of pH, temperature and substrate.

4) Apply our new biomarker methods and understanding to the geological past. Working across decadal to multi-million year timescales, we will unlock the mechanistic controls underlying ancient reorganisations of peatland carbon cycling.  From dramatic climate change events of the past to monsoon-driven drying of Holocene wetlands to the catastrophic destruction of peatlands through exploitation of our landscape, we will explore the signature of catastrophic change on these ecosystems, as written in their molecular compositions.

Through these WPs, CERES will probe how microbial metabolism, and hence biogeochemical cycles, operate(d) on the Earth today, through its history, and in response to rapid global warming.


Overview from the project proposal: Microbially mediated biogeochemical processes in terrestrial settings are critical to governing greenhouse gas emissions. The modern carbon soil reservoir exceeds that of terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere combined (Crowther et al., 2019), and soil microorganisms annually cycle 1/3 of the carbon photosynthesised and account for the largest natural methane flux. In doing so, they govern the chemical and climatic state of our planet. And yet these processes remain poorly understood, mediated by a range of environmental factors that respond to climate change at different rates (Liu et al., 2020). Such responses are crucial to dictating whether terrestrial systems act as positive or negative feedbacks to climate change and whether a system is vulnerable to tipping points (i.e. Steffen et al., 2018). We have explored the long-term biogeochemical response of these systems to climate change using ancient peatland deposits. Initial results, however, are inconclusive because we could only crudely reconstruct ancient biogeochemistry. This project will transform our capacity to probe such responses – at decadal to centennial scales in Holocene peat; and at millennial to million-year timescales in Cenozoic lignites. We will develop transformative new instrumentation for the isotopic analysis of heretofore inaccessible biomolecules and use this to measure the stable hydrogen and carbon isotopic composition, and by extension the metabolism, of microbes in modern and ancient environments. In doing so, we will determine the bacterial and archaeal response to climate change and the associated impact on biogeochemical cycles.



Climate Scientist Activism

Scientists advise and governments govern.  Long portrayed as a clear division of responsibilities, it is increasingly clear that this is a weapon for silencing criticism from those most aware of the crises we face.

When the scientists in ‘Don’t Look Up’ discover that a meteor is bearing down on Earth, their first instinct is not to tweet nor appeal to the media, but to engage the President of the United States.  And? They are told to ‘Sit Tight and Assess.’  Regardless of one’s opinions of the movie, that single scene is an acute summary of 30 years of the intersection of climate science and policy – tens of thousands of publications, six major IPCC reports (each comprising 100s of pages and thousands of references), a multitude of smaller UN and International climate risk assessments. A historical amount of sitting tight and ‘assessing.’

It would be unfair to claim that those phenomenal efforts, a very tiny bit of which includes my own 30-year scientific career exploring the nature of past and ongoing climate change, achieved nothing.  There has been recognition and investment, and it now seems likely that the ‘Business as Usual’ scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions have become ‘Worst Case’ scenarios.  But we are far from avoiding the meteor, far from enacting policies that will prevent catastrophic climate change, a sixth mass extinction, the death of millions if not billions and the collapse of our civilisation. We are far from avoiding an asymmetrically unjust collapse that will disproportionately impact the poorest and most marginalised in our society.  We are far from avoiding a racist and classist collapse, a genocide by indifference.

Our pleas for action have been met with nods, incremental steps and recognition of our labour, and for many that has been sufficient to slake our thirst for action, sufficient to convince us that we are doing all we can.  But if we listened closely, those incremental actions inhabited a wider, more conservative worldview characterized by dismissive and condescending comments about what is “realistic”. We would have understood that the range of policy options is dictated not by what is necessary but constrained by  what the ruling class perceives as possible.  We would have further understood that the realm of possible system change is even further constrained when defined by those who profit most from inaction – not just politicians and their electorates and corporate lobbyists, but also the media, think tanks, pundits, authors, schools, research institutes and universities. And ourselves.  Because we are part of that world, academic elites working in privileged institutions, we have always been predisposed to accept those realistic truths and fearful of losing the small amount of political and cultural influence we did enjoy.

And so many of us, including me, operated under the prevailing dogma:  Scientists provide evidence; governments make policy.  And the scientist who crosses that line is derided as an activist, their objectivity is questioned and the small amount of influence they might wield is lost.

This constraint under which we laboured is superficially logical.  We are defined by our expertise; do we not lose credibility if we venture beyond it?  If we want our own expertise to be valued, should we not respect the expertise of others?

But isn’t that argument rather convenient?  Are we compromising or are we complicit? Surely, we were never so naive as to believe that any government would acquiesce to radical system change without a fight?

In any case, these are old debates, old constraints, old rubicons we should have long-since crossed.  Too many of us had accepted these truths for too long, with too little action, and we are now too angry.  As individual environmental scientists and as a community, we have come to realise that the lines were never lines at all and the scope for expert activism, although still treacherous terrain, is far more nuanced with possibility than we had allowed ourselves to believe.

Stay in your lane

One of my primary responsibilities as Cabot Director was to build links to policy makers.  We assembled an Advisory Board with representatives from government agencies and chaired by the former UK Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington; we hosted workshops with MPs, MEPs and their advisors; we built strong links with Bristol City Councillors and both of our elected Mayors. I am proud of the work I did with four different parties to inform and empower climate action, including two declarations of Climate Emergencies, and I am proud of how those links have allowed my colleagues to contribute to local, national and international policy.

These partnerships also offered powerful advice on how to build partnerships and build trust.  We were given practical advice that I still value.  We were advised to engage the Opposition Party because they had more capacity to build new relationships than the Party in power and far busier governing (and they will not be in opposition forever).   We were advised to avoid working with single issue organisations, because no amount of expert advice could ever influence them.  We were advised to understand when to engage and when it was too late (invariably after the government had already planted its flag).

However, other advice should have revealed the limits of our influence and the limits of our approach. I was told – repeatedly – that the role of scientists was to provide expertise and never to advocate for action and certainly not any specific action. I was told not to offer scientific advice but to be prepared to provide it when asked. I saw criticism met with defensiveness; I saw experts who challenged government policy dismissed and derided for breaking some unspoken pact (see David Nutt).  I saw electoral politics dictate policy rather than leaders attempting to build consensus.  Politicians were keen to meet with engineers promising technological innovation but dismissive of social scientists wishing to discuss justice and institutional colonialism. But mostly I saw entrenched neoliberal conservatism.  Faces blanched when we discussed zero growth approaches or anything with a whiff of anti-capitalism.  I was told not to work with Caroline Lucas, because she was a ‘loon’; and yet here we are seven years later, and everything she has ever said is now mainstream thinking, precursors to Climate Emergency declarations and Green New Deals.

And this conservatism is embedded in all aspects of academic practice, no matter what one might read about the lefty university. Academic research is now encouraged to reach beyond the ivory tower, engaging with society and achieving impact.  In fact, ‘impact’ is now enshrined in UK research via both research funding and the Research Excellence Framework.  But not all impact is equally valued….  A series of papers that helps the oil and gas sector discover new reserves of destructive carbon would be celebrated as world leading impact; a series of papers that led to the demise of that same sector never would be.  Academic engagement is rewarded for enriching or preserving the establishment.

Scientists advise and governments govern.

This was a deception. Academics have always been activists.  Universities have always been centres of revolution. And not just amongst the Marxist scholars or the humanities; activism was persistent across the entire academic spectrum.

Something perverse happened in the relationship between research and policy in the 90s and early part of the 21st century.  First came a narrative that Universities were ‘ivory towers’, disengaged with citizens and their cities, noodling away on topics of limited interest, comfortable in our labs and libraries untroubled with the challenges facing society.  That was true to an extent, but never as true as the narrative either within or beyond universities and research centres.  Nonetheless, it was a sufficiently compelling narrative – especially when paired with researchers’ and their funders’ persistent quest for government funding – to create a new drive of engagement and impact. That was fantastic.  It recognised and rewarded a whole range of academic activities, including community engagement efforts that were disproportionately delivered by marginalised groups in the sector.

But it came at a price.  It came with rules and expectations.  It came with norms that were profoundly conservative and anti-revolutionary.

Our expertise was valued – when needed, when requested, at the “pleasure and convenience of the King”. And in that context, activism was at best counter-productive and at worst unseemly and destructive to your credibility.  As such, very few scientists (James Hansen, Kevin Johnson) were actively challenging government inaction on climate change.

There are alternative forms of activism – how the UK Climate Change Act, COP21 and Institutional Pledges changed the landscape

Over the past ten years, climate scientists have become increasingly activist.

I do not know if that is frustration and fear; or a new generation of more engaged scientists.   I would argue, however, that the very first step towards that change arose from the persistence of providing evidence and engaging policy makers. Despite all of the failures of the climate movement to bring about real change, we have had one major success.  We have forced all of the governments of the world to acknowledge that Climate Change is a Threat and forced them to promise to act on it.  In the UK, the Climate Change Act of 2008 was passed nearly unanimously with cross-party support and committing the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050; in 2018, in one of Theresa May’s last acts, that ambition was increased to 100% reduction.  At COP21 in Paris, nearly every country in the world committed to keeping warming below 2C and aspiring to keep it below 1.5C.

This activism has continued in local organisations, accelerated by COP21, a multitude of disasters, the worrying 1.5C IPCC report of 2019 and of course Student Strikes and other protests (but more on them later).  In my own immediate sphere of influence, coalitions of staff and students led to the University of Bristol pledging to carbon neutrality, prioritising environmental teaching and research, divesting from fossil fuels (the first UK HEI to achieve this) and declaring a Climate Emergency.  The City of Bristol was the first city to declare a Climate Emergency and has been joined by hundreds of others around the globe. Organisations like Preventable Surprises have challenged inconsistent shareholder governance with respect to climate action, while others like CERES have built global coalitions of businesses pledged to action.

Words. Pledges. Promises.  Blah blah blah.

They have not resulted in action – or at least adequate action.  That is true.  But they have changed the rules of engagement.  Greta Thunberg is not advocating for any particular policy; I’m sure she has strong opinions but she refuses to share them.  Instead, she demands that nations act according to the promises they have made, and she holds them accountable for when they do not.

The same is true for climate scientists.  See… in the past, scientists would have been scolded for demanding a particular global warming target.  We were advised to provide the evidence of sea level rise, extreme weather, coral bleaching and food security crises, but it was the job of politicians to tension those risks with need to address other challenges, the setting of priorities, and the costs of climate action.

But they have now done it.  The UK government has committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and that is a target to which we can and must hold them accountable.  We can bring scientific rigour to proposed solutions, such as excessive carbon offsetting, and we can bring our expertise to stop projects inconsistent with this target.  We can join lawsuits to prevent airport expansions and we can lobby to stop peat extraction.  We are ‘staying in our lane’ of expertise, not venturing into the sticky and complicated realm of politics, and simply holding the government to account to its own loudly stated ambitions.  And we can do the same with our cities and our employers.

This has made some forms of activism easier.  But has it empowered the type of activism that we need? Are we still afraid?  Have we really broken free from the system or are we merely enjoying an incremental increase in our latitude to speak and critique?

Disruptive Activism

I am not sure what sort of activism will be most effective to bring about transformative change.  I certainly cannot speak to where you will be most effective in your activism.  All of us, but especially those from marginalised groups will have to navigate a fraught legal landscape with care, especially as states bring in increasingly draconian anti-protest laws. Those who do have political influence – real influence – should recognise what a rare commodity that is; they should neither casually discard it nor should they waste it.  The climate movement must be a thriving mosaic of approaches, with each leveraging the successes of the others to increase cultural, popular or political capital and drive a Just Transformation.

What I can say is that the climate and ecological crises are so profound and so unjust that there can be no constraints on non-violent activism other than your own.

What now going forward

I don’t know.  But here are some lessons I have learned over the years.

We must find what activism is most effective, is most genuine, for each of us – but be self-critical when doing so. Given that any activism can be justified as part of a diverse movement, it would be easy to succumb to an easy path and retrospectively justify it. Some of us DO need to engage governments, some of us must be IN government.  But let us not be complicit in our own deception. After all, engaging politicians is difficult but activism is hard. You sacrifice more than your time, but also your reputation, job prospects, even your freedom.  Sometimes the logical choice is the right choice; sometimes it is just the easy choice.

But you do have to make a choice. We cannot have our cake and eat it too.  We cannot be the vizier to the king as well as the court jester.  We cannot participate in civil disobedience and still serve on government advisory boards.

At the same time, climate scientists have been relentlessly advocating for change for decades and do deserve some credit.  We must have genuine conversations with ourselves about next steps, but we’ve earned our prickly defensiveness when others dismiss our motivations and our (few) successes. It is infuriating that the catastrophic failures of a multitude of governments, at every scale, in every nation, over decades, have been attributed to a generation of scientists who did their best and certainly did far more than most.  Moreover, such attacks are bad tactics. They are often driven by ego. They are divisive. And worst of all, they miss the great opportunity for leveraging complementary approaches to collective benefit the movement.  Our past efforts have not been enough, but they have created the foundation on which we build today.

Activist scientists must also be humble and remember that we are not experts on what is effective.  We might have opinions and we might have anecdotal concerns from our own experiences and interactions.  But we are not experts on radical and just social transformation.  This humility should have been self evident, but we now have no shortage of evidence for it. We did not know what would be effective when we allowed ourselves to be bound by others’ rules of engagement, when we allowed ourselves to be captured by governments and by extension the lobbyists and special interests who influence them.  Because we are not experts on how policy is made, we were tricked.  So perhaps rather than deciding who and how to engage, we should join those who do know.

Finally and most importantly, I would urge you to consider that maybe we should stop partnering with governments and start partnering with communities. And I implore all of us to bring a decolonial, equity-centered and anti-racist approach to our research, advice and activism; what an astonishing failure it would be to wean ourselves off of the power of fossil fuel energy by transitioning to a green economy that replicates all of its extractive and exploitative injustices.

Ultimately, any movement is a mosaic of complementary (and sometimes competing) factions.  Given that Climate and Ecological Action will require one of the greatest social transformations of the past millennium, our movement will likely comprise the most complex, diverse, radical and surprising mixture of actors in history.  It will involve those centered on justice and labour; technology, infrastructure and finance; protesters, marchers, disruptors and enablers; community leaders, unions and civic organisations; lawyers and scientists; plumbers and electrician, gardeners and farmers; politicians – yes, still politicians, and often from unexpected political homes; those filled with hope and those with despair.

In finding our voices, we will also discover that we are not just scientists.  We are people.  And we fit in not just one but many of those categories.  And our activism will find its voice in unexpected ways.

A closing thought from “Zen & the Art of Saving the Planet” by @thichnhathanh and @sistertrueD.   “If you don’t maintain a spiritual practice during the time you serve, you will lose yourself, and you will burn out. And so we learned to breathe, to walk, to release the tension so we could keep going. You do it not only for yourself. You are preserving yourself so you can help the world.”  

Our Climate Movement Must be Based in Love

As scientists, we are trained to focus on the facts, the data, the models, the observations.

We are trained to be objective and unemotional.

But we cannot solve the climate crisis without our emotions. It is okay to understand our sorrow.  It is necessary sometimes to use our anger to motivate ourselves and others.  And it is most essential to embrace our love for the world, to build strength and determination.

We must love humanity.  We are as much of nature as ants, trees, lichen & bacteria. Our lifestyles cause harm, but we’ve also created beauty and discovered wonder. All of us are worthy of saving.

We must love ourselves.  Every single one of us has something to offer, and typically the best thing to offer is what we love.  If you love science, then study the marvel that is our Earth.  If you love building machines, then build machines that replace fossil fuels.  If you love art, use art to build communities and action.  If you love people, help them understand who is most vulnerable to climate change and must be supported.

And we must love our community, because community is where the most important change happens.  It is where we come together to solve problems and help one another.  It is where we create. So love your community.

Or create a new community in which your love is welcomed.

Sometimes you will have to love fiercely and sometimes you will have to love bravely, but always love with purpose and compassion.



(I wrote this, inspired by Melanie Ruth, as a message to Bristol Children as part of their brilliant book “No More Baby Sharks” available here:


Personal Reflections on Decolonisation of the Earth Sciences: Am I creating space? Or occupying space?

This commentary is an expansion on my presentation at the 2022 session on Scientific Neocolonialism.


Thank you to EGU for creating the space for this vital conversation, to the organisers and to my fellow speakers, and to all of you for coming.

I would like to start with a statement on positionality.  I have white privilege.  Male privilege.  Cishet privilege. I did grow up in rural poverty; we were farmers and we were poor, and I was a first generation University student. But I did have access to education, and I certainly am no longer working class, no matter how deep the roots may be.  Perhaps of equal importance is my institutional privilege.  I work in a discipline – the geosciences generally and organic geochemistry specifically – that has been built on a legacy of exploitation and extraction; and I work for a relatively stable and secure University that inherited and built – and arguably still builds – its wealth on the back of colonial practices.

As such, I was invited by the organisers to use that privileged position to speak honestly and forthrightly about the historical and ongoing failings of our discipline.  And to acknowledge my own failings.

I do, however, have some ambivalence about participating.  I think it is the obligation of those with privilege – especially those like myself – to do the labour, especially the risky and emotionally taxing labour in talking about difficult topics.  However, I also recognise that in doing so, I am occupying a seat that might have been better filled by someone who lacks my privilege and would benefit from this platform.

Am I creating space? Or occupying space?

I’ll return to this.  And it is an important theme that has pre-occupied me in every role I have taken – from accepting or declining conference invitations to joining NERC’s Science Committee to becoming Head of School . But for now let me say to my colleagues who share my privilege ‘get use to this feeling of discomfort and learn to live with it.’ This discomfort is essential to the decolonial efforts, as is taking any criticism with dignity.


I am not an expert; I am a geochemist.  Like many of us who are struggling with the colonial aspects of the Earth Sciences, I am here as one who has not done as well as I should, wants to do better, and expects all of us – especially the senior leaders of the field – to do the same. However, I have been fortunate enough to learn from colleagues across disciplines. Due to the dearth of expertise in STEM subjects I have often been invited to serve on panels such as these, including the NERC/AHRC Hidden Histories Advisory Group and Bristol’s Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group.  I have also learned from more grass roots radical movements at the University of Bristol, from staff who demand our institution more actively confront its colonial legacies. In all of these, I have tried to be honest about the limitations of my expertise, my genuine desire to learn and my commitment to sharing what I learn from the actual experts.

And the one thing that I have learned is that the legacy of colonialism is pervasive, and that our decolonisation journey will be long and challenging.  And necessary.  @Jairo_I_Funez is a powerful scholar in this space and I hope he does not mind me borrowing a quote of his from Twitter: ‘In practice, the world isn’t divided in silos: colonial, racist, capitalist, & patriarchal silos. These are entangled & distinctly expressed according to geography. Analytically we can try to separate them but in reality they are entangled systems of domination and exploitation.  People seem to really want straightforward manuals for this stuff but that in itself is part of the problem. It isn’t simple or fair because reality isn’t simple or fair.”

So let us talk about the entangled systems of domination and exploitation, in my own career and in our discipline.


I owe a lot to my supervisors and colleagues who helped set me on a strong path during my PhD training.  They taught me to respect other disciplines and expertise, in particular warning me away from scientific hubris and thinking that my new fancy analytical toy can solve the problems that others have struggled with for decades.  Or if we do solve them, to acknowledge that we could not have done so without that previous labour.  Building from that, it is inescapable that we recognise that science is a community, with the vast majority of successes achieved not by a single genius but by a community of scholars who sometimes argue but always centre a constructive and collaborative approach to building knowledge. This is particularly true of the Earth Sciences, where we must collaborate to drill a core through an ice sheet, send a seismometer to Mars, or build a decades long field campaign.

But this inevitably demands that we ask “who is that community?”  Our discipline has been profoundly guilty of helicopter or parasitic science, sometimes cynically so and sometimes with good intentions.  But regardless of the motivations, it excludes scholars from the global south, marginalised groups and indigenous peoples.  Robyn Pickering spoke powerfully about this in her presentation.  So here I want to share that I have made these same mistakes.

You can look through my publication record and find many examples of these: collaborations with New Zealand colleagues that failed to acknowledge the Māori peoples on whose occupied land we worked; collections of samples from exotic locations with which I calibrated palaeoclimate proxies but failed to include local collaborators.  Perhaps the most striking example is my work on arsenic contamination in Cambodian aquifers; this is work that I am very proud of as it helped resolve the biogeochemical mechanisms underpinning As mobilisation.  But our earliest work included no local collaborators, to the detriment of the science, to the detriment of the uptake of our findings, to the detriment of colleagues in Cambodia working on these issues.  [I no longer work in this area, having ‘passed the baton’ to my postdoc who is now at Manchester, but I am glad to see that this group now works in thriving collaboration with Cambodian colleagues.]

There have been times that I have engaged more appropriate practice in terms of collaboration and co-production.  Our palaeoclimate work in Tanzania featured strong collaborations with Tanzanian geoscientists, especially the wonderful Joyce Singano.  In doing so, funding was passed from the UK to Tanzania and prestige was shared, benefitting their careers and their institutions.  This is not theoretical – these decisions have real and immediate consequences and impacts.   So why do we not do it all the time? I have been as guilty as anyone of using the argument that ‘there are no scholars in that area in this country’, but surely that should prompt a number of questions: i) how hard have we really looked; ii) if not, then should we not have a long-term vision of collaboratively building that community; iii) should we not work in an area or a topic if we cannot do it equitably and inclusively?

But I suspect that much of our current neocolonial practices arise from naivety.  We just do not think about these issues.  But naivety is not an excuse for those of who work in institutions of wealth and privilege, are funded by intuitions of wealth and privilege, and work in countries made wealthy by colonial exploitation.  We cannot afford the luxury of being ignorant of our power and influence.

I think that helicopter or parasitic science is the most obvious manifestation of neocolonial practices that persist in our discipline. However, decolonisation is an act of continual reflection, self-critique and learning and that means understanding the complexities in even some superficially strong local collaborations.  I increasingly work with scholars in Panama and Colombia, but often those scholars are part of their own nations’ colonial legacies with their own problematic relationships with indigenous peoples.  Complex legacies of colonialism persist in Africa. Geopolitical complications haunt my collaborations with China, especially in places such as Tibet.

Having said that, I am drifting dangerously close to whataboutery, and I refuse to allow that; I raise these issues not for deflection but to set myself on a path towards ever deeper reflection. The complexity of these issues must not stop action today, and there is nothing preventing us from engaging directly with the colonial sins in our own house.  (For these reasons, Hidden Histories chose to focus solely on British colonialism.)


Decolonisation is about more than diversity and inclusivity, although there is certainly a strong connection between our decolonial and EDI efforts and I do not think one can be legitimate without the other.  Decolonisation is ultimately about agency and power, and addressing that entails challenging the assumptions deeply embedded in our practice and that of our discipline. Our discipline is based on extraction and exploitation.  We pillaged fossils from all over the world, a practice that continues to this day, often in direct violation of the laws of that country.  Our discipline can display an appallingly arrogant and patriarchal view towards the Earth and land, often in direct conflict with those who live on it.   Mary Anning was funded by the enslavement of people – Henry de la Beche, her sponsor and first President of the Palaeontological Association, was an apalling person who acquired great wealth through his slavery inheritance.

Our entire discipline has been instrumental in the exploitation of fossil fuel and mineral resources and the people who live on that land, and we still are.

We must constantly explore and engage with that.  And we certainly must not try to create artificial silos that we pretend can exonerate us from those obligations. I am an organic geochemist, with colleagues, friends and former students who work in the oil and gas sector. I ended my own research collaborations with those industries about 15 years ago – but that was driven by environmental and climate change concerns rather than decolonial ones.  This was a dangerously narrow view that elevated some forms of harm over others.  If we do not include decolonial aspects in our thinking and our science and our practice, we are going to replicate past harms and perpetuate new inequalities under the banner of biodiversity preservation and renewable energy.

It has become quite trendy in our discipline to talk about the necessity of geology – especially economic and resource geology – to a post-fossil fuel future dependent not on oil but copper, cobalt and lithium.  This is true.  But we cannot build a green future on green colonialism (and arguably such an effort, in discarding indigenous knowledge, would be doomed to failure).

Moreover, I cannot simply ignore the deep entanglement of my research practice with colonial and neocolonial histories. My techniques were built by my academic predecessors with industry support.  I can do what I do because of the investment in organic geochemistry fueled by the global exploitation of oil resources (Chevron built first GC-IRMS) . That extends to so may of us, from biostratigraphy to palaeogeographic reconstructions to palaeontology, all built on global extractivism.

I am not saying that we should not work with industry or you have to be anti-capitalist (but many experts do convincingly argue that view).  But I do not see how decolonisation can be compatible with unbridled free marketeering.  It certainly is not compatible with uncritical engagement with any industrial partner.  I leave that to each of you to discuss where those boundaries lie.

And in doing so, we must be quite open-eyed about the fact that most Western Universities, regardless of their taxation status, operate in a pretty damned capitalist and colonial manner themselves. My own University’s logo contains four symbols – a sun, a ship, a horse and a dolphin – each one of those the symbol of a great family in Bristol that built their wealth entirely or in part by the enslavement of people.  That dolphin is the symbol of Edward Colston. But let us not pretend that colonialism is an artefact of the past, ‘Hidden Histories’ alone.  My University, like all UK Universities and many across the West, remains financially dependent on exorbitant fees paid by international students; my salary and my lab and my career are funded by the ongoing extraction of wealth from across the world to the University of Bristol.

We must be awake to these issues and engaged with the harms they have caused – and our complicity with them and continued dependence on them.

‘They are entangled systems of domination and exploitation.’


What can we do?  As with many challenges we face, we must recognise the need for structural change.  In doing so, we must learn, share and act with a certain degree of kindness for ourselves – all of us are somewhat trapped in these colonial structures.  I have colleagues who are seeking research funding from new, less problematic sources who also feel severe institutional pressure to win grants; they feel trapped.  As Head of School, I often feel complicit in enabling their entrapment. Collectively, we must demand structural change.

However, just like tackling racism or climate change, the need for structural change does not exempt us from individual responsibility.  And of course, our individual actions can collectively and joyfully become a movement that drives that structural change.  So here are some suggestions.

Read, listen and learn.  Most of us will not become experts in this topic, but we can all devote time to learning.  I recognise that we are all overworked, but this is an obligation for our discipline.

Have humility for those who do the work, whether they be geoscientists who choose to focus on this area of those outside the discipline.  And then celebrate and reward this work.  Liberate time for our colleagues who do devote time to become experts, and recognise this work in their promotions.  Pay external experts.  Pay marginalised scholars to speak or advise. Pay for their time as we would pay any other consultant.

Accept discomfort and learn from it.  Be thoughtful, continuously thoughtful and with intellectual commitment comparable to how we do the rest of our job.  Be honest with ourselves. So treat yourselves with kindness. But that is no excuse to not challenge and continuously interrogate ourselves and one another.

Most importantly, collaborate and co-produce knowledge. Work with brilliant and inspiring scholars from all over the world. And although this is an important path to reparation, it is also wonderful and joyous.

Finally, build on your learning and experiences to make that structural change.  Demand institutional support – and when you have the privilege to do so, challenge institutional behaviour. Advocate for new policies, from EGU Awards to staff promotions processes to criteria for grants and publications.


Ultimately, however, we must never forget that this is not an academic exercise.  It is part of a wider process of reparation of harm and reconciliation.  It must be a dialogue and it must be tangible. Frantz Fanon wrote: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”    These conversations are important for our field, but they do not stop colonised people from being exploited, robbed or killed.  Our work must ultimately commit to an agenda that restores wealth, respect and dignity.  And by extension, it must restore stolen agency and power, because these reparations of harm cannot happen using our current structures: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Given that end goal, was I right person to contribute? Did I make space or occupy space? On reflection, I think it was it a mistake for me to agree to speak at this session rather than advocating for a speaker from a non-Western nation or from a marginalised group. I hope that I’ve moved our conversation forward, but I am not convinced that I was best suited to use this forum to also achieve reparation.

Instead a speaker from the global south or an  indigenous speaker could have used this opportunity not only to speak honestly and forthrightly about the challenges they face but also use this as a platform to reclaim some of their scientific agency. They could have come to this EGU session, spoken about decolonization but also talked about their science – their ambitions, their findings and the types of collaborations that would strengthen their careers.

I apologise for occupying that space.

This is not white liberal guilt, an emotional response that is often passive and used as an excuse to withdraw. Nor is it performative emoting that continues to centre us at the expense of those who have been harmed. It is a demand that we – I – reflect, listen, learn and improve and to accept that many of us who hold privilege will now have to live in a degree of emotional and intellectual discomfort that will never be resolved.  That is a small price to pay for our many other privileges.

So then, looking towards the next conference or next year, can we all agree that we must do this work and that we do not need someone like me to create this space?

Instead, we should pack this panel with the voices of minoritized and indigenous voices, while also giving them a chance to prominently showcase their science throughout the wider EGU program.

While the rest of us pack this hall to listen to what they have to say.

Some resources:

There are many emerging articles and resources in our discipline; see the following as an example:
Recently, I have been inspired by the writing of @Prof_FSultana, including her fantastic article ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Coloniality‘.  Here is an example of her writing: “To decolonize thinking/approaches/solutions, we need to address the fertile grounds where colonial & imperial wounds are not minimized but recognized as part of the necessary driving forces of collective liberation. This is particularly true for decolonizing climate justice.  Given the significant insights of feminist, anti-colonial, decolonial & post-colonial scholarships, there is much to be incorporated into empirical & policy-oriented work. Purely technocratic, economistic, or financial solutions will not address the root causes of problems.” And read:

And for a life-enriching immersion in the topic, please consider Kathryn Yusoff’s  ‘A Million Black Anthropocenes or None.’





Is the future of manufacturing local?

I co-authored this with Chris McMahon, Professor of Engineering Design, inspired by his work on how highly adaptable manufacturing processes, capable of operating at small scales (re-distributed manufacturing), can contribute to a sustainable and resilient future.  I find so many aspects of his work fascinating, from the connections to the Industrial Revolution to the argument that many of our societal challenges arise from the disconnection between what we consume and how it is made.  The latter is a theme that resonates across so much of the environmental movement, from the food we consume to our deeper connection to nature. In a world that has become utterly dependent on global supply chains, acutely illustrated by the far-reaching and often unanticipated consequences of Covid, I am not sure if we can restore strictly local manufacturing or even if that is the most efficient way to produce what we need.  But it is a vital question and I have always been inspired by Chris’ knowledge and his wisdom.


The next few years have the potential to be transformative in the history of our society and our planet.  We are faced with numerous choices in how we live our lives, and our decisions could either embed the practices of the last two centuries or empower new paradigms for the production of our food and energy, our buildings and transport systems, our medicine, furniture and appliance, all of those things on which we have grown to depend. It could be a transformation in what we own or borrow, how we use it…. And how we make it.

Bristol is one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Global Resilient Cities.  Unlike many of the other cities (and somewhat unconventionally), Bristol, the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute have adopted a holistic definition of resiliency that includes not just adaption to future change but also the contemporary behaviour that minimises the chances of future shocks.  Recognising that, the launch of the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year focused on the need to bridge the gap between our resource intensive and environmentally harmful current behaviour and a more sustainable – and resilient – future.

This combination is key.  We know that our non-sustainable behaviour will bring about dangerous climate change and resource stress. But we are also obtaining a sharper understanding of the limits of our knowledge. Unfortunately, our behaviour is not just threatening the security of our food, water and energy but is inducing a profound uncertainty in our ability to forecast and adapt to future change.  Not only does such radical uncertainty demand mitigative rather than adaptive action but, where we fall short or the damage has already been done, it will require an equally radical emphasis on resiliency.

Part of Bristol’s path to achieving these goals of sustainability and resiliency is localism, including local production of food and energy, exemplified by the recent launch of a municipally-owned energy company but also community-owned energy and food cooperatives.   Localism can only go so far in our highly interconnected and interdependent world, but it is undeniably one of Bristol’s strongest tools in empowering local communities and driving its own sustainability agenda while making us more resilient to external factors.  But why stop at food and energy?

Manufacturing has undergone a suite of radical transformations over the past decade, the potential of which are only now being harnessed across a range of manufacturing scales from high-value (such as Bristol’s aerospace industry) to SMEs and community groups.  Crudely put, the options for the manufacturer have traditionally been limited to moulding things, bashing things into shape, cutting things and sticking things together.  New technologies now allow those methods to be downscaled and locally owned. Other technologies, enabled by the exponential growth of computer power, are changing the manufacturing framework for example by allowing complex shapes to be made layer-by-layer through additive manufacturing.

Crucially, these new technologies represent highly adaptable manufacturing processes capable of operating at small scales.  This offers new possibilities with respect to where and how design, manufacture and services can and should be carried out to achieve the most appropriate mix of capability and employment but also to minimise environmental costs and to ensure resilience of provision.  In short, manufacturing may now be able to be re-distributed away from massive factories and global supply chains back into local networks, small workshops or even homes. This has brought about local empowerment across the globe as exemplified by the Maker movement and locally in initiatives such as Bristol Hackspace.  These technologies and social movements are synergistic as localised manufacturing not only brings about local empowerment but fosters sustainable behaviour by enabling the remanufacturing and upcycling that are characteristic of the circular economy.

There are limits, however, to the reach of these new approaches if they remain dependent on traditional manufacturing organisations and systems into which we are locked by the technological choices made in two centuries of fossil-fuel abundance.  As well as the technologies and processes that we use, a better understanding of how to organise and manage manufacturing systems and of their relationship with our infrastructure and business processes is central to the concept of re-distributed manufacturing and its proliferation.  It requires not only local production but a fundamental rethinking of the entire manufacturing system.

Looking forward, we must explore a whole range of issues from diverse disciplinary perspectives, bringing together experts in manufacturing, design, logistics, operations management, infrastructure, engineering systems, economics, geographical sciences, mathematical modelling and beyond.  In particular, we must examine the potential impact of such re-distributed manufacturing at the scale of the city and its hinterland, centering not just resilience and sustainability but equity and inclusion.


It seems entirely appropriate that Bristol and the SW of England assume a prominent leadership role in this endeavour.  In many ways, it is the intellectual and spiritual home of the industrial use of fossil fuels, responsible for unprecedented growth and prosperity but also setting us on a path of unsustainable resource exploitation.  Thomas Newcomen from South Devon produced arguably the first practical steam engine, leading to the use of fossil fuels in mining and eventually industry; in the late 1700s, coal-powered steam energy was probably more extensively used in SW England than anywhere in the world.  Continuing this legacy, Richard Trevithick from Cornwall developed high pressure steam engines which allowed the use of steam (and thus fossil fuels) for transportation, and of course Brunel’s SS Great Western, built in Bristol, was the first vehicle explicitly designed to use fossil fuel for intercontinental travel.

But that legacy is not limited to energy production.  Abraham Darby, who pioneered the use of coke for smelting iron in Coalbrookdale, i.e. the use of fossil fuels for material production, had worked at a foundry in Bristol and was funded by the Goldney Family, among others.  He married fossil fuels to the production of materials and manufactured goods.

These are reasons for optimism not guilt.  This part of the world played a crucial role in establishing the energy economy that has powered our world.  On the back of that innovation and economic growth have come medical advances, the exploration of our solar system and an interconnected society.  That same creative and innovative spirit can be harnessed again.  And these approaches need not be limited to energy and materials but also healthcare and the digital economy. The movement is already in place, exemplified by the more than 800 organisations in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.  It is receiving unprecedented support from both Universities of this city.  This new project is only one small part of that trend but it illustrates a new enthusiasm for partnership and transformative change and to study the next generation of solutions rather than be mired in incremental gains to existing technology.

We Must Bridge the Gap

I wrote the following on behalf of the Bristol European Green Capital at the start of 2015 and to contextualise our city’s ambitions.  Since then, we represented Cities at COP21 and delivered the Green Capital through 2015, learning from it and critiquing it; in particular, learning from the year’s greatest shortcoming – the lack of a strong strategy for inclusion to overcome structural barriers – helped diversify Bristol’s environmental movement. A multitude of new initiatives have been launched and Bristol was one of the first (if not the first) cities to declare a Climate Emergency and an Ecological Emergency.

Much of the climate change of the past century has been caused by our burning of fossil fuels. And without a change in that fossil fuel use, continued climate change in the next century could have devastating impacts on our society. It is likely to bring increased risk and hazards associated with extreme weather events. Refugee crises could be caused by rising sea levels or droughts that make some nations uninhabitable. Climate change will also make our world a more uncertain place to live, whether that be uncertainty in future rainfall patterns, the magnitude of sea level rise or the response of global fisheries to ocean acidification.  This uncertainty is particularly problematic because it makes it so much harder for industry or nations to plan and thrive.  Or to grapple with the other great challenge facing humanity – securing food, water and energy for 7 billion people (and growing).  Because of this, most nations have agreed that global warming should be held below 2°C.

These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt in the SW of England.  We live in an interconnected world, such that drought in North America will raise the price of our food. The effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and UK fisheries remain worryingly uncertain. The floods of last winter could have been a warning of life in a hotter and wetter world; moreover, it will only become harder to protect our lowlands from not only flooding but also salt water incursions as sea level rises.  The proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power station will have an installation, operating and decommissioning lifetime of over 100 years; what added risks will it face from the combination of more severe weather, storm surges and rising sea level?  Climate change affects us all – globally, nationally and locally in the 2015 European Green Capital.

That requires reductions in emissions over the next decade.  And it then requires cessation of all fossil fuel emissions in the subsequent decades.  The former has been the subject of most negotiations, including the recent discussions in Lima and likely those in Paris at the end of this year. The latter has yet to be addressed by any international treaty. And that is of deep concern because it is the cessation of all fossil fuel emissions that is most difficult but most necessary to achieve.  Carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 1000s of years, such that slower emissions will only delay climate change.  That can be useful – if we must adapt to a changing world, having more time to do so will be beneficial. However, it is absolutely clear that emissions must stop if we are to meet our target of 2°C.  In fact, according to most climate models as well as the geological history of climate, emissions must stop if we are to keep total warming below 5°C.

In short, we cannot use the majority of our coal, gas and petroleum assets for energy.  They must stay buried.

Can we ‘geoengineer’ our way to alternative solution?  Not according to recent research. Last November, a Royal Society Meeting showcased the results of three UK Research Council Funded investigations of geoengineering feasibility and consequences. They collectively illustrated that geoengineering a response to climate change was at best complicated and at worst a recipe for disaster and widespread global conflict.  The most prominent geoengineering solution is to offset the greenhouse gas induced rise in global temperatures via the injection of stratospheric particles that reflect some of the solar energy arriving at Earth.  However, on the most basic level, a world with elevated CO2 levels and reflective particles in the atmosphere is not the same as a world with 280 ppm of CO2 and a pristine atmosphere. To achieve the same average global temperature, some regions will be cooler and others warmer.  Rainfall patterns will differ: regional patterns of flood and drought will differ. Even if it could be done, who are the arbitrators of a geoengineered world?  The potential for conflict is profound.

In short, the deus ex machina of geoengineering our climate is neither a feasible nor a just option.  And again, the conclusion is that we cannot use most of our fossil fuels.

One might argue that we can adapt to climate change: why risk our economy now when we can adapt to the consequences of climate change later? Many assessments suggest that this is not the best economic approach, but I understand the gamble: be cautious with a fragile economy now and deal with consequences later.  This argument, however, ignores the vast inequity associated with climate change.  It is the future generations that will bear the cost of our inaction.  Moreover, it appears that the most vulnerable to climate change are the poorest – and those who consume the least fossil fuels.  Those of us who burn are not those who will pay.  Arguably then, we in the UK have a particular obligation to the poor of the world and of our own country, as well as to our children and grandchildren, to soon cease the use of our fossil fuels.

Energy is at the foundation of modern society and it has been the basis for magnificent human achievement over the past 150 years, but it is clear that obtaining energy by burning fossil fuels is warming our planet and acidifying our oceans.  The consequences for our climate, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels, is profound; even more worrying are the catastrophic risks that climate change poses for the food and water resources on which society depends.  It is now time for us to mature beyond the 19th and 20th century fossil-fuel derived energy to a renewable energy system of the 21st century that is sustainable for us and our planet.

We must bridge the gap.







Measuring the world – the joys of analytical geochemistry

‘Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.’ – Galileo Galilee

Science is measuring.

Of course, it is about much more than measuring.  The scientific approach includes deduction, induction, lateral thinking and all of the other creative and logistical mechanisms by which we arrive at ideas. But what distinguishes the ideas of science from those of religion, philosophy or art is that they are expressed as testable hypotheses – and by testable hypotheses, scientists mean ideas that can be examined by observations or experiments that yield outcomes that can be measured.

Earth scientists use astonishingly diverse approaches to measure our world, from the submolecular to the planetary, from bacterial syntrophic interactions to the movement of continental plates. A particularly important aspect of observing the Earth system involves chemical reactions – the underlying processes that form rocks, fill the oceans and sustain life. The Goldschmidt Conference, held this year in Firenze*, is the annual highlight of innovations in geochemical methodologies and the new knowledge emerging from them.

Geochemists reported advances in measuring the movement of electrons across nanowires, laid down by bacteria in soil like electricians lay down cables; the transitory release of toxic metals by microorganisms, daily emissions of methane from bogs, and annual emissions of carbon dioxide from the whole of the Earth; the history of life on Earth as recorded by the isotopes of rare metals archived in marine sediments; the chemical signatures in meteorites and the wavelengths of light emitted from distant solar nebulae, both helping us infer the building blocks from which our own planet was formed.


The Goldschmidt Conference is often held in cities with profound cultural legacies, like that of Florence.  And although Florence’s legacy that is perhaps dominated by Michelangelo and Botticelli, Tuscany was also home to Galileo Galilee, and he and the Scientific Revolution are similarly linked to the Renaissance and Florence. Wandering through the Galileo Museum is a stunning reminder of how challenging it is to measure the world around us, how casually we take for granted many of these measurements and the ingenuity of those who first cracked the challenges of quantifying time or temperature or pressure.

And it is also exhilarating to imagine the thrill of those scientists as they developed new tools and turned them to the stars above us or the Earth beneath us.  Galileo’s own words tell  us how he felt when he pointed his telescope at Jupiter and discovered the satellites orbiting around it; and how those observations unlocked other insights and emboldened new hypotheses:

‘But what exceeds all wonders, I have discovered four new planets and observed their proper and particular motions, different among themselves and from the motions of all the other stars; and these new planets move about [Jupiter] like Venus and Mercury… move about the sun.’

The discoveries of the 21st century are no less exciting, if perhaps somewhat more nuanced.


I could give so many examples!  But allow me to just draw on some of the contributions from my University of Bristol colleagues from that conference in 2014.  Laura Robinson presented a new approach to estimating water discharge from rivers, based on the ratio of uranium isotopes in coral; the technique has great potential for studying flood and drought events over the past 100,000 years, helping us to better understand, for example, the behaviour of monsoon systems on which the lives of nearly one billion people depend.  Heather Buss presented research quantifying the nature and consequences of reactions occurring at the bedrock-soil interface – and by extension, the processes by which rock becomes soil and nutrients are liberated, utilised by plants or flushed to the oceans. Kate Hendry presented her latest work employing the distribution of zinc in sponges (trapped in their opal hard parts) to examine how organic matter is formed in surface oceans, then transported to the deep ocean and ultimately buried in sediments; this is a key aspect to understanding how carbon dioxide is ultimately removed from the atmosphere.  The Conference is not entirely about measuring these processes – it is also about how those measurements are interpreted; Andy Ridgwell evaluated the evidence for how and when oceans become more acidic or devoid of oxygen using an intermediate complexity Earth System Model.

What next?  Every few years, a major innovation opens up new insights.  Until about 20 years ago, organic carbon isotope measurements (carbon occurs as two stable isotopes – ~99% as the isotope with 12 nuclear particles and ~1% as the isotope with 13) were conducted almost exclusively on whole rock samples. These values were useful in studying ancient life and the global carbon cycle, but somewhat limited because the organic matter in a rock derives from numerous organisms including plants, algae and bacteria. But in the late 1980s, new methods allowed us to measure carbon isotope values on individual compounds within those rocks, including compounds derived from specific biological sources.  In the past decade, John Eiler and his team at Caltech developed new methods for measuring the values in specific parts or even at a single position in those individual compounds within those rocks (work that builds on ideas of John Hayes 20 years prior).  Now being explored by many colleagues, this isotope mapping of molecules could open up new avenues for determining the temperatures at which ancient animals grew or elide what microorganisms are doing deep in the Earth’s subsurface.

Scientists are going to continue to measure the world around us.  And while that might sound cold and calculating, it is not!  We do this out of our fascination and wonder for nature and our planet.  Just like Galileo’s discovery of Jovian satellites excited our imagination of the cosmos, these new tools are helping us unravel the astonishingly beautiful interactions between our world and the life upon it.

*I originally wrote this in 2014, after the Goldschmidt Conference in 2014 and a visit to Firenze’s Galileo Museum.








Living with Environmental Uncertainty

This was my first ever blog, inspired by Amanda W00dman-Hardy upon my appointment as Director of the Cabot Institute. It foreshadows a lot of themes to come, including how my life on a farm and research on climate change across multiple timescales informed my views on uncertainty.  Many of these ideas would be refined during the Bristol Green Capital, as we co-created Bristol’s Resilience Strategy and One City Plan and collaborated with colleagues at the University of Bristol and across the city.

Improved decision making in the face of environmental uncertainty is at the heart of the Cabot Institute. Although individuals, businesses and society aspire to make logical decisions, informed by evidence and wisdom, we are also influenced by a complex mixture of emotions, ethics, political opportunism and personal beliefs.  These murky waters become even more challenging to navigate when dealing with the inherent uncertainty in the basic evidence.  And it becomes almost impossible when pre-conceived beliefs and opinions replace evidence.  In such scenarios, uncertainty can be manipulated as a tool to undermine evidence and justify flawed decisions.  This is the particular challenge of decision making in the context of complex environmental, economic and ecological issues.

To a scientist confronted with evidence that human activity is changing our environment at unprecedented rates, it is apparent that environmental uncertainty is rarely appropriately deployed in policy making.  Most perniciously, it is commonly argued that the risk of an action (i.e. loss of biodiversity or increasing CO2 emissions) could be at the low end of the probability distribution – ‘the temperature might not warm that much’, ‘we might not get more hurricanes’.  That is not proper governance; that is hiding behind uncertainty and hoping for the best.  Nor is it appropriate to govern based on the worst-case scenario.  But nor can we govern by solely considering the most likely outcome.  We must recognise the range of possibilities and plan within it – strategically, flexibly, resiliently.  In other words, the uncertainty brought about by ongoing environmental change is itself a profound cause for concern and a challenge for governance.

However, environmental uncertainty is not an opaque label for things ‘we do not understand’ and by an extension it is not a cause for inaction.

I grew up on a farm in the US Midwest and so environmental uncertainty to me mainly concerns our food and the people who provide it.   Anyone who has ever been involved in farming understands how uncertain our environment can be. And they understand how undermining and economically challenging that uncertainty is, especially with respect to the weather (weather is not the same as climate, but it makes for a useful environmental analogy).

We had about 30 head of cattle on our small Ohio dairy farm, and my brother, parents and I needed to put aside 4000 bales of hay every summer. I loved that job – I remember the smell of drying hay and the fat bumble bees buzzing in the clover. I remember being with my family, the satisfaction of completed work and the closeness that came from achieving things together. But it was hard and uncertain work, my father cutting the grass, raking it and baling it, quickly over successive hot days so that it would dry before a summer rain shower could strip away the nutrients. Or worse: before an extended few days of rain saturated the mowed hay on the ground, causing it to become fungus-ridden and rotting it away in the field.  We could work with a prediction of rain and we could work with a prediction of no rain or even drought.  But we could not work with an overly uncertain prediction.  Even worse were wrong (i.e. overly certain) predictions.  We navigated the probabilistic terrain of the daily weather forecasts somewhat by instinct, but the stakes were high, and just three or four bad decisions in a summer would have been financially catastrophic.  The farm is long gone but my Mom is still addicted to the weather reports.

But uncertainty does not mean paralysis; it means risk management.  We mitigated the risk of wasted crop by renting and working fields that could yield 4500 bales rather than 4000.  And those 4000 bales of hay were themselves, risk management, exceeding our likely needs.  Gathering the bales and storing them in our barn’s loft was hard, sticky, hot and gritty work.  The hay was delivered to the loft by a metal elevator – metal plates carried by metal chains up a metal chute, all powered by our forty-year old International Harvester tractor’s power take-off shaft.  I loved doing this work on the farm – its physicality and the stimulus of all of your senses – but I do not miss that tremendous rattling, clanging noise!  The loft itself could reach temperatures of 110°F and was filled with clouds of dust and darting, irritated wasps.  Our necks would burn and our forearms would be filled with tiny splinters of hay.

We worked hard and put away 4000 bales each summer even though we would probably only need 3500, because we had to err on the side of caution in case there was an early winter. Or a long winter.

That is environmental uncertainty – and risk management – to me.  Cutting the hay when the forecast predicts a 35% chance of rain and watching 400 bales of alfalfa rot in the field.  Renting more land than we would likely need. Working 20% harder than necessary – just in case.

All of us understand this, whether it be maintaining the garden, managing the allotment or planning a holiday. This is part of human history: sound, profitable, secure decision-making has always required a confrontation with environmental uncertainty; consequently, almost all societies have strived to mitigate risks by understanding the environment, managing essential resources, and building up our own resilience.

What is disturbing and unique about the 21st century is that we are no longing mitigating environmental uncertainty but instead, we are very rapidly increasing it. We are changing our planet and where and how we live upon it.  Increasing carbon dioxide emissions might warm the planet by 1.5°C.  Or 3°C.  Or 5°C.  Such warming will probably cause the Southwest of England to have wetter summers and the great food-supplying regions of the American Midwest to become drier.  But there is a probability that the opposite will happen.  How does the small farmer plan?  For that matter, how does the huge international agritech firm plan? I would argue that the greatest challenge posed by our changing environment is not how much the Earth warms but the uncertainty in how much it will warm and the uncertainty associated with the consequences of that warming. Planning for our future – perhaps for the first time in human history – is actually becoming more uncertain every year.

But we are also learning much more about ourselves and our environment, and this perhaps makes the future a bit more certain than it might otherwise be.  Currently the MET Office is improving our prediction tools and tailoring specific advice to farmers; engineers are learning how we might mitigate or even adapt to this uncertainty; and we are developing methods to limit our dependence on fossil fuel and thus the associated climate change.  And we are learning how to make sound decisions in the face of it. To achieve these objectives, the Cabot Institute and similar entities are bringing together a wide variety of scientists, social scientists, managers and engineers, all of whom share expertise with the community and industry.  That expertise includes those who deal specifically with quantifying uncertainty, the underlying psychology and sociology of decision making, and the clash of ethical and pragmatic ideas that inform policy making.  The world’s population is growing and with it our basic food, water and energy needs; to provide for those needs, we must make our future more certain but also more resilient and adaptable.