Building Interdisciplinarity

From an article for GW4 on Innovative approaches in SW England. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute is an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together researchers from across the arts and humanities, sciences and technologies to address global environmental challenges. We hear from its Director, Professor Richard Pancost, on the lessons he has learned from leading the institute, from the importance of building trust between academics, to the value of managing expectations and eschewing ‘checklist targets’.

 

Nine years ago, many of us at the University of Bristol set out to create a new kind of research institute, one that would draw together multiple disciplines to tackle society’s grand environmental challenges. It was supported from the ‘top’ of the University, with an ambition to foster cross-disciplinary research; but it was led from the ‘bottom’, by those already leading diverse themes while also recognising that something larger, bolder and more creative was necessary. Those conversations led to the launch of the Cabot Institute in 2010, the University of Bristol’s first (of four) University Research Institutes (URIs), of which I have been the Director since 2013.

At the time, both interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were popular but contentious concepts.  Many organisations were pursuing them but perhaps without a robust intellectual justification or an understanding of their ultimate purpose.  This was particularly challenging because classical but constrained concepts of interdisciplinarity were being challenged as insufficiently ambitious. No longer was a collaboration between a chemist and physicist worthy of special recognition; the new and challenging aspiration was to join scientists, social scientists, engineers and cultural scholars.

At the same time, interdisciplinary research was being critiqued as too frequently treated as an end in and of itself by individuals, funders and organisations.  Instead, interdisciplinary methods, like any other, should be deployed only when they are appropriate to the challenge or question.  And when done so, they have great power, drawing together the different disciplines required to tackle grand challenges and co-producing energising new ideas. This was the rationale of Cabot – we could not tackle challenges like climate change within a single discipline or within academia alone; nor could we tackle climate change as an isolated challenge given its connection to social justice, energy policy and food production. This challenge-led motivation for interdisciplinarity – and more fundamentally the co-production of knowledge – is the inspiring force behind Cabot.

However, there is some risk that we have swung the pendulum too far towards the ‘problem-solving’ rationale for interdisciplinary research.  Just as applied research best thrives in an ecosystem that includes fundamental research, so do interdisciplinary endeavours.  The joy of such research and the benefit it brings is not simply new solutions but new ideas, new ways of thinking, even new disciplines. Many of these new ideas arise from the friction of interdisciplinary research and many arise from the new processes created to facilitate it. The intersection and clash of perspectives and different forms of knowing creates an environment in which new ideas can germinate and thrive. It does not always lead to new proposals, papers or solutions; instead, sometimes it infects its participants with new perspectives on their own research and new ways of interrogating old problems.

For example, Cabot now has extensive scholarship associated with the cultural understanding of natural hazards; some of that will help us mitigate risk but much of it more fundamentally helps us understand the human condition and how we conceptualise our relationship with nature. My own research on past climate has thrived within Cabot not because of how it has informed better climate model predictions but because it has allowed me to reframe conversations around uncertainty, decision and anticipation. This in turn has created new avenues for engaging with policy makers and our community.

Holding those competing intellectual values in tension, the Cabot Institute has experimented, facilitated and catalysed, with both successes and failures, the former often surprising and the latter sometimes predictable in hindsight.  And during that time, we’ve learned a great deal that elaborates on these themes of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Below I describe four values that I have found particularly important.

BRINGING DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES TOGETHER IS INTRINSICALLY ABOUT BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER

Of Cabot’s many objectives, the first and most essential is to build new communities of scholars, within and beyond the University. These comprise both interdisciplinary efforts that genuinely sit in new intellectual spaces and multidisciplinary ones that represent a mosaic of classical disciplines. This ethos imposes a range of secondary considerations. The inter- and multidisciplinary thrives best when the disciplinary thrives as well; some of our greatest successes have emerged from strong disciplines coming together as multidisciplinary efforts that then give rise to a new interdisciplinary way of thinking.

Community building also requires a diverse form of support activity.  We can bring groups together to discuss a particular challenge, but we also need to bring people together in more creative and less prescribed frameworks.  The Cabot team needs to have 1-2-1s with our community, so that we are sufficiently informed to be match-makers.  And we all need funding to nurture these ideas, allowing them to thrive to sufficient maturity to attract external funding.

Moreover, a truly intellectually diverse multi-disciplinary environment is one that it is not limited to academics. Cabot has thrived via strong partnerships across the city, UK and world, supported by the traditional mechanisms (a brilliant External Advisory Board chaired by Chris Curling, then Sir John Beddington and currently Dame Julia Slingo; secondments into the Government Office of Science; partnerships with Rothamsted Research and the Met Office) but also creative collaborations that have created the space for our esteemed University to be more humble and learn from the brilliant civil society organisations and incredible individuals in Bristol.

Of course, we have also been opportunistic, using Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital to host events and support others, prominently putting our ethos of equal and collaborative partnership on display.  This has led to participation in the Festival of the Future City, co-sponsorship of the Coleridge Lectures, partnership in inspiring Arts Projects,  the Green and Black Ambassadors, and support for our City on the world stage at COP21 – all as equal partners, respecting and valuing the diversity of perspectives and wisdom in our city.

When we have drifted from those values is when we have failed. One of our initiatives was to create a ‘Corporate Club’, VENTURE, in which corporate partners, via a subscription, would fund staff, who in turn would help build collaborations and develop research projects. It was a legitimate effort towards co-production, based on shared resourcing. However, trying to procure funding from our partners undermined the message of collaboration, partnership and support.  Would we not provide the same service to those who did not join?  Would we not support those organisations with fewer resources?  Of course we would. Partnership was not just a way of working but a Cabot value. VENTURE could work for other organisations, but for Cabot it revealed itself to be inconsistent with our core mission. It is to the credit of our partners that this dialogue, through shared learning and deeper respect, led to stronger relationships – even if VENTURE failed.

THE VALUE (OR NOT) OF HAVING A RESEARCH THEME

The Cabot community has resisted calls to be the Institute of the ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘risk’ or all of the above. As soon as one of those words is imposed, it would begin to define and constrain our purpose. And Cabot was created to disrupt silos not to create a new one. We would not have been able to engage in a rich dialogue with our city around social justice, co-create the Green and Black Ambassadors, support smart city initiatives, sponsor the International Conference on Anticipation, or explore the challenge of food security if we had an overly constrained remit.  Associated with this, we view our membership and partnership as permeable, with nearly 1000 academics and other colleagues engaging with us over the years, more or less, off and on, depending on the opportunities, challenges and potential for creativity.

On the other hand, it is essential to have some broad thematic focus.  There is already an entity that should support all multi- and interdisciplinary research – it is called the 21st century University.  Therefore, Cabot’s value arises from having a loose thematic remit that provides some guidance of what colleagues and partners can expect us to offer, who they might meet at a Cabot event, what we might be prepared to profile.  Moreover, having some common themes, such as low carbon energy, food security and environmental change, allows us to build added value, partnerships and communities as our projects accumulate and diversify. Of course, we can never fully anticipate where such dynamic and creative conversations might take us – and that is part of the fun!

EMBEDDING COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY IN INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH  

One of the great pleasures of Cabot has been not only drawing in new ideas from our academics and partners but also our professional services. Breaking down silos is not limited to the silos that exist between Schools or disciplines: we all live in a world of structural and administrative silos. And building bridges between them reveals great pools of experience and knowledge. Our estates team is a world leader in sustainability and has fostered new discussions around everything from district heating and sustainable procurement to the carbon footprint of our research. Collaboration with our Press Office led to the creation of the Press Gang, in which we train postgraduate students keen on developing their communication skills and connect them to partners; in return they help us produce blogs and press releases.  A partnership with our Centre for Public Engagement led to the Engaged MSc Research projects, which connect postgraduate researchers with external organisations who have a wealth of ideas but limited resource.

Crucially, this fosters not just the creation of new research directions but new ways of working, new ways to support and enable the academic community, and new learning experiences. We have brought in external provocateurs, run sandpits, workshops, mingles, and all the activities one might expect.  But we have also fostered conversation through curated peer-to-peer learning.  We have worked with artists – who have served as collaborators, facilitators and enablers. We have connected UGs to academics, PGRs to community organisations, citizens to councillors, academics to MPs. We have run conferences and curated discussions on behalf of city partners.  And all of that has been fostered by an ethos of partnership and learning, and fuelled by permission – or perhaps more accurately, a mandate – to try new things.

METRICS: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

Cabot’s budget is small but powerful given that our mission is not to deliver but to be catalytic. But more important is the conditionality of that funding. We are not assessed against a checklist of targets or how much of a specific activity we deliver – how many workshops we have organised or events we have hosted. Instead, we are assessed against a more challenging but vital target – how we have added something new to our research or teaching portfolio. This permissiveness is the foundation for experimentation and creativity.  It is the foundation of collaboration rather than competition. And therefore, it creates the environment in which new ideas can thrive. These new ways of working might or might not solve climate change or any other grand challenge; however, a diversity of new ideas inspired by a diversity of perspectives, whether from Bristol, GW4 partners or others, likely will.  As such, Cabot’s ambitions transcends our initial ambition to facilitate problem-driven interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research; we aspire to create an environment where we challenge one another to think, learn and conduct research in exciting new ways.

These perspectives do not represent the only approach – and certainly not the only rationale.  My comments have arisen from the many who are part of the Cabot community. And not all of them would agree with what I’ve written or omitted. For example, I see no need for a physical space and in fact view it as a threat to creativity and adaptability; others would have good reasons to disagree. As such, these observations are not meant to be lessons but rather provocations; and as such, I hope they help catalyse the conversations of others pursuing similar initiatives – even if they make different choices.

Eradicating Inequity is How We Will Thrive in an Uncertain World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They can flee pandemic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deputy Vice-Chancellor:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many applauded her for calling attention to it.

But some dismissed it as imagined or irrelevant.

Others told her to be quiet.

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

Some blamed it on the marginalised communities themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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At the party afterwards! More official photos to come!

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

The Uncertain World Project – Engagement to build Action

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Environmental Justice Must Recognise and Centre Social Justice

This is Bristol: Numerous green businesses and voluntary organisations, a multitude of cyclists, recyclers and circular economists; ethical banking and a local currency; a Council-owned windfarm, Energy Company and low-carbon investment strategy; local food production, community energy, sustainable housing developments.  The 2015 EU Green Capital and the owner of the most rapid and extensive decarbonisation ambition of any city or nation in the world.

This is also Bristol: Congestion, polluted air and a polluted harbour, heat-inefficient Victorian homes, fuel poverty and food deserts. Economic inequality magnified by environmental inequality.

Bristol has been a leader in the environmental movement for decades, and it has been a leader in tackling climate change. I’ve been studying climate change for 30 years but am still in awe of the Bristol spirit.  And since arriving in Bristol, I’ve tried to help my small bit: I was with George Ferguson in Paris when he pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; I also collaborated on the Council’s Resilience Strategy and, more recently, Marvin Rees’ One City Approach, and especially its environmental theme.

Consequently, I was enthused to see Bristol pass a motion of intent, declaring a Climate Emergency and a desire to become carbon neutral. Carbon neutral across all sectors. By 2030. This is the ambitious Bristol that I love.

And yet I am wary.  I am wary that in our fear of catastrophic climate change and in our urgency to declare a Climate Emergency, we fail to build a genuinely inclusive movement.  And such a movement is needed to achieve the tremendous change that is required.

We must drive our society towards sustainability, circularity and carbon neutrality. It is necessary to protect our civilisation, to protect all of us and our planet.  But most of all, we must minimise climate change because climate change is unjust.  It will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  It will affect children more than their parents. The young more than the old.

And it will affect the poor, the vulnerable, the isolated – and it will do so not just because of the unfortunate coincidences of geography but because of the structural inequalities in that same society that we are fighting to save. Heat waves kill the poor, they kill outdoor labourers, the working class. Sea level rise will trap, drown and infect the poor, those without the means and wealth to freely move among nations. The volatility of food production will be particularly devastating to those who already struggle to feed their families, who already lean on food banks and charity. Hurricanes and storms will continue to devastate the communities with the least recourse to escape, who likely already live in flood-prone areas, who can be sacrificed, like those in Puerto Rico, with minimal political repercussions.

Climate change is an affront to our proc ideals of fairness and equality. It is classist.  It is racist.

But if climate action is a question of social justice, then those marginalised groups must be part of the movement.  They must set the agenda of that movement.  They must lead the movement.  And if they are not, those of us who claim the title ‘environmentalist’ cannot ask why they are not engaged, and instead must ask how we have failed.  We must challenge ourselves, our privilege, our dialogue and our institutions and understand how we have excluded them. Have we invited marginalised groups to participate in our events and our agenda?  Or have we honestly co-created an open space for multiple agendas?  Have we recognised that destroying inequality is a legitimate starting point for fighting climate change?  Have we recognised that many of our proposed solutions – entirely rational solutions – can be implicitly racist or sexist?

If we are going to prevent catastrophic climate change, then we must act fast and with unrelenting persistence. But at the same time, we must be patient, check our privilege and listen to those who have been marginalised by past environmental movements. This is especially true because it is those same marginalised groups who will most likely bear the greatest burden of climate change. We assault these groups doubly if we do not centre their voices in our common cause.  And because the environmental movement is unstoppable – technologically and socially inevitable and therefore economically inevitable – exclusion from these opportunities is yet a third assault.

I am by no means an expert on co-creating powerful social movements, fuelled by equality amongst the participants and effective in achieving change.  But I have been lucky enough to work and learn from those who do. They have shown undeserved patience and understanding and trust.

They taught me that it is vital to recognise not just your own privilege but the economic, historical or social privileges of the institutions one represents. In my case, a world-leading university.  In other cases, a business or a trust – even a small green business or cash-starved charity. And even a movement, especially a movement perceived as being by and for the white middle class.

Having recognised that privilege and in many cases the structural racism, sexism and wider inequalities that come with it, it is our obligation to decolonise those institutions rather than to plead for yet more labour from those our institution oppresses.  It is our obligation to do our own research and to commit our own emotional energy and labour. And when we do work with marginalised groups, we are compelled to respect their expertise by paying them for their services.  Major institutions will pay consultants 100s of thousands of pounds for a re-brand or governance review but ask marginalised groups to help address our diversity challenges by serving for free – by serving on our Boards, attending our workshops, advising on our projects.  It is insulting to imply that the privilege of entering our institutions and projects is adequate compensation for their time, their re-lived trauma or their expertise.

Of course, a recognition of the limitations of our institutions, our organisations and our movements is only the start. The next steps involve a fundamental reckoning with the word ‘our’ in those projects – who has owned these, who owns them now, who will own them in the future?  And given those answers, are they fit for the challenge at hand? Are they projects capable of becoming genuinely co-owned, co-creative spaces, where not just new members are welcomed but also their new ideas, challenges and perspectives?  Or are these projects that must be completely deconstructed, making way for the more energetic ones to come?  Do we ourselves have the humility to deconstruct our own projects and cede our labour to those of someone else?

Image from the PhotoVoice Project of the Green and Black Ambassadors

These are challenging questions and the answers are not as simple as I imply.  Those of us who have been fighting climate change, plastics in the ocean, toxins in our soil, pollution in the air, and the non-sustainable exploitation of our planet are deeply invested in the struggle and in the solutions we have forged. It is not trivial to patiently draw in new perspectives nor to have our ideas questioned – we have been fighting an establishment for five decades that has been guilty of predatory delay and manipulation of public understanding.  We are right to be wary of anything that delays action, right to be uncivil, impatient and intemperate.

But it is also time to concede that a thousand ripples have yet to become a wave.  Certainly not the wave needed to dismantle the environmental degradation that has become a near-inextricable feature of our society.

In Bristol, we have the potential to create this wave together.  We have a Partnership, a One City Approach and a cross-party ambition without precedent. This is the time to re-invigorate our environmental movement, to align it with our other challenges, to become genuinely inclusive and diverse.  It will not succeed with a simple majority, with a mere 52% of the vote.  It will have to be a new political project but with an apolitical community that rejects the discourse of division and embraces new and unexpected collaborations.

It will be a community that makes use of all of our talent and is united not with a single strategy or action plan but a common cause and shared values. It will be a community that thrives through a multitude of equally respected agendas.

I would like to thank so many people for inspiration, patience, passion and laughter: The original Green and Black Ambassadors Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley and Zakiya Mackenzie; and of course: Roger Griffith, La Toyah McAllister-Jones; Andrew Kelly, Sado Jirde, Paul Hassan, Ruth Pitter, Hayley Shaw, Kat Wall, Sumita Hutchison, Eric Herring, Karen Bell, Ian Townsend, Vicki Woolley, Marvin Rees, Stacy Yelland, Cllr Asher Craig, Zoe Banks, Mya ‘Birdgirl’ Craig, Peaches Golding and many many more. And associated organisations (Ujima Radio, Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Festival of Ideas and the Cabot Institute for the Environment) and funders (the EU ERC Programme and NERC).

Originally posted by Rich Pancost on the website of Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees.

 

The Green and Black Conversation – Exclusion and the Environmental Movement

This is a report from the very first event in the Green and Black partnership between Ujima Radio, Bristol Green Capital Partnership and the Cabot Institute.  Ujima had been leading on the Conversation for the previous year, and  this particular event was the catalyst for a three-year (and growing) partnership that was the foundation for the award-winning and celebrated Green and Black Ambassadors.

This Green and Black Conversation involved several members of Bristol’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) community and organisations. It was held in partnership with Bristol Green Capital Partnership (Gary Topp), University of Bristol (Hayley Shaw, Cabot Institute & Kat Wall, Policy Institute) and sponsored by the Cabot Institute whose Director Professor Rich Pancost addressed the group. The campaign has political support from Mayor George Ferguson and also Marvin Rees who attended the forum with European Member of European Parliament Claire Moody.  

Our new volunteer Helly Dudley, Broadcast Assistant on Ujima’s Old Skool Cruising Show (Monday 4-6) with Roger Griffith who was co-facilitator with Julz attended her first community engagement event and here is her blog. 

The Report of the Green and Black Conversation, written by Roger, can be read here.
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The Green and Black Conversation

Arriving at St Werburgh’s community centre I knew I was going to be getting involved in discussions about being ‘Green/Environmental’ and how this is linked to the BME community in Bristol. However, I wasn’t sure what would be discussed, how they would be viewed and spoken about.

From the get-go I realised that this is extremely important to many members of the BME community as there was enthusiasm for living in an environmentally beneficial lifestyle and also a feeling of a lack of support which members of the BME community feel they are receiving from the campaign. Although Bristol is European Green capital, there is a divide occurring within the city and certain communities feel they are being excluded by Bristol European Green Capital from this campaign.

We first looked at the use of language and the ways in which this can be limiting to people of all ages and ethnicities. Not only do language barriers prevent certain communities from getting involved but it also prevents them from knowing how to help and giving them a sense of self-responsibility. When one member of the group declared they didn’t know what ‘buying organic’ meant this created a murmur of agreement throughout the rest of the group as few of us were able to define what ‘organic’ meant. If you, like me, are unsure of the term ‘organic’ then the definition is – ‘(of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.’

If the Green agenda wants to get all of Bristol’s residents on board to help the environment then they need to change the way in which they portray their methods of being sustainable and as we explored language is just one of those methods.

Another issue raised throughout the day was there was a belief that it was seen as an elitist campaign which directs its messages mainly to a white middle-class demographic. One attendee pointed out that, Gloucester Road is covered with Green campaign posters, Stapleton Road was left untouched. Why is it that the campaign is just aiming their agendas at the central zone of Bristol and neglecting the rest of its communities?

Kat Wall, who works with the University of Bristol and helped set up this discussion, mentioned that she had been to an environmental meeting and was shocked by the lack of BME members present. When she questioned the organiser of the event why this was the case they just replied that they had sent out the necessary invites but no one turned up. When this was put to the rest of the group there was an immediate response that the main reason they don’t attend these events is because they are tired of time and time again going to the same talks and making their input but never actually being heard or have their opinions taken on board.

There seems to be a lack of conversations between communities and those in power. To quote a member of Bristol’s Bus Boycott and activist and former farmer Roy Hackett ‘nobody ever asks me’ so if Bristol City Council and others don’t start listening to the ideas and needs of their own citizens  then how are we as tax-paying citizens  supposed to be able to get involved . One attendee mentioned that if her house was better insulated then she would be able to use less gas and her bills would decrease and she would be able to find the money to buy organic foods.

How can our city expect to stay regarded as a great city when we are cutting out members of our society from joining this campaign and others? We need to change our way of approaching the environmental issues and instead of forcing change onto communities we need to ask the residences of Bristol what they need for change.

We need to carry on having these discussions with each other, and those in power on what the people need in all communities not just the city centre. With the United Nations COP21 meeting taking place over the next 10 days in Paris, discussing climate change we need to now, more than ever, change our way of approaching this subject; and this can be done by including all members of our communities and tackling environmental issues together.

I really enjoyed attending this event and, by the enthusiasm and energy in the room, so did the other participants I believe that it was a conversation that was desperately needed so communities understand that this isn’t just an environmental issue but a social one that needs tackling. It is essential we work together and listen to one another to create new ideas of how to better enhance Bristol’s sustainability.

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This event took place at St Werburgh’s Community Centre in Bristol on 30 November 2015.

This blog was written by Helly Dudley, follow on Twitter @helena_dudley
Follow @ujimaradio.com @julzbrizzle and Roger Griffith @rogerg44.

The Green and Black initiative is a campaign ran by Ujima Radio to raise awareness within the Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) community about the environment and includes Bristol European Green Capital 2015 and beyond. The campaign has been led by Ujima presenter Julz Davis AKA Mistri and has included live broadcasts, debates, featured radio shows and ideas and brings people from marginalised communities into the discussions. This can include cooking tips, exercise and health, climate change across the African and Asian diaspora or heavy air-pollution from the M32 corridor that divides St Pauls and Easton.

Read more about how the Cabot Institute is working with the BME communities around the legacy of the European Green Capital year – see project Green and Black- An alternative green capital.

Most importantly, follow @ketibuahfoley @ZakiyaMedia, the Green and Black Ambassadors.  The issues raised by the Green and Black initiative and conversation led to a coordinate effort to create a new form of collaborative partnership and to procure funding to support our community partners (from the ERC and NERC).  It has been profiled by NERC and the final report from the Ambassadors pilot phase can be downloaded here.

Montage of some of the Green & Black Ambassadors

Archive: COP21 daily report 4: The need for innovation (but do not call it innovation)

Cabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost will be attending COP21 in Paris as part of the Bristol city-wide team, including the Mayor of Bristol, representatives from Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. He and other Cabot Institute members will be writing blogs during COP21, reflecting on what is happening in Paris, especially in the Paris and Bristol co-hosted Cities and Regions Pavilion, and also on the conclusion to Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital.  Follow #UoBGreen and #COP21 for live updates from the University of Bristol.  

Part 4

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For the past two days, a delegation of us have been representing Bristol City Council and a group of Bristol businesses at the Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF) at Paris.  Our group included Bristol Mayor George Ferguson, who spoke on Tuesday; Amy Robinson, of Low Carbon Southwest and the driver behind the Go Green business initiative; Bristol City Council representatives Stephen Hillton and Mhairi Ambler; and Ben Wielgus of KPMG and Chris Hayes of Skanska, both Bristol Green Capital sponsors. 

This was the COP21 ‘Business event’ and aspects of this have been rather sharply targeted by Paris activists. There is a legitimate question of whether corporate sponsors are engaging in greenwashing, but this was not my perception from inside Le Stade de France.  There were some major fossil fuel dependent or environmentally impactful companies in attendance, but they seemed genuinely committed to reducing their environmental impact.  Their actions must be transparent and assessed, and like all of us, they must be challenged to go further. This is why it was fantastic that Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, was speaking. Ceres is a true agent of change, bringing a huge variety of businesses into the conversation and working with them to continually raise ambition.

The majority of these businesses, just like those that attended Bristol’s Business Summit in October, are clearly and objectively devoted to developing new technologies to address the world’s challenges,. Whether it be new solar tech that will underpin the PVC of 2050 or innovative new ways to deploy wind turbines cheaply and effectively in small African villages, it is no longer ‘business’ that is holding back climate action and in many cases they are leading it. 

And we need them to do so.  We need them to develop new products and we need them to be supported by government and Universities.  We need them because we need new innovation, new technology and new infrastructure to meet our environmental challenges. 

One of the major themes of the past two days has been leadership in innovation, an ambition to which the University of Bristol and the City of Bristol aspires – like any world-class university and city.  We have profound collective ambitions to be a Collaboratory for Change. These are exemplified by Bristol is Open, the Bristol Brain and the Bristol Billion, all endeavours of cooperation between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council and all celebrated by George Ferguson in his speech to the SIF attendees yesterday.

This need for at least some fundamentally new technology is why the Cabot Institute has launched VENTURE. It is why the University has invested so much in the award-winning incubator at the Engine Shed. It is why we have devoted so much resource to building world-leading expertise in materials and composites, especially in partnership with others in the region.

We do not need these innovations for deployment now – deployment of already existing technology will yield major reductions in our carbon emissions – but we need to start developing them now, so that we can achieve more difficult emissions reductions in 20 years.  Our future leaders must have an electrical grid that can support a renewable energy network. Our homes must have been prepared for the end of gas.

And we will need new technology to fully decarbonise.

We effectively have no way to make steel without burning coal to melt iron – we either need new tech in recycling steel, need to move to a post-steel world, need to completely redesign steel plants, or some combination of all three.

We will need new forms of low-energy shipping. Localising manufacturing and recycling could create energy savings in the global supply chain.  But we will always have a global supply chain and eventually it must be decarbonised.

Similarly, we will need to decarbonise our farm equipment.  At heart, I am still an Ohio farm boy, and so I was distracted from my cities-focus to discuss this with Carlo Lambro, Brand President of New Holland.  Their company has made some impressive efficiency gains in farm equipment, especially with respect to NOx emissions, but he conceded that a carbon neutral tractor is still far away – they require too much power, operating at near 100% capacity (cars are more like 20-30%).  He described their new methane-powered tractor, which could be joined up to biogas emissions from farm waste, but also explained that it can only operate for 1.5 hours.  There have been improvements… but there is still a long way to go. I appreciated his engagement and his candor about the challenges we face (but that did not keep me from encouraging him to go faster and further!).

Finally, if we really intend to limit warming to below 2C, then we will likely need to capture and store (CCS) some of the carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere. Moreover, some of the national negotiators are pushing for a laudable 1.5C limit, and this would certainly require CCS. In fact, the need for the widespread implementation of such technology by the middle of this century is explicitly embedded in the emissions scenarios of IPCC Working Group 3. That is why some of our best Earth Scientists are working on the latest CCS technology.

Unfortunately, CCS illustrates how challenging innovation can be – or more precisely, as articulated by Californian entrepreneur Tom Steyer, how challenging it can be to develop existing technology into useful products. The CCS technology exists but it is still nascent and economically unviable.  It must be developed.  Given this, the recent cancellation of UK CCS projects is disappointing and could prove devastating for the UK’s intellectual leadership in this area.  The consequences of this decision were discussed by Nicola Sturgeon in a panel on energy futures and she renewed Scotland’s firm commitment to it.

This issue exemplifies a wider topic of conversation at the SIF: social and technological innovation and development requires financing, but securing that financing requires safety.  Skittish investors do not seek innovation; they seek safe, secure and boring investment. And SIF wrapped up by talking about how to make that happen.

First, we must invest in the research that yields innovations. We must then invest in the development of those innovations to build public and investor confidence.  Crucial to both of those is public sector support. This includes Universities, although Universities will have to operate in somewhat new ways if we wish to contribute more to the development process. We are learning, however, which is why George Ferguson singled out the Engine Shed as the world’s leading higher education based incubator.

Second, and more directly relevant to the COP21 ambitions, businesses and their investors need their governments to provide confidence that they are committed to a new energy future.  It has been clear all week that businesses will no longer accept the blame for their governments’ climate inaction.

Instead, most businesses see the opportunity and are eager to seize it. As for the few businesses that cling to the past? Like all things that fail to evolve, the past is where they shall remain.  The new generation of entrepreneurs will see to that. Whether it be the new businesses with new ideas or the old businesses that are adapting, the new economy is not coming; it is already here.

Why we must Bridge the Gap

In 2015, Bristol was the European Green Capital.  Bristol had and still has bold ambitions to be an environmentally thriving city, rich in wildlife and green spaces and committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  But this is a journey that requires the commitment of all, and as such, I was asked to help kick off the Green Capital year and frame its ambitions.  This is what I wrote in January 2015; I’d write something similar today, but no less ambitious and no less determined.

Why we must Bridge the Gap

Environmental experts describe the gap between our green intentions and our green actions as “the green gap”. We asked Bristol-based climate scientist, Professor Richard Pancost, to explain the scale of the problem, and why we need to take action now to tackle climate change.

Photo: Martina Ebel

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. And 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. [Note: And of course, this was agreed at COP21 in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.]

Interconnected world

These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt at home in the South West 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.

JAN 7, 2014: An unknown jogger running along the sea wall between in Dawlish, South West England
Photo: Paul J Martin / Shutterstock.com

Climate change affects us all – globally, nationally and locally in Bristol, the 2015 European Green Capital. Preventing it requires reductions in emissions over the next decade. And it then requires putting an end to all fossil fuel emissions in the decades to come.

Recent discussions in Lima and likely those in Paris at the end of this year, focused on how we reduce emissions globally. But in order to end all fossil fuel emissions in future, we need to put in place an international treaty. And this is the most difficult but necessary action to achieve.

Carbon lifecycle

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.

[Or we must spend a lot of money removing that CO2 from the atmosphere later.]

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 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.

Ratcliffe-on-Soar is one of the most efficient coal fired power stations in the UK, and removes 92% of sulphur dioxide from flue gas before it is released into the atmosphere.  But it does not remove the CO2
Photo: Mark Burrows/ Shutterstock

Future generations

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.

[This was written in Jan 2015, before the Paris Agreement was signed, before Brexit, before Trump, before plummeting costs of offshore wind, before reconsideration of nuclear energy as financially viable, before so much… But one thing is very clear – we have made a lot of progress but not enough and CO2 emissions have not only not fallen but they continue to rise.]

The Origins of the Uncertain World

In late 2014, the Cabot Institute was in deep consultation with artists, colleagues, businesses and political leaders about our contribution to Bristol EU Green Capital 2015.  Given the breadth of Cabot, we were keen to contribute in diverse ways, especially around sustainability solutions and the range of environmental challenges we face, from plastics in the sea to procuring safe, sustainable food.  However, 2015 was also a fantastic chance to discuss climate change, its causes and impacts and how Bristol and the wider world would have to adapt – especially given that 2015 would culminate with the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris.  At the same time, we wanted to examine climate change through a somewhat different lens than had been done in the past.  Uncertainty was that lens. We wrote this at the end of 2014 announcing the Uncertain World as our framework for discussing these issues during 2015 and beyond.  It went on to inform Bristol’s strong commitments to climate change and its Resilience Strategy.

Originally posted on the Cabot Institute blog, this was our statement of intent.

 

Over the next 18 months, in collaboration with Bristol Green Capital 2015 artists, civic leaders and innovative thinkers, the Cabot Institute will be participating in  a series of activities in which we examine how human actions are making our planet a much more uncertain place to live.
Fifty years ago, between 1962 and 1966, J. G. Ballard wrote a trio of seminal environmental disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.  These novels remain signposts to our future, the challenges we might face and the way people respond to rapid and unexpected change to their environment. In that spirit and coinciding with the Bristol Green Capital 2015, we introduce The Uncertain World, a world in which profound uncertainty becomes as much of a challenge to society as warming and rising sea levels.

J.G Ballard’s The Drowned World
taken from fantasticalandrewfox.com
For the past twenty years, the University of Bristol has been exploring how to better understand, mitigate and live with environmental uncertainty, with the Cabot Institute serving as the focus for that effort since its founding in 2010.  Uncertainty is the oft-forgotten but arguably most challenging aspect of mankind’s centuries-long impact on the environment.  We live our lives informed by the power of experience: our own as well as the collective experience of our families, communities and wider society. When my father started dairy farming he sought advice from my mother’s grandfather, our neighbours, and the grizzled veterans at the Middlefield auction house. Experience helps us make intelligent decisions, plan strategically and anticipate challenges.

Similarly, our weather projections, water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. These records – this experience  – can help us make sensible decisions about where to live, build and farm.

Now, however, we are changing our environment and our climate, such that the lessons of the past have less relevance to the planning of our future.  In fact, many aspects of environmental change are unprecedented not only in human experience but in Earth history. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing capital every day.

The Uncertain World is not one of which we have no knowledge – we have high confidence that temperatures and sea level will rise, although there is uncertainty in the magnitude and speed of change. Nor should we view The Uncertain World with existential fear – we know that warm worlds have existed in the past.  These were not inhospitable and most evidence from the past suggests that a climate ‘apocalypse’ resulting in an uninhabitable planet is unlikely.

Nonetheless, increasing uncertainty arising from human-induced changes to our global environment should cause deep concern.  Crucial details of our climate remain difficult to predict, and it undermines our ability to plan for our future. We do not know whether many regions of the world will become wetter or dryer. This uncertainty propagates and multiplies through complex systems: how do we make sensible predictions of coastal flood risk when there is uncertainty in sea level rise estimates, rainfall patterns and the global warming that will impact both?  We can make predictions even in such complex systems, but the predictions will inevitably come with a degree of uncertainty, a probabilistic prediction.  How do we apply such predictions to decision making? Where can we build new homes, where do we build flood defences to protect existing ones, and where do we abandon land to the sea?

Methane escaping from Arctic
permafrost. Image: Treehugger.com

Perhaps most worrying, the consequences of these rapid changes on biological and chemical systems, and the people dependent upon them, are very poorly understood. For example, the synergistic impact of warmer temperatures, more acidic waters, and more silt-choked coastal waters on coral reefs and other marine ecosystems is very difficult to predict. This is particularly concerning given that more than 2.6 billion people  depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein. Similarly, warming of Arctic permafrost could promote the growth of CO2-sequestering plants or the release of warming-accelerating methane – or both. Warm worlds with very high levels of carbon dioxide did exist in the past and these do provide some insight  into the response of the Earth system, but we are accelerating into this new world at a rate that is unprecedented in Earth history, creating additional layers of uncertainty.
During late 2014 and 2015, the Cabot Institute will host a variety of events and collaborate with a variety of partners across Bristol and beyond to explore this Uncertain World and how we can live in it. How do we better explain uncertainty and what are the ‘logical’ decisions to make when faced with uncertainty? One of our first events will explore how uncertainty in climate change predictions should motivate us to action: the more uncertain our predictions the more we should employ mitigation rather than adaptation strategies. Future events will explore how past lessons from Earth history help us better understand potential future scenarios; how future scenario planning can inform the decisions we make today; and most importantly, how we build the necessary flexibility into social structures to thrive in this Uncertain World.