In 2015, I joined the Bristol delegation to COP21 in Paris, where the world agreed to limit warming to less than 2C and aspired to limit warming to 1.5C.
Six years later, COP26 comes to the UK, and delayed by Covid, it comes in the aftermath of an IPCC report that starkly highlights how inadequate our efforts have been to meet those Paris 2015 aspirations.
The Step Change Yet to Happen
It would be a mistake to argue that nothing was achieved in Paris. The agreement – and the subsequent increase in ambition of the UK Climate Change Act to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – appears to have had an impact on governments and legal decisions. Although the declaration of Climate Emergencies, starting in Bristol and spreading widely, is largely symbolic, the political recognition of climate change and on-the-record commitment to decarbonisation exerts a pressure on policy. Most obviously, it has (for the time being) prevented the expansion of both Bristol and London Airports. These government commitments have also exerted pressure on energy infrastructure and contributed to the UK’s decreasing carbon emissions. Globally, even though CO2 emissions and concentrations continue to climb, they are ever so slowly bending away from the worst case scenario, which tellingly was once called the Business as Usual scenario.
Most importantly, however, the Paris Agreement has invited and legitimised a long overdue surge in activism. Friday Strikes, marches, and rallies on College Green as well as the more disruptive interventions of XR have forced climate action onto the media and political agenda. We also see this in the more activist intervention of climate scientists. Our activism is not just driven by government inaction on our warnings for over 50 years, but also because those same governments have now established their objectives in law and international agreements. Is taking to the streets really ‘activism’ if it is just asking governments to do what they are legally as well as morally compelled to do – by their very own admission?
But let’s not deceive ourselves. By necessity the Paris Agreement was non-binding. Globally, emissions still increase; bending away from 5C of warming to perhaps 3C of warming is not reassuring. Moreover, very little meaningful – transformative – change has happened. We have achieved a decrease in emissions and that is cause for some celebration. But that has largely been achieved by switching from coal to gas, but we still fundamentally rely on burning things to generate our heat, electricity and transport. We have made incremental gains by grabbing the low-hanging fruit. This is true of the UK and it is true of Bristol. And our delays mean that the window of time for driving emissions to zero has shrunk dramatically. Even the most optimistic scenarios of the most recent IPCC report lean heavily on carbon capture.
Community Collaboration and Action
As we approach COP26, therefore, where can Bristol lead? Are we powerless as a city if national governments fail to act?
In this it is worth reflecting why Bristol was awarded the Green Capital honour for 2015. It was largely because of the number and variety of organisations, from volunteer groups of 2 to 3 people to civil society organisations and CICs to charities to businesses and to local government, united in their pursuit of an environmentally sustainable future. Bristol cannot solve climate change but it can show the world that we are not powerless in the face of national government prevarication. Too often the climate debate is split between those arguing for individual action vs structural change at a national level. Not only is this a false dichotomy (clearly we need both), but more importantly it misses the most important agent of change: communities.
Communities amplify individual action.
Communities create pressure for wider political change.
Communities come up with novel solutions and the solutions that will be most effective for them. In doing so, they learn fast, learn hard, fail, learn again. And then they share.
Climate Action that Centres Environmental and Social Justice
Community leadership and collaboration is also vital in addressing the other major theme that has emerged in the climate movement since COP21: It is not just about the climate. Of course, we always knew this, but the past five years of Ecological Emergencies and Black Lives Matter have shown starkly that nothing exists in isolation. We must not devastate nature to achieve our climate solutions, i.e. by taking land from wildlife and devoting it to the capture of carbon. We must not ignore the injustices of climate change or the potential injustices of our environmental solutions; fossil fuel colonialism must not be replaced by green colonialism just so we can continue exactly as we always have, albeit in electric cars.
Bristol can do this.
Through the Green Capital Partnership but not only the partnership, we have the capacity to connect, cooperate and mobilise. The Black and Green Ambassadors, for example, have challenged organisations to recognise their lack of racial diversity and inclusion as well as its consequences; and they have supported those organisations to become stronger by addressing those issues. Crucially, although the Ambassadors Programme was successful, we never forgot that it was not about our ego but about community, it was not about promoting itself but rather celebrating the fact that Bristol’s Black community was already active and engaged in environmental issues. It elevated those groups and challenged other organisations, including my own, to recognise that the lack of engagement from the black community with our initiatives did not mean that they were not leading their own.
I can give so many other examples: Voscur, Ujima Radio, Black 2 Nature, Avon Wildlife Trust, Locality, Babbasa, the Black Southwest Network, the Bristol Zoo, 91 Ways, the Bristol Energy Network, Bristol Ideas, Feeding Bristol… I am so impressed by what they have accomplished, while being supported by Bristol City Council in concept but largely starved of funds by nearly a decade of austerity. They have championed projects in a profoundly intersectional manner, decreasing carbon footprints while alleviating fuel poverty, growing food while creating green spaces in marginalised neighbourhoods. What could they achieve with empowerment and a sustainable budget? What new transport schemes, community energy projects, car or tool sharing, allotments, youth training, community gardens and more could they bring to our city if they were supported with finances and freedom that matched their passion??
As COP26 approaches, I have expectations for our national government, our regional authority, Bristol City Council and the Mayor. But for Bristol as a city, my hope is that its citizens are afforded the opportunity to do what they have always done: argue but also collaborate; innovate and fail but also succeed and create; and then share.
‘The University always has to have its moment in the spotlight.’ Sarcasm dripped from every word, heard by me even though it was whispered only to his neighbour in the audience. His colleague laughed in reply. I had just given a talk as part of a Conference on Bristol’s Resilience Strategy, on work we had co-produced.
On another occasion, after speaking about the racial impacts of climate change, a person who’s opinion I valued and still value above nearly all others cornered me and said, ‘If you care so much about racial inequality why is your audience all white? Why are your speakers all white?’
Co-production. Participatory Approaches. Citizen Science. Co-creation. Shared learning. We now recognise that our research – maybe all of it and certainly aspects of it – cannot be conducted in the ivory tower but instead must be done in an engaged, equal and constructive partnership with the relevant communities. Increasingly, however, the nature of that engagement is critiqued. Who do we engage and why? What are the implicit and explicit power imbalances and hierarchies? Even when we engage genuinely, are we still centering our agenda through our soft influence and power?
These are not new questions, but as researchers approach community engagement with new enthusiasm, they are re-discovered by new parts of the academic community and university leadership. The lessons have to be learned again. Our partners have to teach us. Again. And are exploited further.
Twenty years ago, it was thought to be enough to simply be seen to be engaging, so desperate were cities and communities for researchers to listen to them. But engagement can reproduce the same inequities of the past. In fact, given the greater emotional and labour investment of the partnership, the potential for exploitation is far greater.
Why must we engage?
I was asked this at a recent workshop, not because anyone there thought it was a contested question but rather to stimulate discussion. Nonetheless, if we are to collaborate with communities with integrity, it is essential to understand not just why we are obliged to engage as researchers but why we choose to engage as people.
When I first started working more closely with communities – those in Tanzania as part of project to study past climate, with Bristol communities to explore local climate action – I was inspired by the classical reasons. It is fun; I enjoy working with people. And it is ethical; people have a right to know where and how their taxes, resources, or history are used and have a right to shape that research.
As I increasingly focused on the intersection of my work on past climate change with local and national strategies for climate action and resilience, my motivation became more pragmatic. If we expect our work to make a difference to society, then people need to have not just understanding but buy-in to that research. Where possible, they should be co-creating those solutions and policies, whether via Citizen Assemblies or involvement in technological innovations. Too often, scientists, engineers and social scientists have envisioned solutions that have been met with apathy, indifference or even hostility by the citizens they’ve been meant to serve: nuclear power, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Vaccines. And with communities, flood defences, wind farms, hazard resilience strategies, clean air zones, park restoration. Co-production will never eliminate controversy, but it mitigates it. And it certainly helps all of society anticipate challenges and create a more constructive path towards the implementation of solutions. It will be especially important to implement the very challenging changes required to address the Climate and Ecological Emergencies.
Although I still embrace that pragmatic rationale and approach, it is too simplistic.
First, it is not enough to simply engage the usual, expected or obvious stakeholders. Instead, we must ask challenging questions about who we are engaging and why, viewed through a decolonial lens and in a manner that challenges the prevailing conventions. Failure to do so in a society with deeply embedded inequities – locally, nationally and globally – will likely replicate or even amplify the structural racism, sexism and classism of our world.
Take as an example the electric car, a critical part of decarbonising transport. In the news, in policy, and in engagement by researchers, whose voices are privileged, whose have been centered. Whose have been marginalised. Which communities do we challenge and which do we placate. I would argue that the entire dialogue centres the current car user – how to make electric cars affordable and comfortable. How to build the enabling infrastucture. Where to invest in charging stations. The dialogue frequently fails to consider the non-car user or the impoverished. It almost always fails to consider the resources to manufacture those cars: The countries that still suffer from neocolonial exploitation; the people in those countries; the marginalised groups and indigenous communities in those countries. Every pledge to invest in electrification of transport is a colonial claim to a finite resource, and yet these issues are almost never discussed in the race to innovate and invest.
The act of engagement is not a neutral one.
Second, we must complicate the personal dimension of the ‘why engage’ question by examining motivations and power inequities. What are your motivations. Why are you doing this? Was it necessary to the grant? Is it necessary for your work to have ‘impact’? Is it because it is what your employer expects of you in order to achieve the previous? Engagement is necessary for the success of academics and the University, and therefore, it is always an act of institutional privilege, centering our agenda even when it is co-produced.
This is what sits under the simmering resentment of the anecdote I opened with. That work was some of my most genuine and heartfelt; it was good work of which I am proud and it did involve multiple communities. But in that moment, in that forum, I was speaking because I was expected to. I had a platform not because of the work but because of my employer. I had long ago understood my white and male privilege, but in that moment I understood my institutional privilege. Just like I had initially resisted the idea of white privilege because I had suffered as a poor working class kid in rural Ohio, I resisted the idea of institutional privilege because I viewed myself as another proud Union member who loved the University of Bristol but still thought of myself as exploited by the neoliberal University machine as anyone else.
But it is not true. I had and have the privilege of working for an institution that has nearly a billion pound annual turnover, whose decisions shape our city in profound and long-lasting ways, skewing property values, demographics and investment. I have no doubt that our University, as progressive as it is, brings not only income to Bristol but also inequality. I was leveraging that privilege for a spotlight. And I would later be able to leverage that spotlight for recognition and promotion.
These complicated power dynamics are not an excuse not to engage, however; they are a lesson about recognising the privilege that is embodied in any interaction with our community. A counter example is my involvement with the Bristol Festival of Nature. For over ten years, the University and my research group has attended, bringing an interactive display about how molecular fossils can tell us about past climate and past human history. It is sort of the most rudimentary form of community engagement. There is no co-creation. It’s just scientists rocking up and talking to the public and answering their questions. And no one has ever challenged my role in that or the University’s.
That is because this engagement, although it offers little, offers more than it asks.
Deep, meaningful, long-term and honest engagement with communities is not necessarily “better” than rocking up and giving a talk but it is deeper, with greater rewards and also greater obligations. In any interaction, but especially interactions involving the vast power disparities of Universities with their cities or UK scientists with marginalised communities, it is not enough to fixate only on the most effective mechanism but to understand the privilege we derive from those power differentials, the underlying transactions and the potential for exploitation.
Barriers to Engagement and their Solutions
The Barriers to successful engagement are extensive: finding common cause, a shared language and approach, agreeing mutually beneficial outcomes. There are questions of legitimacy and trust, especially when there has been a history of exploitation. When trust is built, there is the shared frustration of funding, with the options available to all of us limited to months or years, undermining the ability to develop the meaningful relationships to which we aspire.
Prosaically, the solutions are obvious. Coming from a privileged organisation, can you procure more long-term investment? Given that engagement is part of our jobs, are we willing to transfer some of our academic privilege to our partners by volunteering our time?
But informing and underpinning all of that is the essential need to understand the transactions implicit or explicit in our partnerships. I don’t want any of us to make our world any more transactional than it already is. But we are obliged to have an understanding of the transactions that are explicit and implicit in our partnerships – for us and our partners – and use that understanding to build a collaboration based on equity, honesty and empathy.
Researchers must be more honest with our partners about what we will get out of it – and sometimes that means being more honest with ourselves. Successful engagement will help us get a PhD. A job. A grant. A paper. A promotion. A pay raise.
Similarly – and in light of history and privilege differentials – we must create the space where our partners can also be honest about their needs, their research priorities, and how they need to have that knowledge returned to them in an actionable way.
And we have an obligation to understand what we are asking of them. Remember this: For a poor person, we can ask for few things more valuable than time. For someone from a marginalised group, we can ask for few things more valuable than their emotional labour, experience and re-lived trauma.
And most of all, understand the source of power imbalances in any interaction. Marginalised groups have power. Growing up in a working class family, I was acutely aware that we did not have access to much financial, legal or political power; but we had other power that comes from closeness, resilience and lived experience. My community partners would say the same. The Green and Black Ambassadors are powerful. Ujima Radio is powerful. The real question is the intersection of power and privilege. What power (skills, knowledge, experience) is privileged in society? And what power do we wield in a civic partnership that arises not from legitimacy but from our institutional and individual privilege.
What I learned about dismantling privilege and building engagement with the Green and Black Ambassadors
In 2015 Bristol was the European Green Capital and it was widely regarded as a successful year. But it was rightfully critiqued for failing to be inclusive – despite well intentioned efforts to be so. Because of that, I partnered via the Cabot Institute with Ujima Radio, a community radio station, and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to explore the lack of inclusion during the Green Capital Year and more widely in the environmental movement. This was the Green and Black Conversation, and through its delivery we learned a lot of things that environmental movement should have known already:
– That the programme was shaped by and favoured the interests of the ‘in-crowd’; its focus and themes, the venues, the types of events all reflected the tastes, interests and convenience of the usual suspects.
– That they were invited to events and even to speak but only after the agenda was set.
– That individuals and groups that represented marginalised groups were being exploited for their time and labour. Moreover, they were not supported in leveraging the Green Capital accolades to win their own funding. It is not the same for the Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment to sacrifice his day to attend a sustainability workshop than it is for the Director of a racial equity organisation. Not only are there questions of alignment of responsibilities but also a chasm in resource. Inviting them to attend was not inclusion. Expecting them to attend was exploitation.
– That the language was exclusionary. In particular, language about marginalised groups assumed a lack of interest – ‘How do we get more Black people into nature.’ ‘How can we ensure Black people have access to nature’ – without recognising that they already had their own initiatives and projects. That they had their own sustainability solutions. That they were engaged just not with the ‘in crowd’s projects.
– We would always pay our Ambassadors and our partners, compensating them for their labour and experience; and that we would use our privilege to demand the same from all future partners.
– We would invest in a new generation, recognising both the great capacity in Bristol’s African and Caribbean populations but also that this capacity had been undermined by decades of under-investment.
– We would give them a platform to promote initiatives from their own community; and eventually, we would cede our platforms to them. I would no longer accept the invitations arising from my institutional privilege but pass those invitations to Zakiya and Jazz.
– We would be allies in challenging institutions, including our own. We advocated for their voices in our Board Rooms, classrooms, working parties, One City Plans and more. We were their voice when they were not present but more importantly, we agreed to open the door and let them come in and have our places instead.
In short, it was a political project to challenge the lack of equity and inclusion in the environmental movement, politics and industry. And although that might seem far from how you might build engagement into a research proposal, it is not. The principles for all engagement must be the same because all interactions characterised by power differentials are political projects.
But moreso, this type of collaboration enriches and adds value to all of our scholarly endeavours. Much of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme was funded by my ERC project on The Greenhouse Earth System. Centering racial inclusion in the environmental movement might seem rather removed from developing molecular tools to study Earth’s climate 50 million years ago. Maybe. But by building trust, relationships and credibility, I have been able to share my research findings with 1000s of people I might not otherwise. The palaeoclimate research was never centred, rarely prominent, usually never mentioned, because that would have undermined the ethos of the Green and Black Programme. Instead our conversations focused on the air pollution and food poverty issues that our engaged communities had prioritised.
But here is the thing: I’d far rather have my work be a very small part of a large story shared by many than the central part of a small story heard by few. And I think that is a truth of the entire suite of global crises we face. If we are to address the many environmental and social justice challenges of the future, we must embrace community while rejecting ego.
Addendum. There is a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this essay. Ultimately, we must get away from that. We must avoid not just the language of we and them but the unconscious view from which that language arises. But I still believe that in the vast majority of partnerships, ‘we’ still need to do better by ‘them’; and pretending we are all in this together, that we all enter into a partnership with equal privilege and capacity is duplicitous. So my final advice is recognise there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ arising from differences in privilege, and do everything you can to dismantle that.
Addendum 2: Once you begin to explore power differentials, you unlock a range of challenging questions. In particular, I find this short article by Farhana Sultana to be illuminating in revealing the power dynamics within the communities we engage.
It happens at nearly every talk I’ve given on climate change or the environment. I could be talking through the lens of my own research on past climate, or via my Cabot Institute role or as a climate action activist. Inevitably and regardless of context, the tedious question is asked, usually posed as a ‘gotcha’ moment, what the questioner considers to be a particularly trenchant insight: ‘But isn’t population the real problem?’
It is the same on social media. Sometimes in the news. Sometimes said by leaders and environmental advocates who really should know better. It is a pervasive little bore in almost all environmental conversations, intellectually lazy and dishonest, evasive of responsibility.
Of course, often it is far worse than that, coded for racial and colonial bias, an attempt to blame ‘them’ for our environmental problems, ironically ‘them’ that have been most victimised by climate change and environmental degradation in the first place.
In all cases, it reeks of shifting responsibility – either from an individual or a nation, or from a cultural bias or economic worldview. And not shifting that responsibility upwards, to challenge those in power, but shifting down, kicking down, blaming those already exploited and oppressed.
Sometimes it is well intentioned, especially from those new to these debates. And to those of you who want to genuinely bring population control into the environmental discussion in any of its forms, I have one request: Don’t. I am not interested in this conversation. Few or us are. We know how to do math, we’ve had the conversation many times, and we know it adds nothing new in the way of insight or solutions.
But, if you insist on imposing this conversation on someone, insist on making a documentary where ‘too many humans’ is your central conclusion, insist on coming to talks or coming into our mentions just to ask this question, then here are the rules.
1. Tell us your point. If your point is to say that ‘more people will consume more’ then move along; we can all do math. We know.
2. If your point is that ‘this is the real problem and it is being ignored’, then go back and redo the math. Global birth rates have been declining for decades, from a high near 5 in the 1950s to about 2.4 now, i.e. not quite but nearly at stable population levels. That is why population is expected to plateau in the middle of this century. Is this, therefore, the ‘problem that is being ignored’?
From https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth Note the declining rate of population growth since 1960.
3. If despite this, you still maintain that population is the real problem, i.e. a greater problem than capitalism and consumption, a greater problem than the wealthiest burning through energy and the environment at a rate an order of magnitude greater than the rest of us and two orders greater than the poorest of the world, then acknowledge the inequitable world for which you advocate. Understand global (or even sub-national) per capita differences in consumption, CO2 emissions, etc. Understand how those differences align with privilege and wealth. And class. And race. Understand who you are blaming, who you are accusing of being the ‘real problem’. And most importantly, understand who you are protecting, who you are insulating from blame, who you are insulating from meaningful action. And therefore:
4. Acknowledge if you just abdicated or deflected from your own responsibility and dumped it onto someone else. And then we get to explore why you have done so.
5. Do your homework on the history and wider cultural context of the arguments you are making. Understand eco-facism. Understand its history and the crimes committed in its name. Understand that all of us who have been talking about climate change for decades have had hundreds of speakers come up to us after a talk and say, ‘But we all know that the real problem is population growth in Africa/India/Asia, etc.’ If you are going to talk about population growth, you have an obligation to be aware of the racial subtext – and your own inherent racial biases. You do not have to accept responsibility for your fellow travellers, but you are obliged to know who they are.
6. Put your cards on the damn table. You do not get to suggest something so provocative and laden with racist and imperialist connotations and not have the guts to propose a solution.
7. If the solution is better education of women and alleviation of poverty, then say that instead. If your solution is to advocate for improved access to birth control, say that instead. We’ve all seen trolls make ominous allusions to population control and then, when challenged, retreat to the respectable conversation of better education and empowerment of women.
8. If your solution is something darker, you don’t get to just vaguely gesture at the problem and allow your audience to fill the gaps. If you want to control the life choices and bodies of black women, have the guts to say so. If you are a eugenicist, admit it.
9. If you don’t say what your solution is, i get to assume that you are volunteering to be front of the queue if it is implemented.
10. If you are a privileged, white male, just don’t. If you are past the age of having more children yourself, just fucking don’t.
Seriously. Re-read point 10. I’m not saying you do not get to have an opinion; I am a white male who has chosen not to have children and I have opinions. But I’m not interested in that opinion, especially when it is a conversation about what “other people” need to do in order to solve a problem that people like us created. What I am interested in is honesty, integrity and personal responsibility. For any climate or environmental issue, what is your solution and what are the consequences? Who are you expecting to change or to sacrifice; where does the burden for action fall; to whom are you assigning blame?
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.
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.’
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.
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.
It always starts the same. Whether by tweet, e-mail or after a talk about climate change. It is always a young person, always apologetic, almost always anxious. And then the question comes:
“Are we going to go extinct?”
[Aside from anything else that follows in this blog, the leaders of this world need to understand how horrific their negligence has been that so many young people feel compelled to ask this.]
And my answer is always long and contextual. What actions will we take to check the harm we are doing to our planet? What poorly constrained feedbacks might lurk in the system, and will they amplify or mitigate human action? How will we respond to the environmental change that we fail to stop?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that neither the collapse of civilisation nor the extinction of humanity nor an uninhabitable Earth is predestined under any future warming scenario. In the worst warming scenarios, what will happen is that:
Species will go extinct, are already going extinct.
Cultures will go extinct, their lifestyles obliterated by a rapidly changing planet.
Nations will go extinct, buried by rising seas.
But humanity? Even if we fail to limit warming to 1.5C or 2C or even 4C, that hardly means we are doomed. The Earth is habitable at far higher temperatures, including at temperatures far exceeding any we are likely to achieve due to human activity. It will be devastating and catastrophic. Rising sea level will lead to inundated cities; food production will be stressed and could collapse; extreme weather events will become even more common, devastating more lives; infrastructure designed for a different world will break or become obsolete; health services will be stressed to their limit by heat waves and infectious diseases but also the mental health challenges of displacement. And all of these will most devastate the poor and vulnerable – globally and in our own countries. It will be racist, classist, oppressive…. And tens to hundreds of millions could die.
But the magnitude of that crisis, for any future warming scenario, will be dictated less by physics and biology and more by the the all-too-fickle human response to the stress that rapid climate change will impose on civilisation. It will lead to drought and that could lead to famine, starvation and refugee crises. Regional conflicts. War. Even global war.
All of that – even catastrophic nuclear war – is possible. But it is not inevitable.
If climate change is an existential threat it is because of our doubts about our own ability to fairly and justly navigate its terrible outcomes.
So why parse this catastrophe? Why split hairs between the deaths of millions or billions?
Because the “extinction of all us” narrative destroys hope and because it removes the social justice dimensions of this crisis. Extinction is a looming threat, but that threat is far greater for some than for others. And for many – for indigenous peoples and for the global south and for marginalised groups in all countries – it is not the first existential threat. And it will not be the last. If we ‘all lives matter’ the climate crisis, there is a great risk that we justify exploitative solutions that replicate the injustices of the current world. As a geologist, I can assure you that there are versions of a fossil free world that are just as damaging to nature and the environment, just as exploitative of labour and dismissive of human rights, and just as great a threat to human life as the one we live in now.
But as more and more young people have come to me with these questions, I realised that there was a deeper reason to draw this distinction between catastrophe and extinction. The fear of extinction motivates action during this moment of critical urgency – and do not stop demanding that urgency – but it also undermines the power and agency of the youth who are so bravely and assuredly seizing power from the leaders too cowardly to use it themselves.
This is what I tell the youth striking around the world and who come to me with questions about extinction and the survival of humanity:
Everything you do matters. Climate change is not a binary challenge, in which the world wins or loses. It is complex and gradational and every achievement that limits warming or environmental degradation should be celebrated.
Every failure matters. Do not yield the stage or concede the fight or sacrifice urgency. Because if every action saves lives, every failure to do so costs them.
In short, your power is not conditional on a specific outcome. It thrives in every protest, march and strike; every action taken; every person engaged.
But most importantly, it is you who will be shaping the future, the world of our success or failure. You will have the power to decide how we respond to the climate change that has occurred.
I imagine a world in 20 to 30 years, where we are sitting together, a world 1.7 C warmer or 2C warmer or 2.6C warmer. And in all, we will rue what we failed to achieve while acknowledging our success at preventing worse. But I will be old and retired and you will be leaders of industry and government; and you will the ones with the power to shape that world. You will decide how to equitably manage food shortages. You will decide whether to embrace climate refugees or build walls. You will decide whether it is a just and fair world or nativist and divided one. You decide if climate change leads to conflict leads to war. Those are not inevitabilities; they are decisions that will be made by you.
You are seizing power now and using it to demand action and hold governments to account. Hold on to that power and use it for good. It is not my place to dictate how you use that power; I do not have that right and one might argue that it is my and previous generation’s failure to exercise power for good that has gotten us into this mess. But I do have four suggestions.
Although symbolic power can reside in individuals, the power that actually delivers change resides in communities.
You are not allowed to ever give up, but you are allowed to rest.
You can be heroes, but you are not saviours.
And most importantly, because many of you come from a position of privilege, you must do what almost all who have come before you have failed to do. You must learn how to share your power.
Universities, Businesses, City Councils and Nations are finally – finally – declaring Climate Emergencies. I have been by many to reflect on these and a few of these are attached. (Spoiler: We do face an emergency; it is an emergency not just because anthropogenic climate change is catastrophic but also because solving it will be very hard, contentious and take time; and we all have an obligation to act)
A Message to the Alumni of the University of Bristol
On the 17th of April, the University of Bristol became the first University in world to declare a Climate Emergency. It enshrines our institutional obligation to address the climatic, ecological and wider environmental threats posed to our planet and our society.
The University has been at the forefront of exploring and solving these challenges for decades, both through our world-leading research exemplified by the Cabot Institute for the Environment and our education via the Sustainable Futures theme. Some of our environmentally-focused Schools, including Earth Sciences, Civil Engineering and Geographical Sciences, are ranked amongst the very best in the world. Many of us contribute to the IPCC reports, including the most recent report that highlighted the dire consequences of failing to limit warming to 1.5C.
We must do more. Just like our pledges in 2015 when Bristol was the European Green Capital, the Climate Emergency Declaration recognises that our University’s impact on our city and planet transcends its research and educational mission. We are an employer, a procurer and a consumer; our academics fly across the world and our students fly to us; we consume food, energy, water and minerals. We are part of the problem and we must be part of the solution.
In particular, the Declaration renewed our commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030. But what does that mean? How will we do that? We know it will be messy and complex, just as our decision to divest from fossil fuels was. Not all fossil fuel companies are the same; in fact, many are critically involved with obtaining the resources needed for a post-fossil fuel electrical future. Similarly, we must ensure that our own efforts for carbon neutrality do not simply shift the environmental burdens to other countries nor hinder their own development.
We do not have all of those answers yet.
Consequently, I consider the Declaration to be a call for a renewed, self-critical, demanding and collaborative conversation about the future of our University. It is an opportunity for dialogue between all of us – staff, students, alumni, partners and stakeholders across our institution, city and the world. It will embrace every aspect of our organisation and it will lean on our own world-leading expertise and potential for innovation.
This article]is part of that conversation. It contains reflections from some of our strongest leaders on this topic but it also serves as an invitation for you to share yours.
Article for One Earth
Neither the UK’s Commitment to net zero carbon by 2050 nor the preceding Climate Emergency Declaration represents a significant change in policy – our previous target of an 80% reduction by 2050 already was an implicit stop on a trajectory to net zero, albeit at a later date.
However, they could be critical in changing the underlying narrative around climate change by centering attention on the catastrophic emergency that climate change poses as well as the profound challenge of addressing it. Both statements declare what has for too long been implicit – the challenge is great, and the need to act is urgent.
I hope that enshrining net zero carbon in law finally forces us to consider policies that go beyond incremental chipping away at emissions. We need a plan for a social, technological and infrastructure transformation that puts us on a path to a decarbonised future. All of 21st century civilisation was founded on and still is intrinsically based on fossil fuels, the energy they can generate but also the heat and power. To wean ourselves off of this incredibly powerful source of energy, we have to move beyond the easy wins of energy efficiency and a modest increase in renewable energy. We have to decide how we will completely transform our homes and businesses, our transport systems, our food production and our food supply chains.
As a geologist, I particularly recognise the challenge that an electrical society poses in terms of the metal resources we will need. Electrifying agriculture, transport and heat will require more lithium, neodymium, cobalt and many more metals; it will particularly require more copper. As such, we need to consider the balance of behaviour change, technological investment and potential environmental trade-offs elsewhere. I am particularly concerned about green colonialism and the impact of our own renewable revolution on the nations from which we will extract these resources. Of course, tackling climate change also creates opportunities in innovation, creativity and leadership; but it will not be easy and the solutions will be contested.
And that is why this is an emergency.
It is not just because climate change is already causing extreme weather, flooding and heat waves, and that future climate change will cause even greater harm. It is because addressing this challenge will be incredibly difficult, and arguably we have not even had the conversations necessary to identify an environmentally and socially just path forward. We certainly have not had an inclusive conversation that recognises a range of concerns about climate change and putative solutions.
The time for talk should be over, but arguably the real talk has yet to start.
Our political leaders have made some useful political gestures; now they have to agree on actions, ensure their feasibility and legitimacy, and deliver them with the urgency that this unprecedented emergency demands.
Reflections on a Tweet – Similarities between climate denialism and climate nihilism.
A lot of us are concerned about the emerging ‘climate doom’ narrative, that climate change beyond X degrees is inevitable or that a given magnitude of global warming could directly cause human extinction. I share many of the concerns of those anxious about climate change as an existential threat and many seem keen to have an engaged conversation about the likelihood of this happening. However, for many, their concerns seem based less on evidence and more on a belief system that rejects climate science, expertise and institutions with some similarities to the climate denier community. And challenging those statements can result in virulent responses. Some thoughts:
“I suppose there are multiple dimensions to my tweet. The first is that there is little evidence that climate change will lead to human extinction. Life has thrived on far warmer worlds. And although the rate of climate change now is profoundly worrying, extinction at even elevated degrees of warming seems unlikely. Many species and ecosystems will likely go extinct, and our civilisation might be profoundly transformed, but that is different than ‘human extinction’, a ‘barren planet’, an ‘unihabitable Earth’. When probed, many argue that climate change will cause extinction through a cascade of conflicts and ultimately nuclear war; I certainly worry about that, but that is a very different message with very different assumptions than ‘we will all go extinct if we do not limit warming to 2C’.
Second, when scientists try to clarify this, climate nihilists often use the same language, rhetoric and arguments to dismiss climate scientists as denialists. Both claim that IPCC is a ‘UN report’ and therefore a political rather than scientific document (it IS a scientific report and it is written and peer reviewed by scientists). Doomists talk about an overly cautious scientific community, whereas denialists talk about an overly alarmist one. Both, when confronted, can resort to links to blogs, non-experts and ad hominem attacks. And anecdotally, both can be misogynistic (women scientists always get nastier replies). So at its heart, I think both groups are embracing a belief system that inherently mistrusts experts, institutions and knowledge, and that concerns me.
Many are arguing about the psychological impact of this – do those worrying about a true climate apocalypse and global extinction create such despair as to cause inaction?? I cannot say. Renee Lertzmann has been exploring a lot of the psychology of climate despair. But I think it is certainly fair to say that our past efforts to mobilise meaningful action have failed, so I am not going to critique these tactics.
Instead, my main concern is that climate change will affect all of us but it will MOST affect the poor and vulnerable, those from the global south and marginalised groups in the UK. The language of extinction can impose an ‘All lives matter’ narrative on a movement that must centre social justice. But you do not have to look hard to see many using the extinction framing to argue that other issues (indigenous rights, social justice) are secondary. Social media abounds with rebuttals like: ‘you cannot have social justice on a lifeless planet.’
Having said all of that, there is a critical need to have a wider conversation that includes the very low probability but very high risk outcomes of climate change. Some of these catastrophes could happen. But there is a huge amount of difference between those arguing that this could happen and those claiming that it will happen.”
We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.
It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change. But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.
A scar in the history of life
Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment? The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky. Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.
But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.
It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse. The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts. We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.
Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal. We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives. And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence. The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.
We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm. The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.
I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope. Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.
We have failed to prevent extinction and loss. But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.
But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves
The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.
The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change. But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency. It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.
Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more. Far more.
This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice. Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality. It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest. And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity. My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide. And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.
So we will struggle. With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.
But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future. They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it. But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts. They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.
I have hope that they will not choose the latter path. The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms. And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege. A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.
And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices. The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature. We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.
The decision by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change puts the United States at odds with both science and global geopolitical norms. The fundamentals of climate change remain unambiguous: greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, they are increasing because of human action, the increase will cause warming, and that warming creates risks of extreme weather, food crises and sea level rise. That does not mean that scientists can predict all of the consequences of global warming, much work needs to be done, but the risks are both profound and clear. Nor do we know what the best solutions will be – there is need for a robust debate about the nature, fairness and efficacy of different decarbonisation policies and technologies as well as the balance of responsibility; the Paris Agreement, despite its faults with respect to obligation and enforcement, allowed great flexibility in that regard, which is why nearly every nation on Earth is a signatory.
Moreover, although climate change affects us all, it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most. They, despite being least responsible, bear the greatest risks and the greatest burdens. For the President of the world’s second largest carbon polluter to blatantly disregard such evidence and injustice, to refuse to even acknowledge the consequences of its actions and to disengage with this relatively modest and non-binding agreement puts it odds with the norms of global partnership and human rights. This abrogation of responsibility is particularly profound because President Trump has also withdrawn the United States from the Green Climate Fund, which helps the poorest of the world adapt to the climate change that his actions make more likely.
And to what end? Other nations will now assume global leadership, politically, morally and technologically. It will likely cost American businesses money, hinder innovation in one of the world’s most dynamic sectors, and ultimately cost jobs. It will likely undermine the United States’ global stature and diplomatic reach. It is hard to imagine a decision so blatantly motivated by self-interest while being so profoundly self-harming.
The crucial question now is how we respond. China and the EU have stepped forward, increasing their voluntary commitments, repudiating President Trump’s decision and assuming the mantle of leadership. Nations around the world are following suit, as are cities and states across the United States. Businesses have re-stated their commitment to decarbonisation – ironically, the day before Trump’s decision, shareholders voted that Exxon develop plans compliant with the Paris Agreement’s targets. In the UK, in the midst of a general election, parties from across the political spectrum have responded to Trump’s decision with reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage. The UK has always provided leadership in this arena, recognising that climate change is a non-partisan issue, and it is one of the few nations with a cross party Climate Change Act. It is vital for both the planet and the UK that these initial comments are followed by bolder actions and stronger leadership.
We will not be stopped.
Across the world and in the University of Bristol, we are frustrated with the symbolism of Trump’s actions, his speech’s misrepresentation of facts, and his decision’s potential to slow climate action. But we also recognise that these actions will not stop climate action. The responses of local, national and international leaders, in politics, community groups and businesses, across sectors and across society show that no person, regardless of his position or his nation, can stop the energy revolution. It is too deeply embedded in our politics, economy and ambitions, borne of out of multiple necessities.
Here, in the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, we remain committed to this challenge. Our University is committed to carbon neutrality, ethical and low-carbon procurement and divestment from fossil fuel-intensive businesses. We have foregrounded Sustainable Futures in our undergraduate teaching. And in our research, we are investigating improved energy efficiency in everything from computer software, to our homes and our cities. We are exploring how smart technology enables new forms of transport, community energy and individual action. We are converting nuclear waste into diamond batteries with 5000-year lifetimes, we are leading one of the projects under the Natural Environment Research Council’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction programme and we have just launched new initiatives in wind, tidal, solar and nuclear energy.
Our ambitions are at all scales, from the local to the global. We continue to work with our Green Capital partners, with a focus on building an informed, diverse, inclusive and powerful movement to become a more sustainable city and region, exemplified by the Green and Black Ambassadors Initiative. Globally, our projects have been exploring the impact of conflict, climate change and geological hazards on development and the environment; the potential for micro-grids to deliver electricity to isolated communities; new forms of parasite resistance for subsistence farmers; and how geothermal energy can be harnessed in Ethiopia.
This commitment to sustainability builds on five decades of research on our environmental challenges and how to manage them. The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group makes among the world’s most accurate measurements of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and they have shown how rapidly these compounds are accumulating. They are committed to refining those measurements and the modelling methods that allow us to understand why global emissions change. The Bristol Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment reconstructs past climates and uses those insights to better understand our future; recent projects are building global collaborations to explore the controls on Earth’s temperature and monsoons. Our glaciologists study sea level rise; our hydrologists study floods and drought; our social scientists study the injustice of climate change and its impact on migration and conflict; and our vets and life scientists are exploring how to improve animal welfare and crop yields on a climate disrupted planet.
Our commitment includes appointing the best and the brightest at understanding these challenges, including Dr Dann Mitchell who joined the University in November. As co-ordinator of the largest dedicated project in the world on the climate impacts of the Paris Agreement (www.happimip.org), he sums up the Cabot Institute’s collective commitment: “The news of Trump wanting to pull out is incredibly frustrating. Our results are already suggesting more extreme events, such as droughts and heat waves, and serious impacts on society, such as increased human and animal health issues, failures in global crop distributions and bleaching of our coral reefs. I am frustrated that Trump continues to ignore the scientific evidence that has been recognised by his global peers, but that will not dissuade us from doing all we can to understand climate risks… and prevent them.’
21st century, fossil fuel powered civilisation is a machine, with every last part of the planet engineered to serve us. We are all part of it; we all benefit from it; we are all complicit in it.
We must decarbonise by 2050. Or by 2030. Or even by 2025. The sooner we do it, the greater we mitigate the ongoing climate change crisis and the more we spare our planet, nature, vulnerable communities across the world and especially future generations from dealing with the consequences of our unfettered growth. But whether we act quickly or slowly, the challenge will be profound. It is certainly not impossible and certainly does not require a terrible lurching into the austerity of the past; in fact, it could be liberating, innovative, exhilarating. It could be the next great technical, cultural or social revolution (or all of the above), a revolution that reinvents our society, our relationships with one another and our relationship with the planet that sustains us. The only life-sustaining planet of which we know in all of existence.
It is necessary; and achieving it will bring out the best of us. But it will be hard.
21st century society is a vast, magnificent machine that has created great art, launched probes to Mars, Jupiter and beyond, extended our lifespan by decades and connected us across every corner of the globe. But it is also an infernal machine, designed primarily to produce and consume and fuelled by environmental degradation, class imprisonment, colonialism and racism. Most importantly, it is a near-inescapable, unsleeping and inexorable engine, so that we are all to some degree beneficiaries of its success and complicit in it sins. And at its very heart, it is a transformer, reliant on and converting coal, oil and gas, fossil chemical fuels that are remarkable for their density of energy and, by extension, their capacity to generate heat and power. Fossil fuels can warm a home and electrify our lights, but they can also melt lead and power shipping vessels that weigh 100,000 tons across the Atlantic in days.
Within that fossil-powered machine, we have some degree of agency: we can fly less or eat less meat; we can consume less, waste less, recycle more; we can fight to shatter glass ceilings and challenge structural racism. But whether our mode of transport is a plane, car, train, bus or bicycle, all of those instruments have embedded carbon, embedded environmental degradation and embedded racism and worker exploitation.
So we implore each other to do what we can. You do your bit; I’ll do mine. But until we break the machine – a machine that has gifted the world a century of unprecedented (albeit unequal) prosperity – and replace it with something new, the fundamental issues will remain unchanged.
How long do we have? We have both little time and as much time as it takes. On one hand, the IPCC has warned that we have 12 years to redirect our society, which will in turn allow us to achieve net zero carbon between 2040 and 2050 and have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5C. The scale of change is vast, requiring not just an end to fossil fuel production but a change in our energy, heating, transportation, construction and agricultural systems, all of which have been designed to exploit those fossil fuels. It is not just planes but gas central heating and the manufacture of steel, and tractors, JCBs and global supply chains. Our fossil-fuelled society is a like a vast juggernaut of a ship that must be returned to land but is sailing in the wrong direction. When we argue that we have 12 years to act, we mean that we must stop this juggernaut and turn it around if we are to have any chance of returning it to harbour in time to meet our agreed goals.
But if we fail to do that, that does not mean we can accept defeat. The machine still must be broken. We still must make these changes because they are necessary – 2C of global warming will be worse than 1.5 C and 4C of global warming will be worse by far; the struggle against exploitation of nature and fellow peoples will remain. And ultimately, diminishing supplies – the inevitable demands of living sustainably on a finite planet – will demand change. Even if we do not achieve our targets, somehow, eventually, we or our children will dismantle this infernal engine; but in our prevarication we will have lost far more of ourselves and our planet.
The abolitionists did not put targets for a tolerable number of slaves; they instead recognised that slavery was the foundation of their society, the basis for their prosperity and an abomination to be eliminated. Similarly, modern society, built upon fossil fuels and class exploitation, must change or end. This is not a single election and it is not a 90 minute football match; we will not ‘win’ or ‘lose’. This must happen. Inevitably. If it does not happen in twelve years time, we must keep fighting until it does.