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

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

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

CERES Project Background

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


PROJECT TITLE: Fates of peatland carbon under different nutrient regimes

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

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

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

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

Project Enquiries: casey.bryce@bristol.ac.uk or r.d.pancost@bristol.ac.uk

Everglades peat (with alligator)

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

Project Aims and Methods:

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

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

Background reading and references

Ritson JP, Alderson DM, Robinson CH, Burkitt AE, Heinemeyer A, Stimson AG et al. Towards a microbial process-based understanding of the resilience of peatland ecosystem service provisioning – A research agenda. Science of the Total Environment. 2021 Mar 10;759. 143467. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143467

Patzner, M.S., Logan, M., McKenna, A.M. et al. Microbial iron cycling during palsa hillslope collapse promotes greenhouse gas emissions before complete permafrost thaw. Commun Earth Environ 3, 76 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-022-00407-8

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


PROJECT TITLE: The Organic Geochemistry of Peat in Transition

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

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

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

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

Project Enquiries: r.d.pancost@bristol.ac.uk

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


Project Aims and Methods:

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

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

Background reading and references

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

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

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


Information for both posts

Candidate requirements

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

Project partners

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

Training Opportunities

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

Useful links

To apply: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/earthsciences/courses/postgraduate/

For information on the OGU: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/chemistry/research/ogu/

For information on CERES: https://richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2022/09/11/ceres-climate-energy-and-carbon-in-ancient-earth-systems/


How to apply to the University of Bristol:



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

Funding is available for 3.5 years at standard UKRI rates.

CERES: Climate, Energy and Carbon in Ancient Earth Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Climate Scientist Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay in your lane

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

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

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

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

Scientists advise and governments govern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words. Pledges. Promises.  Blah blah blah.

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

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

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

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

Disruptive Activism

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

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

What now going forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Climate Movement Must be Based in Love

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

We are trained to be objective and unemotional.

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

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

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

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

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

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



(I wrote this, inspired by Melanie Ruth, as a message to Bristol Children as part of their brilliant book “No More Baby Sharks” available here: https://www.tangentbooks.co.uk/shop/no-more-baby-sharks-climate-change-messages-from-bristol-children


We Must Bridge the Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must bridge the gap.







Living with Environmental Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Invisibility of the Sea

In 2017, the Cabot Institute and the Brigstow Institute hosted a variety of workshops on ‘Perspectives from the Sea’, bringing together scientists, engineers and humanities scholars to share personal reflections, their experiences and methods, and their understanding of the sea.  This was so inspiring that we commissioned artist Rodney Harris to further explore these topics, The Invisibility of the Sea, displayed in the Earth Sciences Gallery.  He produced a fantastic variety of pieces, including the one below.

As part of this, we assembled a working paper of perspectives.  The following are two of my contributions.

I find Rod’s artwork to be profoundly moving, perhaps arising from my own complicated journey from the landlocked US state of Ohio to living on an island and devoting my life to understanding the nature and history of our mysterious oceans.  I grew up on a dairy farm, about as far from the sea as you can get, physically and culturally. In particular, the daily and inflexible demands of dairy farming meant that vacations were rare, and I only saw the sea once or twice growing up. In those early days, Lake Erie was my analogue for the Invisibility of the Sea.  I grew up with its history, from famous Revolutionary War battles to battles with pollution; I fished on Lake Erie with my Aunt and Uncle, even though we were cautioned not to eat too much of the perch and walleye that we caught; to pay my way through University, I studied invasive zebra mussels; and my family and friends went to ‘North Coast’ beaches for picnics and parties. But it was not the Sea. There was no vastness; there was no depth.


Ironically, my first profound relationship with the Sea came from going further inland, during my geology degree and PhD training and research. It was not the Sea of our modern world.  It was the sea explored and imagined via the sedimentary rocks deposited in ancient oceans tens of millions of years ago. I studied and still study times of mass extinction, dramatic climate change or periods of profound chemical transformation, all manifested through the fossils – especially molecular fossils – produced in those ancient seas, buried in sediments and preserved in magnificent sequences of sedimentary rocks. Sometimes it seems that my work borders on the mythical as I study these ancient, secret seas that no longer exist. I study ammonites, belemnites and pleisiosaurs, cyanobacteria and thaumarchaeota, in ancient oceans such as the Western Interior Seaway, the Permian Basin, the Tethyan and Panthalassa Oceans, at locations such as Tarfaya, Zumaia and Lomonosov Ridge, at Kheu River and Waipara and Meishan.


This sense of mystery arises from time and space – the vastness of the ocean, its mercurial nature and its inscrutable depths, but also the billions of years of Earth history it records. It is why it is home to so many myths.  Rod’s work captures the mystery and superstition with which ancient seafarers regarded the ocean – a place of ritual and norms, of sea serpents, mermaids and mythical beasts, of Odysseys. All of his ‘Balmoral Barometers’, especially but not only the Barometer of the Superstition of the Sea, capture our fraught relationships with this vast and seemingly unknowable body. And the vastness of the oceans and their invisible depths allow such myths to persist. We no longer believe that dinosaurs will be found in an isolated corner of the Amazon, but some still cling to beliefs that we will discover a buried Atlantis or prehistoric mega-sharks, 20-m long Miocene Megaladons still preying on giant squid or baleen whales in the great dark deep of the ocean.


This is the Invisibility that has always fascinated me.  I have now been on research expeditions across our Seas and dived via submersible to the bottom of the Mediterranean. I am fascinated by both the surface and deep ocean and the different relationships we have with each. When we think of the ‘Sea’, I think we emotionally connect differently to its volatile surface and its infinite, mysterious depths. The surface is what we experience in trade, slavery, migration, travel, holiday snorkelling and exploration; this is what provides escape from persecution, threatens us with sea level rise, is the source of most of our fish, where sailors lose their lives; it is the network of ocean roads that support our global economy and sustained a global slave trade. In contrast, the deep ocean is vast, mysterious and constant – a home to krakens, hidden prehistoric sharks and lost cities but also limitless resources and room for waste.


More recently, however, it has become clear to me that for most of us all of the ocean remains invisible.  We do not see the plastic or toxins in the ocean – plastics that now form islands of trash and can be found in every part of the ocean.  We do not see the incremental but biologically devastating increases in temperature and decrease in pH due to increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  We can measure those.  But as a society we do not see them. The sea is invisible. Perhaps even more invisible now, despite our many scientific advances, than in the past when it was so intimately connected to our daily lives. This is where mystery meets apathy. Our assumptions, our view of the sea, are informed from earliest history, when only tens of millions of humans lived on the planet and our impact was small and could be absorbed, when a deep ocean could be a home to sea serpents and krakens and be a repository for our rubbish. On my first research expedition we discovered, half-buried in 2-km deep mud just north of Crete, a magnificent 2-m tall amphora but also plastic bottles: similar waste from separate millennia. Ingrained in us is the belief that the ocean is a great constant, impervious to human action.


It is not.  Those sedimentary records tell us otherwise. Its circulation can change; its chemistry can change; its biology can change.  It is evident in Rod’s Brent Knoll, each colour made from a different bit of the sea’s sedimentary history and each representing a profound change in those ancient oceans. Although the oceans have been a constant during humanity’s brief domination of the planet, they can change. And now they are changing at a pace perhaps unprecedented in the history of our planet. Because of us.


We have allowed that to happen not because the sea is ‘invisible’ but because we have chosen not to see. But we are no longer allowed the privilege of blindness. Ocean warming is devastating our coral reefs, plummeting fish stocks are causing us to raid the ocean depths to feed our growing population, toxic blooms of algae kill fish and blight our beaches, and plastic… is everywhere. Much of the sea was invisible to our ancestors.  We do not have that excuse.


The Invisible and Inconstant Deep Sea

Today, the deep sea is a dark and empty world. It is a world of animals and Bacteria and Archaea – and relatively few of those. Unlike almost every other ecosystem on our planet, it is bereft of light and therefore bereft of plants.  The animals of the deep sea are still almost entirely dependent on photosynthetic energy, but it is energy generated kilometres above in the thin photic zone. Beneath this, both animals and bacteria largely live off the scraps of organic matter energy that somehow escape the vibrant recycling of the surface world and sink to the twilight realm below. In this energy-starved world, the animals live solitary lives in emptiness, darkness and mystery. Exploring the deep sea via submersible is a humbling and quiet experience.  The seafloor rolls on and on and on, with only the occasional shell or amphipod or small fish providing any evidence for life.

And yet life is there.  Vast communities of krill thrive on the slowly sinking marine snow.  Sperm whales dive deep into the ocean and emerge with the scars of fierce battles with giant squid on which they feed.  And when one of those great creatures dies and its carcass plummets to the seafloor, within hours it is set upon by sharks and fish, ravenous and emerging from the darkness for the unexpected feast. Within days the carcass is stripped to the bones but even then new colonizing animals arrive and thrive. Relying on bacteria that slowly tap the more recalcitrant organic matter that is locked away in the whale’s bones, massive colonies of worms spring to life, spawn and eventually die.

But all of these animals, the fish, whales, worms and amphipods, depend on oxygen. And the oceans have been like this for almost all of Earth history, since the advent of multicellular life nearly a billion years ago.  This oxygen-replete ocean is an incredible contrast to a handful of events in Earth history when the deep oceans became anoxic. Then, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs, feeding on magnificent ammonites, would have been confined to the sunlit realm, their maximum depth of descent marked by a layer of bright pink and then green water, pigmented by sulfide consuming bacteria.  And below it, not a realm of animals but a realm only of Bacteria and Archaea, single-celled organisms that can live in the absence of oxygen, a transient revival of the primeval marine ecosystems that existed for billions of years before complex life evolved.


Fog Bridge (and the Coming Storm)

As part of its contribution to Bristol 2015, European Green Capital, the In Between Time Festival commissioned the Fog Bridge by internationally renowned artist Fujiko Nakaya. I was invited to co-curate the exhibit, due to a shared vision of environmental uncertainty in the face of climate change and climate action. In particular, those conversations contributed to the themes explored during the Festival: Enter the Storm, including a focus on living with uncertainty. I also joined the Festival’s Uncertainty Cafes, where I was asked to throw out ideas – some well informed and some more adventurous – and then partake in the fascinating conversations this artwork had stimulated.  Here, I share the unabridged transcript of what I spoke about at the Uncertainty Café on 13 Feb 2015.

Although it was an honour to participate and an experience from which I learned much, I read this several years later and realise I would write something quite different today. I regret nothing that has been included but there are some striking omissions.  Most significantly, I would have specifically explored the racial dimensions of uncertainty.  That seems particularly remiss given that the Fog Bridge was Pero’s Bridge, named after Pero Jones, enslaved in Nevis and brought to Bristol in 1783. Nonetheless, I still enjoy reading this provocation about what it does have to say about art and slow contemplation during times of crisis.


Fujiko Nakaya has shrouded Pero’s Bridge in fog, eliciting a combination of delight and introspection – as well as befuddling the occasional commuter.  The Fog Bridge stimulated debate, criticism, celebration and interest. The most interesting of those debates, that I hope are only starting, revolve around its impact. Like all great art, Fog Bridge should be and is a bit dangerous, in that it causes us to consider – if even for a while – some alternatives to our perspectives.  But who saw it and engaged with it?  Has it affected belief systems and values?  Has it changed behaviour and, if so, of whom?  And is that all a bit too much of a burden to put onto a single piece?

Fog bridge
Fog Bridge in Bristol from BBC

Our world has always changed.  I have spent over 25 years studying the history of our planet’s climate and environment, and one of the most recurring themes is that on long enough timescales, change rather than stasis is the norm. But the coming changes to our climate, arising from our lifestyles and consumption, are distinct in their speed.  They are nearly unprecedented in Earth history and they are certainly unprecedented in human experience.  The Earth is warming, the oceans are acidifying, sea level is rising, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent – and we as a people are being challenged to adapt to these changes.  One of the most profound challenges is not the higher temperature of more frequent flood but the uncertainty associated with those.  Change, almost by definition, imposes uncertainty and we must discover how to live in this increasingly Uncertain World.

We live our lives informed by the power of experience: the collective experience of ourselves, our families, our communities and our wider society.  Our weather projections and crop harvesting, our water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation that inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. 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. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing value every day.

This is how I am provoked by all of Fujiko Nakaya’s art and especially her wonderful Fog Bridge.   Yes it makes me think about our changing weather. Yes, it serves as an enigmatic warning of the Coming Storm. But more, the image of fog, the obstruction of our vision, the demand for a more careful navigation over a bridge that is normally one of our most reliable paths, makes me think of an Uncertain World.

Uncertainty is a challenge.  Uncertainty makes it harder for us to live with our planet and with each other. But there is something gentle about the uncertainty evoked by the Fog Bridge that invites alternative perspectives. Is an environmental disaster the only possible outcome of the path on which we walk?

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.  That is why one of the Cabot Institute’s themes this year is The Uncertain World. But there is a more nuanced lesson from Ballard when it comes to change: ‘I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.’  In many ways, that statement, like the Fog Bridge, challenges the idea of uncertainty being solely negative. I think much of what is embedded in that statement is reflected in Ballard’s post-disaster novels – from Crash to High Rise to Cocaine Nights, all dealing with the tedium of late 20th century, bored lives, gated retirement villages on the Costa del Sol, manicured lawns, 99 channels with nothing on.

And what a tragedy that is for our species. Our most unique and exceptional characteristics are adaptability, imagination and creativity.  Most of our achievements and many of our sins are a direct consequence of our incredible ability to adapt and create.  We can live in the desert, in Antarctica, in space.

If we return to Ballard’s environmental disaster novels with this perspective, they take on new shapes.  The protagonists in those novels – and especially the Drowned World – are not destroyed. Nor do they overcome.  They are awakened and they are transformed.  And in the end, they embrace those transformations:

“By day fantastic birds flew through petrified forests, and jewelled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown.”   – The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard

Catastrophic change can be beautiful and it can startle us out of complacency, it can challenge us, it can demand of us that we embrace the entirety of human potential.

But there are limits to this train of thought.

Taking that perspective towards global environmental disaster is the rather unique luxury of the upper middle class, privileged western European.  Those who might die in floods or famines or whose way of life is not changed but obliterated by rising sea levels will have a different perspective.  Let us never forget that those bringing about climate change and those likely to suffer most from it are not the same.  That is true globally and it is true in Bristol: if the price of food doubles, I will grumble; others will be unable to feed their families.

And in that is a deep and unsettling irony.  Those of us who perhaps would benefit most from embracing the challenges we face are profoundly reluctant to accept any change, whether that be to our sources of energy or food, to our way of lives or to our growth-based economy. And our inability to envision societal change is imposing potentially catastrophic environmental and climatic change on others – those who are most poor and most vulnerable.

That is why the Green Capital conversations must focus on issues of inclusion, empowerment and social justice. We must avoid unfair, unequal, unethical change. But if we can do that, then maybe change can be a catalyst for something fresh and exciting.  Fujiko’s Fog Bridge is beautiful. Fog is beautiful.  A storm is beautiful.  This does not have to be a Disaster Story.  We can change how we live, thereby mitigating the most dangerous aspects of climate change.  And when we fall short and change does come… we can fight it a bit…. But we can also embrace it.

And what might that look like?

We must be radically resilient. If radical uncertainty is on the way then our response must be radically flexible. Our buildings and roads must be able to change.  Our railroads and our health service. Our laws. Our jobs.  Our economy.  Our businesses.  Ourselves.

Our response must be fair and equitable. Those who can barely afford the rent or who work two jobs to put food on the table have less capacity to be flexible. Some of us will have to bear more of the burden of change than others.  Ultimately, I believe we will have to achieve a more fair and balanced society: It is difficult to imagine how grand challenges of resource and planetary sustainability can be achieved if billions are held back by poverty*.

And we need political inclusion.  If difficult choices are to be made – if our sacred cows are to be sacrificed or compromises are to be made – then we must rebuild a universally owned political system.  We will not weather any storm by hectoring and lecturing nor if mired in apathy and cynicism. I sincerely hope a new platform for more inclusive decision making is a major outcome of Bristol 2015.  It is certainly the ambition of the Green Capital Partnership.

If we share these risks and the costs, then perhaps we can collaborate with our changing planet to achieve something exciting and new – lifestyles that embrace rather than stifle the very best of our creative, dynamic and resilient nature. Maybe we walk across the Bridge a bit more slowly, maybe we don’t cross it at all, maybe we just stop and stare. I don’t know.  Nor do I know if we will make such dramatic changes. But I know that we can.

* The above paragraph was the most difficult to express in only a few words during the Uncertainty Café and I want to expand on this here. Everyone in society has great assets of imagination and creativity.  All communities and all individuals can make a positive difference and should be encouraged to do so – and supported in doing so.  And in the future, as throughout history, some of the most exciting ideas will come from some of the poorest on our planet.  At the same time, however, we must understand that poverty steals time and lost time means lost ideas. And that is a tragedy at a time when we need a proliferation of new ideas, and especially those that run counter to ‘conventional wisdom’.  Inclusion must be more than simply welcoming alternative perspectives; we must actively seek, fund and support a more diverse community.















Withdrawn – Contemplating Environmental Histories and Futures in Leigh Woods

Withdrawn was one of Bristol Green Capital’s flagship Arts Projects by Luke Jerram.  Among other inspiring Art, Luke is perhaps best known for his Earth, Moon and Mars exhibits, including in the Great Hall of the building my School resides in.  Withdrawn was a similarly contemplative piece and the following are the reflections I brought to the project via my co-curation and collaboration.




On the 23rd of August, and as part of Bristol 2015 European Green Capital, I have the privilege of participating in a conversation about the future of our coastal seas that has been inspired by Luke Jerram’s ethereal and evocative Withdrawn Project in Leigh Woods.  The conversation will include Luke, but also the esteemed chef, Josh Eggleton who has championed sustainable food provision and is providing a sustainable fish supper for the event, and my University of Bristol Cabot Institute colleague, Dani Schmidt, who is an expert on the past and current impacts of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.

My engagement with Withdrawn has been inspired on multiple levels, primarily the enthusiasm of Luke but also arising from my role as Cabot Director and my own research on the oceans. Withdrawn inspires reflection on our dependence on the sea and how we have polluted and depleted it, but also on how we obtain our food and the people at the heart of that industry.

All of these issues are particularly acute for our island nation, ringed by nearly 20,000 kilometres of coastline and culturally and economically dependent on the sea. Beyond our own nation, over 2.6 billion people need the oceans for their dietary protein, a point driven home to Cabot in conversations with Sir David Attenborough . He passionately referred to the oceans as one of our most vital natural resources. And of course, as Withdrawn reminds us, the oceans have vast cultural and spiritual value. It also reminds us that those oceans and those resources are at profound risk.

I’ve spent over 25 years studying our planet and its oceans. However, my first ocean research expedition did not occur until 1999, and it was a transformative experience. We were exploring the deep sea communities fuelled by methane extruded from the Mediterranean seafloor.  Isolated from light, the ocean floor is a largely barren world, but in parts of the Mediterranean it is interrupted by explosions of colourful life, including tubeworms, bacterial colonies, fields of molluscs and strange and lonely fish, all thriving in exotic mountains of carbonate crusts cut by saline rivers. These are vibrant ecosystems but so far removed from the surface world and light that they instead depend on chemical energy sourced from deep below the bottom of the ocean. And even here we found human detritus, plastic and cans and bottles.

Those were powerful observations, in large part because of their symbolism: our influence on the oceans is pervasive and quite often in ways that are challenging to fully comprehend and often invisible to the eye. These include, for example:

  • The potentially devastating impact of plastic on marine ecosystems, including plastic nanoparticles that are now, for all intents and purposes, ubiquitous. Of course, pollutants are not limited to plastic – our lab now identifies petroleum-derived hydrocarbons in nearly every ocean sediment we analyse.
  • The decreasing pH of the oceans, due to rising CO2 levels, an acid when dissolved in water. We acidifying the oceans, apparently at a rate faster than at any other time in Earth history, a deeply alarming observation. We are already seeing some consequences of ocean acidification on organisms that make calcium carbonate shells. However, what concerns most scientists is how little we know about the impacts of rapid ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.
  • Ocean warming. A vast amount of the energy that has been trapped in the Earth system by higher greenhouse gas concentrations has been absorbed by the oceans. Its impact on marine life is only beginning to be documented, but it has been invoked, for example, as an explanation for declines in North Sea fisheries.

And these represent only a few of the chemical and environmental changes we are making to the marine realm. They do not even begin to address the numerous issues associated with our over-exploitation and poor management of our marine resources.

Compounded, these factors pose great risk to the oceans but also to all of us dependent on them. As Cabot Institute Director, I engage with an inspiringly diverse range of environmental scientists, social scientist, engineers, doctors and vets.   And in those conversations, of all the human needs at threat due to environmental change, it is water and food that concern me the most.  And of these, our food provision seems the most wildly unpredictable. The synergistic impact of warmer temperatures, more acidic waters, and more silt-choked coastal waters on a single shellfish species, let alone complex ecosystems such as coral reefs or North Sea food webs, is very difficult to predict. This uncertainty becomes even more pronounced if we factor in nutrient runoff from poorly managed land, eutrophication and ocean anoxia leading to more widespread ‘dead zones’. Or the impact of plastic, hydrocarbon, and anti-biofouling pollutants. The ghost ships of Withdrawn quietly tell the story of how our increased demand and poor management have led to overexploitation of fish stocks, causing an industry to face increasing uncertainty. But they also invoke deeper anxieties about how environmental change and pollution of our seas could devastate our food supply.

But Withdrawn, like other Green Capital Arts projects and like all inspiring art, does not telegraph a simple message.  It does not shout to ‘bring back local fisherman’ or ‘save our oceans’.  These messages are present but subtly so, and for that both Luke and the National Trust should be celebrated. The boats themselves are captivating and draw you into the fisherman’s efforts; they acknowledge our dependence on the ocean and that we must continue to exploit it. To others they are suggestive of some past catastrophe, a tsunami that has somehow deposited fishing boats in a wildly unanticipated place. And yet to others, they suggest the changing character of seas, seas that once stood 100 m higher than they do today and which almost certainly will do so again if all of our coal and oil is burned into carbon dioxide.

Withdrawn is about all of those things. And consequently, at its deepest level, I think Withdrawn is about change.

Geologists have a rather philosophical engagement with the concept of change – on long enough timescales, change is not the exception but the defining character of our planet and life. I should clarify that the aforementioned Mediterranean expedition was my first proper research excursion to the modern seas, but it came long after numerous visits to ancient ones.  In 1993, my PhD co-supervisor Mike Arthur took a group of us to Colorado where we collected samples from sedimentary rocks that had been deposited in the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway 90 million year ago, a Seaway from a hotter, ice-free world, in which higher oceans had invaded a downflexed central North American basin. That might not seem like a proper marine experience but to a geologist you can reconstruct an ocean in startling clarity from the bold clues preserved in the rock: current flows that tell you the shape of the coastline; fossils that reveal the ecosystem, from cyanobacterial mats on the seafloor to inoceramids and ammonites to great marine reptiles in the waters above; and the rocks themselves that reveal a shallow sea in which limestone was deposited across a great platform.

But it was only like this at some times.  The fascinating aspect of these rocks is the complex pattern of sedimentation – from limestones to shales and back again – limestones that were much like the lime cliffs of Lyme Regis, switching in a geological blink of the eye to oil shales similar to those in Kimmeridge Bay, from which, further North and at greater depths and pressures, North Sea oils derive. Limestone. Shale. Limestone. Shale. A pattern repeated hundreds of times.  In the Western Interior Seaway.  Along the Jurassic Coast. Across the globe, from the Tarfaya, Vocontian and Maracaibo basins to the Hatteras Abyss, from Cape Verde to the Levant Platform. Cycles and cycles of astonishingly different rock types – all bundled up in patterns suggesting they were modulated by the ever changing character of Earth’s orbit.  These cycles are change, from a sea with clear waters, little algal growth and ringed with reefs to one fed with nutrients and gorged with algal blooms and stripped of oxygen.

Change is a necessary and inevitable feature of our planet.  And of the human condition.

But we seem incapable of resisting the urge to impose a value judgment for or against change. It is either viewed as a technocratic marvel to be celebrated or a violation against the natural state of the world and to be resisted.  But often, change is conflated with loss.  And there is something of loss in Withdrawn. These are the ‘Ghost Ships’ of Leigh Woods.  Ghosts of a way of life that no longer exists. Ghosts of the animals these boats once hunted.  Ghosts of some past and inexplicable event.

Of course, change will always be about progress vs loss, its value neither solely good nor bad but nonetheless inevitable.  But just because a geologist recognises the inevitability of change does not mean he thinks we should be passive to it. Change will come but should be managed, a significant challenge given its rapid pace over the past 150 years. In fact, one of the main observations of Dani Schmidt’s research is that our current rate of environmental change appears to be essentially unprecedented in Earth history, let alone human experience.

My hope is that Withdrawn has caused people to engage with the concept of change. How do we manage change in the 21st century?  How do we recognise those things that can and should be let go. As one visitor said, ‘We want to resist romanticising the past.’  Conversely, how do we decide what change must be moderated, because its cost is too high?  We can reduce our plastic consumption and waste, and we can enforce more rigorous regulations to stop the pollution of our planet – and we should.  More complicated questions arise from how we manage our dependencies on these precious marine resources, but it is clear that we can eat fish more sustainably and that we must create marine reserves that will not only conserve species but serve as biodiversity hotspots benefitting all of the oceans.

Perhaps most importantly, how do we recognise those things that must be preserved?  When I see the ghost ships of Withdrawn, I feel the poignant loss of our connection with nature and our connection with what it provides. Our food is now produced far away, delivered to sterile supermarkets via ships, trains and lorries; maybe that is necessary on a planet of over 7 billion people but if so, we must strive to preserve our connection to the sea – to our whole planet – understanding what it provides and understanding its limits.














The Uncertain World Artwork

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

This was informed by our work on past climates. It has been about 3 million years since the Earth last had so much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. And the rate of increase is nearly unprecedented in Earth history.



And hence the Uncertain World.

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

And so Alex created these! Thanks to @ERC_Research and @NERCscience for helping to fund it!
And we all loved them so much, that we got permission to paint them on the side of the @BristolUni Drama Building!

Learn more about Alex’s great work at her website: Visit. It. Now. And be filled with joy.


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


Fun fact: @DrHeatherBuss and I have all of the original artwork in our house! Including these drawings of a soon to be flooded St Werburgh’s. Views toward St Werburgh’s City Farm and Graffiti Tunnel!

AND…. all* of the original drawings of the menagerie of critters, not all of whom made it into the art!

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

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

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