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.

Image

 

******************************************

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.

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

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

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.

lucasantics.com

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

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

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

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.

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/category/green…

What is Forceful Stewardship?

Since 2014 I have served on the Board of Preventable Surprises, a CIC devoted to challenging investors to better anticipate and address financial disasters arising from systemic risks such as climate change and biodiversity loss.  Founded by the inspiring Raj Thamotheram but supported by some of the world’s leading financial experts, it is dedicated to the concept of Forceful Stewardship, the active, disruptive and ethical (and occasionally radical) role that shareholders should take in their investments.  Crucially, we challenge large corporate and charity investors (including hedge funds and pension funds) to fulfill their legal obligations to their clients by adopting an active role in avoiding systemic risks either through shareholder engagement or divestment.  In doing so, we have widened the the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) shareholder community.  But we also hold those investors accountable to their legal obligations and to their pledges, identifying patterns of inconsistent voting and problematic behaviour.

This is not an initiative I ever anticipated joining.  I am not an expert on finance and investment.  I am quite skeptical of the free market approach with which this project is inherently in dialogue.  I joined because it complemented the Divestment agenda of student colleagues at the University of Bristol and because it was an opportunity to modestly step into environmental activism and learn from that.

And it has achieved both of those goals.  Bristol was one of the first Universities to divest from fossil fuels, a journey bracketed by a 2015 pledge to carbon neutrality and the first academic declaration of a Climate Emergency in 2018.  Key to that was my involvement at PS and the insight it gave me into responsible investor behaviour. Organisations, including the University of Bristol, were countering the global divestment campaign by arguing, often cynically so, that more could be achieved by holding investments and serving as engaged stakeholders. However, few if any of them have the capacity – let alone the will – to act in such a manner. At Bristol, these discussions and an honest recognition of what we could achieve paved the path towards divestment as the ethical and appropriate alternative.

At the same time, Preventable Surprises helped me redefine the parameters of my own environmental activism, facilitating my shift from being a scientific expert politely contributing knowledge to policy debate but restrained from critiquing it to a far more radical view of directly challenging government failure to act on the Climate and Ecological Emergencies. In particular, it provided a gateway to activism because Preventable Surprises does not advocate for any particular solution or action, a more comfortable position for scientists who are reluctant to step outside of their area of expertise. Instead, PS advocates for investors to do no more than adhere to their legal obligations and their own pledges to ethical behaviour. My view towards activism has changed significantly over the past decade, and my involvement with Preventable Surprises has been central to that.

Below is some further information on Preventable Surprises and the Forceful Stewardship model it has championed for ethical investment.  And below that, some further personal reflections on what this approach can achieve and whether a more radical approach is needed. I think that I have probably given and learned as much as I can from this initiative.  I think that we are identifying the limits of what even the strongest free market interventions can hope to achieve.  I think I am ready for the next stage of my own social and environmental activism.  But responsible investment still has a crucial role to play.

From the Preventable Surprises website:

For many years, Preventable Surprises has been addressing financial disasters that investors could–and should–have seen coming. Concerns about BP’s safety record, the accounting practices of Tesco, sloppy mortgage lending–these were in the public domain for years before disaster struck. Preventable Surprises, a community interest company, is a ‘think-do’ tank that seeks to prevent, or at least mitigate, corporate and market implosions.

We work with a group of positive mavericks within the investment industry to persuade and cajole the financial sector to better address systemic risks. Using climate change as an example, we define systemic risks using three features:

  • They are pervasive and not confined to a sector or territory. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board found that 72 of the 79 industries in the SASB classification system are affected by climate change.
  • They are non-linear with unpredictable tipping points. The long-term climate transition will almost certainly be volatile and messy. Global temperatures and rainfall may rise incrementally on average but extreme changes will be localised and deadly.
  • They are inter-related, making it impossible to predict the likelihood of Black Swan events.

While regulators, the media, NGOs and consumers each have a role to play in building a more transparent and sustainable market system, most of the power lies with corporations and their investors. Preventable Surprises focuses on institutional investors because, through the trillions of dollars in assets under their management, they have enabled corporate and market dysfunction. While this may be unintentional, the continuing damage caused to investors and to ecosystems in untenable.

Long-term investors cannot use stock-picking or hedging strategies to avoid systemic risk. In the case of climate change, institutional investors’ end beneficiaries will pay the price as the extent of portfolio risk is revealed. That is why investors must mitigate systemic risk through forceful stewardship. As fiduciaries, they must go beyond private engagement to publicly vote for resolutions at AGMs that force companies to align with the 2°C scenario envisaged in Paris.

Forceful stewardship complements the normal approach to responsible investing – in which traditional investment decision-making is overlaid with a filter for environmental, social and governance issues – by focusing on the rights that investors have as owners. But forceful stewards also go beyond private engagements with investee companies, which lack transparency and are hampered by conflicts of interest. Many of us and those we work with are deeply pro market. But as experienced insiders, we know there are many reasons why the financial industry ignores systemic risks, such as climate change, until it is too late.

“Forceful stewards” engage with companies, and use their full influence to make business part of the solution to address systemic risks. They vote for resolutions to send a public signal and thus to drive deeper and faster corporate change. And forceful stewards also engage with all the other players involved in investment – from research analysts to investment consultants to regulators – to ensure they, too, play their part in addressing systemic risks.

In summary, a forceful steward does three things:

  1. Indicates in advance a willingness to vote in favour of resolutions requesting action to address systemic risks, and to vote against management if the company has repeatedly failed to take action to limit systemic risk.
  2. Makes it clear in private engagements with board directors and senior executives that box ticking will not be sufficient; results matter and should match the urgency of the situation.
  3. Requires fund managers, sell-side research, credit rating agencies, and investment consultants to review corporate disclosures and advise on portfolio implications. And advocates for essential regulatory changes that align incentives in financial markets with risk mitigation and long-term wealth creation.

Why do I personally think that Forceful Stewardship is so important?

Forceful stewardship is not a participation prize for showing up.  It is not box ticking.  It is not about empty gestures, many of which cannot be evaluated. It demands action. It centres accountability.  I joined in 2014 but writing this in 2022, I look back on nearly a decade of Climate Emergencies, Pledges, Commitments to Net Zero – and despairingly little action towards those.  Words must precede action.

Our most successful campaign was the Missing 60, in which we identified the 60% of investors who had voted against climate risk resolutions for US companies but in favour of near-identical resolutions for European companies – simply because the former opposed those resolutions and the latter did not.  That is not leadership.  That is not accountability.  That is not the action of a fund manager acting in the best, well-informed interest of their clients.

Forceful stewards do not sit on the sidelines or follow the crowds.

But nor do Forceful Stewards dictate the nature of action.  Climate change is a challenge, but no one has a monopoly on the solution.  Arguably, inferred assumptions of what those solutions must be has been a major part of its politicisation – political divides around science have arisen not from the science itself (although it is not free from critique) but rather from ideological divides around free market vs government intervention.  I have my own opinions about what is needed to tackle a challenge of this magnitude and they do involve ‘big government’ interventions and multi-state coordination, but Preventable Surprises is not the forum for sharing those views.  It demands action but is agnostic to the political, behavioural, financial or technological action an organisation takes; it only demands that the action be legitimately engaged with the nature and magnitude of the systemic risks an organisation faces.

This approach has given Preventable Surprises legitimacy and influence in surprising places.

However, it also exposes the limitations of any approach that is embedded within the free market rather than challenging its existence. Corporate actions can be legitimate responses to the climate emergency but replicate other sector sins; copper and lithium mining and major hydro-energy projects can damage the environment and perpetuate inequality just a much as climate change can.

Their are limits to what the free market can achieve because the one thing it can never do is return power and wealth to others at its own expense. In fact to do so is in direct contradiction of the Preventable Surprises core approach – demanding that companies recognise climate change because climate change is a risk to the investment.

Those businesses might change but they will always extract.

Some final reflections

Many of my colleagues are very pro free market.   Or more precisely, they are in favour of the most noble possible vision of the free market.  Preventable Surprises aspires to make the most of our current socio-political system.  And inevitably, any solutions that arise from Preventable Surprises’ interventions will be market-driven ones.

I do not share that optimism. Those of you who follow this blog or my twitter account know that I am not ‘pro market.’  On some days I am quite skeptical of capitalism and other days I am anti-capitalist.

But I currently live in a capitalist country and capitalist forces shape the world.  Forceful Stewardship is about making that system work as ethically as it can.  Like the fossil fuel divestment campaigns, we understand that we are in the game and so we play the game.  I do not think that market solutions will solve the climate problem – and even if they did, I suspect they would give rise to an equally exploitative and colonial ‘green’ energy economy – but we do what we can within the constraints imposed upon us.

That is something.  We all do our best to make the world a better place. I am proud of what we have achieved.

But these campaigns have served another purpose – and this is why they are now serving as a springboard for a step change for my own environmental activism.  Divestment and shareholder activism are exposing the limits of what our current socio-economic system can achieve.  In striving to make the free market behave as ethically as possible, they spotlight its limitations.

When even best practice and the most well-meaning actors fail to create an environmentally and socially just world, then we have run out of excuses for avoiding far more radical change.

 

Complex Cities in an Uncertain World

My contribution to the Festival of Ideas sponsored Festival of the Future City 

Photo by David Iliff. License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Half of the planet lives in cities. By the middle of this century, that number will rise to nearly 75%, nearly 7 billion people. The decisions we make today will dictate whether those future cities are fit for purpose, whether they are just, sustainable, vibrant, resilient and pleasant. But those decisions must navigate an increasingly perilous web of urban complexity and global uncertainty.

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr famously said,  ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,’ a quote that recognises and subverts the very nature of the scientific endeavour. Scientists aspire to understand something well enough that we can predict what will happen under certain conditions in the future, whether it be a chemical reaction or nuclear fission – or administering a drug or raising interest rates. In fact, prediction is the basis for all decision makers, not just doctors and engineers but mayors, CEOs, teachers and you. Whether it is predicting when you will run out of bread or predicting whether a residential parking scheme will bring about a net positive change to a congested city, we all make decisions based on what we think is about to happen or will happen if we take an action. In a simple world, we barely need to think about these things because the pattern has been reproduced numerous times or the solution will clearly address the challenge.

But we do not live in a simple world. We live in a complex world – an astonishingly complex world in which the landscape is changing faster than our ability to map it.

People are complex: our emotions, motivations, desires and fears make us notoriously (and wonderfully) difficult to understand and predict. Society is complex: our communities, whether they be geographical, historical, ethnic or religious, interact in marvellously messy ways. And most of all, our cities are complex. Beautifully, fantastically, unpredictably, frustratingly and vibrantly complex. Cities represent tens or hundreds or even thousands of years of ad hoc expansion, destruction and redevelopment; the accumulation of technological and infrastructural strata, from ancient paths, to great roads, to modern electrical grids, to smart city digital networks; and vast demographic changes including an aging population, migration, globalisation and a frightening increase in social inequality.

That is just the complexity within a city, but cities are not isolated from the rest of the world. They are nodes within a vast and increasingly complex global supply chain on which we depend for everything from our food and electricity to our culture and entertainment.

And adding yet additional layers of complexity are our global environmental and societal challenges. We are warming the planet and depleting it of vital resources. Those would be challenging enough given the complex interdependencies that now define 21st century society. Unfortunately, global warming could change our planet in ways that are unique in human history and possibly geological history. We have not experienced and our models cannot fully constrain this uncertain world. Forecasts for rainfall patterns, extreme weather events or food production are fraught with uncertainty – and by extension, so are forecasts for political insecurity and financial markets.

How does the complexity intersect and overlap, how do these systems merge, either dampening or enhancing their collective impacts? How will climate change and food insecurity, for example, exacerbate inequality? We do have tools for navigating these complex systems – ranging from cognitive shortcuts in decision making to community histories to sophisticated models. However, those are almost all based on experience, and experience loses value when the ground rules are changed. Our vast experiment with the Earth’s climate and ecosystem – making our world not just complex but complex and uncertain – makes it harder for scientists to predict the future, decision makers to plan and individuals to act with creative and empowering agency.

Of course, complexity need not be bad. Complexity and change can bring about positive challenges, shaking us out of complacency and inspiring creativity. Perhaps even more inspiring, complexity could be harnessed as a tool for connection rather than isolation. Although our interdependence makes us particularly vulnerable to conflict or instability on the far side of the planet, it also makes us all invested in one another’s lives. This also applies to the urban scale as exemplified by Bristol is Open, in which an additional layer of complexity – a publicly shared digital infrastructure managed by a smart city operating system – could generate new platforms for social cohesion. It could be a new set of cross-city linkages, a digital commons, or a shared lab for city-scale experimentation in which all of us are the scientists.

Ensuring how our complex cities thrive in an uncertain world is a rather exciting challenge that will likely require a range of solutions. During the Festival of the Future City we will explore both what it means to be a citizen in a complex city, how we navigate that complexity both on a personal and societal scale, and the new technologies that create both new challenges and new opportunities. In some cases, we should avoid unnecessary uncertainty, such as potentially devastating climate change. In others, we should harness the social and economic opportunities it presents. But in all cases, we ourselves must change. A more complex world requires a more resilient citizen or community, one that is empowered to learn, to improvise and to create.

How can Bristol lead on Climate Action after COP26?

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.

Photo of two generations of Black and Green Ambassadors!

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.

 

Past Climates, Extreme Futures and Communication

Anthropogenic climate change will be devastating.  Devastating.

But I do not think scientists are communicating just how devastating it could be.  Typically, we communicate with an IPCC approach, in which scientists like me provide policy makers and the world our very very best understanding of what is likely to happen. On the other hand, there is a growing group of so-called “doomer messages” in which the worst scenarios are deemed inevitable.

Neither is true.

A few weeks ago, I got this draft for a press release on our paper exploring how Co2 decline caused cooling and growth of the Antarctic ice sheet across the Eocene-Oligocene boundary about 30 million years ago. The news item led with: “Scientists have discovered that a decline in CO2 cooled the Earth’s climate over 30 million years ago. However the Earth’s transition from greenhouse to icehouse could be partially reversed in the next centuries due to the anthropogenic rise in CO2.”

Oh, I thought. The word ‘could’ is doing some damned heavy lifting in that second sentence.

Our future climate forecasting tends to focus on the next 100 years, framed by IPCC, itself framed by timelines thought to be at least somewhat relevant to policy makers and the public.  On those timescales we expect minimal ice sheet melting (about 1 to 1.5 m) even under the most severe global warming scenarios. Moreover, the few studies that have projected the fate of ice sheets beyond 2100 generally show them to be persistent and sea level rise to be modest (2-5 m). There are solid scientific reasons to think this. Ice sheets, once built, are hard to melt, a concept called hysterisis; and ice sheet hysterisis could be particularly strong due to the fact that ice sheets are high (such that temperatures at their surface are lower than they would be at ground level), future projections suggest more snow accumulating at their surface, and the presence of the ice sheet itself cools the region and planet via its high albedo.

But.

They could melt in the coming centuries at very high CO2 levels.

They could.

They could.

At about the same time, I had written a twitter rant that was inspired by the same frustration.

“I’m done fucking about with climate change messaging. Action is going too slowly. Despite heat waves, wildfires, floods and death, our governments are strutting towards #COP26 with proposals that are insultingly incremental.  Not only is this a moral failure in light of what is likely to happen, it is an existential gamble given what *could* happen. The @IPCC_CH  report is imminent and it will outline both likely and extreme possibilities, but the Summary for Policy Makers will emphasise the likely rather than the low probability risks. As scientists, we are doing our best to determine what will likely happen given certain emissions trajectories. But as a communicator, I must become more assertive about what *could* happen. Extreme risks – possible and devastating even if unlikely – must dictate our urgency.

If playing Russian Roulette, you focus on the damned bullet; you don’t ignore it because it is only a 15% probability event.”

It could happen.

It could happen.

Three million years ago, the Earth’s CO2 level was around 400 ppm, levels similar to those of today. And sea level was perhaps 20 m higher, due to significant contraction of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets.

Prior to 35 million years ago, CO2 levels were around 800 ppm, levels that we could attain by the end of this century.  And sea level was about 100 m higher than it is today, in part due to the near complete absence of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Rarely in Earth history have ice sheets been able to persist under the energy balance of a high greenhouse gas world.  And therefore, our continued injection of fossil carbon into the atmosphere will almost certainly bring about the demise of our current ice sheets and cause catastrophic sea level rise. The only question is when.  We think it will happen in a few thousand years.

It could happen in the coming centuries.

It *could* happen.

And of course that is not the only possible consequence of rapid global warming.  In the same twitter thread, I wrote: “As permafrost thaws, much of the released methane will be oxidised to CO2; much of the carbon will be washed to and buried in the Arctic Ocean. But there is a risk that much of it will be mobilised into the atmosphere ramping up warming not just by a little but by a lot. Polar warming could happen faster than forecast. Droughts and famines could be more widespread. Food security could disappear. Reefs are forecast to die at 2C warming, devastating fisheries.”

In the same week, another paper also drew on the geological record of Earth, exploring how the rate of climate change affected extinction rates.  They concluded that: “A temperature increase of 5.2 °C above the pre-industrial level at present rates of increase would likely result in mass extinction comparable to that of the major Phanerozoic events, even without other, non-climatic anthropogenic impacts.”

5.2 °C at present rates is rather unlikely, given trends in the economy, energy production and increasing costs of extracting fossil fuels.  But it could happen.  We could find ways to access other fossil carbon cheaply.  Climate sensitivity could be higher than we think.  Those permafrost and other carbon cycle feedbacks could be larger than we think. 5.2 °C of warming could happen.

We have not internalised these existential risks yet.

Instead, we are acting like global warming is something best to be avoided due to its catastrophic nature and to which we must prepare to adapt – because that is what the likely scenarios suggest.

We are not acting like this is an existential crisis, not necessarily one that will cause humanity to go extinct but one that is damn near that.  A crisis that will be devastating for our society, our civilization and our planet.

And these are not one in a million risks but one in a hundred or one in ten risks. Again, I say: “If playing Russian Roulette, you focus on the damned bullet; you don’t ignore it because it is only a 15% probability event.”

But that is a bad analogy; because with climate change every chamber has a bullet, just some are worse than others.

We are playing Russian Roulette with our planet.

We are playing Russian Roulette with our children.

With a loaded gun.

Our society must put down the fucking gun.