I do not want to talk to you about ‘Population’ and Climate Change

It happens at nearly every talk I’ve given on climate change or the environment.  I could be talking through the lens of my own research on past climate, or via my Cabot Institute role or as a climate action activist. Inevitably and regardless of context, the tedious question is asked, usually posed as a ‘gotcha’ moment, what the questioner considers to be a particularly trenchant insight: ‘But isn’t population the real problem?’

It is the same on social media. Sometimes in the news.  Sometimes said by leaders and environmental advocates who really should know better. It is a pervasive little bore in almost all environmental conversations, intellectually lazy and dishonest, evasive of responsibility.

Of course, often it is far worse than that, coded for racial and colonial bias, an attempt to blame ‘them’ for our environmental problems, ironically ‘them’ that have been most victimised by climate change and environmental degradation in the first place.

In all cases, it reeks of shifting responsibility – either from an individual or a nation, or from a cultural bias or economic worldview. And not shifting that responsibility upwards, to challenge those in power, but shifting down, kicking down, blaming those already exploited and oppressed.

Sometimes it is well intentioned, especially from those new to these debates. And to those of you who want to genuinely bring population control into the environmental discussion in any of its forms, I have one request:  Don’t. I am not interested in this conversation. Few or us are. We know how to do math, we’ve had the conversation many times, and we know it adds nothing new in the way of insight or solutions.

But, if you insist on imposing this conversation on someone, insist on making a documentary where ‘too many humans’ is your central conclusion, insist on coming to talks or coming into our mentions just to ask this question, then here are the rules.

1. Tell us your point.  If your point is to say that ‘more people will consume more’ then move along; we can all do math. We know.

2. If your point is that ‘this is the real problem and it is being ignored’, then go back and redo the math.  Global birth rates have been declining for decades, from a high near 5 in the 1950s to about 2.4 now, i.e. not quite but nearly at stable population levels. That is why population is expected to plateau in the middle of this century. Is this, therefore, the ‘problem that is being ignored’?

2019 revision – world population growth 1700 2100From https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth Note the declining rate of population growth since 1960.

3. If despite this, you still maintain that population is the real problem, i.e. a greater problem than capitalism and consumption, a greater problem than the wealthiest burning through energy and the environment at a rate an order of magnitude greater than the rest of us and two orders greater than the poorest of the world, then acknowledge the inequitable world for which you advocate. Understand global (or even sub-national) per capita differences in consumption, CO2 emissions, etc. Understand how those differences align with privilege and wealth.  And class. And race. Understand who you are blaming, who you are accusing of being the ‘real problem’. And most importantly, understand who you are protecting, who you are insulating from blame, who you are insulating from meaningful action. And therefore:

4. Acknowledge if you just abdicated or deflected from your own responsibility and dumped it onto someone else.  And then we get to explore why you have done so.

5. Do your homework on the history and wider cultural context of the arguments you are making. Understand eco-facism. Understand its history and the crimes committed in its name. Understand that all of us who have been talking about climate change for decades have had hundreds of speakers come up to us after a talk and say, ‘But we all know that the real problem is population growth in Africa/India/Asia, etc.’  If you are going to talk about population growth, you have an obligation to be aware of the racial subtext – and your own inherent racial biases. You do not have to accept responsibility for your fellow travellers, but you are obliged to know who they are.

6. Put your cards on the damn table. You do not get to suggest something so provocative and laden with racist and imperialist connotations and not have the guts to propose a solution.

7. If the solution is better education of women and alleviation of poverty, then say that instead.  If your solution is to advocate for improved access to birth control, say that instead. We’ve all seen trolls make ominous allusions to population control and then, when challenged, retreat to the respectable conversation of better education and empowerment of women.

8. If your solution is something darker, you don’t get to just vaguely gesture at the problem and allow your audience to fill the gaps.  If you want to control the life choices and bodies of black women, have the guts to say so. If you are a eugenicist, admit it.

9. If you don’t say what your solution is, i get to assume that you are volunteering to be front of the queue if it is implemented.

10. If you are a privileged, white male, just don’t.  If you are past the age of having more children yourself, just fucking don’t.

Seriously.  Re-read point 10.  I’m not saying you do not get to have an opinion; I am a white male who has chosen not to have children and I have opinions.  But I’m not interested in that opinion, especially when it is a conversation about what “other people” need to do in order to solve a problem that people like us created.  What I am interested in is honesty, integrity and personal responsibility.  For any climate or environmental issue, what is your solution and what are the consequences?  Who are you expecting to change or to sacrifice; where does the burden for action fall; to whom are you assigning blame?

And why do you think that?

 

Eradicating Inequity is How We Will Thrive in an Uncertain World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They can flee pandemic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uncertain World Project – Engagement to build Action

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Youth, Extinction and Power; the Present and the Future.

It always starts the same.  Whether by tweet, e-mail or after a talk about climate change.  It is always a young person, always apologetic, almost always anxious.  And then the question comes:

“Are we going to go extinct?”

[Aside from anything else that follows in this blog, the leaders of this world need to understand how horrific their negligence has been that so many young people feel compelled to ask this.]

And my answer is always long and contextual. What actions will we take to check the harm we are doing to our planet? What poorly constrained feedbacks might lurk in the system, and will they amplify or mitigate human action?  How will we respond to the environmental change that we fail to stop?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that neither the collapse of civilisation nor the extinction of humanity nor an uninhabitable Earth is predestined under any future warming scenario.  In the worst warming scenarios, what will happen is that:

Species will go extinct, are already going extinct.

Cultures will go extinct, their lifestyles obliterated by a rapidly changing planet.

Nations will go extinct, buried by rising seas.

But humanity? Even if we fail to limit warming to 1.5C or 2C or even 4C, that hardly means we are doomed.  The Earth is habitable at far higher temperatures, including at temperatures far exceeding any we are likely to achieve due to human activity. It will be devastating and catastrophic.  Rising sea level will lead to inundated cities; food production will be stressed and could collapse; extreme weather events will become even more common, devastating more lives; infrastructure designed for a different world will break or become obsolete; health services will be stressed to their limit by heat waves and infectious diseases but also the mental health challenges of displacement. And all of these will most devastate the poor and vulnerable – globally and in our own countries.  It will be racist, classist, oppressive…. And tens to hundreds of millions could die.

But the magnitude of that crisis, for any future warming scenario, will be dictated less by physics and biology and more by the the all-too-fickle human response to the stress that rapid climate change will impose on civilisation.  It will lead to drought and that could lead to famine, starvation and refugee crises.  Regional conflicts.  War.  Even global war.

All of that – even catastrophic nuclear war – is possible.  But it is not inevitable.

If climate change is an existential threat it is because of our doubts about our own ability to fairly and justly navigate its terrible outcomes.

So why parse this catastrophe?  Why split hairs between the deaths of millions or billions?

Because the “extinction of all us” narrative destroys hope and because it removes the social justice dimensions of this crisis. Extinction is a looming threat, but that threat is far greater for some than for others.  And for many – for indigenous peoples and for the global south and for marginalised groups in all countries – it is not the first existential threat.  And it will not be the last. If we ‘all lives matter’ the climate crisis, there is a great risk that we justify exploitative solutions that replicate the injustices of the current world.  As a geologist, I can assure you that there are versions of a fossil free world that are just as damaging to nature and the environment, just as exploitative of labour and dismissive of human rights, and just as great a threat to human life as the one we live in now.

But as more and more young people have come to me with these questions, I realised that there was a deeper reason to draw this distinction between catastrophe and extinction. The fear of extinction motivates action during this moment of critical urgency – and do not stop demanding that urgency – but it also undermines the power and agency of the youth who are so bravely and assuredly seizing power from the leaders too cowardly to use it themselves.

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Photo of UK University students attending the LCOYUK Conference in Manchester.

This is what I tell the youth striking around the world and who come to me with questions about extinction and the survival of humanity:

Everything you do matters. Climate change is not a binary challenge, in which the world wins or loses.  It is complex and gradational and every achievement that limits warming or environmental degradation should be celebrated.

Every failure matters.  Do not yield the stage or concede the fight or sacrifice urgency.  Because if every action saves lives, every failure to do so costs them.

In short, your power is not conditional on a specific outcome. It thrives in every protest, march and strike; every action taken; every person engaged.

But most importantly, it is you who will be shaping the future, the world of our success or failure.  You will have the power to decide how we respond to the climate change that has occurred.

I imagine a world in 20 to 30 years, where we are sitting together, a world 1.7 C warmer or 2C warmer or 2.6C warmer.  And in all, we will rue what we failed to achieve while acknowledging our success at preventing worse.  But I will be old and retired and you will be leaders of industry and government; and you will the ones with the power to shape that world.  You will decide how to equitably manage food shortages.  You will decide whether to embrace climate refugees or build walls.  You will decide whether it is a just and fair world or nativist and divided one.  You decide if climate change leads to conflict leads to war.  Those are not inevitabilities; they are decisions that will be made by you.

You are seizing power now and using it to demand action and hold governments to account. Hold on to that power and use it for good.  It is not my place to dictate how you use that power; I do not have that right and one might argue that it is my and previous generation’s failure to exercise power for good that has gotten us into this mess.  But I do have four suggestions.

Although symbolic power can reside in individuals, the power that actually delivers change resides in communities.

You are not allowed to ever give up, but you are allowed to rest.

You can be heroes, but you are not saviours.

And most importantly, because many of you come from a position of privilege, you must do what almost all who have come before you have failed to do. You must learn how to share your power.

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Reflections on Climate Emergency Declarations, Climate Nihilism, Action and Inaction

Universities, Businesses, City Councils and Nations are finally – finally – declaring Climate Emergencies.  I have been by many to reflect on these and a few of these are attached.  (Spoiler: We do face an emergency; it is an emergency not just because anthropogenic climate change is catastrophic but also because solving it will be very hard, contentious and take time; and we all have an obligation to act)

 

A Message to the Alumni of the University of Bristol

On the 17th of April, the University of Bristol became the first University in world to declare a Climate Emergency.  It enshrines our institutional obligation to address the climatic, ecological and wider environmental threats posed to our planet and our society.

The University has been at the forefront of exploring and solving these challenges for decades, both through our world-leading research exemplified by the Cabot Institute for the Environment and our education via the Sustainable Futures theme.  Some of our environmentally-focused Schools, including Earth Sciences, Civil Engineering and Geographical Sciences, are ranked amongst the very best in the world. Many of us contribute to the IPCC reports, including the most recent report that highlighted the dire consequences of failing to limit warming to 1.5C.

We must do more. Just like our pledges in 2015 when Bristol was the European Green Capital, the Climate Emergency Declaration recognises that our University’s impact on our city and planet transcends its research and educational mission. We are an employer, a procurer and a consumer; our academics fly across the world and our students fly to us; we consume food, energy, water and minerals.  We are part of the problem and we must be part of the solution.

In particular, the Declaration renewed our commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030.  But what does that mean?  How will we do that?  We know it will be messy and complex, just as our decision to divest from fossil fuels was. Not all fossil fuel companies are the same; in fact, many are critically involved with obtaining the resources needed for a post-fossil fuel electrical future.  Similarly, we must ensure that our own efforts for carbon neutrality do not simply shift the environmental burdens to other countries nor hinder their own development.

We do not have all of those answers yet.

Consequently, I consider the Declaration to be a call for a renewed, self-critical, demanding and collaborative conversation about the future of our University. It is an opportunity for dialogue between all of us – staff, students, alumni, partners and stakeholders across our institution, city and the world.  It will embrace every aspect of our organisation and it will lean on our own world-leading expertise and potential for innovation.

This article]is part of that conversation.  It contains reflections from some of our strongest leaders on this topic but it also serves as an invitation for you to share yours.

 

Article for One Earth

Neither the UK’s Commitment to net zero carbon by 2050 nor the preceding Climate Emergency Declaration represents a significant change in policy – our previous target of an 80% reduction by 2050 already was an implicit stop on a trajectory to net zero, albeit at a later date.

However, they could be critical in changing the underlying narrative around climate change by centering attention on the catastrophic emergency that climate change poses as well as the profound challenge of addressing it.  Both statements declare what has for too long been implicit – the challenge is great, and the need to act is urgent.

I hope that enshrining net zero carbon in law finally forces us to consider policies that go beyond incremental chipping away at emissions. We need a plan for a social, technological and infrastructure transformation that puts us on a path to a decarbonised future.  All of 21st century civilisation was founded on and still is intrinsically based on fossil fuels, the energy they can generate but also the heat and power. To wean ourselves off of this incredibly powerful source of energy, we have to move beyond the easy wins of energy efficiency and a modest increase in renewable energy. We have to decide how we will completely transform our homes and businesses, our transport systems, our food production and our food supply chains.

As a geologist, I particularly recognise the challenge that an electrical society poses in terms of the metal resources we will need.  Electrifying agriculture, transport and heat will require more lithium, neodymium, cobalt and many more metals; it will particularly require more copper.  As such, we need to consider the balance of behaviour change, technological investment and potential environmental trade-offs elsewhere.  I am particularly concerned about green colonialism and the impact of our own renewable revolution on the nations from which we will extract these resources. Of course, tackling climate change also creates opportunities in innovation, creativity and leadership; but it will not be easy and the solutions will be contested.

And that is why this is an emergency.

It is not just because climate change is already causing extreme weather, flooding and heat waves,  and that future climate change will cause even greater harm.  It is because addressing this challenge will be incredibly difficult, and arguably we have not even had the conversations necessary to identify an environmentally and socially just path forward.  We certainly have not had an inclusive conversation that recognises a range of concerns about climate change and putative solutions.

The time for talk should be over, but arguably the real talk has yet to start.

Our political leaders have made some useful political gestures; now they have to agree on actions, ensure their feasibility and legitimacy, and deliver them with the urgency that this unprecedented emergency demands.

 

Reflections on a Tweet – Similarities between climate denialism and climate nihilism.

A lot of us are concerned about the emerging ‘climate doom’ narrative, that climate change beyond X degrees is inevitable or that a given magnitude of global warming could directly cause human extinction.  I share many of the concerns of those anxious about climate change as an existential threat and many seem keen to have an engaged conversation about the likelihood of this happening.  However, for many, their concerns seem based less on evidence and more on a belief system that rejects climate science, expertise and institutions with some similarities to the climate denier community.  And challenging those statements can result in virulent responses. Some thoughts:

“I suppose there are multiple dimensions to my tweet.  The first is that there is little evidence that climate change will lead to human extinction. Life has thrived on far warmer worlds.  And although the rate of climate change now is profoundly worrying, extinction at even elevated degrees of warming seems unlikely.  Many species and ecosystems will likely go extinct, and our civilisation might be profoundly transformed, but that is different than ‘human extinction’, a ‘barren planet’, an ‘unihabitable Earth’. When probed, many argue that climate change will cause extinction through a cascade of conflicts and ultimately nuclear war; I certainly worry about that, but that is a very different message with very different assumptions than ‘we will all go extinct if we do not limit warming to 2C’.

Second, when scientists try to clarify this, climate nihilists often use the same language, rhetoric and arguments to dismiss climate scientists as denialists.  Both claim that IPCC is a ‘UN report’ and therefore a political rather than scientific document (it IS a scientific report and it is written and peer reviewed by scientists).  Doomists talk about an overly cautious scientific community, whereas denialists talk about an overly alarmist one.  Both, when confronted, can resort to links to blogs, non-experts and ad hominem attacks.  And anecdotally, both can be misogynistic (women scientists always get nastier replies).  So at its heart, I think both groups are embracing a belief system that inherently mistrusts experts, institutions and knowledge, and that concerns me.

Many are arguing about the psychological impact of this – do those worrying about a true climate apocalypse and global extinction create such despair as to cause inaction??  I cannot say.  Renee Lertzmann has been exploring a lot of the psychology of climate despair.   But I think it is certainly fair to say that our past efforts to mobilise meaningful action have failed, so I am not going to critique these tactics.

Instead, my main concern is that climate change will affect all of us but it will MOST affect the poor and vulnerable, those from the global south and marginalised groups in the UK.  The language of extinction can impose an ‘All lives matter’ narrative on a movement that must centre social justice. But you do not have to look hard to see many using the extinction framing to argue that other issues (indigenous rights, social justice) are secondary. Social media abounds with rebuttals like: ‘you cannot have social justice on a lifeless planet.’

Having said all of that, there is a critical need to have a wider conversation that includes the very low probability but very high risk outcomes of climate change. Some of these catastrophes could happen.  But there is a huge amount of difference between those arguing that this could happen and those claiming that it will happen.”

 

 

 

 

The Machine’s Scar on Humanity and the History of Life

We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.

It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change.  But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.

A scar in the history of life

Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment?  The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky.  Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.

But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.

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The End Cretaceous Boundary, from New Zealand (GNS)

It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse.  The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts.  We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.

Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal.  We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives.  And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.

We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm.  The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.

I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope.  Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.

We have failed to prevent extinction and loss.  But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.

But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves

The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.

The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change.  But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency.  It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.

Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  Far more.

This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice.  Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality.  It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest.  And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity.  My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide.  And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.

So we will struggle.  With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.

But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future.  They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it.  But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts.  They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.

I have hope that they will not choose the latter path.  The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms.  And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege.  A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.

And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices.  The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature.  We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.

Bristol Youth Councillors March for Climate Justice in advance of the Paris COP21 negotiations

A response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

The decision by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change puts the United States at odds with both science and global geopolitical norms.  The fundamentals of climate change remain unambiguous: greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, they are increasing because of human action, the increase will cause warming, and that warming creates risks of extreme weather, food crises and sea level rise. That does not mean that scientists can predict all of the consequences of global warming, much work needs to be done, but the risks are both profound and clear. Nor do we know what the best solutions will be – there is need for a robust debate about the nature, fairness and efficacy of different decarbonisation policies and technologies as well as the balance of responsibility; the Paris Agreement, despite its faults with respect to obligation and enforcement, allowed great flexibility in that regard, which is why nearly every nation on Earth is a signatory.

Moreover, although climate change affects us all, it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most. They, despite being least responsible, bear the greatest risks and the greatest burdens. For the President of the world’s second largest carbon polluter to blatantly disregard such evidence and injustice, to refuse to even acknowledge the consequences of its actions and to disengage with this relatively modest and non-binding agreement puts it odds with the norms of global partnership and human rights. This abrogation of responsibility is particularly profound because President Trump has also withdrawn the United States from the Green Climate Fund, which helps the poorest of the world adapt to the climate change that his actions make more likely.

And to what end?  Other nations will now assume global leadership, politically, morally and technologically.  It will likely cost American businesses money, hinder innovation in one of the world’s most dynamic sectors, and ultimately cost jobs. It will likely undermine the United States’ global stature and diplomatic reach. It is hard to imagine a decision so blatantly motivated by self-interest while being so profoundly self-harming.

The crucial question now is how we respond.  China and the EU have stepped forward, increasing their voluntary commitments, repudiating President Trump’s decision and assuming the mantle of leadership.  Nations around the world are following suit, as are cities and states across the United States.  Businesses have re-stated their commitment to decarbonisation – ironically, the day before Trump’s decision, shareholders voted that Exxon develop plans compliant with the Paris Agreement’s targets.  In the UK, in the midst of a general election, parties from across the political spectrum have responded to Trump’s decision with reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage. The UK has always provided leadership in this arena, recognising that climate change is a non-partisan issue, and it is one of the few nations with a cross party Climate Change Act.  It is vital for both the planet and the UK that these initial comments are followed by bolder actions and stronger leadership.

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We will not be stopped.

Across the world and in the University of Bristol, we are frustrated with the symbolism of Trump’s actions, his speech’s misrepresentation of facts, and his decision’s potential to slow climate action.  But we also recognise that these actions will not stop climate action. The responses of local, national and international leaders, in politics, community groups and businesses, across sectors and across society show that no person, regardless of his position or his nation, can stop the energy revolution. It is too deeply embedded in our politics, economy and ambitions, borne of out of multiple necessities.

Here, in the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, we remain committed to this challenge.  Our University is committed to carbon neutrality, ethical and low-carbon procurement and divestment from fossil fuel-intensive businesses. We have foregrounded Sustainable Futures in our undergraduate teaching.  And in our research, we are investigating improved energy efficiency in everything from computer software, to our homes and our cities.  We are exploring how smart technology enables new forms of transport, community energy and individual action. We are converting nuclear waste into diamond batteries with 5000-year lifetimes, we are leading one of the projects under the Natural Environment Research Council’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction programme and we have just launched new initiatives in wind, tidal, solar and nuclear energy.

Our ambitions are at all scales, from the local to the global.  We continue to work with our Green Capital partners, with a focus on building an informed, diverse, inclusive and powerful movement to become a more sustainable city and region, exemplified by the Green and Black Ambassadors Initiative.  Globally, our projects have been exploring the impact of conflict, climate change and geological hazards on development and the environment; the potential for micro-grids to deliver electricity to isolated communities; new forms of parasite resistance for subsistence farmers; and how geothermal energy can be harnessed in Ethiopia.

This commitment to sustainability builds on five decades of research on our environmental challenges and how to manage them.  The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group makes among the world’s most accurate measurements of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and they have shown how rapidly these compounds are accumulating. They are committed to refining those measurements and the modelling methods that allow us to understand why global emissions change. The Bristol Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment reconstructs past climates and uses those insights to better understand our future; recent projects are building global collaborations to explore the controls on Earth’s temperature and monsoons.  Our glaciologists study sea level rise; our hydrologists study floods and drought; our social scientists study the injustice of climate change and its impact on migration and conflict; and our vets and life scientists are exploring how to improve animal welfare and crop yields on a climate disrupted planet.

Our commitment includes appointing the best and the brightest at understanding these challenges, including Dr Dann Mitchell who joined the University in November.  As co-ordinator of the largest dedicated project in the world on the climate impacts of the Paris Agreement (www.happimip.org), he sums up the Cabot Institute’s collective commitment: “The news of Trump wanting to pull out is incredibly frustrating. Our results are already suggesting more extreme events, such as droughts and heat waves, and serious impacts on society, such as increased human and animal health issues, failures in global crop distributions and bleaching of our coral reefs. I am frustrated that Trump continues to ignore the scientific evidence that has been recognised by his global peers, but that will not dissuade us from doing all we can to understand climate risks… and prevent them.’

The Machine and its Fuel

21st century, fossil fuel powered civilisation is a machine, with every last part of the planet engineered to serve us. We are all part of it; we all benefit from it; we are all complicit in it.

 

We must decarbonise by 2050.  Or by 2030.  Or even by 2025.  The sooner we do it, the greater we mitigate the ongoing climate change crisis and the more we spare our planet, nature, vulnerable communities across the world and especially future generations from dealing with the consequences of our unfettered growth.  But whether we act quickly or slowly, the challenge will be profound.  It is certainly not impossible and certainly does not require a terrible lurching into the austerity of the past; in fact, it could be liberating, innovative, exhilarating.  It could be the next great technical, cultural or social revolution (or all of the above), a revolution that reinvents our society, our relationships with one another and our relationship with the planet that sustains us. The only life-sustaining planet of which we know in all of existence.

It is necessary; and achieving it will bring out the best of us. But it will be hard.

21st century society is a vast, magnificent machine that has created great art, launched probes to Mars, Jupiter and beyond, extended our lifespan by decades and connected us across every corner of the globe.  But it is also an infernal machine, designed primarily to produce and consume and fuelled by environmental degradation, class imprisonment, colonialism and racism.  Most importantly, it is a near-inescapable, unsleeping and inexorable engine, so that we are all to some degree beneficiaries of its success and complicit in it sins.  And at its very heart, it is a transformer, reliant on and converting coal, oil and gas, fossil chemical fuels that are remarkable for their density of energy and, by extension, their capacity to generate heat and power.  Fossil fuels can warm a home and electrify our lights, but they can also melt lead and power shipping vessels that weigh 100,000 tons across the Atlantic in days.

Within that fossil-powered machine, we have some degree of agency: we can fly less or eat less meat; we can consume less, waste less, recycle more; we can fight to shatter glass ceilings and challenge structural racism.  But whether our mode of transport is a plane, car, train, bus or bicycle, all of those instruments have embedded carbon, embedded environmental degradation and embedded racism and worker exploitation.

So we implore each other to do what we can. You do your bit; I’ll do mine.  But until we break the machine – a machine that has gifted the world a century of unprecedented (albeit unequal) prosperity – and replace it with something new, the fundamental issues will remain unchanged.

How long do we have?  We have both little time and as much time as it takes. On one hand, the IPCC has warned that we have 12 years to redirect our society, which will in turn allow us to achieve net zero carbon between 2040 and 2050 and have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5C. The scale of change is vast, requiring not just an end to fossil fuel production but a change in our energy, heating, transportation, construction and agricultural systems, all of which have been designed to exploit those fossil fuels.  It is not just planes but gas central heating and the manufacture of steel, and tractors, JCBs and global supply chains. Our fossil-fuelled society is a like a vast juggernaut of a ship that must be returned to land but is sailing in the wrong direction.  When we argue that we have 12 years to act, we mean that we must stop this juggernaut and turn it around if we are to have any chance of returning it to harbour in time to meet our agreed goals.

But if we fail to do that, that does not mean we can accept defeat. The machine still must be broken.  We still must make these changes because they are necessary – 2C of global warming will be worse than 1.5 C and 4C of global warming will be worse by far; the struggle against exploitation of nature and fellow peoples will remain. And ultimately, diminishing supplies – the inevitable demands of living sustainably on a finite planet – will demand change.  Even if we do not achieve our targets, somehow, eventually, we or our children will dismantle this infernal engine; but in our prevarication we will have lost far more of ourselves and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The abolitionists did not put targets for a tolerable number of slaves; they instead recognised that slavery was the foundation of their society, the basis for their prosperity and an abomination to be eliminated. Similarly, modern society, built upon fossil fuels and class exploitation, must change or end.  This is not a single election and it is not a 90 minute football match; we will not ‘win’ or ‘lose’.  This must happen. Inevitably. If it does not happen in twelve years time, we must keep fighting until it does.

The Green and Black Ambassadors

Summary: The Green and Black Ambassadors project arose from a series of conversations during and after Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital 2015.  Although the year was lauded for numerous successes, including in public engagement, many (including the organisers) agreed that it failed to overcome barriers to inclusion, especially with marginalised communities. The G/B Conversation revealed many of those barriers and proposed ways forward, one of which was to properly fund members of BME communities to challenge and connect different groups. To achieve that we, launched the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme, to build bridges but also to challenge and provoke. To provide focus, we engaged with the African and Caribbean communities prominent in Bristol.  This work was funded by the Cabot Institute, NERC and the ERC.

NOTE: An inspiring and exhaustive collection of Green and Black Ambassadors multi-media resources are available at the website of our partners, the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.  This project has been an outstanding collaboration, including the University of Bristol, Ujima Radio, the Green Capital Partnership and of course the Ambassadors. Particular acknowledgment must be given to Ujima Radio, who initiated the Green and Black Project which was the foundation for much of what is discussed here.  Please also read the final report:

Green-and-Black-Ambassadors-Pilot-Report-2018-yo3y5k

Related image

Background: In 2013, Bristol was announced as the 6th European Green Capital (for 2015) and the UK’s first. This award acknowledge a wide range of initiatives, success stories and ambitions, including significant waste reduction, widespread cycling, city-owned renewable energy provision, a rapidly growing green economy, and strong university partnership.  The year had a particularly strong focus on climate change, as it occurred during COP21. Crucially, the award itself as well as policy decisions made during and since the end of the Green Capital Year commit the city to a bold plan of leadership and social and technological innovation to become more sustainable and reduce its carbon footprint.  For example, representing Bristol at COP21 Mayor George Ferguson committed Bristol to decarbonisation by 2050, a pledge that his successor Marvin Rees has reiterated. Such an ambition requires widespread buy-in amongst formal and distributed city leaders as well as Bristol’s population.

The year was characterised by a range of Summits, lectures and festivals; a cultural and arts program; new public and private initiatives; and more. However, this engagement was incomplete. Throughout the year, many explored the social justice issues arising from climate change.  Echoing commentary by numerous international political and religious leaders, discussions at Green Capital events frequently focussed on the ethical dimensions of climate change, including those related to class, ethnicity and race. As such it was considered necessary to engage a diverse cross-section of society (and of course, this was also considered necessary to mobilise support for the aforementioned policy objectives). There were many efforts to achieve this.  The Year included a Neighbourhood Arts Progamme and a Primary Schools Programme, both of which were rolled out across the city. The Cabot Institute led several events in the poorest parts of the city, to complement those held on our campus. Nonetheless, poor inclusion was a persistent and legitimate charge (Pancost, 2015), as it has been for other Bristol activities. It was the disconnection between the Green Capital’s ambitions for inclusion and the lack of it that has proven to be particularly frustrating to many.

 There are vital lessons to be learned from this and there is a necessity to resolve it if Bristol – and other similar cities – are to achieve their desired transformations. Ujima Radio, recent winner of the UK’s Best Community Radio Station, initiated this effort in late 2014 and explored it throughout 2015 via the Green and Black Programme.  In late 2015, the Cabot Institute and the BGCP joined Ujima to explore this further via a series of workshops with BME leaders.  Two broad messages emerged, as summarised by our partner Roger Griffiths (Chair of Ujima Radio): ‘To many, the ‘green’ debate has hallmarks of being predominantly understood as a white, middle-class domain; moreover, there is a strong narrative of existing and potential engagement with green issues across BME communities that must be recognised and developed.’ Around these wider issues, a number of specific challenges were identified:

  • There was a widespread perception that formal activities – and especially the higher level decision-making – was led by an ‘in-crowd’ of established green activists, city leaders, and usual suspects (university and industry leaders).
  • Many venues were considered ‘off-limits’ to members of the BME community for a combination of issues related to perceived class bias, reputation or history (bearing in mind the role of slaving in Bristol’s history). Aside from that, many venues in the city centre, Bristol’s traditional focus for events (including the University), are not readily accessible.
  • Participation in events remains difficult for many due to childcare or work responsibilities. This reinforces the ‘in-crowd’ nature of activity and city planning, as many were able to attend as part of their jobs. Events were numerous and often organised at the last-minute, which further disenfranchised those with less flexible personal or working relationships.
  • Similarly, many were able to either volunteer time or were seconded from their businesses to participate; this puts particular stress on community organisations with limited resources.
  • BME leaders who were invited to attend workshops and planning meetings were often asked to attend or even speak but ‘rarely to help set the agenda.’

This is summarised with clarity and purpose by our partner at Ujima Radio, Roger Griffith in the Green and Black Conversation. The Green and Black Conversation 2015-2016-2f0l648

One of this consortium’s main conclusions was to launch a Green and Black Ambassador Programme, to pay, train and support (and learn from) a new generation of leaders who would: 1) foster dialogue among diverse groups, including showcasing examples of sustainability leadership arising from BME communities; 2) serve as a positively ‘disruptive’ participant on strategic boards (i.e. BGCP Board); 3) generate bespoke material on environmental issues and sustainability solutions for BME communities, some of which will be broadcast by Ujima Radio; and 4) conduct further research on the obstacles to BME inclusion in environmental initiatives. Given the diversity of Bristol with at least 91 languages spoken and 45 religions practiced, we have focussed on those communities of African and Caribbean descent, recognising that even that represents a great diversity of cultures, faiths and experience. Crucially, a goal of this initiative, directly identified during community consultations and reiterated by Mayor Marvin Rees, is to invest in the leadership skills of those bridging environmental and social justice ambitions.

 

Our events and networks forged

The Ambassadors have contributed to or led dozens of events, all characterised by their diversity and ambition, connecting people from a range of communities to one another and to natural resources. They have occurred across Bristol and the West of England, either in traditional locations with a specific aim to challenge and disrupt conventional approaches to engagement (i.e. Cabot Institute lecture in the Wills Memorial Building or the BGCP Board Meeting); in communities with large BME or otherwise marginalised communities (i.e. Hamilton House); or by bringing BME citizens out of the city to nature-rich areas (i.e Slimbridge).

Through Festivals, Workshops and Lectures, the Ambassadors have reached over 1000 people, and likely several 1000 more through their monthly radio shows. These events have included classical outreach activities, engaged workshops, field trips and knowledge sharing. Emerging from these activities has been sustained and deeper engagement, outlined below. This is critical.  During one presentation, while discussing the outcomes of the project, the PI was asked: ‘How will you measure how BME communities have adopted more sustainable practices?’ This is a critical misconception of the entire project of engagement and certainly a misunderstanding of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme. The goal is to constructively change the scientists, the campaigners and the communicators alongside the public participants; the goal is for these leaders to listen to, learn from and better understand the initiatives occurring in and knowledge generated in marginalised communities so that the scientific endeavour becomes richer and stronger – and better connected to a wider variety of the public.  Therefore, the Ambassadors have devoted particular effort to engaging and collaborating with organisations.  These include:

Slimbridge WWT: The Ambassadors brought BME citizens to Slimbridge to stimulate a conversation around engagement with nature; they then collaborated on a workshop to address inclusion and diversity in their nature programme.

Avon Wildlife Trust: The Ambassadors are developing collaborations to address diversity in the AWT programme.

University of West of England and University of Bristol (including the Students Union): The Ambassadors have worked with the Joint University SU Skills Bridge team including advising the team’s inclusivity efforts and featuring individual researchers on their radio show and promotion of Photovoice (Drs Shaun Sobers & Ade Olaiya).

Bristol City Council and Mayor: The Ambassadors have met the Head of the Sustainable Cities Team, engaged with knowledge sharing / interactions with the Mayor on social media, and met with Cllr Asher Craig.  This is serving as the foundation for future projects focussing on air pollution and health.

Numerous connections and outputs have emerged from these events and activities, with highlights being: the embedding of diversity issues, awareness and responsibility across the BGCP network of over 800 organisations; a dramatically raised profile of BME-led initiatives in the city and a stronger dialogue between NERC researchers and marginalised communities; a website containing numerous blogs, commentaries and interviews (http://bristolgreencapital.org/category/green-black/); and a multimedia archive of the Ambassadors’ radio show on Ujima Radio.  These dynamic and interactive shows have featured leading scientists, campaigners and politicians can be found on Soundcloud, i.e.: https://soundcloud.com/ujimagreenandblackradio/green-and-black-radio-002.  Guests and topics have included: Fuel poverty in Bristol – Bristol Energy Network; What happens when you flush your toilet in Bristol – GenEco; Monitoring equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Ade Olaiya, UWE; Focus on Guyana’s biodiversity (World Wetlands Day special); Exploring spaces outside the city – Imayla. This network and knowledge building will culminate during the 10th Anniversary celebration of the BGCP on 6 July, where the G/B Ambassadors will showcase their findings to hundreds of industry, civic society, public and political voices in the West of England sustainability movement, a conversation to be broadcast live by Ujima Radio – this will feature environmental research, showcase the need for a far more inclusive approach to outreach activities, and provide critical commentary on how to better engage with marginalised communities.

Other networks that are being developed include those with Black 2 Nature, Resource Futures, GENeco, Sustrans, Journey to Justice, Bristol Food Network, Up Our Street, Bristol Energy Network, Easton Energy and Lifecycle UK.  In doing so, the Ambassadors are facilitating a rich but challenging conversation among some of the city and region’s leading environmental and social justice networks.  Over 20 other organisations have expressed interest in engaging the Ambassadors to explore their own diversity and inclusion challenges with respect to public engagement.

 

The Reception

It is hard to convey the enthusiasm with which this scheme has been received.  Industry, government, civil society and public participants in environmental and sustainability issues are passionate about inclusion for its own sake but also because of its necessity to achieve the profound changes to which Bristol committed when it was the European Green Capital in 2015.  However, those organisations and individuals recognised that well-meaning efforts to engage and include failed because of a lack of common understanding, misplaced or insufficient effort, disparity of resources, and the lack of facilitators that could help navigate interactions among diverse communities.  Against that backdrop, the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme has been hailed by numerous citizens, lauded by some participants as transformative, identified by members of the BGCP as an exemplar project, and celebrated by civic leaders including the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees.  This is evidenced by a strong twitter following, hundreds of retweets, over 30 requests to engage with other organisations and the Ambassadors’ prominent role in the BGCP 10th anniversary celebrations.

Such enthusiasm and engagement must be met with some caution.  The goal of the programme is not to simply better connect environmental researchers and organisations to more diverse communities as a box-ticking exercise.  The programme is meant to be disruptive and challenging – leading to genuine transformation of organisations, practices and relationships. We do not aspire to ‘communicate better’ but to have a shared agenda for making the scientific endeavour, including its participants and users, more diverse. As said by Zakiya: ‘Our task is to build bridges. We are honest about the barriers within our own communities and will hold people to account. We are also here to challenge the environmental and science sectors to co-produce, consult inclusively and step outside of the pervading bubble of whiteness and masculinity as necessary for validity. We have a daunting task that will agitate people on both sides of the divide but as we say in Jamaica “one, one cocoa fill basket”; by using our skills to fill the void in conversation, Jasmine and I are making way for better dialogue and real, inclusive actions.’

There is strong evidence that the organisations involved have been transformed, with both the BGCP and Cabot Institute being recently celebrated for better showcasing BME citizens, putting visible effort into engaging with those citizens, and adopting more rigorous and challenging practices. A crucial research question if the programme continues will be to explore how deep, wide and long-term such transformations have been in those and in other organisations.

 

What was learned

During Bristol 2015, the profile of environmental research was dramatically raised; from climate change scientists to atmospheric chemists to biodiversity experts, our work was showcased at Green Capital Summits, married to arts exhibits, centred in citizen science initiatives (i.e. Urban Pollinators), and integrated to local and regional policy makers (i.e. Pancost was invited to accompany the Mayor and BCC to COP21 and has contributed to developing Bristol’s 50-year trajectory by serving on the Resilience Sounding Board).

This initiative has not raised that profile but changed it.

Through the Green and Black Conversation we facilitated a community-led dialogue about the limitations of previous outreach and engagement activities in Bristol – including our own. The Ambassadors Programme allowed us, our partners and our fellow citizens to put those lessons into practice.

The most important of these lessons was: “Do not assume that different communities are not engaged; assume that they are but are doing it separately or differently.  So ask them what their ideas are.”  Consequently, engagement must be co-designed, with joint agenda setting (‘We are invited but the agenda is already set.’), and a recognition of different forms of knowledge and a shared capacity to contribute.  Within this broader context, five key themes emerged: 1) Change or recognise the constraints of terminology, its culture and ownership; 2) Profile activity beyond that which takes place in white middle-class neighbourhoods; 3) Create a new set of green narratives that relates to different cultural perspectives and experiences; 4) Challenge leadership and decision-making, especially by developing new leaders; and 5) Fund and support active projects that make the difference rather than just well-meaning manifestos and statements of intent.  From these lessons derive some self-evident actions for future events and initiatives: a) engage under-represented marginal communities early and often, funding them as appropriate, while creating the space and open dialogue that encourages all to contribute their ideas; b) host events in a variety of venues and actively ensure that all feel welcome at all venues; c) depoliticise discussions by acknowledging and exposing their political dimensions rather than treating them as apolitical; d) challenge those with influence and position to ensure that BME citizens are given voices within institutions – and to ensure those voices are supported when they provoke and challenge; and e) guarantee representation.

This project also reinforced the challenges related to time and capacity to engage. Engaging the public but especially marginalised communities requires time to gain trust; but at the same time, the public can have limited resource or capacity to engage. For poor communities, time and resource issues are compounded. These are difficult barriers to overcome but can be mitigated by: longer lead-in times and earlier invitations; providing child-care support; and having fewer events but delivering them in a way that involves a wider cross-section of the city (including perhaps running the same event several times at multiple locations).

Crucially, it was argued and accepted that privileged leaders, including many in Bristol’s thriving green economy and HEI sectors, must both build structures and cultivate the culture change that allows inclusion to thrive. Liberating the strength of our diversity requires not just good will but the creation of structures that promote inclusion, including training and genuine financial support of community partners. It is illuminating that one of the Green Capital’s strong inclusion stories was the School’s programme, which essentially engaged every primary school child in Bristol.  Tapping into structures or networks – where they exist – can facilitate engagement; but where they do not exist, they must be built.

These issues affect everyone.  Class, race and gender need not be obstacles. This gap needs to addressed and acknowledged and realised by communities and organisations together if we want to move forward as a city.’ Jasmine Ketubah-Foley, Green and Black Ambassador.

Arguably, this investigation has moved into issues far beyond those that are the normal scope of engagement and outreach discussions: how to better communicate to diverse audiences, tailoring messages, choosing diverse venues and format. Nonetheless, valuable lessons were learned – derived from the above – that could be applied to nearly any NERC-based science outreach. The programme reinforced the lesson to connect research findings to the needs and interests of your audience; however, most audiences were quite receptive to a creative connection – linking palaeoclimatic events to air pollution challenges or past biotic change to current migration debates were welcomed. Other lessons were surprising – although not in hindsight.  For example, NERC scientists work all over the world or on samples collected from all over the world; BME audiences, perhaps due to a more recent immigrant past, wanted to hear more about this.  Who were the partners and collaborators?  What was it like working in these countries, especially for communities that have ancestral roots there?  And most critically, are these scientific efforts still informed by colonial biases – have we worked with, respected and co-authored with citizens from those nations?

 

Project Highlights

All of us involved have different thoughts: For some it is the disruptive presence of BME citizens in places that had seemed ‘off limits’ such as the University’s Great Hall; for others, it will have been the excitement of young people taken on a field trip to the wetlands.  More broadly, we argue it is the fact that the language of social justice and inclusion are now ubiquitous in environmental and sustainability conversations, exemplified across the manifestos of all major party candidates for Metro Mayor (we cannot take all credit for that but the Ambassadors Progamme has been a focus and distillation of numerous other conversations).  Personally, the PI of the project thinks that the best outcome has been the unleashing of Jazz’s and Zakiya’s talents.  We have given some training to these exceptional women, but the real benefit has been the commitment of the partners to give them a platform and show city leaders the skills, knowledge and passion they already had.

More fundamentally, it has changed perceptions on engagement between diverse publics, civil society organisations and universities. It is not enough to think about science communication as apolitical and in isolation.  If we want citizens to engage with scientists, then we must show that we have made commitments to their communities, that we are engaged in the challenges those communities face, that we are committed to addressing the flaws within our own institutions.  It is not enough to say ‘we wanted to have a diverse panel but there are very few black climate scientists.’  Of course, scientists should be very cautious about appearing partisan but nor can we ignore the challenges of those we engage, especially where it interfaces with our work.  Engagement is far more than ‘better communication.’ It is becoming constructive partners in our communities, of which science outreach is a small part of a wide portfolio.

 

Reflections

There is much that could not be achieved during a brief pilot project (even extended to 10 months by co-funding).  First, given the key outcome that engagement between researchers and communities must be protracted, allowing for deep, mutual, respectful and trusted collaboration, these types of initiatives must have long-term investment.  Building trust is always important but particularly so for marginalised communities with a history of being excluded. Second, we caution against extrapolation to other marginalised communities; our efforts focussed on BME communities of African or Caribbean descent (already a multitude of different voices) and that means that we have not probed a range of more nuanced issues related to religion, gender or class. Future efforts could widen this exploration; we doubt that the fundamentals will differ (diverse venues, family or worker-friendly times) but nuanced findings almost certainly will.  Third, we aspire to test the long-term changes these interventions have made.  Have AWT or WWT (or UoB and BGCP) embedded diversity in their practices?  Have they adopted new policies or practices?  Do they remain dependant on the initiative of marginalised groups or individuals, such as the Ambassadors, or have they taken on their own responsibility to support inclusive initiatives?  If these changes have occurred then these organisations, in partnership with NERC researchers, will be better poised to connect our research findings to a wide and diverse part of the UK’s population.

We collectively agree that we must challenge/re-imagine models of scientific ‘pubic engagement’ – and that therefore NERC should think about moving away from the kind of measures illustrated in this report (i.e. to be judged on number of events and number of people ‘engaged’) and towards thinking about ‘quality’ of engagement – long term meaningful relationships based on the sharing of knowledge and expertise.  Most importantly, however, the final reflections should belong to our two Ambassadors:

Image result for Green and Black Ambassadors

 

Holding the green sector to account

Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley, Green and Black Ambassador

Being part of the activist movement in Bristol, something kept picking away at the back of my brain. After some time I realised I could find almost no black or brown role models to look up to. Where were the culturally rich BME communities of Bristol who have so much to say on the environment, environmental racism and sustainability? Why were they not thriving in this supposedly inclusive space?

Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital in 2015 had many successes but it failed to include BME communities. The community radio station Ujima ran a debate about the issue in 2015 and this project has grown from there. The University of Bristol Cabot Institute and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership joined up to continue to fund it along with the public engagement funding from NERC. Together they set up the ambassador programme to pay, train and support a new generation of BME environmental leaders – Zakiya and I.

We are trying to find out why inclusion has failed so far and we’re challenging Bristol’s research and BME communities to work together. We have a radio show on Ujima, we run workshops and we took a group of young BME people to a large wetlands centre outside of Bristol to explore why these nature attractions aren’t attracting diverse communities.

Zakiya and I come from community research backgrounds and worked as radio and TV broadcast journalists. Our passion to tell people’s stories and our brazenness in asking difficult questions with a healthy sense of justice fits well with the role.

 

Tackling inequality in Bristol

Zakiya McKenzie, Green and Black Ambassador

In March 2017, The Sunday Times named Bristol the ‘best place to live in the UK’. As a black woman, single mother and mature student, I cannot help but wince at this misleading accolade. The difference in life expectancy between the city’s wealthy and deprived wards is as much as a decade. I grew up in Jamaica, studied in NYC and worked as a journalist in Johannesburg and I absolutely love ‘ole Brizzle’ – but nothing prepared me for the city’s virtual segregation.

In one of our workshops people told us they found it difficult to get the time to attend research events, particularly if they worked for small organisations with limited funds. Participants also found that they might be invited to events, but not to help set the agenda.

Our task is to build bridges. We are honest about the barriers within our own communities and hold people to account. We are also here to challenge the environmental and science sectors to step outside of the pervading bubble of whiteness and masculinity as necessary for validity.

We have a daunting task but as we say in Jamaica “one, one cocoa fill basket”. By using our skills to fill the void in conversation, Jasmine and I are making way for better dialogue and real, inclusive actions.

 

 

Environmental Justice Must Recognise and Centre Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from the PhotoVoice Project of the Green and Black Ambassadors

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

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

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

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

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

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