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.


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 (, 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:


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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 (; 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.:  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.



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.


The Green and Black Conversation – Exclusion and the Environmental Movement

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

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

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

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

The Green and Black Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montage of some of the Green & Black Ambassadors

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

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

Part 4


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we will need new technology to fully decarbonise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The forecast is for volatility.


The Climate Change challenge to society, industry and investors is not well represented by the concept of long-term global warming (although that will happen) but rather as system wide and unpredictable shifts to a world characterised by increasingly volatile food, water, security and weather.

Climate scientists continually emphasise the difference between the climate and weather – the former being a long-term description of the average state of our planet and the latter being the expression of that climate on highly localised and short-term timescales. Our understanding of climate is relatively robust, based on physical principles that in many cases were established hundreds of years ago.  In contrast, our ability to predict how that will impact a specific region at a specific point in the future, i.e. weather, is weaker due to how climate change is manifested through a very complex system.

Long-term climate change is typically represented by the iconic IPCC global warming figure showing the ~1C warming of the past century and the near certain warming up to the year 2100, the forecasts and uncertainty derived from an ensemble of climate models. They collectively depict a relatively monotonic warming if we continue a ‘business-as-usual’ fossil fuel/agriculture trajectory, as well as the associated uncertainty, resulting in cumulative global warming by 2100 of about 4 to 6C.  But this trend does not say anything about the year-to-year variability in any particular place.  It is not a weather forecast.

It is possible – unlikely but possible – that in the year 2100, in a world 4C warmer than that of today, the Northeast of the United States will be experiencing its coldest year on record. These deviations from the norm could be due to natural variability over-riding the larger global warming trend in that particular time and place.  It could be due to global warming having unexpected impacts on ocean and atmosphere circulation.  In any case, there are very good reasons for scientists to focus on long-term climate trends, but those trends do not reflect what it will be like to live in a warmer world.  They do not reflect how people will be affected, what they will react to or how, or the pressures under which politicians will be making decisions.

The defining features of climate change will be volatility and uncertainty.

Crucially, therefore, these future forecasts fail to inform our understanding of the socio-political landscape relevant to investors.

If climate change is gradual, then the savvy investor should adopt a wait and see attitude.  As warming continues, as damage gradually accrues and as political rhetoric (and regulations) grow sharper, investors can adopt different risk strategies, with some inevitably bailing out from high risk ventures too soon and others too late.

But this is not how climate change will be experienced. It will be experienced as extremes, the unexpected, the unusual.  In some areas, the 1-in-20 year heat wave will be 10C greater than it is today (i.e. England could experience ~40C heat waves every 20 years rather than ~30C heat waves).  A ramped up hydrological cycle on a warmer planet will cause some areas to become wetter and others drier; but in all areas, actual rainfall events are likely to become more intense. In 2050 – or even 2020 – the Midwest of the United States might experience pronounced floods or be in the middle of a devastating 5-year drought.

This volatility is being manifested today. Extremes are part of natural climate variability and we have warmed the world by 1C, the latter sufficient to amplify and complicate the former.  In particular, there is strong evidence that warming is already amplifying heat waves, droughts and floods.  And most recently, horrifying wildfires. By extension, we could be on the verge of experiencing particularly acute volatility in food prices. Investors in every sector should be deeply concerned about this increased volatility.

However, investors in the energy and fossil fuel sectors should be additionally concerned by how this volatility impacts policy. 

If nations actually do enact policies that could limit global warming to 2C (let alone 1.5 C, the ambition of the Paris Agreement), then most of the fossil fuel sector’s assets will become stranded.  In fact, even policies that limit warming below 5C will strand significant fossil fuel assets. Many are arguing that until actual policies are put in place, any disinvestment is premature.  ExxonMobil has further argued to the SEC (unsuccessfully in 2015-2016) that they do not believe nations will enact such policies and therefore they have no need to plan for them.

Such attitudes are understandable in a world of long-term, incremental change and politicians reluctant to institute policies that overly disrupt the status quo.  But incremental change is not the forecast.  Volatility is the forecast. Superstorm Sandy had a minor but real impact on the politics of the US Northeast.  What would be the consequence of three such storms happening back to back? What would have been the consequences if it had knocked out one of NY City’s central distribution centres, causing tens of millions to face food shortages?  Heat waves in the Middle East resulted in thousands of deaths last summer; what are the political consequences of a somewhat more extended heat wave that results in tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths?  What are the political consequences of two more years of California drought, especially if it begins to drive farms out of business and food prices upwards? Or if wildfires rip through more populated areas?

I do not pretend to know what tipping points could cause policy makers to switch gears from prevarication and incremental steps to the drastic policy changes that would limit global warming to 2C and be devastating for certain fossil fuel industries and their investors. But we have seen how a combination of factors has devastated the coal industry, with its value perhaps never to be recovered. We have seen how Fukishima had huge impacts not only on the nuclear industry in Japan but also in Germany – with knock-on effects across the EU.

Given this, I can see no logical reason for investors to not demand as much information as they can from their investments, especially those vulnerable to policies that would limit climate change. I can understand if investors want to bet against politicians making difficult choices!  But to also bet against technological innovation (fusion, microgrids, batteries)? To bet against economics (decreasing price of renewables)?  Ultimately, to bet against people who will be on the front lines of this volatility? Regardless, if fund managers want to make the best possible bets – and they are legally compelled to do so – they need the best possible knowledge. And this begs the question: why would a responsible fund manager not ask all of their major investments – not only but especially the fossil fuel industry – to conduct 1.5 C stress tests.

Different investors – with different risk tolerances – will read the above through different lenses and reach different conclusions.  Nonetheless, given the complexity and unpredictability inherent in the climate change challenge, it is astonishingly naïve for any company to argue that politicians will never act on the commitments made in Paris and thereafter. Investors should demand a clear message from those companies that they understand both systemic climate change risks as well as the associated policy and economic risks to their assets. And investors should have confidence that those in whom they have invested have planned for both.


Some final thoughts that did not quite get it into the blog but bear re-emphasis. The key point is that climate change will create volatility and that is not good for anyone.  It is especially bad for investors, who rely on stability and predictability. And most of all, investors rely on confidence.  The crash of 2008 was not due simply to an accumulation of subprime mortgage funds but rather a loss of market confidence in them arising from increasing awareness of those fund’s quality; the bubble burst. If (when) climate change causes investors to lose confidence in a property market, the re-insurance sector, the construction industry, a government bond market, it is almost certain to create widespread financial shocks.  The Bank of England Governor Mark Carney quite correctly views this as systemic risk.

But it is a bit less clear what might cause that loss of confidence.  Will it be a particularly severe event in terms of financial or humanitarian terms or will it be a shocking and unprecedented event.  Or an accumulation of events. My suspicion is that it will be the cumulative exhaustion associated with volatility and unpredictability. Markets will adapt to long-term gradual change, but adapting to a volatile and uncertain world is far harder.

And unfortunately, volatility is exactly what is happening now and almost certain to be one of the defining features of our future.

Adapted from Blue & Green Tomorrow  (see page 29 of the Guide to Sustainable Investing for original).

Adaptation or Mitigation? Both. Obviously.

Ever since the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, policy makers, business leaders, scientists, and investors have been debating its near- and long-term implications. It was and remains an ambitious agreement, with a goal to limit warming to well below 2°C. But it is also an agreement with a weak enforcement and reporting framework and the current “intended nationally determined contributions” limit warming to only about 3 to 3.5°C—and more after this century.

This creates a rather politically and potentially legally fraught terrain for decision makers. The list of critical questions is getting longer:

  • When will imminent climate impacts drive policy change?
  • How will governments change:
    • energy-subsidy programs.
    • incentives for innovation and infrastructure investments by companies and long-horizon investors.
    • carbon taxes.
    • accountability standards relating to investors’ role as stewards.
  • How quickly will new energy sources come on line and how messy and volatile will the transition be?
  • And crucially, will businesses and institutional investors lead these initiatives or be victims to them?

At the heart of these discussions is one of the oldest debates in the climate change communication and policy arena—should we focus on mitigation or adaptation? Up until a few years ago, scientists were reluctant to discuss adaptation because of the recognized negative impact it had on individual and social behaviour change. Even if very costly, high risk and disruptive adaptation strategies provided an ‘escape clause’ and a justification to procrastinate on unpopular or challenging near-term decisions. More recently, however, the debate has taken on new dimensions. Given the facts that global warming has already reached or exceeded 1°C, that even more warming is already locked in, and that even the most ambitious national pledges would likely fail to keep warming below 3°C, let alone 2°C, many are privately arguing that mitigation is no longer viable and the focus should be on adaptation.

Now, as then, the sole focus on adaptation is deeply flawed.

Let’s start with those arguing that either the mitigation opportunity has passed by or that nations will be unwilling to enact the perceived painful policies necessary to limit warming. Aside from the ethical flaws of this argument, it would be naive for investors to assume that an agreement among nearly 200 nations will have no legal or policy consequences; even the INDCs, though they are incomplete measures, will require vast social, economic, and political change.

However, the central argument that mitigation remains vital and necessary is scientific. Those suggesting that mitigation has failed or will fail tend to fixate on the 2°C global warming limit at the centre of policy discussions for the past decade and the acute challenge we face in achieving it. There are good reasons to have a 2°C (or lower) limit, as that is the representative temperature when a number of system changes begin to occur, very high sea level rise becomes locked in, and changes in weather, including extreme events, becomes very difficult to predict, all of which will have dramatic economic and social impacts.

Climate change, however, is not a binary. We are already experiencing the consequences of anthropogenic climate disruption. These will become more pronounced as the planet approaches 2°C of warming. And they will become even worse at higher CO2 levels and higher global temperatures. The Earth system does have some bimodal features but the tipping points between them occur at a range of temperatures, with great uncertainty, and in complex ways.

Sea level rise showcases this well. In the Pliocene era, about 3 million years ago, CO2 levels were 400 to 500 ppm; temperatures were 2°C higher; and the sea level was 5 to 20 metres higher than today. Such changes would be devastating in modern times, with huge infrastructure costs, long-term economic consequences, and unprecedented social displacement. The last time Earth experienced 500 to 1000 ppm CO2, however, temperatures were about 4-5°C higher, and sea level was 70-100 metres higher than today. These represent a long-term Earth system equilibrium so neither scenario is expected for the next several hundred years or more; but they are illustrative of the profound differences between a 2°C and 5°C global warming scenario.

Crucially, unabated biomass loss and fossil fuel burning—especially with new technologies allowing unconventional shale gas and tar sands to be exploited—could result in warming of 5 to 6°C, maybe even more depending on how effective we are at tapping new reservoirs, whether climate sensitivity is at the high or low end of our estimates, and whether positive feedbacks in the Earth system will exacerbate our fossil fuel impacts.

To the best of our understanding, 5 to 6°C global warming will have vast and devastating impacts on our climate and ecosystems, probably with similarly devastating impacts on society. In short, even if we fail to sufficiently curtail fossil fuel usage to limit global warming to 2°C, we must certainly do so to prevent far more extreme warming. As long as fossil fuel resources exist to tempt us, mitigation will always be a priority.

And yet.

Even under our most ambitious mitigation strategies, climate change will happen and we must adapt to it. Already, with the Earth having experienced only about 1°C warming, droughts, floods and heat waves—many of which have been directly attributed to global warming—are occurring. When that warming has combined with natural climate variability, which happened with the strong El Niño of this past year, local affects are even more pronounced, whether it be global coral bleaching or crippling heat waves in the tropics. These events, in turn, have affected food security, productivity and global security. They could destroy marine ecosystems and in turn one of our most important food sources and one of nature’s most beautiful features.

And yet, we are committed to further emissions, further warming, and further climate disruption. It is hoped that if we limit warming to 1.5°C, the most severe aspects of sea level rise, extreme weather and ecosystem disruption will be avoided—but we do not know that and some have argued that we have already locked in up to 4 metres of sea level rise. If we limit warming to 2°C, we will almost certainly have to adapt to sea level rise, human displacement, infrastructure devastation; it will also expose us to feedback risks that could add additional warming beyond our direct influence.  And there are many reasons to think that these impacts will be inequitable, with the poorest suffering the most.

There is no choice between avoiding severe climate disruption or adapting to it. We will do both. We will leave fossil fuel assets in the ground and we will adapt to some environmental disruption. The only choices we have are how we balance those two needs, how we do so fairly and equitably, and how rapidly we make the inevitable transition.

Adapted from a blog originally published for Preventable Surprises.

An ancient rapid climate change event – still much slower than what we are doing today.

In 2015, I was interviewed by Susan Kucera when she visited Bristol to show her beautiful film on climate change – Breath of Life.  Working with Jeff Bridges, she has created a powerful new film – Living in the Future’s Past – that features those interviews with me and many other scientists, psychologists, politicians and philosophers. My own contributions on climate change reflect on the history of our planet and how that provides perspective for our current unprecedented rate of climate change. To elaborate on that, I am posting some recent press releases on the research that informed my reflections (and yet to be published at the time of interview). In particular, in the movie I discuss our research a carbon dioxide increase (and associated global warming event) that occurred over 100 million years ago. It is an event that we consider fast geologically but happened 100s of times more slowly than the carbon dioxide we are adding today.

Image result for living in the futures past


The research was led by Dr David Naafs, a Research Fellow with me in the Organic Geochemistry Unit; it was based on Dutch Rubicon Grant he was awarded in 2012.  But we need to acknowledge three others.  First, our colleague Dani Schmidt has been grappling with the topic of rapid geological carbon release events for years; it was her work with Andy Ridgwell that began to reveal that these geologically rapid events were not at all rapid by modern standards.  Second, the work would not have been possible without a fantastic geological section; the Cau section in Spain had been studied for years prior to this by several colleagues at the University of Jaen, including Jose Manuel Castro and Maria Luisa Quijano.  All of these brilliant scientists – and many others – have helped shape our understanding of the geological past.  And almost all come to the same conclusion: although geology is a vast and powerful force, rarely does it act with the terrible speed and efficiency with which we are extracting fossil fuels from the Earth and transforming our carbon cycle.

From our press release at the time:

University of Bristol Cabot Institute researchers and their colleagues today published research that further documents the unprecedented rate of environmental change occurring today, compared to that which occurred during natural events in Earth’s history.

The research, published online on the 4th of January (2016) in Nature Geosciences (‘Gradual and sustained carbon dioxide release during Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a’), reconstructs the changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide (pCO2) during a global environmental change event that occurred about 120 Million years ago. New geochemical data provide evidence that pCO2 increased in response to volcanic outgassing and remained high for around 1.5-2 million years, until enhanced organic matter burial in an oxygen-poor ocean caused a return to original levels.

Lead author Dr David Naafs explained: ‘Past records of climate change must be well characterised if we want to understand how it affected or will affect ecosystems. It has been suggested that the event we studied is a suitable analogue to what is happening today due to human activity and that a rapid increase in pCO2 caused ocean acidification and a biological crisis amongst a group of calcifying marine algae. Our work confirms that there was a large increase in pCO2. The change, however, appears to have been far slower than that of today, taking place over hundreds of thousands of years, rather than the centuries over which human activity is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. So despite earlier claims, our research indicates that it is extremely unlikely that widespread surface ocean acidification occurred during this event.’

The observation that yet another putative ‘rapid’ geological event is occurring perhaps a thousand times slower than today and not associated with widespread surface ocean acidification has been the focus of much recent research at the University of Bristol. Co-author Professor Daniela Schmidt, who was also a Lead Author on the IPCC WGII report on Ocean systems, emphasised that today’s finding builds on one of the IPCC’s key conclusions: that the rate of environmental change occurring today is largely unprecedented in Earth history.  She said, ‘This is another example that the current rate of environmental change has few if any precedents in Earth history, and this has big implications for thinking about both past and future change.’

The research was possible due to the exceptional Spanish section that the team analysed. Co-author Professor José Manuel Castro of the University of Jaen adds, ‘The sediments at Cau accumulated very rapidly resulting in an expanded section. This allowed the high resolution multidisciplinary analysis that are the basis for this important study.’

Senior Author and Director of the University’s Cabot Institute, Professor Rich Pancost, added,  ‘We often use the geological record to help us test or expand our understanding of climate change, for example, determining the sensitivity of Earth’s temperature to higher CO2 levels. But testing the risks associated with the pace of modern environmental change is proving problematic, due to a lack of similar rapid changes in the geological past. Consequently, these risks, in this case to the marine ecosystems on which so many of us depend, remain associated with profound uncertainty. Decreasing CO2 emissions, as recently agreed in Paris, will be necessary to avoid these risks.’

This research was published in Nature Geosciences.

See also the News and Views perspective.

The research was funded by a NWO (Netherlands Funding Council) Rubicon Grant to David Naafs and NERC funding to Rich Pancost.