Cabot Institute blog

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Monday, 11 September 2017

A celebration of the research and achievements of Professor Willy Aspinall

‘A celebration of the research and achievements of Professor Willy Aspinall’ was a one-day celebration organised by the Cabot Institute to commend the career of a valued UK scientist and Bristol Professor.

Professor Willy Aspinall CMG is retiring after a 60-year career that has seen him travel the world, advise governments and receive some of the highest accolades a scientist can receive. Over 50 people attended the one-day event, which comprised a light-hearted mix of history, science and personal reminiscence.
Frank Savage, ex-governor of Montserrat
Willy is possibly best known for his use of the ‘expert elicitation’ technique. The method involves synthesising the opinion of experts, which can then be used as a mechanism to help predict the occurrence of a typically-rare event. The technique has been used in policy making for a range of natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and has been an integral part of decision making in numerous crises around the globe.

Many of these crises will be familiar to the reader, with some having vast social and economic impacts. Perhaps the most well known in Europe was the Eyjafjallajokull ash crisis, which grounded air traffic across the continent. During the eight-day air space closure, Willy was one of a handful of experts who advised the UK government’s response.

Yet Willy’s role as a valued risk advisor was preceded by decades of influential work that represents astonishing variability and versatility. Willy began his working life as a physicist, receiving a PhD from Durham University in the 60’s. His physics background led him to take a job in 1970 in the Seismic Research Centre (SRC) in Trinidad and Tobago in which he remained for over a decade.

‘Aspi’, as he was sometimes known amongst his team, set up and maintained the seismic network on the island and surrounding areas throughout the busy decade. His colleague Dr Joan Latchman, who travelled from Trinidad to the event in Bristol, described the time; ‘for the entire decade it was excitement, non-stop’. During this period, Willy and his team of researchers advised the government on numerous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions while also breaking down the post-colonial culture that had lingered on in aspects of life at the SRC.

Willy’s time in Trinidad and Tobago wasn’t his only dance with Caribbean volcanism. One of the defining moments in Willy’s career, and one for which he was as appointed a companion to the Order of St Michael and St George by the Queen in 2016, was his work in Montserrat.

In August 1995 Willy was sent to Montserrat as adviser to the Governor shortly after the 11,000-person island’s volcano began to show signs of activity. When he arrived he was faced with a challenging situation. The scientists monitoring the volcano had developed a difference of opinion as to the volcano’s likely course of action. Part of his job, was to disseminate the jargon-heavy arguments to both the decision makers, and the general public. The then-governor of Montserrat, Frank Savage, spoke at Willy’s celebration and gave a personal account of the huge positive impact Willy had on the crisis management: ‘Willy understood Caribbean culture and traditions which made a significant and favourable impact with the local community’.

Frank wasn’t the only one grateful to Willy for his efforts. In fact several volcanologists working on Montserrat thanked Willy for saving their lives after he ordered them out of the exclusion zone where they had been working. Dr Amanda Clarke was one of these volcanologists. Unable to make it from Arizona to the event, she recorded a message to be screened during the day. In it, she thanks Willy for saving not only her life, but the lives of numerous people who he encouraged to evacuate at the last minute despite considerable personal risk.

Among others who paid a digital tribute to Willy’s inspirational career included the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Keith Rowley. Indeed, the sheer number of people from different backgrounds demonstrated the truly phenomenal cross-disciplinary geographical-reach of Willy’s work; from nuclear energy in Japan to melting Antarctic ice sheets to Italian earthquakes.

The faces in the audience represented industry professionals, academic colleagues as well as new scientists working in the field he has helped to carve out. Consequently, the day was replete with gratitude and genuine praise for a man whose cricket-loving, quick-witted personality will undoubtedly be missed as he enters his well-deserved retirement.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Reframing ecological thinking; Felix Guattari, subjectivity and film

This short article introduces the ecological thought of Felix Guattari. I suggest that Guattari’s holistic delineation of three interconnected ecologies is a productive place to begin in thinking about contemporary ecological issues. Following on from this, and away from traditional environmental discourse and politics, I argue that aesthetic encounters with film hold the potential for a re-invigoration of ecological thought. I explore this briefly in relation to ‘Melancholia’ by Lars Von Trier.

The 21st Century is increasingly defined by ecological crisis. With global biodiversity losses, the rapid melting of ice-caps and glaciers, rising ocean temperatures and desertification (all complemented by humanity’s continued, unshakeable appetite for fossil fuels), the contemporary environmental moment is an urgent dilemma.

In response, academia has converged on a neologism – ‘the Anthropocene’ – as a suitable expression of contemporary ecological crisis. This is not just a geological transition; it is also an existential one. As leading geologist Jan Zalasiewicz suggests: “The significance of the Anthropocene is that is sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part”[1].

The destination of this “trajectory”, with humanity in the driving seat, is currently an indeterminate futurity. Such uncertainty (which unfortunately encourages, at best, a passivity, and worse, active climate change denial), should not detract from the new reality that the Anthropocene delineates, a reality that is making itself felt in collective consciousness. Anthropocenic anxiety is spreading across all domains, not least the cultural sphere.
Screenshot from Melancholia (Von Trier 2011)
Experimental cinema, for instance, reflects and explores the particularities of the contemporary moment, almost a bellwether medium for the Anthropocene. The event of apocalypse is a prominent theme (The Day after Tomorrow (2004), Melancholia (2011)), as is what the future holds post-apocalypse (Children of Men (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), Avatar (2009), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)). Other films engage ecological issues without the end-game of apocalypse (The Tree of Life (2011), Okja (2017), Uncertain (2017), Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (2010)).

Importantly, many of these films challenge narratives of human exceptionalism, breaking-down nature-culture, subject-object binaries in the process. They problematise our dominant ways of seeing and being in the world, exposing us to a more entangled human-nonhuman milieu.

My dissertation looks to use film as the springboard for an exploration of Felix Guattari’s ecological thought. Guattari is more widely known for his collaborations with Gilles Deleuze, notably Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Towards the end of his career, however, Guattari wrote two ecological texts (The Three Ecologies and Chaosmosis), reflecting a holistic concern for global environmental issues alongside molecular issues of subjectivity. In The Three Ecologies, Guattari presents a tangled ecological vision, emphasising that ecology must be rethought of in terms of three interconnected networks (mental ecology, social ecology and environmental ecology). This is Guattari’s central ecological intervention, placing environmental problems (climate change, global warming etc.) on the same plane as subjective issues and social relations. As JD Dewsbury suggests:

“Thinking with Guattari requires that we affirm and reinvigorate our experimental care for mental and social ecologies, as much as we assume a care for the state of the physical ecology of our natural environment.”[2]

Whilst climatic interventions remain important, they must be one single strand of a larger restructuring process that simultaneously includes interventions into the domain of mental ecology, a domain that, counter-intuitively perhaps, is the central focus for Guattari’s ecosophy. It might seem like a waste of time, in light of pressing environmental issues, to suddenly care so much about human subjectivity. However, as Guattari argued, it is unlikely, given our current ways of thinking and feeling about the world, that widespread economic, political or social restructuring is going to: a) be sufficient enough, or b) happen at all. Indeed, this sentiment resonates all the more strongly considering the recent failure of the Paris climate agreement.

The underlying reality, one that Guattari himself was acutely aware of, is that ecological action will remain impotent whilst it continues to be located within the far-reaching logics of capitalism and consumerism. The seeds of change, away from capitalist logics, must be planted at the molecular scale for there to be hope of molar transformation. Ecosophy has molecular transformation as its central problematic.

How, then, to change people’s subjectivities? How to encourage greater care and responsibility for all planetary life? How to problematise existing human relations, and then transform them for the better? These are big questions, with no obvious answer. However, Guattari placed great importance in what he called ‘incorporeal species’ (music, the arts, cinema), and their ability to reframe sensual perception, forcing people into encounters with alterity and nonhuman forces, perhaps engendering new modes of being in the world.
Screenshot from The Tree of Life (Malick 2011)
My dissertation looks to explore the aesthetic encounter of film. In watching films, as Guattari suggests, we “suspend the usual modes of communication for a while”.[3] This suspension, rather than being reductive, actually opens us up to processes of transformation. Film, in this way, is an encounter with forces and flows – some of them impacting before conscious recognition – a unique audio-visual assemblage that is more than just a representation of real life. In fact, films have an autonomous potential to do something in the world. I hope to explore this productivity in relation to ecosophy. What does an ecosophic aesthetics, within film, look like?

Whilst multiple films come to mind, Lars Von Trier’s critically-acclaimed Melancholia is a good place to start. The title derives from the film’s pervasion by two encircling melancholias: 1. the melancholic mental-state of central protagonist, Justine, whose struggles with depression ebb and flow throughout, and 2. the impending doom of the approaching blue planet Melancholia, whose apocalyptic collision with Earth occurs in a prologue before we shift back in time to before the event.

Melancholia is by no means a normal ecological film; certainly, it does not follow conventional ecological film narratives. Whilst apocalypse in other films is either a future to be prevented, or a new reality that needs to be overcome, apocalypse in Melancholia is neither. There are no miraculous attempts to save humanity through science or invention. Neither is there a future after the planetary collision. The end is an end to all life, with the whole Earth dissolving into the vastness of Melancholia.

By bookending the film with apocalypse, Von Trier ensures a melancholic atmosphere throughout.  This might seem like a pessimistic experience. If we analyse Melancholia in terms of its narrative, looking for conventional meanings and understandings, then certainly you might come to that conclusion. However, I believe the film can be framed in ecologically productive terms. The brilliance of Melancholia is that it strips away conventional ecological narratives throughout, particularly narratives that suggest that humanity is in any way separate from ‘nature.’

As political theorist William Connolly writes:

“Melancholia tracks beauty and ugliness, intentions and frustrations, glowing surfaces and opaque depths, regular rituals and uncanny events, entanglements and denials.”[4]

Themes of depression, capitalism, passivity and (anti)modernity weave in and out. Alongside these themes are Von Trier’s experimental filmic techniques – including an incredibly striking opening montage of 16 slow-motion tableaux vivant with Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde in the background (a piece of music that repeats over and over in the film). Evocative visual tableaux are repeated throughout. However, in contrast, much of the rest of the film follows Von Trier’s Dogme 95 conventions: a fast-moving, continually re-focusing, handheld camera catapulting us into the midst of strained social relations. The effect, I suggest, is a scrambling of perception, with the contrasting styles leaving the audience in a continual state of disorientation. It is this disorientation that becomes a point of bifurcation, a glimmer of potential for subjective transformation.
Screenshot from Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Apichatpong 2010)
In our scenes, the film dramatises our often-ignored entanglements with nonhuman beings, our infinite connections and attachments to the world. Encountering the film, I argue, re-immerses us into the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of life in a way that other films fail to do. Maintaining a melancholic aesthetic throughout, this atmosphere soaks into the pores of the audience, forcing a confrontation with the potentially-infinite nothingness of apocalypse. Moreover, we begin to question contemporary subjective positions. If apocalypse is actually going to happen, then what is the most appropriate, or ethical, subjective response?

Space limits answering this question, and further discussion. However, I hope to use my dissertation as a more thorough exposition of these important themes and questions.


Blog by Theo Parker
Reposted from 'Bristol Society and Space' Blog of the University of Bristol's MSc in Human Geography


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

[2] Dewsbury, JD. (2015). “Guattari’s resingularisation of existence: pooling uncertainties,” Dialogues in Human Geography,Vol. 5(2), pp. 155-161.

[3] Guattari, F. (2009). Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).


[4] William Connolly (2014). Melancholia and Us. Ozone.

Your Waste of Time: Art-Based Geographical Practices and the Environment

This blog post thinks through the themes of aesthetic interventions, sensing time and engendering response-ability using artistic responses to climate change. Here, these themes are drawn from one piece of art, Your Waste of Time, by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. This performative showcasing of glacial ice establishes interactions and relations between human bodies and icy materialities- but what is at stake here and what potentialities could be created through artistic practices? These are questions that have arisen through my current dissertation, where I hope to explore artistic responses to environmental degradation through the materialities of ice and plastic.

For the piece Your Waste of Time, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson transported several large blocks of ice from Vatnajökull, the largest and oldest glacier in Iceland, to the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider (Eliasson, 2006). This glacier is almost incomprehensibly ancient, with some parts dating from around 1200 AD, but human-driven global warming has begun thawing Vatnajökull, dislodging chunks of ice from the main body of the glacier. This has left behind a scattering of sculpture-like nuggets of ice across the landscape, pieces that untouched, would soon melt away. Eliasson’s project transported these pieces to Germany, to be displayed in an art gallery.

Here the wayfaring blocks of ice were kept in a refrigerated space as immersive sculptures that audience members were encouraged to touch. This was an attempt by Eliasson to bring the visceral reality of human-driven climate change to the attention of the audience through a sensory engagement with ice. In Eliasson’s words, ‘we take away time from the glacier by touching it’ (Eliasson, 2006). Within this molecular moment of sensation between the human and icy touch, the exchange of human warmth is enough to begin to decay the ice. Your Waste of Time then becomes an experiment to curate a sense of environmental care through molecular icy interactions.

Your Waste of Time, Olafur Eliasson, photo by Jens Ziehe
Recently, such environmental artistic interventions have been located temporally with the term ‘anthropocene’[1]. Anthropocene has come into use to refer to human-driven environmental change and degradation. Although the ‘Anthro-pocene’ privileges and homogenises the human (a white, western human) within environmental discourses, the term has become a buzzword for the current era of global pollution and warming. As an imaginary, the Anthropocene cuts through different temporalities; finite human lives, longer lived materialities (such as ice) and geological timescales.

Artistic responses to environmental issues engage with this increasingly unpredictable world, through a sensory engagement with temporality, with other materialities and bodies. It can even be said that ‘attuning ourselves, through poetry, art, and description, to pay attention to other times…these are crucial practices; in fact, they are matters of survival.’ (Davis and Turpin, 2015). Although influential feminist scholar Donna Haraway (2015) proposes other terms such as Capitalocene to denote the specifically capitalist causes of environmental degradation, the Anthropocene also remains an arguably productive term. Art positioned as relating to different temporal imaginaries is thus a speculative, experimental project to think differently, to world differently. Although the term Anthropocene remains contestable, it’s very instability lends itself to artistic conceptual engagements that function through such fragile and indeterminate encounters.
 
 Image: Your Waste of Time, Olafur Eliasson, photo by Jens Ziehe
Positioned in the white, empty space of the art gallery, the fragility of the ice is magnified. This fragility comes to light through the invocation to touch the surface of the icy sculpture. In the words of Eliasson; ‘When we touch these blocks of ice with our hands, we are not just struck by the chill; we are struck by the world itself. We take time from the glacier by touching it’. As Erin Manning (2006), notes in her work on the intersections between art practice and philosophy, sensation opens up the body to thinking and doing differently through its relation to other bodies and things. Touch, in this light, is located neither with the human or the inhuman, but invented through the encounter.

But what happens at a touch? Ice, as sensory aesthetic experience, brings closer together the relations already held between ice and human bodies. Quantum physicist turned feminist philosopher Karen Barad (2012) brings together feminist traditions that unsettle ways of thinking materiality and quantum physics. A sense of touch, for Barad, can be unsettled a molecular exposition of the minute interactions between electrons. This is a murky and confusing world of quantum physics for most social scientists, but Barad productively draws out the indeterminacy at the very building blocks of sensation. Quantum theory holds infinites as integral. This argues for a radical openness of potentialities at the very building-blocks of mattering – all matter is unstable at its foundations. Could it be argued that there is at stake, the unsettling of stable ways of thinking and an opening up of openness already at the heart of mattering?

At the moment of touch between a hand and the blocks of ice, this becomes clear- the warmth of the body causes the ice to change state and start to melt. For Eliasson, ‘We take away time from the glacier by touching it. Suddenly I make the glacier understood to me, its temporality. It is linked to the time the water took to become ice, a glacier. By touching it, I embody my knowledge by establishing physical contact. And suddenly we understand that we do actually have the capacity to understand the abstract with our senses. Touching time is touching abstraction.’ What does it mean to touch time? Touch, as unsettling and in-touch with infinite possibilities could signal a potential for thinking differently. The term anthropocene signals (if problematically) this need to think differently about temporality. The geologic lifespan of the ice is not permanent, but made fragile under a human touch. Temporality, then is not a stable concept either, but one that aesthetic interventions can trouble and disrupt assumptions that time related solely to a stable ticking of the clock.

This touching-time, for Eliasson, has a political undertone. Time is a crucial and sensitive issue in climate change debates. The critical question is, how to engender response-ability and action to do something to halt the tide of environmental degradation and global temperature rise. Haraway (2015) has written about an art project by the Institute of Figuring (2005-ongoing) to crochet coral reefs, involving thousands of people working to cultivate and care for these crochet-corals, gathering each person’s work into an exhibition, curating the corals to establish a reef. Like Your Waste of Time, The Crochet Coral Reef Project has time at its centre. Crocheting, like the establishment of a coral reef, takes time, and has the potential to establish caring relations through the touch of human-material and time. Could art such as this create publics that could do differently concerning climate change?
 
Image: Crochet Coral Reef Project, Institute of Figuring
Care in this context relates to everything that both humans and nonhuman things to continue to repair their world to live as well as possible. These caring relations knit the world together and create complex links between things and humans in the world. Feminist scholar Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) proposes an ethics of care. This care is not a moralism. It is not a case of you should care about environmental degradation! Rather, it is a speculation to see what could happen if we relate to the things and environments around us through more caring relations.

Your Waste of Time, framed through touch, time and care touches upon possible pasts, presents and futures that are framed as undecided. As the ice hovers indeterminately in-between solid and liquid, so does the potential for doing differently. Geologic timescales interact with a momentary present. Could this moment of touch between ice and human engender more caring relations that span other times and other places? Your Waste of Time, then, may not be a waste of time, but rather put us in-touch with time.

Blog by Rosie McLellan
Reposted from 'Bristol Society and Space' Blog of the University of Bristol's MSc in Human Geography

Bibliography
Barad, K. (2012) ‘On touching – The inhuman that therefore I am’, Differences, 23(3): 206-223
Davis, H. and Turpin, E., eds. (2015), ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, London: Open Humanities Press
De la Bellacasa, M. (2011), ‘Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1): 85-106
Eliasson, O. (2006), ‘Your Waste of Time’, Berlin: Neugerriemschneider [http://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK100564/your-waste-of-time]
Haraway, D. and Kenney, M. (2015), ‘Anthropocene, Capitolocene, Chthulhocene’, in: Davis, H. and Turpin, E., eds. (2015), ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, London: Open Humanities Press
Institute of Figuring, (2005-Ongoing), ‘Crochet Coral Reef Project’, New York: MAD Museum of Modern Arts [http://madmuseum.org/exhibition/crochet-coral-reef-toxic-seas]
Manning, E. (2006), ‘Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty’, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

[1] See more regarding the Anthropocene at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth


Monday, 7 August 2017

Science and Sunflowers

Sunflowerfest is an annual three-day festival of music and art held just outside Lisburn, Northern Ireland, priding itself on its family friendly atmosphere and sprawling spectrum of creative activities. Unlike the monster festivals that are held in other parts of the UK, in Northern Ireland our festivals are small (think a few thousand people, not a few hundred-thousand) with a strong focus on local talent. The perfect place for some experimental, creative science outreach…

In 2016, I contacted the organisers and floated the idea of a science outreach stall based upon my research and others in BRIDGE and the Cabot Institute. The idea, called Living Earth, was new, reasonably grand and completely untested. The response was a very enthusiastic “yes please!”

So, last year a squad of five outreachers (Alan Kennedy, Emily White and Michael Cooper of the Cabot Institute, plus Dewi Owen and Zuleika Gregory our puppeteers) arrived in blustery Northern Ireland and over the course of the festival recreated the entire history of Earth. 4.5 billion years in 3 days. With the help of punters at the festival, we built a 1.5 m diameter model of the Earth out of willow, foliage, recycled and craft materials. As the Earth was built, we recreated many of the major processes and events that shape it today, from the placement of the continents, the expansion of biomes and climate zones, the formation of the cryosphere and the destruction of the Anthropocene.


As well as this geological ‘Big Art Attack’, crafts and a puppet show entitled This Soup Tastes Funny! about the evolution of life were put on in the festival’s dedicated Kids Zone. Our puppets, Doug and Barry, had to travel back in time to the primordial soup and race through evolution in order to relive the first day of the festival. Five time periods, four puppet costume changes, asteroid impacts, crowd participation and even a song left the young audience both entertained, but also possibly very confused… That’s a lot of science to take on-board in 15 minutes!

We (and our marquee) got battered by wind, rain and the exhausting amount of activities we were juggling, including our recreational ‘time off’. However, we certainly offered something unique at the festival and left a positive impression with the organisers:

“Just to say THANK YOU to you and the crew for all the great things you did at Sunflowerfest. So appreciate everything you do and did. We would always welcome you back to do whatever you would like!” – Vanessa, Sunflowerfest Organiser

Now, I have quite an active imagination, so that last sentence was a dangerously open invitation… With 2017’s festival theme being ‘a parallel universe’, I thought something immersive on the theme of deep time would fit right in. The new plan was to build a time machine! Or in other words transform the inside of a marquee into a jungle, to show what Ireland would have been like during the hot Eocene period ~50 million years ago. As I wrote down a proposal for the festival application, this seemed like it would be reasonably straightforward compared to 2016. In hindsight, I misjudged that.

Logistically, constructing a jungle was only possible because my mum had recently had some trees in the garden felled and she also had several hedges needing cut back. A supply of logs and some waxy leafed laurel and bay that would hold their colour after cutting for the duration of the festival made a good, but somewhat bulky start. These were attached to the marquee ceiling and a heavy metal tripod to give us a central ‘tree’ and performance space to demonstrate some tectonic themed experiments. Ferns and other leafy plants were then dug up and temporarily housed in buckets to fill out the back of the tent and childhood toys added around the stall for the jungle fauna. Finally, a small speaker playing jungle sound effects was hidden up in the canopy to complete the experience.


Obviously, a hearty dose of imagination was required to convince yourself our locally sourced, temperate vegetation was an Eocene jungle, but luckily this year our stand was based entirely in the Kids Zone, where imagination is not in short supply. Ideally, I wanted to have a Superser heater in the back of the tent to raise the temperature to 35 °C, but doubted that would pass the risk assessment. We settled for having the ambient Northern Irish temperature, but luckily, we did have a few biblically heavy rain showers to give it a nice wet rainforest feel. It took three days of preparation, cutting, digging and replanting vegetation, and five hours of construction, but eventually we had the most eye-catching stand in the whole Kids Zone. It was pretty much the Eocene.

In our jungle, we had information about how Ireland has changed over the past billion years, a floating plate tectonics game and crafted fossils and jungle wildlife to decorate the stand, all of which kept us mostly run off our feet during our three-hour slots each day. Our flagship performance however, was a bicarbonate soda-vinegar erupting volcano, as ~50 million years ago Northern Ireland was at the centre of lots of volcanic activity, forming for example the Giant’s Causeway. Without a single trial run (we spent all of our preparation time building the jungle), our resident chemistry undergraduate, Oliver Feighan, carried out the experiment in front of an audience 40 strong. It was possibly the least explosive or inspiring volcano in the world. As the foam dribbled out the top of the bottle it was met with a slow and bemused round of applause. Those kids will definitely go on to be the environmental scientists of the future.

Creative outreach at big events may not always go quite to plan, it takes time and effort and you can sometimes bite off more than you can chew, but it’s a great way reframe the relevance of research in a totally different way, speak to a new audience (a very bohemian crowd, in the case of Sunflowerfest) and just do something fun. It’s not often families can experience palaeoclimate, tribal drumming circles and the Rubberbandits* all in one day. We ended up going on to run the globe building activity from 2016 at a further two events (you can see a highlight video of the almost finished piece here). Although kids and parents found 2017’s time machine a lot of fun and it looked surprisingly effective, unfortunately I don’t think I will have time or energy to ever recreate the Eocene again! However, while I may be leaving the Eocene in the past, I highly doubt this will be my last Sunflowerfest.

*Caution, likely explicit content

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Global Environmental Change mini-symposium

At the end of June, the Cabot Institute hosted the Global Environmental Change mini-symposium – a one hour whistle-stop tour showcasing the breadth of research within this theme of the Cabot Institute. Speakers represented different schools from the University that actively work on the spectrum of Global Environmental Change challenges, such as environmental law and policy, biodiversity conservation, biogeochemical cycles, environmental justice and environmental history.


Each speaker had time for a very short talk, with some choosing to focus on specific aspects of their work in depth and others instead covering the breadth of research carried out by colleagues in their school. The audience too came from a wide background, with everyone from undergraduate and masters students up to professors represented. Although with five speakers (plus some words from the theme leaders, Jo House and Matt Rigby) there was not much time for questions during the hour of talks, there was plenty of time for discussion over food and drinks afterwards.

Although it was billed as a miniature event, it set out to address grand, ambitious, global challenges. It was a short, punchy reminder of the huge range of research skills found within the Cabot Institute. We might not have solved the Earth’s challenges in an hour or two, but now that the dust has settled we certainly have a good idea of who to ask and how to start taking them on. I look forward to the mini-symposiums for the Cabot Institute’s other five research themes!

The speakers were:
Kath Baldock – Life Sciences
Alice Venn – Social Sciences and Law
Alix Dietzel – SPAIS
Kate Hendry – Earth Sciences
Daniel Haines – History

The event was hosted by:
Jo House – Geographical Sciences

Matt Rigby – Chemistry

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Sea and Sky

I’ve always loved the sea. Pursuing a major in oceanography led me to chose a degree in Physics and it was I realised that studying the atmosphere was just as, amazing, if not more so! I therefore decided to pursue a PhD in atmospheric sciences. But once the sea captures you, it never really lets you go. That is how I found myself between the sea and sky.


Several years ago, a group of like-minded friends and I decided to start an NGO, based in Croatia, called Deep Blue Explorers that would focus on marine and atmospheric sciences and research. That task proved to be extremely challenging as getting the funding we needed to start our adventures seemed to be a little harder than we had anticipated. However, we were fortunate enough and, after a very rough first season, we started to collaborate with Operation Wallacea who design and implement biodiversity and conservation management research expeditions with university and high school students from all over the world.


At the same time, we started collaborating with another Croatian NGO called 20.000 Leagues who have over 10 years of experience in marine research. Together, we are running the Adriatic Ecology Course that aims to bring together scientists and experts from all over the world to give international students a hands-on experience of field work and high-quality research. The course takes place in the National Park of Mljet and the research includes fish, sea urchin and sea grass surveys. Additionally, the students conduct boat monitoring in Lokva bay, three times a day, in order to record the pressure of boats anchoring in the Bay.


The expedition is supported by scientific lectures regarding conservation in the Adriatic; the ecosystem and biodiversity of the island of Mljet; sustainability; research methods and global challenges such as marine pollution. The students also have the opportunity to be involved in workshops to discuss conservation and global challenges issues and to take part in personal and professional development training activities that focus on sustainability and protection of marine life.


It is an amazing experience for everyone and the students leave the Island with a new understanding and new appreciation of the ecology Island of Mljet, the contribution of the National Park regarding conservation and the need and importance of supporting the National Park’s efforts.


As for me, being able to work both with the sea and the sky, I can just say, I have never been happier!


Blog post by Eleni Michalopoulou. Eleni is currently a PhD student in the department of Chemistry and part of the ACRG Group. Her PhD focuses on studying the PFCs CF4 and C2F6. A physicist by training with a major in Oceanography, environment and meteorology she has spend most of her early career working on marine conservation, microplastics oceanography and Atmospheric dynamics.  She is one of the lecturers of the Sustainable Development open unit and one of the lead educators for Bristol Futures and the Sustainable Futures pathway. Her scientific interests cover a variety of topics such as climate change, conservation, sustainability, marine and Atmospheric Sciences. 


Friday, 16 June 2017

In defence of science: Making facts great again

"We must not let rhetoric or vested interests divert us from what we know is the right course of action."


From across the Atlantic, the European scientific community is watching warily as our American colleagues endure increasingly politicised attacks on their work and on the very foundation of evidence-based science.

President Donald Trump's decision earlier this month to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change - a decision condemned by heads of state, businesses, mayors and ordinary people in the US and the world over - epitomised this contempt for the facts from some within the political sphere.

We can, to some degree, relate, as many European scientists - and particularly those who research climate change and its impacts, as I do - have been forced to confront the politicisation of their disciplines, the distortion of their research and the promotion of "alternative facts" and vested-interest propaganda.

In fact, just two months ago at the annual General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union, for the first time in the body's history, we debated issues around existential threats to science in general, the integrity of the scientific community, trust in science and what we can do to ensure that evidence-based science forms the basis for informed decisions and debate by policymakers and the public.

Later this month, we'll watch as some of our American colleagues gather for the annual Broadcast Meteorology Conference of the American Meteorological Society, which will include in its programme a short course explicitly focused on the communication of climate science.

Never has accurate, fact-based communication of climate science been more urgently needed, and in modern history, it has rarely been so compromised. There is a clear trend, particularly evident in the US, of a growing distrust of "experts" who are branded as intellectual elites, rooted in a populist backlash towards the establishment.

This goes all the way up the rungs of government to the American president himself, who has called climate change a "hoax" and in his first 100 days in office has moved to curb spending on climate and earth science research and is overseeing an agency-wide scrubbing of climate science out of federal websites and publications.

As he announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on June 1, Trump also left himself open to accusations of misrepresenting climate science to suit his own political objectives: after the US president quoted a figure from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study to support his argument that the Paris Agreement is ineffectual, MIT officials - including one of the study's authors - declared that Trump had misunderstood their work and that they did not support a US withdrawal from the agreement.

The science of climate change, however, is clearer than ever. We see the fingerprints of human-induced global warming on more and more long-term climate trends. In the US and throughout the world, for instance, warmer temperatures are amplifying the intensity, duration and frequency of many weather events, none more evident than extreme heat. Western states have suffered through record numbers of heat waves since the turn of the century, with overnight temperatures often at historical highs. This is particularly dangerous as it doesn't give the human body the necessary relief. Already, these heat waves are costing lives, and the scientific link between human-induced global warming and heat waves is crystal clear. The European heat wave of 2003 is estimated to have caused 35,000 premature deaths and was very likely a consequence of human interference with the climate system.

By listening to the best available science on climate change, we can better prepare for its impacts. By ignoring, censoring, or shunning our scientists, we put more Americans at risk. The alternative to informed decision-making is uninformed decision-making. Without evidence-based science, decisions of vital importance to humanity will be made founded in prejudice, emotion and ignorance. That is no way to run the planet. It is no way to plan our future.

Besides helping prepare for the impacts of climate change, science should guide our efforts to minimise them. For these mitigation efforts, the science is telling us that we don't have much time. In fact, it's saying that 2020 must be the target for peaking global carbon emissions. We must bend the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions towards a steady decline by the next US presidential election. If emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, the world stands very little chance of limiting global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold set by the Paris Agreement, and a temperature limit that many of the world's most vulnerable communities consider a threshold for survival.

The world has four short years to reverse our emissions trends to avoid the very real risk of dangerous and irreversible climate change, but we won't get the policies we need without trusting and relying on the science that tells us that's so. Science has no political affiliation, nor can it be bent to your will. You don't renegotiate with physics and you aren't about to "win" a deal with chemistry. We must not let rhetoric, vested interests or the blind dismissal of the overwhelming scientific consensus divert us from what we know is the right course of action ethically, scientifically and economically.

By Jonathan Bamber, professor of polar science at the University of Bristol and president of the European Geosciences Union. Blog originally posted on Al Jazeera.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Forest accounting rules put EU’s climate credibility at risk, say leading experts

**Article re-posted from EURACTIV **

Forest mitigation should be measured using a scientifically-objective approach, not allowing countries to hide the impacts of policies that increase net emissions, writes a group of environmental scientists led by Dr Joanna I House.

Dr Joanna I House is a reader in environmental science and policy at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK. She co-signed this op-ed with other environmental scientists listed at the bottom of the article.

From an atmospheric perspective, a reduction in the forest sink leads to more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere and is thus effectively equivalent to a net increase in emissions. [Yannik S/Flickr]

When President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the EU’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete spoke for all EU Member States when he said that, “This has galvanised us rather than weakened us, and this vacuum will be filled by new broad committed leadership.” The French President, Emmanuel Macron, echoed him by tweeting, “Make our planet great again”.

But as the old saying goes, ‘If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk,’ and what better place to start than the very laws the EU is currently drafting to implement its 2030 climate target under the Paris Agreement. This includes a particularly contentious issue that EU environment leaders will discuss on 19 June, relating to the rules on accounting for the climate impact of forests.

Forests are crucial to limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Deforestation is responsible for almost one tenth of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while forests remove almost a third of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.

In the EU, forests currently grow more than they are harvested.  As a result, they act as a net ‘sink’ of CO2 removing more than 400 Mt CO2 from the atmosphere annually, equivalent to 10% of total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

New policies adopted or intended by Member States will likely drive them to harvest more trees (e.g. for the bioeconomy and bioenergy), reducing the sink. The controversy is, in simple terms, if forests are taking up less CO2 due to policies, should this be counted?

Based on lessons learnt from the Kyoto Protocol, the European Commission proposed that accounting for the impacts of forests on the atmosphere should be based on a scientifically robust baseline. This baseline (known as the ‘Forest Reference Level’) should take into account historical data on forest management activities and forest dynamics (age-related changes). If countries change forest management activities going forward, the atmospheric impact of these changes would be fully accounted based on the resulting changes in GHG emissions and sinks relative to the baseline. This approach is consistent with the GHG accounting of all other sectors.

Subsequently, some EU member states have proposed that any increase in harvesting, potentially up to the full forest growth increment, should not be penalised. This would be achieved by including this increase in harvesting, and the related change in the net carbon sink, in the baseline.

As land-sector experts involved in scientific and methodological reports (including for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC), in the implementation of GHG inventory reports, and in science advice to Governments, we have several scientific concerns with this approach.

From an atmospheric perspective, a reduction in the forest sink leads to more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere and is thus effectively equivalent to a net increase in emissions. This is true even if forests are managed “sustainably”, i.e. even if harvest does not exceed forest growth.

This is further complicated as the issues are cross-sectoral. Higher harvest rates may reduce the uptake of CO2 by forests, but use of the harvested wood may lead to emissions reductions in other sectors e.g. through the substitution of wood for other more emissions-intensive materials (e.g. cement) or fossil energy. These emission reductions will be implicitly counted in the non-LULUCF sectors.  Therefore, to avoid bias through incomplete accounting, the full impact of increased harvesting must be also accounted for.

Including policy-related harvest increases in the baseline could effectively hide up to 400 MtCO2/yr from EU forest biomass accounting compared to the “sink service” that EU forests provide today, or up to 300 MtCO2/yr relative to a baseline based on a scientific approach (up to two thirds of France’s annual emissions).

If policy-related impacts on net land carbon sinks are ignored or discounted, this would:


  • Hamper the credibility of the EU’s bioenergy accounting: Current IPCC guidance on reporting emissions from bioenergy is not to assume that it is carbon neutral, but rather any carbon losses should to be reported under the ‘Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) sector rather than under the energy sector (to avoid double counting). EU legislation on bioenergy similarly relies on the assumption that carbon emissions are fully accounted under LULUCF.
  • Compromise the consistency between the EU climate target and the IPCC trajectories. The EU objective of reducing GHG emissions of -40% by 2030 (-80/95% by 2050) compared to 1990 is based on the IPCC 2°C GHG trajectory for developed countries. This trajectory is based not just on emissions, but also on land-sinks. Hiding a decrease in the land sink risks failure to reach temperature targets and would require further emission reductions in other sectors to remain consistent with IPCC trajectories.
  • Contradict the spirit of the Paris Agreement, i.e., that “Parties should take action to conserve and enhance sinks”, and that Parties should ensure transparency in accounting providing confidence that the nationally-determined contribution of each country (its chosen level of ambition in mitigation) is met without hiding impacts of national policies.
  • Set a dangerous precedent internationally, potentially leading other countries to do the same (e.g. in setting deforestation reference levels). This would compromise the credibility of the large expected forest contribution to the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement needs credible and transparent forest accounting and EU leaders are about to make a decision that could set the standard.   Including policy-driven increases in harvest in baselines means the atmospheric impacts of forest policies will be effectively hidden from the accounts (while generating GHG savings in other sectors). Basing forest accounting on a scientifically-objective approach would ensure the credibility of bioenergy accounting, consistency between EU targets and the IPCC 2°C trajectory, and compliance with the spirit of Paris Agreement. The wrong decision would increase the risks of climate change and undermine our ability to “make the planet great again”.

Disclaimer: the authors express their view in their personal capacities, not representing their countries or any of the institutions they work for.

***

Signatories:

Joanna I House, Reader in Environmental Science and Policy, Co-Chair Global Environmental Change, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK
Jaana K Bäck, Professor in Forest – atmosphere interactions, Chair of the EASAC Forest multifunctionality report, University of Helsinki, Finland
Valentin Bellassen, Researcher in Agricultural and Environmental Economics, INRA, France
Hannes Böttcher, Senior Researcher at Oeko-Institut.
Eric Chivian M.D., Founder and Former Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard Medical School
Pep Canadell, Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project
Philippe Ciais, scientist at Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Gif sur Yvette, France
Philip B. Duffy, President and Executive Director Woods Hole Research Center, USA
Sandro Federici, Consultant on MRV and accounting for mitigation in the Agriculture and land use sector
Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems, University of Exeter, UK.
Scott Goetz, Professor, Northern Arizona University
Nancy Harris, Research Manager, Forests Program, World resources Institute.
Martin Herold, Professor for Geoinformation Science and Remote Sensing and co-chair of Global Observations of Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD), Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands
Mikael Hildén, Professor, Climate Change Programme and the Resource Efficient and Carbon Neutral Finland Programme, Finnish Environment Institute and the Strategic Research Council, Finland
Richard A. Houghton, Woods Hole Research Centre USA
Tuomo Kalliokoski University of Helsinki, Finland
Janne S. Kotiaho, Professor of Ecology, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Donna Lee, Climate and Land Use Alliance
Anders Lindroth, Lund University, Sweden
Jari Liski, Research Professor, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Finland
Brendan Mackey, Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, Australia
James J. McCarthy, Harvard University, USA
William R. Moomaw, Co-director Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, USA
Teemu Tahvanainen, University of Eastern Finland
Olli Tahvonen, Professor forest economics and policy, University of Helsinki, Finland
Keith Pausitan, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University, USA
Colin Prentice, AXA Chair in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, Imperial College London, UK
N H Ravindranath, Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST), Indian Institute of Science, India
Laura Saikku, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
Maria J Sanchez, Scientific Director of BC3 (Basque Center for Climate Change), Spain
Sampo Soimakallio, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
Zoltan Somogyi, Hungarian Forest Research Institute, Budapest, Hungary
Benjamin Smith, Professor of Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Sweden
Pete Smith, Professor of Soils & Global Change, University of Aberdeen, UK
Francesco N. Tubiello, Te Leader, Agri-Environmental Statistics, FAO
Timo Vesala, Professor of Meteorology, University of Helsinki, Finland
Robert Waterworth
Jeremy Woods, Imperial College London, UK
Dan Zarin, Climate and Land Use Alliance

Thursday, 8 June 2017

MSc Environmental Policy and Management Course Trip to Warsaw, Poland

Each year, students on the MSc Environmental Policy and Management program receive funding to plan an educational trip in Europe. Previous cohorts have chosen to visit Berlin, Copenhagen, Riga, and Amsterdam. This year, we democratically decided to visit Warsaw. We chose to do so not because the city and Poland are exemplary in environmental management, but rather because they have real challenges facing them in the transition to a low-carbon future.


The energy sector represents the biggest environmental challenge in Poland and government leaders are reported to actively oppose European Union climate change targets (Kowalski, 2016). After its most recent election (2015), the country announced that energy policy would prioritise the exploitation of domestic coal deposits. Indeed, there is a historical and cultural attachment to coal in Poland, as the coal industry was influential in the country’s socio-economic development in the period between World War I and World War II, and during the post-World War II Communist era (Kowalski, 2016). More recently, coal has been promoted as a path to increase Poland’s energy independence, particularly from Russia, by reducing the need for imported fuel.

Poland has consistently been one of the biggest coal producers in the EU (Lukaszewska, 2011). A large majority of the country’s electricity generation (80 – 94%) comes from coal-fired power plants fuelled by domestic hard coal and lignite (Kozlowska, 2017; Lukaszewska, 2011). The dominant position of these fossil fuels in Poland’s energy mix presents a significant challenge in the fight against global climate change. We arranged meetings with the Polish Climate Coalition, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and Greenpeace Poland to learn more.

Our first meeting was with the Polish Climate Coalition. As our large cohort climbed the stairs to their office, it soon became clear that we would not all fit in and so we turned back and headed for a local café just around the corner. Walking with Krzysztof and Urszula, they seemed apologetic, but they need not have been. We found the experience to be an honest representation of how a grassroots organisation may operate when fighting for causes arguably more important than having a fancy corporate office. The Coalition is an association of 22 NGOs engaged in climate protection and includes Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and ClientEarth. It was established under the outright belief that humans are responsible for climate change.


Over the next 90 minutes, Krzysztof and Urszula provided us with an in-depth overview of the energy sector in Poland. We learned that the dominant driving force for current practice is a flawed interpretation of energy security which focuses on supply in lieu of other considerations, such as tackling fuel poverty and environmental pollution or ensuring stable, long-term access to energy.

The Polish energy sector is seemingly outdated and inadequate in the face of 21st century challenges. It was particularly concerning to hear that the combination of both a dry winter in 2014 and a hot summer in 2015 significantly reduced the water levels in Poland’s rivers. These rivers are the primary source of water for cooling the country’s coal-fired power plants, and in August 2015, power restrictions were imposed on 1,600 of the biggest companies in Poland as a result (Olszwski, 2015). The population face an ever-increasing risk of power blackouts due to the vulnerability of the energy sector from over-reliance on coal. If hot summers persist (temperatures exceeded 24C on the day of our visit in May!), then such vulnerability will surely continue.

One thing became clear in that, despite the major challenges which Poland faces, there are good people like Krzysztof and Urszula who are willing to fight the uphill battle, within a context where motivation must surely be difficult to find.

Upon arrival at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, for our second meeting, we were welcomed into a light, air-conditioned conference room where water and nibbles were laid out for us. While our physical environment was starkly different to our first meeting, we soon realised an overarching theme in Poland.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is a politically independent 'green visions' think tank with 30 offices worldwide. Their work is divided into three programmes and we met with Katarzyna from the Energy and Climate programme in Warsaw, whose work aims to intensify the discourse about the challenges presented by energy transformation and climate change.


Much of Katarzyna’s message reinforced what we had learned in our first meeting. However, it was particularly interesting to enter into a discussion about air pollution toward the end of her presentation. We learned that coal is not only the primary source of electricity production, but is also still burned, alongside rubbish and other discarded materials, to heat homes in the winter, creating an ever-worsening problem with smog in Warsaw and across Poland. We were told that in the winter of 2016 - 2017, smog was so thick that you could not see your hand in front of you. In January 2017, air pollution in Warsaw was so bad that local authorities decided to limit local emissions by making public transport free for a short period. Approximately 45,000 people in Poland die each year from air pollution (Kozlowska, 2017). The total population is around 38 million (“Population, total,” 2017).

Our final meeting was with Greenpeace, and this took us away from the city centre to their office in what was once a very large home. Many of us took advantage of Warsaw’s bike rental scheme, called Veturilo, to make the almost 6-kilometre ride from our hostel along cycle lanes, roads, and even the sidewalk.


The office culture immediately felt distinct to that of the previous two organisations. Staff dressed more casually; unmade bunk beds showed us where visiting volunteers can stay; bumper stickers and sketched environmental messages decorated some walls; and stuffed bees the size of large dogs hung from the ceiling (purportedly they have used the bees for campaigning). The efforts of Greenpeace Poland depend less on paper and pen and more on influential signage and community engagement.


Our contact, Anna, shared stories of human chains to call attention to the rivers that have dried up because of open-pit lignite mining. She taught us about the mining process, showing us on a map of the country where current mines are operating and new ones are planned. The process destroys landscapes, diverts massive volumes of water, and forces displacement of people. The low energy content of lignite means power plants must be built immediately adjacent to the mines. Since opening about 10 years ago, Greenpeace Poland has had some successes. Anna shared her involvement in advocating for the sale of excess renewable energy back to the grid, which ultimately came to pass, at least temporarily. To highlight that the battle for environmental progress is constantly uphill however, the government later reverted this policy, and at the time of writing has not reinstated it.

Despite a certain level of negativity in our meetings, Anna’s anecdote provided some optimism. The temporary success depended on using political divisions and public advertising focusing on the benefits to individuals. Though a small step, it shows that sometimes addressing the self-interest of the general public can be an effective way to combat environmental issues in a country with Poland’s political context.


Due to a lack of climate change education in Poland, environmentalism must be achieved through its benefits to the public rather than through traditional means. Indifference towards environmentalism is something that can be seen in other countries, and to us provided a good indication of how hostile public attitudes can be addressed to allow for environmental and climate protection. One of the authors, Michael, comes from Texas and found parallels between the situation in Poland and that back home. Progress cannot depend on a shared sense of responsibility to address climate change, in which many people do not even believe. Counterproductive financial interests are rampant. However, reframing the conversation to discuss savings from energy efficiency, economic opportunities in renewables, and energy security can achieve gains in the low-carbon transition. In Texas, wind power has boomed not because of political or public will to move beyond fossil fuels, but because of its economic viability.

We are truly grateful to the School of Geography for affording us the opportunity to undertake this trip. Beyond learning more about the energy system in Poland and organisations working to improve it, we became closer as a cohort and had a wonderful time.

The reader can reach out with any questions on the trip or the program to the authors of this blog post: Mark Nichols (mn16169@my.bristol.ac.uk), Allan MacLeod (am12313@my.bristol.ac.uk), or Michael Donatti (md16045@my.bristol.ac.uk).

References
Kowalski, K., 2016. In Poland, efforts to rescue coal industry will likely come up short. [online] Available: https://pl.boell.org/en/2016/09/26/poland-efforts-rescue-coal-industry-will-likely-come-short

Kozlowska, H., 2017. When it comes to air pollution, Poland is the China of Europe. [online] Available: https://qz.com/882158/with-air-pollution-skyrocketing-warsaw-is-severely-hit-by-polands-smog-problem/

Lukaszewska, H., 2011. Poland’s Energu Security Strategy. Journal of Energy Security.

Olszewski, M., 2015. The Polish Energy Drought. [online] Available: https://energytransition.org/2015/09/the-polish-energy-drought/

“Population, Total.” The World Bank, 2017. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.

Monday, 5 June 2017

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.

Across the world and in the University of Bristol, we are frustrated with the symbolism of Trump’s actions, his speech’s misrepresentation of facts, and his decision’s potential to slow climate action.  But we also recognise that these actions will not stop climate action. The responses of local, national and international leaders, in politics, community groups and businesses, across sectors and across society show that no person, regardless of his position or his nation, can stop the energy revolution. It is too deeply embedded in our politics, economy and ambitions, borne of out of multiple necessities.
Here, in the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, we remain committed to this challenge.  Our University is committed to carbon neutrality, ethical and low-carbon procurement and divestment from fossil fuel-intensive businesses. We have foregrounded Sustainable Futures in our undergraduate teaching.  And in our research, we are investigating improved energy efficiency in everything from computer software, to our homes and our cities.  We are exploring how smart technology enables new forms of transport, community energy and individual action. We are converting nuclear waste into diamond batteries with 5000-year lifetimes, we are leading one of the projects under the Natural Environment Research Council’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction programme and we have just launched new initiatives in wind, tidal, solar and nuclear energy.

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

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

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

Article by Professor Rich Pancost,
Director of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute
Professor of Biogeochemistry
Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Scholar