Cabot Institute Blog

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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Life on the ice: Fieldwork in Antarctica

From early November last year, I was lucky enough to spend over two months doing fieldwork on Pine Island Glacier, an ice stream in West Antarctica, which is currently the largest single contributor to sea level rise. I was part of a twelve person team that made up the second iSTAR traverse.

iSTAR is a collaborative scientific programme, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and co-ordinated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). It aims to improve our understanding of the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could potentially undergo rapid retreat in the coming centuries. It is divided into two halves – half the programme is ocean focused, looking at how relatively warm Circumpolar Deep Water intrusions onto the continental shelf interact with the ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea. The University of Bristol is involved in the second half of the programme, which is concerned with the ice sheet dynamics and mass balance, particularly the changes happening to Pine Island Glacier (PIG). In order to study these changes, two traverses of PIG have been made, over two consecutive seasons (2013-14 and 2014-15). The 800 km traverse, took in 22 sites across the ice stream and its tributaries, where various scientific techniques were used to determine the properties of the ice, glacier bed and firn layer (compacted snow).

During this season, despite some strong winds, we successfully completed all the science we set out to do, included seven seismic surveys, ten shallow ice cores, 22 neutron probe snow density profiles and ten phase-sensitive radar profiles. For me, as a PhD student, it was a great experience to work with senior scientists in the field, and to be involved in such a wide range of field techniques.

The scientific goals of the iSTAR traverse could not been achieved without the use of the traverse logistics, which involved using Pisten Bully snow tractors to tow the caboose (a converted container that acts as kitchen and living space), equipment and fuel from site to site. This is a new way of field operation for BAS and is likely to feature in many more scientific programmes in the future, given the success of the two iSTAR traverses. Of course, there are some old-school field scientists who joke that we are the Caravan Club of Antarctica, but I think they are just jealous – eating pancakes for breakfast in the caboose has to beat sitting in a pyramid tent eating rehydrated rations!
On the move! Image credit: Isabel Nias
Despite the perhaps more luxurious living conditions than the average field party, living in the deep field on the ice was not without its challenges. We were still sleeping in tents and my standard answer to the question, “but how did you wash?” has been, “I didn’t”. At the beginning of the field season we had temperatures as cold as -35°C (plus wind chill), which froze your breath inside your nostrils. However, I preferred the cold to the “warm” temperatures we had towards the end of the field season (it hit 0°C at one point!), which made our boots and gloves all damp. The work was also physically hard. Each seismic survey was 7 km long, and involved a team of us drilling 30 hot water drill holes, which were then loaded with explosives, and digging over 700 holes to place the geophone sensors in the snow. Although it was worth it for the end product: an idea of the type of bedrock PIG is flowing over.

Before I arrived, I had heard from Steph Cornford, who was on the first iSTAR traverse, that the weather had been exceptionally pleasant last year, with plenty of blue skies and low winds. So much so that they ate their Christmas dinner outside! This year, the weather was more like what you would expect from Antarctica – we certainly had our fair share of strong winds, which hindered progress at times, especially due to the sensitivity of the seismic work to wind speed. I got very good at estimating the wind speed based on how much my tent was shaking, or by looking at the Union Jack flying from the caboose!

Emma Smith and Alex Brisbourne (BAS) making their way to the
safety of the caboose on New Year’s Day. Image credit: Alex Taylor.
New Year on PIG was certainly one to remember. We spent the evening doing a pub quiz in the caboose and seeing in the New Year with a whisky and a poor rendition of Auld Lang Syne. By 1:30 am, however, the winds had picked up to 50 knots with gusts of up to 65 knots, creating extreme white out conditions from all the blowing snow. Many of us who were still up decided to sleep in the caboose that night. I’m glad I did because I doubt I would have slept at all in my tent (from the noise and the fear that the tent would be ripped from its pitch!). The strong winds persisted well into New Year’s Day, but we were able to assess the damage. Rather than blowing away, my tent was actually half buried by a huge drift. However, it could have been worse – James’ tent was destroyed and completely filled with snow! It took the whole of the next day to get camp cleared again – is “shovelling snow” a worthy thing to put on my CV?

Looking back, it is not working until 3 am to finish a seismic line that I remember. Rather, it is the people, as well as all the amazing experiences I had, which stick in my mind. It’s not every day that you co-pilot a plane across West Antarctica or bake a Christmas cake on 1800 m thick ice.
I would like to thank iSTAR, BAS and all the guys at the Rothera Research Station for such an awesome experience. The real work starts now – we have a lot of data to work on! Have a look on the iSTAR website for more blog posts written while we were in the field.

The second iSTAR traverse team at Christmas, complete with a ratchet strap Christmas tree. Image credit: Alex Taylor
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Cabot Institute member Isabel Nias is a PhD student in the Bristol Glaciology Centre, School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.  Her PhD, which is funded through the NERC iSTAR programme, aims to use ice flow modelling to understand the sensitivity of the Amundsen Sea ice streams, and their potential impact on future sea level rise.
Isabel Nias

Monday, 16 February 2015

The challenges of global environmental change: Why we (Bristol) should 'bridge the gap'

Our planet and the people who live upon it face profound challenges in the coming century. As our population, economies and aspirations grow we consume increasing amounts of precious and finite resource.  The side effects and waste products of this consumption also have profoundly negative impacts on our environment and climate, which  in a vicious circle will make it even harder to support our food, energy and water needs.

In order to live on this planet, we must bridge the gap between wasteful lifestyles based on limited resources to efficient lifestyles based on renewable ones. Nowhere is that more apparent than in our consumption of fossil fuels. Much of our prosperity over the past two centuries has derived from the exploitation of these geological gifts, but those gifts have and are causing climate change with potentially devastating consequences. These are likely to include more extreme weather, loss of marine ecosystems and droughts; in turn, these could cause famine, refugee crises and conflict. 

These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt locally in the European Green Capital as well as globally.  We live in an interconnected world, such that drought in North America will raise the price of our food. The floods of last winter could have been a warning of life in a hotter and wetter world.  Many of us in the South West live only a few metres above current sea level.  

In my own work with Cabot Institute colleagues, I have investigated not just how Earth’s climate might change but how it has changed in the past.  This shows that our climate forecasts are generally right when it comes to the temperature response to greenhouse gases, although perhaps they underestimate how much the poles will warm.  More concerning, Earth history reveals how complex our planet is; with dramatic biological and physical responses to past global warming events. During one such event 55 million years ago, rapid warming transformed our planet’s vegetation and water cycle: rivers in Spain that had carried fine grained silts suddenly carried boulders. And that ‘rapid’ warming event occurred over thousands to tens of thousands of years not two hundred a reminder of the unprecedented character of our current climate change experiment.
Flooding in Whiteladies Road, Bristol. Credit: Jim Freer

Consequently, despite our best understanding of some factors, climate change will make our world a more uncertain place, whether that be uncertainty in future rainfall, the frequency of hurricanes or the timing of sea level rise. This uncertainty is particularly problematic because it makes it so much harder for industry or nations to plan and thrive.  How do we ensure a robust and continuous food supply if we are unsure if the planet’s bread baskets will become wetter or dryer?  Or if we are unsure how our fisheries will respond to warmer, more acidic, more silt-choked oceans?

Underlying this uncertainty is a deep ethical question about who will bear the risk and the inequality issues hidden within our choices.  Most of us recognise that we are consuming the resources and polluting the environment of our children.  But the inequity is deeper than that it is not all of our children who will suffer but the children of the poorest and the most vulnerable.  Those whose homes are vulnerable to floods, who lack the resources to move or the political capacity to emigrate, who can barely afford nutritious food now, whose water supplies are already stretched and contaminated. 

Bristol in 2015 will not bridge the gap by despairing at these challenges, but we can lead in acknowledging them. We can lead in showing how to avoid the worst uncertainty and taking responsibility for the consequences of where our efforts fall short.  Most importantly, we can lead towards not just radical resiliency but inclusive resiliency. 


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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost




Monday, 9 February 2015

Professor Dame Julia Slingo: Modelling climate risk

Dame Julia Slingo DBE collects her Cabot Institute
Distinguished Fellowship award from Cabot Institute
Director, Prof Rich Pancost.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy
When Professor Dame Julia Slingo visited the Cabot Institute last week, her message was clear: We need to look at climate risk in real world contexts.

Dame Julia was in the city to receive a Cabot Institute Distinguished Fellowship, which involved giving a talk about her work as a world leading meteorologist and Chief Scientist at the Met Office.

One of the first things she highlighted was that climate change isn’t isolated from other pressures like population growth and limited resources, so we need to understand the risks it poses in a real world context. We need to define the effects it may have on the security of food, water, health and energy around the world, and use the science as a guide to define an evidence-based and cost effective plan of action going forward. This, she said, is “one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century”.

Are we making extreme weather worse?

Today, the huge global population boom is putting an ever increasing strain on limited resources like land and water, which are also at risk from the cyclical climate variations that occur naturally. The big and controversial question is whether climate change caused by human activity has exacerbated the problem.

Dame Julia described an annual report produced by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) that analyses extreme weather events around the world each year, aiming to determine whether the effects were magnified by anthropogenic climate change. As she pointed out, it is important that we recognise that not every bit of bad weather can be attributed to climate change, however the AMS often do find that we have played a role in making the situation worse.

Image: Hurricane Sandy killed 233 people and caused over $68 billion worth of damages

One example she picked out was 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which killed 233 people across eight countries in central and north America. The AMS report found that if sea level had been at the level that it was 50 years ago, the devastating effects of the storm would not have been as bad. It also suggested that continuing on our current path of climate change will mean minor storms will have increasingly severe impacts, leading to Sandy-level hurricanes more frequently in the future.

“We need a more nuanced discussion”

Last year was the warmest on UK record, making a total of 8 out of 10 of our hottest years having occurred since 2002. While of course there is variability in our climate from year to year and even decade to decade, intricate scientific climate models have shown that these record-breaking UK temperatures are made ten times more likely due to anthropogenic climate change.
Image: Low lying islands like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean are threatened by sea level rise.

While we may prefer a hot summer, temperatures don’t change uniformly across the entire planet. Worryingly, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, leading to a huge decrease in the amount of sea ice cover and corresponding sea level rise, which is already threatening communities living on low lying islands. Dame Julia reminded us all that it’s not as simple as trying to prevent a 2°C global temperature increase. The danger that climate change poses depends on who you are and where you live, and we need models to show what the risks will be.

Predicting climate risk

So how can we predict what the effects of climate change will be across the world? It begins with having a sophisticated model of the current global system. The Met Office has led decades of climate modelling, producing incredibly sophisticated simulations of climate systems on both short term (weather) and long term (climate change) scales.

I was absolutely amazed by the intricacy of these models. Millions of lines of computer code recreate the true physical nature of the planet, to the extent where large scale meteorological patterns like El Niño are emergent properties of the model, that is to say that they are a result of the basic physics encoded in the model, rather than being specifically programmed into it.

By altering the model with new data taken from the present extent of climate change or its predicted level in the future, the Met Office can model the global response at incredible resolution, showing the specific risks posed with increasingly detailed clarity (while still incorporating the inherent uncertainties present in all models). These models can then be used to test potential mitigation approaches and of course inform the global communities of the dangers they face.

What can we do?

Dame Julia explained that her role as Chief Scientist is to determine the needs of the people around the world, their risk tolerance and the information they require to make their own decisions. Science, she says, has a lot to offer in enabling governments to make wise, informed and efficient decisions with how best to spend their funds within the wider context of other societal issues, upholding the global securities of food, water, health and energy for the future.


Flooded Pakistan

Image: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events” – Professor Dame Julia Slingo

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Sarah Jose

Friday, 30 January 2015

The science of sustainable development, what shall I teach?

Before the lectures


Next week I will teach the first of three lectures which constitute the Science of Sustainable Development within the Sustainable Development course at the University of Bristol. This is an open unit and can therefore be attended by first year undergraduate students from across the university.

The figure below shows how Sustainable Development is considered at the University of Bristol, clearly a hugely interdisciplinary and wide subject area!


Traditionally this unit has attracted a significant fraction of its cohort from Geographical Sciences, which is my current home department. This should make preparation of these three lectures relatively straightforward right? Wrong.

A fascinating aspect of the School of Geographical Sciences is its breadth and variety of research and expertise. This is the case not simply because our physical geographers work on everything from past climates to flood inundation modelling but also because there is also the ‘human’ side to geography. My human geography colleagues research and teach on topics as varied as spatial and historical patterns of electoral voting and taxidermy.

This highly varied student body is complicated further by my own personal background. I am a ‘pure’ physicist by training, having studied for my PhD in the nanoscale physics of solar cells and LEDs.  After my PhD I have mostly been a climate modeller, with some time spent in environmental consultancy and so my career has been undeniably ‘environmental’ from start to finish so far. That said, I would struggle to think of more than a few topics in my undergraduate days which were explicitly linked to sustainability. Perhaps this is not surprising however when one considers how large the core of physics is as a university-level subject. How can lecturing staff make quantum mechanics and astrophysics relevant to Sustainable Development? Is it even possible or meaningful? These questions are certainly outside the scope of this short blog post!

Moving back to the subject matter of my lectures, I had to consider what links climate change, climate modelling and environmentalism in such a way that the term Sustainable Development can be introduced scientifically in three parts? When I posed this question to myself in this way, the answer was clear; The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC for short, not to be confused with the Independent Police Complaints Commission! This body was founded by the UN and World Meteorological Organisation in the late 1980s to provide a synthesis on the state of knowledge of the climate system and how humans are interfering with it. The IPCC has to date published five of these Assessment Reports and they are split into three Working Groups:
  1. The Physical Science Basis
  2. Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
  3. Mitigation of Climate Change.

The bulk of my work since 2008 (at the Met Office and at Bristol) has concerned climate modelling and therefore fits well within the remit of Working Group one. Theoretically I could have stopped there and taught three lectures on the meteorology and climatology of climate change, this would probably however only really appealed to those students who had taken A Level physics. The natural diversification of the three Working Groups was the only solution and I therefore decided to prepare one lecture on each. This also provided me with an opportunity to improve my own knowledge of Working Groups 2 and 3, something I had been meaning to do for a while! I should state at this point that there is no scientist in the world with an in depth knowledge of every aspect of even one of the Working Groups. Working Group 1 alone has over 1500 pages of fully cited scientific text for example!    

After lecture one  


As I write this part of the blog post I have just given my first lecture in the series. This lecture tallied well with my research interests and scientific knowledge and I now have a little under a week to finish my preparation for the next two lectures. Crucially, my biggest challenge will undoubtedly be the effective teaching of Working Groups two and three and I will aim to report back with another blog post after my lectures have run their course. 

Finally, one aspect of this course which I hope that will come across in my teaching is my aim to emphasise the interdisciplinary nature and breadth of this subject. As I said in my first lecture, I am a physicist working in a geography department and lecturing to students from all five faculties. If this doesn’t illustrate the cross cutting nature of this subject then I don’t know what does! 

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Dr Jonny Williams, an environmental physicist working in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. 
Jonny Williams


Life of breath: Understanding air pollution and disease through the Arts

Media vita in morte sumus.  Image from You Tube.
I have written on the Life of Breath blog about the symmetry between breathing as life, and breathlessness as death (as it appears in the words of the haka – see ‘I will not be drowned’).  The line media vita in morte sumus (‘in the midst of life we are in death’) was supposedly composed around the end of the first millennium, but is now believed to be a much older phrase, encapsulating a still older idea: that understanding something means encountering and attempting to understand its counterpart (1).  Just as All Hallows and All Saints are separated by nothing more than midnight, life and death cannot be separated from (nor understood without) each other. The Life of Breath project is a five-year senior investigator award funded by the Wellcome Trust (PIs Prof. Havi Carel at the University of Bristol and Prof. Jane Macnaughton at Durham University), considering breathing and its ‘pathological derivative’ breathlessness as two halves of a whole.

This sense of opposing ideas, linked and hinged in the middle, can also be found in some of the causes of breathlessness, such as smoke. Smoke resists definition. It can be dirty, as in Blake’s poem ‘London’ (‘Every black’ning Church appals’) or at the beginning of ‘Paradise Lost’ (‘a pitchy cloud of locusts’); or it can be cleansing, for example when fumigating a building. It can be a tool, to give food flavour and longevity, or to stupefy bees; or it can be a silent killer in a house fire, more dangerous than the fire itself. Smoke can also be holy, as in the veils of smoke and incense that surround God in the Old Testament. Steven Connor speaks of the God encountered in the Old Testament as ‘a smoky God … His ineffability and unapproachability are signified in the cloud of smoke’ that descends on Mount Sinai, and notes the duality I just mentioned, stating that ‘Smoke can be life, spirit, meaning itself; but it is also horror, filth, chaos’(2).  It seems natural, then, that we can find smoke both comforting (smokers may enjoy the smell of cigarette smoke, church-goers the spicy smell and ritual of the thurible) and disturbing: something that causes us to cough or wheeze, or which, over time, permanently compromises our ability to sing, speak or breathe (3).

Nelson's Column during The Great
Smog, 1952.  Image taken from
geograph.org.uk via Wikipedia
This last is our most pressing concern when we consider smoke discharged directly into the air, whether it is via an exhaust pipe or a chimney (what Connor calls ‘the sewer into the sky’). These ideas are also bound up in historical approaches to breathlessness, respiratory diseases and conditions, and their relationship with smoke and air pollution (4).  A member of the project advisory board, Mark Jackson, notes that, before chronic or seasonal respiratory conditions such as asthma were properly understood, patients were given conflicting advice. Those suffering from hay fever or ‘summer sneezing’ were often told to treat their condition with ‘fresh air’, visiting the coast to inhale the supposedly clean sea breezes (5).  Elsewhere, Jackson tells us that during the Industrial Revolution, asthma sufferers might be given the opposite advice and told to breathe sooty air for its supposedly antibacterial properties (6).  Both Connor and Jackson write about the Great Smog of 1952, which killed several thousand people in the capital through exacerbating or inducing respiratory and cardiac disease. Here we might note another pair (the heart and the lungs) that cannot be easily separated, as we discussed at the first meeting of the core project team (see ‘Taking a deep breath’). Jackson notes that the link between pollution and disease was already well established before the Great Smog, and before the 1956 Clean Air Act it led to (7).  He states that the Act focused on ‘visible’ pollution, specifically prohibiting the emission of ‘dark smoke’, but paid less attention to invisible pollutants such as sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide.

As well as ignoring or dismissing pollutants that we cannot see, perhaps it is a natural human response to look on the vastness of the sky or the ocean, and assume that their sheer size dwarfs anything discharged into those spaces, rendering it dilute and harmless. As suggested by the invisible poisonous gases wafting stealthily around our towns and cities (or, indeed, our supposedly clean countryside and coastline), very often we are oblivious to that which threatens us. However, complacency offers us no protection from the consequences of air pollution, particularly for respiratory health. For example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is now the fourth most-common cause of death worldwide, but there is no comprehensive history of breathlessness in a clinical context, a lacuna that the Life of Breath project aims to fill. The project will also attempt to situate breathing and breathlessness in their proper context via an interdisciplinary approach that draws on patient experience and clinical practice, as well as other relevant disciplines, such as medical humanities, history, philosophy, literature and anthropology, using each area to inform the others.

The funeral sentences in the Book of Common Prayer include the line ‘in the midst of life we are in death’. They go on, ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’. As the Life of Breath project indicates, our lungs have secrets, too.

References


  1. The phrase media vita in morte sumus is sometimes attributed to Notker I, also known as Notker the Stammerer, a Benedictine monk and poet. He is supposed to have coined it after observing a half-built bridge stretching shakily out over a chasm.
  2. Steven Connor, ‘Smog’, a talk broadcast on Nightwaves (Radio 3), 2nd December 2002, to mark fifty years since London's Great Smog.
  3. See Steven Connor’s essay ‘Whisper Music’ for his (and Aristotle’s) comments on coughing.
  4. Steven Connor, ‘Unholy Smoke’, a talk given at Trailing Smoke, Art Workers Guild, London, 12 November 2008, accompanying the exhibition Smoke.
  5. See Mark Jackson, Allergy: The history of a modern malady (London: Reaktion).
  6. Mark Jackson (2004), ‘Cleansing the air and promoting health: the politics of pollution in post-war Britain’, in Medicine, the Market and Mass Media: Producing Health in the Twentieth Century, eds. Virginia Berridge and Kelly Loughlin (London: Routledge).
  7. Jackson, ‘The politics of pollution’.

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This blog is written by Jess Farr-Cox in the School of Arts at the University of Bristol, Research Secretary on the Life of Breath project.

A full description of the scope of research, including all the different research strands, can be found on the About the project page of the project website.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Why we must Bridge the Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must bridge the gap.

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Friday, 19 December 2014

Two weeks in the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’

Tungurugua  volcanic eruption on 1 February 2014.
Image by Cedancp 
Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).

I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.

This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interpreting the signals that the volcano gives off, but the main message was that communication at all times between all parties must be especially clear. As with almost all lectures though, this part of the workshop obviously wasn’t the most exciting – especially with the inevitable jet-lagged tiredness kicking in for the first few days.

The second part of the workshop took us out into the field to explore two of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. This was my favourite part! These are two quite epic volcanoes with the classical conical shape you imagine when you think of a volcano. By examining them in situ we learnt about the hazards they pose today to many nearby towns and cities. This really helps to put my research into perspective, as I know that by contributing to a better understanding of how volcanoes work I am helping to protect the people whose livelihood’s depend on the benefits the volcano brings them (for example, the more fertile soil).

Cotopaxi volcano, summit 5897 m ASL
The final part of the workshop took us to the Ecuadorian national centre for crisis management in Quito (cue vigilant security checks!). Here we conducted the volcanic unrest and eruption simulation. This is similar in some ways to a fire drill but a whole lot more complicated. Simulated monitoring ‘data’ from the volcano is fed to a team of volcanologists who have to quickly interpret what the data means and feed that information in a clear, coherent and understandable way to emergency managers, politicians and civil authorities. Upon the advice of the volcanologists, the decision makers can then choose how best to respond and mitigate a potential impending crisis. As this was just an exercise, different stages in the unrest crisis were dealt with all in one very busy day, with ‘data’ from the volcano arriving every couple of hours but representing several weeks or months in simulated time.

The final ‘update’ from the volcano: BIG eruption! I think we all could have predicted that – everyone likes a grand finale.

Despite the Hollywood firework finish, these exercises are crucial to prepare those individuals who will actually be in positions of responsibility when a true volcanic crisis develops. By playing out the different stages in as close to real-life as possible, strengths and weaknesses were highlighted that will allow for improvements to be made in the future. Improvements that may just save extra lives or livelihoods, and foster improved relationships between the public and the scientists trying to help them.

As one of those scientists, I was just happy enough to be able to take part.
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Cabot Institute member James Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.
James Hickey

This blog has been republished with kind permission from the Bristol Doctoral College.  View the original blog post.

If you would like to study a PhD at the University of Bristol, please visit the Univeristy's scholarships page

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Do people respond to air pollution forecasts?

In 2010, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on air quality in which they concluded that “poor air quality probably causes more mortality and morbidity than passive smoking, road traffic accidents or obesity”. Concerned that the Government was still not giving air quality a high enough priority, the Committee published another report in 2011. To date, the Committee’s main recommendations have not been implemented. Amidst new evidence on the negative effects of air pollution on health and a court case that found the UK Government guilty of failing to meet EU air quality targets, the Committee published a third report on air quality last week.

One of the Committee’s recommendations is that the Government works more closely with the Met Office, the BBC and other broadcasters to ensure that forecasts of high air pollution episodes are disseminated widely together with advice on what action should be taken. The Committee’s rationale is that information about air pollution allows individuals to take action that reduces exposure. However, avoidance behaviour, such as staying indoors, imposes a cost on individuals that might exceed the perceived gains.

A BBC weather forecast for Bristol showing the commonly
encountered “green” air pollution forecast. 

In a paper published this month in the Journal of Health Economics (Link with free access until 22 January 2015) I investigate responses to air pollution warnings in England. I obtained data on the air pollution forecasts issued by Defra from 2002 to 2008. During this period the daily air pollution forecast was freely available via the internet, a Freephone telephone service, Teletext and with the weather forecast on the BBC website. The forecast was disseminated using traffic light colour-coding, with green indicating low levels of air pollution, amber moderate and red high levels. “Red” forecasts were extremely rare (3% of forecasts) and “green” forecasts very common (70% of forecasts), so a change from “green” to “amber” (27% of forecasts) was akin to an air pollution warning. Hence, I define an “amber” or “red” forecast as an air pollution warning.

Air pollution warnings and hospital emergency admissions


First, I looked at indirect evidence of avoidance behaviour by estimating the relationship between air pollution warnings and hospital emergency admissions for respiratory diseases in children aged 5 to 19 years. I controlled for actual air pollution levels and therefore essentially compared days with a certain level of air pollution for which an air pollution warning was issued with days with the same level of air pollution for which no air pollution warning was issued. If parents and children do respond to air pollution warnings by reducing their exposure or taking other preventive measures, we expect fewer emergency hospital admissions on days for which an air pollution warning was issued compared to days with the same level of air pollution but no warning.
Image from medicaldaily.com

Looking at all respiratory admissions I found no effect. Looking at a subset of respiratory admissions - admissions for acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis – I also found no effect. Only when I examined another subset of respiratory admissions, namely admissions for asthma, did I find that air pollution warnings reduce hospital emergency admissions, by about 8%.

Presumably, it is less costly for asthmatics to respond to an air pollution warning. Standard advice for asthmatics is to adjust the dose of their reliever medicine and to make sure they carry their inhaler with them. Other types of respiratory disease require far more disruptive preventive measures such as staying indoors, making the cost of responding to air pollution warnings larger than the perceived gains.

Direct evidence of avoidance behaviour: visitors to Bristol Zoo


To find direct evidence of avoidance behaviour, I examined daily visitor counts to Bristol Zoo Gardens. Zoos are attractive destinations for families with children. Even with some animal houses under cover, most people will consider a zoo visit to be an outdoor activity and therefore susceptible individuals might adjust their plans to the air pollution forecast.  I found that lower temperature, more rain and higher wind speed reduced visitor numbers but found no effect of air pollution warnings on visitor numbers. Only when I looked at members – visitors who have an annual membership that entitles them to unlimited visits for a year – did I find that air pollution warnings reduce visits by about 6%. For members it is less costly to respond to air pollution warnings as they tend to be local residents who can just drop in for a quick visit. Thus, the perceived gains from postponing a visit are more likely to exceed the cost of postponing than for day visitors.

This graph shows monthly means of visitors to Bristol Zoo Gardens, daily maximum temperature and monthly total of air pollution warnings. Day visitors (grey bars) are far more responsive to temperature (yellow line) than to air pollution warnings (purple bars). Members’ visits (green bars) seem to be fewer in months with more air pollution warnings (purple bars).
Overall, my results show that whether individuals respond to air quality information depends on the costs and benefits of doing so: where costs are low and the benefits clear, responses are higher. This finding suggests, that wider dissemination of high air pollution forecasts as recommended by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee may not bring about the desired prevention of adverse health effects from air pollution. The Committee’s other recommendations aimed at lowering air pollution levels are more likely to succeed in preventing ill health.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Katharina Janke, Research Associate in Applied Microeconomics and Health Economics at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol.
Katharina Janke

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A N-ICE trip to the North Pole: Understanding the link between sea ice and climate

Imagine. It’s the bitter Arctic winter, it’s dark, cold enough to kill, and your ship is stuck in sea-ice.  There’s nothing you can do against the heave of the ice, except let your ship drift along. Out of your control. This seems like a difficult prospect today, but then imagine it happening over a century ago. 

This is exactly what did happen when Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, intentionally trapped his ship, Fram, in Arctic sea-ice in 1893 in an attempt to reach the North Pole. For about three years, Fram drifted with the ice until finally reaching the North Atlantic. Whilst a main motivation for their extraordinary journey was to find the Pole, they also made a number of scientific observations that had a profound influence on the (at the time) young discipline of oceanography.

Scientists led by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) are now – pretty much on the 120th anniversary of the original expedition – repeating the journey, this time purely in the name of science.  I’m a member of the international team, meaning that the University of Bristol gets to play its part.

View from near the Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø, at about
2.30pm in the afternoon! Tromsø is on a small island,
surrounded by beautiful mountains, but has very long, dark winters.
The group I’m working with are investigating the role of newly formed sea-ice and freshwater on the flow of heat and nutrients through Arctic oceans, which plays a key role in regulating climate both locally and on a global scale.  The sea-ice in the Arctic is diminishing at an alarming rate, with between 9.4 and 13.6% decline per decade in the perennial sea-ice from 1979 to 2012 according to the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report [1]. If we are to understand how the sea-ice might change in the future, and what impact this might have on other systems, we have to be able to understand the physics of the system today.

Lance during a scientific cruise in Svalbard.
Photo: Paul Dodd / Norwegian Polar Institute 
My role is to help to chemically analyse the seawater, in order to trace the freshwater input to the oceans.  The amount of freshwater will determine the density of the water, and so will control the degree of stratification or sinking, which will be important for the transport of heat.

In November, I went to visit the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø in the very north of Norway for a pre-cruise workshop.  I got to meet a number of the Norwegian Young Sea-Ice (N-ICE2015) team, and visit Norway – a place I’d never been before as Antarctica is my usual stomping ground! We had two days of learning about the scientific interests of all the group members, and finding our way around some of the high-tech instrumentation that we will have at our disposal. I also got a tour of the ship that N-ICE2015 will use: the R/V Lance. By the end, everyone was keen to set off – although everyone will now have to wait until January…

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Kate Hendry, Earth Sciences, University of Bristol.

Kate Hendry

Further information

You can find out more about N-ICE2015 at the project website.

[1] Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group 1 Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Why forests are about more than just climate change

It’s National Tree Week, and there is a plethora of talk about all the great things that trees do: encouraging biodiversity, providing a pleasant space for humans, and providing numerous ecosystem services. As well as this, there is some reference to how trees take in carbon dioxide, and the benefits of this for helping to prevent climate change. But what if trees didn’t help prevent climate change? What if actually, they increased climate change?

Afforestation (planting forests) is one of many suggestions as a way to deliberately change the earth’s climate to attempt to reverse the effects of climate change (known as ‘geoengineering’). Planting more trees seems like a an obvious, natural solution. Carbon offsetting, RED+ and lots of other schemes around the issue of climate change have been based on the preservation or increase of forests. But does it work?

We've known for some time that boreal forests contribute to climate change rather than help prevent it, because of changes in the surface reflectance (the albedo). But thus far, forests in other places have been thought to be beneficial, storing up carbon and not affecting the albedo so much.

But our recent study suggests that globally, preserving and expanding forests actually causes a net global warming. We used the Met Office's latest climate model and did simulations of future climate change, with and without afforestion/forest preservation, and we found that though the deforestation has no discernable effect on the climate, the afforestation does.

Does this mean that we are advocating chopping down forests? No. As National Tree Week says, forests are about more than climate change. However much climate change is a key challenge for the future, we can't forget that other things are important too. The climate effect of the forest preservation and expansion is small - only about 0.1 °C. How do you value that against the mass loss of biodiversity, irrelplaceable ecosystems and ecosystem services that would be lost?

Saving or planting forests is not a panacea for climate change, but neither is it the enemy. Conserving forest is worthwhile for lots of other reasons, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that there wont be difficult decisions to make about protecting the unique forest habitats, especially tropical forests like the Amazon, and preventing climate change.
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This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, T Davies-Barnard, University of Exeter.
T Davies-Barnard

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Could retaining old coal lead to a policy own goal?

A large painting and an imposing statue of the former Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd overlooked a busy Boothroyd Room at Portcullis House in Westminster.  Members of parliament, journalists, academics, NGOs and Third Sector organisations gathered to hear the reporting and discussion of a new report from Imperial College on the future of coal power in the UK as part of a All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group meeting on 20 November 2014.

This report was commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund to give an idea of whether the continued operation of the eleven existing coal-fired plants in the UK is compatible with the UK’s targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal-fired power stations in the UK still generate approximately 36% of the country’s electricity (WWF briefing data). I was personally amazed how large this figure is and underlines the relevance of this type of economic modelling to the future of the energy mix in the UK.

The panel was chaired by Lord Oxburgh and consisted of Dr Robert Gross (Director, Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology), Tim Yeo MP (Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee), Baroness Bryony Worthington (Shadow Spokesperson, Energy and Climate Change) and Jessica Lennard (Head of Corporate Affairs, Ovo Energy).

After the report had been summarised by Robert Gross, each member of the panel had a chance to speak before the discussion was opened to the floor and this is where opinions and politics began to show their faces. 

The first panel member to speak after the introduction of the report was Baroness Bryony Worthington, an enthusiastic environmental campaigner who was appointed to the Labour benches of the House of Lords in 2011. Her opposition to so-called “unabated” coal power (generation without measures to capture emitted carbon) was clear and unambiguous, describing coal power stations from the 1960s as unreliable, inefficient and polluting. Political and economic realities were also introduced when she noted that “old coal” will tend to squeeze out “new gas” due (at least in part) to the large infrastructure costs associated with building a new gas powered facility, in spite of its better environmental credentials. Baroness Worthington’s short response (panel members were only given 5 minutes to initially respond to the report) was enthusiastic and pulled no punches.

The next panel member to speak was Tim Yeo MP (a former Minister for the Environment and Countryside in John Major’s government in the 1990s). He openly stated that he shared Baroness Worthington’s concerns and that he supports “full decarbonisation”, although the details of this wish (commendable as they may be), were lacking. He criticised the “20th century energy mind-set” of many in political and industrial energy circles, i.e. those who simply want to build more generators. Although this jibe was clearly not aimed at any one body or person in particular, National Grid’s financial incentives to build more capacity were noted.

Jessica Lennard noted that their customers are not happy with the amount of coal currently in the energy mix that they are able to supply, which was clearly a worry for a company where customers are free to come and go as they please (noting that they are a supplier not a generator of energy). 

As is increasingly the case nowadays, especially with such a potentially incendiary subject as future power generation, there were many members of the audience who were active on their twitter accounts during the meeting itself, myself included I should add. Those who were adding to the online debate, and keeping those who weren’t present in the loop included the head of modelling at the Committee on Climate Change, the public affairs team of the World Wildlife Fund and the UK chief scientist of Greenpeace, although none of the tweets that I noted at the time or since seemed particularly argumentative or controversial. I must admit I found this rather surprising. I was certainly expecting some fireworks, yet the meeting often seemed more like an academic conference than a committee meeting overlooking the Thames just a hundred metres or so from the Palace of Westminster itself.

By far the most animated person in the room (and on twitter before the meeting) was Baroness Worthington, noting that DECC’s “crossed fingers” were not enough on this issue.
I personally left the meeting feeling that there is much still to do on this front and Lord Oxburgh echoed what I feel was a general feeling in the room, closing the meeting with a plea for “policy certainty” and I think this is something that everyone in the room would welcome.  

This last point is particularly pertinent with the upcoming ‘COP21’ meeting in Paris in December 2015 because it is at this meeting that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiators will aim to agree on global, legally binding climate targets. Tim Yeo was clearly mindful of this, noting that the UK should aim to cut emissions by 40% with respect to 1990 levels “going in to Paris”. With coal power still such an important player in the UK energy mix, the potential for this industry to make inroads into this target are substantial.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Dr Jonny Williams, an environmental physicist working in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Dr Jonny Williams
 

Further reading




Wednesday, 26 November 2014

People, planet and profit - connecting local to global

In attending the Cabot Institute Annual lecture with Professor Peter Head CBE presenting on some of the big ecological issues – and novel solutions – facing the world, it struck me that ‘big data’ and its innovative applications being put forward during the lecture provided a clear example of an older adage much loved by the green movement “think global, act local”. This is particularly important to Bristol as the city closes-in on 2015 – its year in the limelight as European Green Capital.

Moving the situation on

Although we of course had to endure the oft-used explanation about the dire situation we humans have got ourselves into – with good reason, now that there is over 90% scientific certainty in accepting that human-made CO2 emissions are causal in climate change – there was a concise set of information on how we might do something positive to self-help our way to a better future.

The valid point was made during the lecture that we are living at the most exciting and critical time in our history, in that we now know the problems we face and we actually already have the tools to do something about them, but that we aren’t connecting the problems with the solutions yet.

Connecting Communities

Professor Head sounded the clarion call to begin to use the many sources of data out there to start to enable communities to plan their own future scenarios. Sounds woolly and technocratic? Well, maybe, but I have always expressed a viewpoint that technological approaches alone cannot ‘dig ourselves out of the hole’, and that we need a social science and societal (read: community) input to these problems to begin to make the positive changes we all now clearly need to see to our dominant paradigm.

This is in fact what was being proposed in a refreshing way. Out there, in our every day lives and all around us are millions of sources of data – from pollution sensors to cameras, mobile phones to heart rate monitors, sat-nav systems to weather sensors, seismic monitors to traffic management or motion sensors – generically known as the internet of things. There are forecast to be over 30 billion internet connected devices by 2020.

There is a huge amount of data that is useful but kept separate for no good reason, and the idea postulated by Professor Head was that this can and should be integrated to allow a whole view of our local and global environments.

An example is shown in the image below, which is a city region expressed in a 3D map showing energy, water, transport infrastructures, population density, land use and land quality, geology.
To this can be added limitless other sources and layers of data. This “map” can then be used by the local community to show what effects would be experienced by making a change to the physical environment.

For example, if a city centre motorway were to be replaced by a series of tram lanes, cycle and pedestrian ways and a canal (as was done in Seoul, South Korea), what effects would this have on the local and regional economy, on travel times, health, pollution, community cohesion, education etc.

Image from Resilience.io

Solar PV is a game changer

It is hard to do justice on paper the depth of possibilities as communicated by Professor Head but I can draw it down to my own community and my own area of business.

Solar PV has apparently the highest level of public acceptance of any renewable energy source, and the sort of visioning exercise outlined would be hugely useful to planning how much deployment could or should be undertaken in any given local community and in what way. Should it be solar farms where biodiversity can be seen to increase, or building-integrated power that melts into its environment, and would the community like to own that energy source themselves, or simply have access to the outputs – there’s a whole series of interactions that this kind of mapping would enable to permit community energy and perhaps even larger ambitions such as the West of England Solar City Region to take flight rather than trundling along at ground level.

More information can be found at the following sites:

www.resilience.io
www.icesfoundation.org
www.ecosequestrust.org

This blog has been reproduced by kind permission of Kerry Burns, Your Power UK.
Read the original post on the Your Power UK website.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Environmental comms: The power of emotion, non-stories and…Air Wick?

Communicating is what I do in my job, I’m the Cabot Institute Coordinator and I have a responsibility for looking after the website, blog and Twitter account, creating the weekly newsletter and running the Cabot Press Gang – a group of postgraduates at the University of Bristol who are keen to improve their communication skills in the context of environmental research by blogging and writing press releases.

A week ago I had the pleasure in attending Communicate, an environmental communications conference run by Bristol Natural History Consortium.  I always look forward to attending Communicate and this year has to be one of the best years yet proven by the emotive tears, the curious addition to the goody bags and some excellent talks by some of the best environmental communicators in the UK.

The non-story of climate change


George Marshall.  Image credit Rutgers
One of the first speakers to take to the stage at Communicate was George Marshall, a fantastic speaker and co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN).   George said that we need data, graphs, numbers and logic to help demonstrate our social values, metaphors, experiences and stories.  Stories are socially conveyed and climate change is conveyed by members of the public from narratives that they have heard.
  
However there is the idea of a non-story, stories we haven’t perceived to be stories, but they exist in their own right.  Climate change is full of non-stories as it is a subject that is outside the boundaries of what is appropriate to talk about.  If you mention climate change to Joe Bloggs on the street, how long does that conversation last for?  Probably not that long.  George pointed out examples like people who have children are less likely to talk about climate change and young women are less likely to talk about it than young men.  

George asked how we challenge the non-story or ‘the silence’?  Unfortunately climate change narratives compete with each other. Climate change is the perfect problem as it is distant in time and place, uncertain, costly and unprecedented.   

One of the things that stood out for me in George’s talk was when he asked if the perfect problem is a generated narrative? When looking at a list of who or what will be harmed by global warming, people always put themselves at the bottom of the list and put future generations and plants and animals at the top.  George said that climate change is cognitively and emotionally challenging so we generate and share narratives that enable us to reject it, ignore it or shape the issue in our own image.

Image from Collateral Damage
George also pointed out that the most compelling stories contain enemies with intention to cause harm.  For example, if you put North Korea as the sole causers of climate change we would look at this issue very differently.  The story of climate change is in search of an enemy.  Environmental organisations are guilty of blaming ‘enemies’ such as oil companies and Rupert Murdoch for climate change.  But climate change doesn’t have an enemy, we’re not deliberately setting out to destroy the planet, we just want to ensure we can live and our families can survive.

George asked if we could write a new narrative and stated that we need stories about empathy and cooperation, positive visions, reinforcing shared values, identity and most importantly love.  Doing something for the love of it is a valuable lesson in environmental comms.  We may not love the same thing but we have a shared value of loving. So we should probably target audiences based on the things they love and care about most.

Emotive tears – when communicating gets personal


After hearing George’s talk about the importance of love and empathy and personalising an environmental message in communications, I was reminded again of this importance during a very special talk by Steve Micklewright of Birdlife Malta and the very brave Ruth Peacey, who has worked on a variety of nature programmes for the BBC but had travelled to Malta to film a campaign against spring bird hunting.

During their talk titled the ‘Massacre of Migration’ they showed several films, featuring Chris Packham, of the devastating effects of hunters on Malta who shoot down migrating birds.  The films were heartbreaking and those involved with the films were brave when up against some very threatening behaviour. One film featuring Chris Packham crying because he was so distressed at the awfulness of the situation he had found himself to be in, was so emotive that the whole conference room started welling up.  Even the chair of the conference shed a tear as he too was touched by this emotively communicated message.  


We all felt something in that room, because we all love nature and the environment.  We were all touched by Chris Packham’s tears because he was communicating about something he loved.   Ruth summed up the talk by saying that there is always an excuse not to do something and sometimes you have to be brave and take a risk when communicating.  She also pointed out that there are lots of media channels out there to get your message across including TV and online and not to limit yourself to the big four (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4).  What I learnt was to communicate with heart and soul and I hope we can start to embed some of this into some of Cabot’s communications outputs during 2015 when we celebrate Bristol as European Green Capital.

The curious incident of the Air Wick freebie


The Air Wick in my goody bag...
One last thing that really stood out at the conference was a peculiar freebie in my goody bag.  An Air Wick.  I was perplexed.  I looked at this and my first impressions were ‘well that’s not very environmentally friendly is it!’.  What was this plastic container of chemicals doing in my bag?  It was a good icebreaker at the tables, we all came up with theories ranging from ‘maybe we smell’ to ‘it must have something to do with National Parks’.  That last comment was as close to the truth as we could have got.  Kathryn Cook of National Parks UK took to the stage and told us it was their Air Wick product.  So how and why does a nature based organisation team up with a big brand?

Kathryn explained that collaborating with brands can help raise money to do the things that will help the environment.  Engaging with brands who are already affiliated with what you do only lets you target your usual audience.  However, engaging with new brands helps you to reach new audiences who don't engage with you normally.  Kathryn found it challenging to convince her Board to link with a brand and that it was also difficult to manage expectations; adopt a truly collaborative working process; and keep up with the pace of working with a commercial company.

By working with Air Wick, the National Parks UK have had an income valued at £100,000 and outreach has been three quarters of UK adults who would have seen the TV ad campaign amongst other communications outlets.  Since working with Air Wick, numerous organisations have approached them to collaborate including Halfords, Biffa, Esso, BP, Cotswolds and Disney but whichever organisations they choose to work with must convince them that they meet up with their ethics and be as sustainable as possible. 

Kathryn finished by saying that environmental communicators won’t speak to new audiences through fluffy nice organisations because they don't communicate to other larger audiences.  Kathryn felt that you need to engage with the more corporately inclined companies to reach those new audiences who won't usually engage with you.  

Although I wasn’t sure how I felt about National Park’s affiliation with a chemical group, I was impressed by their bravery and tenacity to do something a little bit different to save themselves and the natural beauty of the UK.

One quote stuck in my mind during that conference.  Environmental comms guru Ed Gillespie said that if we're not p*ssing anyone off then we're not changing anything.  

Too true.

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This blog was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute Coordinator, University of Bristol.  Follow @Enviro_Mand

Further reading

You can read more about George’s thoughts in his recent book Why are our brains hard-wired to ignore climate change.

Watch all of the Malta Massacre on Migration videos by Ruth Peacey and Chris Packham