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Saturday, 29 June 2013

Climate: Public Understanding and policy implications

The Atmosphere Gallery, located within London’s Science Museum, was designed to help the public “make sense of climate science” and combines interactive exhibits with specially commissioned artwork. It has attracted 1.7 million visitors since it opened in 2010 and recently hosted a governmental inquiry into the public understanding and policy implications of climate change. The inquiry took place in front of the Science and Technology (SAT) Select Committee, a group of MPs selected to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific evidence. To undertake the inquiry, a selection of climate scientists were asked to attend and present evidence in front of the committee.

The Science and Technology Committee in action.

The morning session (9-10am) involved Professor Chris Rapley (University College London), Professor Nick Pidgeon (Cardiff University) and Dr. Alex Burch (Science Museum) and dealt with issues of trust and public engagement. Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at University College Londonargued that climate sceptics generally hold one of three views: they may distrust climate scientists, they might think that climate scientists have a secret agenda or they may believe that climate change is completely natural. He also believes that climate scientists “cannot draw on a reservoir of trust from the past” and that we must actively seek to persuade the public that our work is precise, impartial and trustworthy. One way of combating this would be to publish more regularly in open access online journals such as PLOS ONE ( and Climates of the Past (

Museums also play an important role in communicating climate science and developing trust. Dr. Alex Burch, Director of Learning at the Science Museum, felt that museums were“trusted” sources of information which helped to bring scientists and the public together. Scaling up this endeavour has been much more problematic. Nick Pidgeon, Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University, argues that prominent politicians should speak out more and that  governments have a valuable role to play in communicating climate science.
(L to R) Professor Nick Pidgeon, Dr. Alex Burch and Professor Chris Rapley giving evidence .

The second session (10-11am), focused upon public policy and communicating science and called upon Professor John Womersley (Science and Technology Facilities Council), Professor Tim Palmer (Royal Meteorological Society), Professor Rowan Sutton (National Centre for Atmospheric Science) and Professor John Pethica (Royal Society). All four agreed that climate scientists do not always communicate their findings successfully. NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council, now offer public engagement training for those who want to learn how to promote their research findings effectively to different audiences ( The panel felt that most climate scientists were generally cautious when asked to take part in media interaction. Some even felt they were being dragged into a debate rather than a dialogue. The majority of institutes attending this meeting already have extensive outreach programs which allow scientists to communicate their findings in a more relaxed and non-confrontational manner.Many scientists have been able to take part in the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme ( while Professor Tim Palmer even tried to recruit Pamela Nash MP to become a member of the Royal Meterological Society! 

The committee also asked the scientists what they will be doing to commemorate the publication of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in mid-September. Professor John Pethica explained that the Royal Society will be hosting a two-day meeting directed towards a non-specialist audience. The scientific panel praised the IPCC for incorporating the entire scientific community and providing a global consensus on climate change. They also noted that the IPCC was unique to climate science. 

Following this discussion, the session was brought to a close. It was disconcerting how many challenges we face as climate scientists. I doubt that other professions are under the same scrutiny as we are.  There is even a non-profit group which raises money for climate scientists embroiled in legal battles (including Michael Mann). Despite this, I know that climate scientists will continue to produce cutting-edge research and will attempt to convey their findings to as many people as possible. 


For more information on the SAT select committee inquiry into climate change, please follow this link: A transcript of the session will be published online soon.

This article was written by Gordon Inglis, a palaeoclimate PhD student working in the Organic Geochemistry Unit within the School of Chemistry. Follow on Twitter @climategordon.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Poverty, energy and social justice

On June 18th, as part of Big Green Week, the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute hosted an event entitled ‘Poverty, energy and Social Justice’, at Hamilton House in Stokes Croft.

 ‘Social justice’ relates to making sure that current and future generations can fulfil their needs, whatever they may be, to live life to an acceptable standard. The term is often linked to ensuring that human rights are maintained and that equality is promoted within society. ‘Energy poverty’ is “a lack of access to modern energy services, defined as access to electricity and clean cooking facilities” (International Energy Agency).  In the UK, a household is said to be in ‘fuel poverty’ “if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel, to maintain a satisfactory heating regime” (Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2013).

Definitions covered, the first part of the event involved presentations from three speakers which provided an overview of poverty, energy and social justice at a variety of scales, introduced various interesting themes and shared some surprising statistics.

Simon Roberts, CSE
Firstly, Simon Roberts, Chief Executive at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, provided a national perspective on poverty, energy and social justice. The presentation brought up some interesting comparisons between the highest and lowest income households in the UK. It turns out that households with the top 10% of income emit around 16 tonnes of carbon per person per year, with aviation being a major contributor to that, whilst households with the lowest 10% of incomes emit just 5 tonnes of carbon per person per year, almost entirely from fuel and energy for their homes. It was pointed out that the lower income households emit so little largely because they can’t afford the fuel rather than because they have chosen to live low carbon lifestyles.

Energy policies, such as ‘feed-in tariffs’, in which energy companies will pay you and reduce your bills if you produce renewable or ‘green’ energy in your home, do not consider social justice or energy poverty, in that it is only the reasonably well-off - those with investable capital, that can afford such schemes. This has lead to the lower income households emitting less carbon, contributing to the cost of energy policies (like feed-in tariffs) through their bills and benefiting from the policies the least.  In fact, it has been found that current energy policies have lead to the highest income households receiving reductions in their energy bill of around 12%, whilst the lowest income families are only receiving reductions of 7%. Considering how much more the lower income households could benefit from those reductions, it seems incredibly unfair that current energy policies end up benefitting those that need the reductions least. I didn’t get the impression that this outcome was aimed for by policy makers, but rather that energy policies really do need to be re-assessed so that they benefit those that need it most.

Mareike Schmidt, BCC
Next up was Mareike Schmidt, the Strategic Energy Programme Manager at Bristol City Council, who provided a more Bristol-centric view on matters. Mareike highlighted that, whilst there is no obligation for councils to engage with energy policy, Bristol City Council is very much eager to do so. Although funding is limited, BCC specifically would like to decrease energy bills in the city, increase jobs in the environment sector and keep energy-related money in Bristol - hopefully addressing both energy poverty and social justice in the process.

Karen Bell, UoB
The final presentation of the evening was given by Dr Karen Bell, from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, who provided us all with an international perspective. Dr Bell argued that energy prices cannot rise as this would not only make getting electricity even more unattainable for those that already don’t have access to it, but it would increase the number of people, globally, who live without energy by making it unaffordable to a greater proportion of the population. Some of the options left for dealing with energy poverty then appear to be the uptake of renewable energy, the reduction of energy consumption (by decreasing emissions from non-essential things, rather than making the poor reduce their consumption) or the redistribution of wealth amongst society – moving towards a more equal and ‘just’ society.

Dr Bell explained that inequality in society leads to greater consumption, as the people with the least want to have the same things are those in higher income households, leading to more consumption, more waste, and increases in behaviours such as the consumption of meat and flying around the world. By redistributing wealth within society, perhaps consumption would decrease as people may feel that they ‘need’ fewer material things when they compare themselves to others, more people would be able to afford adequate fuel to achieve a reasonable standard of living and it would even benefit the environment.

This idea of addressing inequality, rather than energy poverty directly, was one of the most memorable ideas of the evening for me; a number of other members of the audience commented on this as well.

Having gone in with very little knowledge of energy policy, poverty or social justice, I came out much more aware of all three and feeling quite enlightened, with a new perspective on problem solving in the context of society – sometimes the seemingly obvious solution (energy policy) is not the most appropriate way of going about dealing with an issue in society (e.g. energy poverty). Sometimes we need to go right back to the cause of a societal issue (inequality) to fix the symptoms.  Hopefully we will begin to see change in this direction over the next couple of decades.

This blog has been written by Sarah Jones, a Geography PhD student at the University of Bristol.
Sarah Jones, University of Bristol