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Reflections on 2013 and looking ahead to 2014 (and 2015)

As I approach the six-month milestone of my Directorship and we enter 2014, I thought it appropriate to share some New Year musings. It has been an enriching and educational experience being the Cabot Institute's Director. I have met with many of you and been impressed by the passion that so many people in the University, the City of Bristol and beyond have for our environment and the people living with it.  And I have been similarly impressed by the ideas and wisdom they are applying to these challenges.

Working in this area is an amazing but often frustrating experience. We are collectively trying to address some of the largest – but also some of the most complex – issues facing our planet and our society.  This has been starkly illustrated by events during 2013.  The Haiyan Typhoon showed how devastating extreme weather events can be.  The severe winter in the Middle East and its potential impact on Syrian refugee camps reminds of us of how vulnerable we are, especially when environmental challenges exacerbate the impacts of human conflict. Currently, flooding is devastating farms and homes in SW England.  It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such tragedies: we look out at the world and see rapid social and environmental change and uncertainty, growing risks and growing vulnerability to those risks, increased strain on diminishing resources. And it is particularly easy to feel powerless when politicians refuse to even recognise these issues or to take the bold actions required to address them, missing opportunities to harness the very best of our potential.

But if it is inappropriate to let 2013 pass without remembering these events, it would be equally inappropriate to enter 2014 without remembering our obligation to be ambitious.  ‘It always seems impossible until it is done’. This lesson was underscored by a recent presentation by Matthew Carter of CAFOD to our External Advisory Board on their efforts in the Philippines.  The challenges he highlighted were vast – and go much deeper than those expressed in newspaper headlines – and yet he also identified numerous mechanisms by which we can become better and examples where he has seen the transformative impact of such efforts.
Of course, the New Year is traditionally a time of reflection and hope, and perhaps I am guilty of misplaced optimism. And to be brutally honest, I do not believe our capacity for voluntary change is sufficient to avert our fossil fuel dependency and the consequential climate change (although we must not stop trying).  But I would also argue that as devastating as the environmental challenges we face might be, they are not ‘apocalyptic’.  We better understand those challenges than we did a decade ago and are making sharper predictions; we are developing new tools to deliver clean water and build new resilience to hazards; we have new, albeit controversial, approaches for increasing food production.   It is a battle to be fought, not one from which to cower in helplessness.

Juliet Biggs setting up a receiver in Ethiopia to
monitor the caldera where geothermal energy
can be extracted.  See page 10 of our magazine
for more information. Image by Nicola Temple.
Our first obligation, therefore, and the one unambiguous message in a world of complex choices, is that all of us engage in public discourse with intellectual honesty, clarity and ambition – and make decisions accordingly. And by extension, to recognise the ethical dimensions of our choices, including their impacts on the poorest and on future generations.  When we do engage with rather than hide from these challenges, we are capable of great things. We have innovative ideas, great intelligence and a capacity for adaptation and resilience.

That is illustrated by the Cabot Institute and the people of Bristol, where I am fortunate to be working aside some of the most passionate and intelligent people in the world.  I learn things every day.  I am inspired every day.  We are supporting new initiatives across Bristol to transform the energy efficiency of our homes. As central government austerity measures bite, local communities are coming together to support food banks and develop local solutions for food and energy. Small businesses, government and academics, especially in Bristol and South West England, are striving to decarbonise our energy supply. And our efforts are not limited to our own backyard. We (the Cabot Institute) are working with industry and government to harness geothermal energy in Ethiopia (full story on page 10 of our magazine), to help sustenance farmers in Africa identify animal parasites at the early stages of infection, and using drone technology to assist with the management of natural disasters, including the Fukushima clean-up.

These are just examples of the great work being done, and they should inspire us to make a step-change in the lead-up to 2015 and Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital. We will lead in understanding the nature and consequences of global environmental change. We will bring new voices into the conversation, including businesses and organisations at the sharp edge of climate change. And we will invest in the education, welfare and resilience of our local and global communities. If all of us confront these challenges, then we will forge new partnerships, stimulate new conversations and create new ideas.

And new solutions.

This blog is written by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute 
Prof Rich Pancost

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