Skip to main content

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

Popular posts from this blog

Bristol Future’s magical places: Sustainability through the eyes of the community

“What is science? Why do we do it?”. I ask these questions to my students a lot, in fact, I spend a lot of time asking myself the same thing.

And of course, as much as philosophy of science has thankfully graced us with a lot of scholars, academics and researchers who have discussed, and even provided answers to these questions, sometimes, when you are buried under piles of papers, staring at your screen for hours and hours on end, it doesn’t feel very science-y, does it?

 As a child I always imagined the scientist constantly surrounded by super cool things like the towers around Nicola Tesla, or Cousteau being surrounded by all those underwater wonders. Reality though, as it often does, may significantly differ from your early life expectations. I should have guessed that Ts and Cs would apply… Because there is nothing magnificent about looking for that one bug in your code that made your entire run plot the earth inside out and upside down, at least not for me.

I know for myself, I…

The new carbon economy - transforming waste into a resource

As part of Green Great Britain Week, supported by BEIS, we are posting a series of blogs throughout the week highlighting what work is going on at the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute for the Environment to help provide up to date climate science, technology and solutions for government and industry.  We will also be highlighting some of the big sustainability actions happening across the University and local community in order to do our part to mitigate the negative effects of global warming. Today our blog will look at 'Technologies of the future: clean growth and innovation'.

On Monday 8 October 2018, the IPCC released a special report which calls upon world governments to enact policies which will limit global warming to 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels, failure to do so will drastically increase the probability of ecosystem collapses, extreme weather events and complete melting of Arctic sea ice. Success will require “rapid and far-reaching” actions in…

Will July’s heat become the new normal?

For the past month, Europe has experienced a significant heatwave, with both high temperatures and low levels of rainfall, especially in the North. Over this period, we’ve seen a rise in heat-related deaths in major cities, wildfires in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and a distinct ‘browning’ of the European landscape visible from space.

As we sit sweltering in our offices, the question on everyone’s lips seems to be “are we going to keep experiencing heatwaves like this as the climate changes?” or, to put it another way, “Is this heat the new norm?”

Leo Hickman, Ed Hawkins, and others, have spurred a great deal of social media interest with posts highlighting how climate events that are currently considered ‘extreme’, will at some point be called ‘typical’ as the climate evolves.
In January 2007, the BBC aired a special programme presented by Sir David Attenborough called "Climate Change - Britain Under Threat".

It included this imagined weather forecast for a "typical s…